Monday, December 19, 2011

McGlone: "Concepts as Metaphors" (2001)

The last chapter in Sam Glucksberg's book Understanding Figurative Language is a super-important essay by Matthew McGlone that summarizes much of the psychological evidence against cognitive metaphors theory in a mere 17 pages.

McGlone stresses that linguistic evidence alone cannot decide the matter:
How do we know that people think of theories in terms of buildings? Because people often talk about theories using building-related expressions. Why do people often talk about theories using building-related expressions? Because people think about theories in terms of buildings. Clearly, the conceptual metaphor view must go beyond circular reasoning of this sort and seek evidence that is independent of the linguistic evidence. (p. 95)
He also notes that the strong view of metaphor is incoherent because it would imply that we could not distinguish theories from actual buildings (pp. 94 and 105).

Introspection and post hoc analysis
He goes on to discuss the fact that our semantic intuitions may be an unreliable source of knowledge (p. 95-97).

He provides three arguments for this conclusions, Keysar and Bly's quite ingenious false-etymology experiment (pp. 95-96); a new analysis of a legal argument by Steven Winter (pp. 96-97); and the phenomenon of false etymologies (p. 97).

Winter claims, referring explicitly to cognitive metaphor theory, that the only natural reading of "under the color of law" is "under the (false) appearance of legality" (p. 96). McGlone reports that his subjects in fact think the opposite, so the speculative account was in fact quite misleading in this case (p. 97).

McGlone illustrates the concept of false etymologies with the example Martha is the spitting image of her mother (p. 97).

While an analyst may be tempted to conjure up some "cognitive" motivation for the connection between spit and resemblance, the phrase is in fact derived through an abbreviation of spirit and image. Any "cognitive" story would, in other words, just be another slice of the big baloney.

Note that this argument goes very well together with examples of dead metaphors. If metaphors really were so psychologically real as claimed by the cognitive theory, they should all be completely transparent.

The Lack of Support for Analogical Processing
On the following pages (pp. 99-104), McGlone offers a number of arguments that speak for and against the cognitive theory of metaphor based on psychological experiments.

The first list of arguments against the mapping-based account of understanding is based on his 1994 doctoral dissertation and his 1996 article based on it. These are:
  • Paraphrases do not respect conceptual mappings Subjects paraphrase the lecture was a three-course meal as, e.g., the lecture was a gold mine (p. 99).
  • Similarity judgements are based on content, not mapping Subjects see the lecture was a three-course meal as equally similar to the lecture was a steak for the intellect and the lecture was a goldmine (p. 99).
  • Priming effects rest on content, not mapping As in snack => meal vs. goldmine => meal (pp. 99-100).
  • Content-based memory cues work better than mapping-based For instance, "large quantity" is better than "food" as a cue for the lecture was a three-course meal (p. 100).
A finding that seems to support the mapping hypothesis is the following, reported by Nandini Nayak and Raymond Gibbs:
  • Subjects prefer text continuations that preserve coherence in terms of mappings So if subjects are given a text with three or four ANGER IS HEAT phrases, they prefer continuations that also applies this mapping to one that applies ANGERS IS ANIMAL BEHAVIOR (pp. 100-101).
McGlone notes that one should also be careful in the interpretation of experiments of these kinds, since priming effects based on surface words might be conflated with priming effects based on mappings (p. 102).

Unfamiliar or Ambiguous Sentences in the Context of Analogies
He goes on to cite evidence in favor of the following claims:
  • Ambiguous sentences can be disambiguated by a mapping prime So the sentence the meeting was moved two days forward has different natural interpretations after the deadline has passed and we passed the deadline (pp. 102-103).
  • Novel metaphors are facilitated by relevant mapping primes So Sirens will wail every time they meet is more intelligible as a metaphor about arguments if it is preceded by the novel phrase verbal grenades than the conventional phrase shoot down his arguments (p. 104).
He notes that there is probably some analogical reasoning implies when you hear the sentence Rush Limbaugh's bloated ego gobbled up his integrity and used the airwaves as a toilet (p. 104). There certainly seems to be more pictorial "meat" to it than the more anemic stock phrases typically analyzed in the field.

He comments:
As Bowdle and Gentner (1997) have suggested, the processes used to understand any particular metaphoric expression depend on its conventionality. When an expression is completely novel, it requires different kinds of inferential work than when it is familiar. Thus, the conceptual metaphor view is insufficient as a general account of figurative language comprehension, in part because it does not recognize important processing differences between conventional and novel expressions. (pp. 104-105)
This distinction should be seen on the background that the air of poetic strangeness inherent in creative metaphors can also accompany slightly strange formulations of literally true facts.

Consider for instance the following novel metaphors:
  • The soul a prison for the body (i.e., not vice versa)
  • Her comment really stepped on an emotional landmine.
  • Rush Limbaugh uses the airwaves as his toilet.
Compare these to the following true and literal statements:
  • My body has 20 nails.
  • I ate the food with my mouth.
  • Your house is standing on a planet.
I presume that, in both cases, the phenomenological effect is produced by the higher requirements implied by a novel way of seeing an object.