Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Gibbs: The Poetics of Mind (1994)

This is the book that everyone in cognitive metaphor theory refers to when they get nervous. Written by a psychologist and full of compact summaries of experimental evidence, it provides just the kind of authority that a linguist needs when people start asking skeptical questions.

Some of the assertions about metaphor that have been claimed to have their empirical support in this book do indeed. Others do not. And in between, there are disputable points and conclusions that others have stretched beyond what they can carry.

General Outlook and Ideas
The book is pretty orthodox in its embrace of cognitive metaphor theory. Here are some illustrative quotes from the introduction, with parentheses added by me:
  • "Language (is not independent of the mind but) reflects our perceptual and conceptual understanding of experience." (p. 16)
  • "Figuration (is not merely a matter of language but) provides much of the foundation for thought, reason, and imagination." (p. 16)
  • "Metaphorical meaning is grounded in nonmetaphorical aspects of recurring bodily experiences or experiential gestalts." (p. 16)
  • "[...] metaphorical understanding is grounded in nonmetaphorical preconceptual structures that arise from everyday bodily experience." (p. 17)
Just to add a few from later in the book:
  • "[...] it seems certain now that the study of clichéd idiomatic expressions can provide significant evidence on how people think metaphorically in everyday life." (p. 318)
  • "[…] the mind itself is primarily structured out of various tropes." (p. 434)
  • "Figuration (is not merely a matter of language but) provides much of the foundation for thought, reason, and imagination." (p. 435)
  • "Similar cognitive mechanisms drive our understanding of both literal and figurative speech." (p. 435)
  • "[…] we metaphorically conceptualize our experiences through very basic sensory experiences that are abstracted to form figurative thought." (p. 444)
So, in summary, we still have the three-stage model of cognitive metaphor theory:


Mental Images as Empirical Evidence
Gibbs enthusiastically embraces the use of introspective reports as a way of investigating psychological aspects of metaphor: "One way to uncover speakers’ tacit knowledge of the metaphorical basis for idioms is through a detailed examination of speakers’ mental images of idioms," he explains (p. 292).

It turns out that the kind of support he has in mind concerns the coherence of imagery across subjects:
If people’s tacit knowledge of idioms is not structured by different conceptual metaphors, there should be little consistency in participants’ responses to questions about the causes and consequences of actions in their mental images of idioms with similar nonliteral interpretations. (p. 293)
That is, supposing that the coherence cannot be brought about be any other means than a conceptual metaphor. This heavy but implicit assumption is never questioned or examined and puts his whole edifice in danger of become a load of introspective nonsense.

He does, of course, find that people are pretty consistent in the way they picture scenes like spilling the beans. From this he concludes that "the figurative meanings of idioms are motivated by various conceptual metaphors that exist independently as part of our conceptual system" (p. 295).

However, he is understandably uncomfortable with the idea of the mental image being the meaning of an idiom. To avoid this natural next step, he is at pains not to have the mental image be a byproduct of the conceptual mapping, not the flesh and blood of it:
The empirical evidence in support of this conclusion does not in any way suggest that people actually form mental images of idioms as a normal part of their online understanding of idioms. The data simply, and significantly, demonstrate how people’s common metaphorical knowledge provides part of the motivation for why idioms have the figurative meaning they do. Traditional theories of idiomaticity have no way of accounting for these imagery findings, because they assume that the meanings of idioms arise from metaphors that are now dead and no longer a prominent part of our everyday conceptual system. (p. 295)
 So oddly, he recognizes that the mental images that his subjects described may have been constructed on his cue -- but he insists that this drawing up of a picture from a sentence can only occur in a consist way if people already think in terms of conceptual mappings.

From those premises, sure, this data proves the existence of cognitive mappings.

Dead Metaphors and Shallow Processing
On of the basic tenets of cognitive metaphor is that there are no dead metaphors. If cognitive metaphor theorists concedes that some metaphors were dead, it would undermine the "deep" analyses of all the others. If kick the bucket is dead, why should we believe that see the point isn't?

It is therefore somewhat surprising that Gibbs does in fact allow for dead metaphors:
[...] the dead-metaphor and conceptual views of idiomaticity should not be seen as competing theories. Many idiomatic phrases could very well be dead or have meanings that are arbitrarily determined by as matters of convention. (p. 308)
Even more disturbingly, he states that people can in fact get by pretty well without conceptual mappings:
[…] listeners may not always instantiate specific conceptual metaphors that motivate an idiom’s meaning when understanding some phrase in conversation. Similarly, people may not always analyze the literal word meanings of idioms during comprehension. There will be occasions when people do tap into an idiom’s conceptual foundation. Readers may also process the individual word meanings when they attempt to comprehend certain kinds of idioms. But it is a mistake to assume that some types of analysis will occur each and every time someone encounters an idiomatic expression.
So one may ask what exactly it is that conceptual mappings do if they aren't really central to understanding an idiom, but aren't images either?

Both of these points certainly cast a somewhat troubling light the reference Lakoff and others make to Gibbs' book as if it supports the "aliveness" of any speculative story they might cook up.

Analyzable and Unanalyzable Idioms
Gibbs makes a distinction between idioms that are understood in a compositional fashion and idioms that aren't, and he states that "there is reasonable consistency in people’s intuitions of the analyzability of idioms" (p. 279).

This claim is, again, based on introspective reports from his subjects. In a 1989 article he wrote with Nandini Nayak, a list of idioms are thus categorized according to a number of parameters, for instance the possibility of passivization (e.g., *the bucket was kicked by him).

This gives them a list of "decomposable" idioms (including break the ice, let off steam, play with fire, and clear the air) and a list of "nondecomposable" ones (including kick the bucket, chew the fat, raise the roof, and play the field).

Interestingly, they also feel the need for a third category for idioms that can be analyzed under certain assumptions about the metaphorical reference of the constituents. As the booklet given to the subjects explain,
[...] there are idioms that are decomposable but whose individual words have a more metaphorical relation to their figurative meanings. Thus, the phrase spill the beans means something like ‘reveal a secret.’ Although there is a fairly close relationship between spill and ‘reveal’, the word beans refers to ‘secrets’ in a less direct, metaphorical way. Idioms such as spill the beans are called ‘abnormally decomposable.’ (p. 109)
This category ends up catching a number of idioms including promise the moon, pass the buck, steal one's thunder, and bury the hatchet.

Whatever we think of the psychological relevance and reality of this taxonomy of metaphors, it is certainly clear that Gibbs does not want all idioms to be on par.

He must have an intuition that the empirical evidence can't hold up to Lakoff and Johnson's strong claims about the "aliveness" of idioms, and he thus tries to carve out a more reasonable position for himself by introducing a protective belt of terminology.

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