Friday, March 2, 2012

Gibbs: The Poetics of Mind (1994), overview of ch. 3

Chapter 3 (pp. 80-119) is one of the more interesting ones in Gibbs' book. It seems to defend the theory that figurative meanings are (almost always) accessed faster and more easily than literal meanings.

If this is a correct representation of his views, they are indeed consistent with the fact that Gibbs wants the data to eventually point towards cognitive metaphor theory. He thus wants to make plausible the claims that figurative meanings to be connected to the literal meanings by hard-wired neural connections.

What's On the Table

Gibbs' theory of ambiguity resolution should be seen in contrast with two distinct alternatives:
  1. Gibbs' own theory: People usually access the figurative meaning first, and only later and optionally the literal meaning. Possibly, the effort necessary to access a literal meaning "partly depends on the frequency and familiarity of these phrases" (p. 96).
  2. The strictly discrete Gricean theory: Comprehension runs through a series of steps; one looks for a literal reading, evaluates its fitness, rejects this literal reading, looks for a different reading, evaluates this second reading, etc.
  3. The lexical representation hypothesis: A number of mutually inhibitory readings are simultaneously activated, and one of them wins out (p. 93).
Probably no one has believed the strictly stepwise Gricean theory since the mid-1970s. The really decisive difference in this context is thus between a "horse race" theory (p. 93) and Gibbs' own "automatic" theory (cf. pp. 95-96).

Some Problems For Gibbs

Gibbs' theory is problematic mainly for two reasons:

First, it is conceptually confused, because the very idea of an idiom is a phrase is stable and frequently used. Gibbs has thus failed to give a definition of figurative language that would allow us to separate the effect of frequency imbalances from the effect of figurative thought.

Second, as Matthew McGlone has pointed out, there is something theoretically confused about the idea that source and target domains are tightly neurally connected. If there was really an automatic transfer of activation from temperature to emotions, it is unclear how we separate the two domains or arrive at different readings in different contexts. Nothing in Gibbs' theory explains how that is possible.

The Structure of the Chapter

The chapter contains the following sections:
  1. Untitled introduction (p. 80)
  2. The traditional view of figurative language understanding (pp. 81-84)
  3. Psycholinguistic research (pp. 84-109)
    1. Indirect speech acts (pp. 85-91)
    2. Idioms (pp. 91-97)
    3. Slang (pp. 97-98)
    4. Proverbs (pp. 98-99)
    5. Metaphor (pp. 99-106)
    6. Metonomy (pp. 106-107)
    7. Irony (pp. 107-109)
  4. Are literal and figurative language processing identical? (pp. 109-115)
  5. The processes and products of understanding (pp. 115-119)
  6. Conclusion (p. 119)
The subsections on indirect speech acts, idioms, and metaphors contain references and discussions of much of the same evidence as Gibbs recycles in chapters 4 and 6.

For instance, the (very interesting) experiment by Cristina Cacciari and Patrizia Tabossi that he discusses on page 95 reappears on page 287 almost as if he was not aware that he had already presented it.

(By the way, based on the prose style, it seems probable that the discussion in chapter 6 was written before that in chapter 3).

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