Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Steen-Gibbs-McGlone debate in Discourse Processes (2011)

In 2011, the journal Discourse Processes had a special issue on cognitive metaphor theory. The issue consists of four papers, a target piece by Raymond Gibbs, a reply by Matthew McGlone, a reply by Gerard Steen, and a rebuttal by Gibbs. The whole thing spans about 50 pages.

What is Cognitive Metaphor Theory?

Gibbs is quite direct in his claims. He directly openly says that:
Under the CMT view, so-called clichéd expressions, such as "stay the course" and "We're spinning out wheels," are not dead metaphors, but reflect active schemes of metaphorical thought. (p. 532)
However, the picture later muddles a bit because he constrains his claims to primary metaphors (pp. 9–10) and disqualifies explicit similes such as My job is a jail (p. 547). He also entertains the thought, inconsistent with conventional versions of cognitive metaphor theory, that these mappings may be learned through verbal behavior (p. 540).

But in fact, the story gets even muddier than that. In the last section before the conclusion, he floats his dynamical systems proposal for cognitive metaphor theory (p. 551ff). But while it all sounds very good with emergence and self-organization, Gibbs never commits to any particular model. This puts him in the questionable company of a tradition that throws around fancy math terms without actually saying very much.

That's not a nice accusation, but I'm afraid it's unavoidable. Gibbs himself seems to misunderstand fundamental concepts about dynamical systems: For instance, he seems to confuse the system states and state spaces (p. 551), confuse out-of-equilibrium states with chaos (see p. 115 of his 2005 book), and to confuse attractors with their associated basins of attraction (p. 551). Also, talking about "nonlinear interactions" (p. 554) without specifying what the independent variables are is just plain nonsense.

Constrained Comprehension

At any rate, the bottom line is that cognitive mappings aren't after all the basis of metaphor understanding; rather, they are factor that influence understanding, but neither necessary nor sufficient:
… many conceptual metaphors, along with many other constraining forces, may have partial, probabilistic influence on one's understanding of verbal metaphor. (p. 553)
That seems about right — but of course, we would have to specify what those forces were for this to be a informative statement. Gibbs seems to put everything in the mix, just to be on the safe side:
For instance, some dynamic processes occur over short time spans (e.g., neural firings or momentary thoughts). Others processes unfold over the course of individuals’ lives, and so guide development and change in personality, and interpersonal interactions throughout the lifespan. Dynamic processes also operate on populations over a much longer, evolutionary timeframe. (p. 551)
So just about anything can potentially be a relevant factor in determining comprehension. In his reply to this claim, Steen comments:
This basically brings all possibly relevant parameters of discourse processing together, from neural cognition to cognitive evolution, with all other dimensions of language use and discourse processing in between; and, in principle, allows for each of them to exert some yet to be determined effect on the ongoing discourse process. … If such a dynamic systems theoretical model could generate more precise predictions … it would be a valuable upgrade of CMT. (p. 587)
So it's not like the claim is wrong, it's just that it's only a ragtag collection of vague analogies rather than a theory.

The Case for Cognitive Metaphor Theory

OK, so getting a precise theory out of Gibbs can occasionally be a bit like holding on to wet soap. But he does bring a set of arguments to the table in order to support the claim that cross-modal effects play some sort of role in word comprehension. Here is, schematically, the arguments he cites:
  1. Metaphorical expressions are systematic (p. 532)
  2. Novel metaphors can be explained by means of old mappings (p. 532)
  3. The mappings explain certain facts about etymology (p. 532)
  4. Mappings are shared across cultures (p. 538)
  5. Scientific concepts can be analyzed as metaphors (p. 540)
  6. Verbal framing can influence decision-making (p. 540)
  7. There are mappings in non-verbal thought (pp. 540–41)
  8. Gestures sometimes seem to reflect mappings (p. 541)
  9. There are cross-modal spill-over effects from non-verbal to verbal tasks (p. 541–542)
  10. People have consistent mental images (p. 544)
  11. People have consistent judgment of underlying mappings (p. 544)
  12. (Quite novel) euphemisms are understood faster when primed metaphorically (p. 545)
  13. Transparent idioms are learned faster than no-so-transparent (p. 546)
  14. Domains are similar in an asymmetric way (p. 548)
So that's a lot of stuff, and not all of these arguments are equally good.

The Bad

Some of them are bad just for conceptual reasons: For instance, interviewing people about their mental imagery is just not a very reliable way of producing cognitive evidence. Ironically, Gibbs seems to accept this point when the data goes the other way, as in his comments on McGlone's paraphrase task:
Yet, asking people to verbally paraphrase a novel metaphor may not be the best indicator of the possible underlying presence of conceptual metaphor in interpreting these novel expressions. Given the long-noted difficulties people have in paraphrasing metaphors (Gibbs, 1994), the fact that 41% could provide interpretations that seem to meet some criteria for conceptual metaphor may be a positive finding in favor of CMT. (p. 546–47)
In fact, the quote goes on to question McGlone's materials on the grounds that metaphors of the form A is B or the form A is the B of C are "Not typically motived by single conceptual metaphors" (p. 547), so that that do not count as negative evidence anyway (even though they do, apparently, count as positive).

Other arguments are weak for empirical reasons: For instance, the systematicity which originally motivated cognitive metaphor theory has in fact been hugely overstated, and much of the last 15 years of research has been dedicated to the problems that arise from the fact that there are unsystematic holes in metaphorical mappings. (This parallels the fact that there is no cognitive reason that you can't ask for the time with the question How late is it?) Similar problems hold for the gesture evidence.

The Good

But some pieces of evidence are good. Here's a list of some of the experimental studies that Gibbs cites, and which I think have a lot of merit:
  • Meier and Robinson 2004: Positive words are recognized faster when they're presented at the top of a computer screen.
  • Giessner and Schubert 2007: Subjects judge bosses to have more power when they are depicted higher up on a screen.
  • Williams and Bargh 2008a: Subjects find other people more friendly when they're holding a cup of warm coffee.
  • Williams and Bargh 2008b: Subjects find themselves more socially isolated when they have been asked to measure large distances.
  • Zhong and Lilgenquist 2006: Subjects who think about immoral behavior are more likely to accept an antiseptic wipe afterwards.
  • Meier, Robinson, and Clore 2004: Subjects are slower at categorizing words like faith or beggar as positive or negative when the positive are dark or the negative bright.
  • Wilson and Gibbs 2007: Subjects are faster at reading a metaphorical grasp sentence if they have first made a grasping hand movement.
I am not saying all of these studies are methodologically unproblematic (in fact, I am quite skeptical about using the Giessner and Schubert study as evidence of how online processing works). I am just saying that Gibbs is right in saying that they bring some information to the table which should not be ignored.

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