Monday, September 8, 2014

Asch: "The Metaphor: A Psychological Inquiry" (1958)

The social psychologist Solomon Asch was interested in how we perceive, understand, and describe other people, and this let him (among other things) to conduct this small, cross-linguistic study on the polysemy of some common sensory adjectives.

He wanted to investigate whether the cross-modal ambiguity of English words like sharp was a language-specific coincidence, so he selected a set of promising terms and asked some informants what other meanings the corresponding word in their language could have.

Cutting the Cake

Asch presents his materials as follows:
Included among the terms were the following: warm, cold, hot; right, left; dull, bright, pale, shining; straight, twisted, crooked; sweet, bitter; colorful, colorless, white, black (and some other color terms); rought, smooth, slippery; dry, wet; clear, cloudy; deep, shallow, high, low; broad, rounded, sharp; hard, soft. (p. 88)
The languages he compared were ancient Hebrew, ancient Greek, "Chinese" (not further specified), Thai, Malayalam, Hausa, Burmese (p. 88).

The conclusion he came to was that "… all the languages examined here contain terms that simultaneously describe both physical and psychological qualities" (p. 89). However, he also warned about overextrapolating these findings:
From the linguistic evidence alone, even if it were more complete, we could not, of course conclude about the responsible operations. For this purpose we need a psychological analysis. (p. 91)

Solomon Asch with his wife Florence (from the Asch Center website).

Cognitive Operations

After having presented his results, Asch also speculates about the "conceptual basis" for this dual function of sensory words:
Dual terms may be the consequence of stable associative connections established between dissimilar physical and psychological  conditions that regularly share some stimulus properties. (p. 92)
The concepts in question have little in common with abstract logical operations. They are not generalizations of what is common to an array of different instances. Rather they are concrete cognitive operations in terms of which we naïvely comprehend events and similarities between them. (p. 93)
We see natural events as conductors of the same fundamental forces that we find in the human sphere. Therefore we speak spontaneously of seeing a point, of shedding light on or illuminating a problem, of penetrating to the heart of a matter. (p. 93)

The Schema of Interaction

What now is the sense of hard when it refers to a person? It describes an interaction that is formally similar. We see a man refusing the appeal of another. This interaction we experience as a force proceeding from one person, having as its aim the production of a change in the other, which, however, fails to move him, or which produces resistance. The hardness of a table and of a person concerns events radically different in content and complexity, but the schema of interaction is experienced as dynamically similar, having to do with the application of force and of resulting actions in line with or contrary to it. (p. 93)

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