Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Naomi Quinn: "The Cultural Basis of Metaphor" (1991)

Quinn's contributions to Beyond Metaphor (1991) argues against the claim that metaphor "constitute understanding," and instead proposes that metaphors "are ordinarily selected to fit a preexisting and culturally shared model" (p. 60).

Thought (Mostly) Structures Metaphor
Here are some more elaborate versions of the quotes in which she presents her ideas:
I will be arguing that metaphors, far from constituting understanding, are ordinarily selected to fit a preexisting and culturally shared model. And I will conclude that metaphors do not typically give rise to new, previously unrecognized entailments, although they may well help the reasoner to follow out entailments of the preexisting cultural model and thereby arrive at complex inferences. I do not want to suggest that metaphors never reorganize thinking, supply new entailments, and permit new inferences; but my analysis will argue that such cases are exceptional rather than ordinary. (p. 60)
Metaphors are usually cherry-picked on the basis of prior understanding:
I want to argue further, and I think quite contrary to what Johnson and Lakoff seem to be saying, that metaphorical systems or productive metaphors typically do not structure understandings de novo. Rather, perticular metaphors are selected by speakers, just because they provide satisfying  mappings onto already existing cultural understandings---that is, because elements and relations between elements in the source domain make a good match with elements and relations among them in the cultural model. Selection of a particular metaphor for use in ordinary speech seems to depend upon its aptness for the conceptual task at hand---sometimes, as we shall see, a reasoning task. (p. 65)
If source domains can be considered and rejected, they cannot dictate out thoughts about the target:
I would like to suggest that the metaphor appears to structure inferences in the target domain, carrying these inferences over from entailments in the source domain, only if it be supposed that the selection of this metaphor is unconstrained. Once it is recognized that choice of metaphor is itself highly constrained by the structure of cultural understanding, then it can be seen that reasoners ordinarily select from possible metaphors those that provide them with a felicitous physical-world mapping of the parts of the cultural model---the elements and relations between elements---about which they are intent on reasoning. (p. 76-77)
This can usefully be compared to Gentner et al.'s discussion (1997) of how Kepler systematically tried out different analogies, assessed their suitability, and sought out their limitations (pp. 22-24, 27-29).

Metaphor (Sometimes) Structures Thought
Quinn does not deny that metaphors may sometimes restructure thought and action. She illustrates this with Hans Selye's reconceptualization of hormonal responses as a general systemic "stress," an example taken from Mark Johnson's The Body In the Mind (1987: 127-37).

She further notes that "[a]s the Gentners (1983) demonstrate with the example of electricity, metaphor is especially likely to organize experience and guide reasoning in just those domains for which there is no other available model" (p. 77).Thinking in terms of lemmings or in terms of water in other words makes a difference when you don't know anything about electricity as such (cf. also p. 59).

Some Comments on Lakoff and Johnson
Although Quinn is generally sympathetic to Lakoff and Johnson's project, she has some problems with their style of presentation:
Their argument sometimes takes the form of a semmingly unqualified claim that metaphor underlies and constitutes understanding. (p. 59)
She notes that
readers of Lakoff and Johnson's published works are likely to go away, as I did after what I thought was a careful reading, with a sweeping interpretation of their claim or at least with some confusion about how sweeping their their theory of metaphor is meant to be. (p. 59-60)
She is also very clear about the ambiguous status of "culture" in the theory:
[...] Lakoff and Johnson are not unaware that culture plays some role in understanding: [...] But culturally constituted meaning has no place of its own beside embodied meaning in Johnson's analysis and no systematically developed or well-articulated place in that of Lakoff. (p. 65)
This certainly also applies to Kövecses invocation of "culture" as a dust-bin concept that can account for any piece of data that falls outside of the theory.

What Lakoff, Johnson, And Quinn Should Have Said
I think it is important to realize that much of the confusion about the status of metaphors as mental object go away once we look at them where they belong, that is, in the context of conversation.

Language certainly governs thought and action, if "language" includes assertions such as tomato leaves are toxic or this bridge is solid. This is not obviously because of a Robinson Crusoe-style individualistic cognition, but because we expect utterances to be benevolent manipulations of our actions. This should be true of metaphor as well.

When the Gentners prompt their subjects to see electricity as a pack of lemmings or as a flow of water, they are essentially signalling to the subjects that this analogy should somehow be helpful. The interesting work occurs as the subjects try to unpack this statement and merge the analogy with their own sense of reasonable behavior.

This involves uncertainty and probably some rounding off the edges as the subjects acquire more experience. It would be a mistake to suppose that the analogy contained the instructions for its own implication, or that a "big baby" could not come to use it more loosely, freely, and proficiently with experience.

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