Posted on August 23, 2009 by Peter Turney
theory of metaphor has been both highly praised and highly criticized.
My own thinking about how the mind works has been greatly influenced by
Lakoff’s books, yet I also agree with much of what his critics say. I
would like to make a case here that his books are worth reading,
although much of the criticism is correct.
These are the books by Lakoff and various co-authors that I have read:
I enthusiastically recommend all five of these books to anybody who has a strong interest in either cognition or language.
Below are excerpts from four opinions of the work of Lakoff and
co-authors. After each excerpt, I give my reaction to the opinion.
I dislike Lakoff’s theory of metaphor,
especially when compared to Sperber and Wilson’s. His work is deeply,
purely speculative, which is fine, but he seems not to care at all about
experimental controls, or even admit they’re an issue, which is not.
And his manner of writing is most unpleasant, principally because it’s
so grandiose (he’s overthrowing the whole tradition of western thought)
and so dogmatic (e.g., he often writes “cognitive science has shown
that” when what he means is “as I have often claimed, and many others
vehemently denied”). I half suspect, given the subjects Lakoff is
writing on, that he’s deliberately positioning himself to be the
21st-century version of Freud, the man who provides a educated
non-specialists with a scientific-sounding vocabulary for mental life.
But I hasten to add that (a) I really have no evidence for that, and (b)
Lakoff is in person polite, affable and well-spoken. Still, it’s very
hard for me to force myself all the way through one of his books. — Cosma Rohilla Shalizi, Analogy and Metaphor
It is true that Lakoff does not seem interested in experimental
controls, but other researchers have been working to address this
problem. See Chapter 6 of Philosophy in the Flesh for many
references. It is also true that Lakoff is often grandiose and dogmatic,
and he neglects to cite much related work, such as the work of Dedre Gentner
and her colleagues. However, his basic claims, stripped of their
abrasive presentation, are insightful and fruitful. If you can focus on
the ideas and ignore the style of presentation, there is much to learn
from Lakoff’s books.
No one has a problem with the idea that the lens of an
eye and the lens of a telescope are two instances of the general
category “lens,” rather than the telescope being a “metaphor” for the
eye. Nor is there anything metaphorical going on when we refer to “the
genetic code”: a code by now is an information-theoretic term for a
mapping scheme, and it subsumes cryptograms and DNA as special cases.
But do cognitive psychologists use the computer as a “metaphor” for the
mind, or (as I believe) can it be said that the mind literally
engages in computation, and that the human mind and commercial digital
computers are two exemplars of the category “computational system”?
So the ubiquity of metaphor in language does not mean that all
thought is grounded in bodily experience, nor that all ideas are merely
rival frames rather than verifiable propositions. Conceptual metaphors
can be learned and used only if they are analyzed into more abstract
elements like “cause,” “goal,”, and “change,” which make up the real
currency of thought. And the methodical use of metaphor in science shows
that metaphor is a way of adapting language to reality, not the other
way around, and that it can capture genuine laws in the world, not just
project comfortable images onto it.
Though metaphors are omnipresent in language, many of them are
effectively dead in the minds of today’s speakers, and the living ones
could never be learned, understood, or used as a reasoning tool unless
they were built out of more abstract concepts that capture the
similarities and differences between the symbol and the symbolized. For
this reason, conceptual metaphors do not render truth and objectivity
obsolete, nor do they reduce philosophical, legal, and political
discourse to a beauty contest between rival frames.
Still, I think that metaphor really is a key to explaining thought
and language. The human mind comes equipped with an ability to penetrate
the cladding of sensory appearance and discern the abstract
construction underneath — not always on demand, and not infallibly, but
often enough and insightfully enough to shape the human condition. Our
powers of analogy allow us to apply ancient neural structures to
newfound subject matter, to discover hidden laws and systems in nature,
and not least, to amplify the expressive power of language itself. — Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought
Pinker agrees that metaphor is important, but he believes that
abstraction is more important. He claims that abstraction captures the
similarities and differences that are the basis of metaphor. However,
Pinker neglects to explain how abstraction works. I believe that
metaphor (more precisely, analogy-making)
is the basis for abstraction. First we observe an analogy, such as the
analogy between water waves and sound waves, and then we form an
abstraction, wave theory,
which includes both types of waves. Later we add light waves.
Abstraction does not subsume metaphor, because analogy precedes
abstraction and is the basis for abstraction.
Whereas the authors devote 44 pages to Chomsky, they
cover all of “Anglo-American analytic philosophy” in 29 pages, while
lumping together Frege, Russell, Carnap and the Vienna Circle, Quine,
Goodman, Davidson, Putnam, Kripke, Montague, and Lewis. In the same
chapter, they continue with ordinary language philosophy (Strawson,
Austin, and the later Wittgenstein), which they consider to be based on
the same metaphors. Yet these philosophers have expressed widely
divergent views on the embodiment of mind, the nature of language, and
Chomsky’s theory of autonomous syntax. By drawing finer distinctions,
the authors might have claimed some of them as potential allies against
Chomsky’s position. — John Sowa, Review of Philosophy in the Flesh
Like Shalizi, Sowa criticizes Lakoff’s presentation. Yes, Lakoff
distorts the work of others and exaggerates the novelty of his own work.
Yes, his ideas could be presented more clearly, more fairly, and with
better discussion of related work. Nonetheless, if you can ignore these
problems with presentation, you will find many interesting ideas in the
work of Lakoff and his co-authors.
Lakoff and Nuñez have a very interesting general
framework for approaching their topic: mathematics arises by the
extension of innate human capacities (e.g. subitization) or basic
universals of human experience (spatial and motor experience), and the
means of extension is cognitive metaphors which preserve the basic
inferential structure of the source domain. The first few chapters
provide a plausible sounding, perhaps workable account of arithmetic,
simple logic and set theory, but one that they should have developed in
far more detail (e.g. their account of intersection in terms of
container schemas is criminally underexplained).
In short, they have very interesting ideas, but the mass of technical
vagueness and blunders, plus the big strawman that is their
“philosophical” argument, suggests that they are more interested in
passing off as intellectual revolutionaries among the pop-science book
audience than in contributing to our understanding of the topic. —
Idiosyncrat, Review of Where Mathematics Comes From
The final sentence of this review serves as a good summary: the ideas
are very interesting, but the presentation of the ideas is impaired by a
desire to seem revolutionary, at the cost of fairness, balance, rigour,
and careful discussion of related work. For me, ultimately, ideas trump
presentation. Until there is a better source for these ideas, I
recommend Lakoff’s books.