Thinking about metaphor and thought

Author and PBS political guru David Brooks’s recent column, “Poetry for Everyday Life” (New York Times, April 11), considers the impact of metaphor on how we think. Brooks writes, “Most of us are not good at understanding new things, so we grasp them imperfectly by relating them metaphorically to things that already exist.”

Are metaphors just stand-ins for abstract concepts, or are the metaphors themselves the concepts? This question is fundamental to how we understand the way we think — and what we are able to think.

Brooks’s column is far too short to do more than brush by the key thinking in cognitive linguistics: we often use metaphors to express ideas, and these metaphors influence our thinking. As Brooks writes, “deep in the undercurrents of thought there are thousands of lenses popping up between us and the world.” There’s little disagreement about the importance of metaphor. But there are real disagreements about the nature of metaphorical thinking itself.

Lurking in the shadows is the endless argument between rationalists and relativists. In overly simplified terms, rationalists argue that we have innate cognitive abilities which oversee our use of metaphor; relativists insist that the available metaphors are themselves the ways we think. In different terms, the argument is one about the power of human reason and the existence of external truth. After all, why should linguistic investigation be the lone discipline immune to the theory wars?

Everyone in this argument agrees that metaphors, “frames” in the terminology of pioneering theorist George Lakoff, influence the way we think about everything from politics, to love, to life and death themselves. And everyone agrees that our physical senses provide basic categories of both literary and conceptual metaphors — categories like space, time, force, etc.

What isn’t agreed is whether or not there’s a layer of rational thought “above” the metaphorical, a higher mental state in which we are not so much subject to metaphor’s restrictions as we are aware of and able to manipulate it.

Lakoff put the core metaphor-is-all position this way in a political critique in The Huffington Post:

Reason is physical, it does not fit the world directly but only through the brain and body, it uses frames and conceptual metaphors (which are neural circuits grounded in the body), it requires emotion, it serves empathic connections and moral values as well as self-interest, and language fits frames in the brain not the external world in any direct way.

Lakoff has become very involved in “training” Democrats to compete with Republicans, who have been widely credited with considerable success in “framing” the political debate in the United States. As Lakoff sees it, political disagreements are not about policies but about the terms in which policies are expressed. Lakoff argues that political debate is never about ideas, and always about emotions.

Lakoff  goes far further than real-time politics, arguing that our available metaphors not just limit but actually create the abstract thinking that constitutes philosophy, science, and mathematics. In an interview with Edge after the publication of Philosophy in the Flesh, his recasting of the history of Western ideas, Lakoff explained:

Our sensorymotor systems thus limit the abstract reasoning that we can perform. Anything we can think or understand is shaped by, made possible by, and limited by our bodies, brains, and our embodied interactions in the world. This is what we have to theorize with.

This view of human rationality has been publicly disputed by another cognitive heavyweight, Steven Pinker, who puts the contrast between his and Lakoff’s ideas in explicitly theory-wars terms, characterizing Lakoff’s description as “cognitive relativism, in which mathematics, science, and philosophy are beauty contests between rival frames rather than attempts to characterize the nature of reality.”

Pinker agrees with Lakoff that metaphors are important, that they arise from sensory input and what Damasio calls “primordial feelings,” and that they influence the ways we think. He does not agree, however, that metaphor is the mechanism of thought. Rather, Pinker makes metaphor the content of a thought process that is more rational, and more fundamental, than the culturally-determined frames which Lakoff argues are not just the artifacts of thinking but rather, to use Pinker’s term, “the stuff of thought” itself.

In his book of that title, Pinker summarized Lakoff’s position:

But this isn’t the half of it. Since we think in metaphors grounded in  physical experience rather than in logical formulas with truth values, the  entire tradition of Western thought since the Greeks is fundamentally misconceived. Reason is not based on abstract laws, because thinking is  rooted in bodily experience. And the concept of objective or absolute truth  must be rejected. There are only competing metaphors, which are more or less apt for the purposes of the people who live by them.  Western philosophy, then, is not an extended debate about knowledge,  ethics, and reality, but a succession of conceptual metaphors.

It is no surprise that Pinker, the author of The Blank Slate, has little sympathy for any position which reduces our mental history to a list of culture-bound categories. Pinker writes: “Though I believe that conceptual metaphor really does have profound  implications for the understanding of language and thought, I think Lakoff takes the idea a wee bit too far.” Pinker continues: “The abstract ideas define the dimensions of similarity (such as the ways in which a playground is like a romantic aspiration) that allow a conceptual metaphor to be learned and used. You can’t think with a metaphor alone.”

Lakoff and Pinker come from the same linguistic analysis background, both having studied with Noam Chomsky. But they have taken similar material in rather different directions. Lakoff has claimed that “abstract concepts are largely metaphorical, based on metaphors that make use of our sensory-motor capacities to perform abstract inferences.” Pinker disagrees, most publicly in a review of Lakoff’s Whose Freedom?:

The ubiquity of metaphor in language does not imply that all thinking is concrete. People cannot use a metaphor to reason with unless they have a deeper grasp of which aspects of the metaphor should be taken seriously and which should be ignored.

Lakoff responded, asserting that he was a realist, not a relativist, and that his concern with framing arguments did not mean that he believes that all thought is metaphorical. He wrote:

One of my persistent themes is that facts are crucial, and that the right system of frames is often required in order to make sense of facts. With a system of frames that is inconsistent with the facts, the frames (which are realized in the brain) will stay in place and the facts will be ignored. That is why framing to reveal truth is so important.

This type of “You said …,” “No I didn’t, what I said was …” exchange is a frequent feature of academic debate, but in this case there really is a considerable difference. Pinker promotes a view of mental activity that is substantially innate, as befits someone who still has sympathy for Chomsky’s “universal grammar.” Lakoff, while not the relativist ogre Pinker sometimes makes him out to be (Pinker does sometimes have an unfortunate tendency to demonize his opponents), does heavily emphasize the role of external sensory input, the idea that you can’t think about abstract things in ways that are not analogous to the body’s sense perceptions.

Pinker again disagrees, writing (again in The Stuff of Thought) that “if all abstract thought is metaphorical, and all metaphors are assembled out of biologically basic concepts, then we would have an explanation for the evolution of human intelligence. Human intelligence would be a product of metaphor and combinatorics.” However, he adds, “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.” He argues that we need some sort of innate reasoning ability that goes beyond the metaphors, or we would not be able to comprehend how the metaphor is relevant to the target situation to which it is applied: “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.

Pinker points to science, one of the subjects of Lakoff’s Philosophy in the Flesh, for evidence that our ability to reason abstractly both precedes and lies at the heart of our tendency to think in metaphors:

Lakoff, recall, suggests that our scientific  knowledge, like all our knowledge, is limited by our metaphors, which can  be more or less apt or useful, but not accurate descriptions of an objective  truth. The philosopher Richard Boyd draws the exact opposite moral. He  writes that “the use of metaphor is one of many devices available to the scientific community to accomplish the task of accommodation of language to  the causal structure of the world. By this I mean the task of introducing terminology, and modifying usage of existing terminology, so that linguistic  categories are available which describe the causally and explanatorily significant features of the world.”

Pinker argues that “metaphor is pressed into service to fill gaps in a language’s vocabulary.” If the metaphor preceded the concept, he asks, how would we ever be able to conceive of something really new, something for which we had no previous experience, and to which we then could not apply an appropriate metaphor?  “Scientists constantly discover new entities that lack an English name, so they often tap a metaphor to supply the needed label,” Pinker writes. As our empirical understanding of the new entity grows, we refine the language we use, until the terminology is as precise as possible. This answers the question, “Why should so many scientific analogies allow us to reason to correct conclusions, as opposed to being mere labels, like quark or Big Bang, that are  memorable but uninformative?”

The issue, at its heart, is deceptively simple: Is our reasoning the slave of sense-based metaphors, or do we rather use these metaphors as one tool of rational thought?

Grab your favourite metaphor, and use it to explain to the rest of us why you answer this question the way that you do.

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2 thoughts on “Thinking about metaphor and thought

  1. “All the world’s stage and all the men and women merely players” agrees with Lakoff except that unfortunately players forget their lines and have to extemporize which would make Pinker’s argument that we sometimes encounter the need for new ways of expression. Shakespeare himself was not a bad hand at extending the use of language and metaphor to express ideas which seemed to resonate with a real world.

  2. I think that Pinker is convincing when he argues that when we think metaphorically, we select the relevant parts of the metaphor and ignore the rest — we manipulate the metaphor, which we couldn’t do if thought is metaphor. Pinker put it this way in The Stuff of Thought:

    When reasoning about a relationship, it’s fine to mull over the metaphorical counterpart to a common destination, the rate at which one reaches it, and the bumps along the way. But someone would be seriously deranged if he started to wonder whether he had time to pack or where the next gas station was.

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