Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Reading Lakoff and Johnson, "Metaphors we Live By"

This book (originally published in 1980) has re-ignited my interest in philosophy, and given me hope that there are useful answers to be found to some of the things in life that most confound us--namely our habitual and unreflected habits of thought.

They have turned me around on something I've said for years; that metaphor is the loom of language.

It may well be, but Lakoff and Johnson and the Neural Theory of Language (NTL)are saying that metaphor precedes language, and that cognition itself is inherently metaphorical. Metaphors may turn up in literary language as consciously elaborated figures ( all of Shakespeare for instance) but these guys show us that metaphors (ontological and orientational) lie immediately below the surface of our plainest language. Metaphor is not just a game of words--it is what the brain does, arching relentlessly from the more concrete experiences to the less concrete. Perhaps, from this perspective, metaphor appears as an artifact of language only because it has been wired in to the human brain from the beginning.

They show that a metaphor can be more than apt, it can be generative. As evidence, they offer a novel structural metaphor, LOVE IS A COLLABORATIVE WORK OF ART, then systematically mine it for the new insights and meanings the wrought metaphor can deliver. I really appreciate their making an effort to roll out the theory for a non-technical reader.

It strikes me, as a practical matter, that an effort to de-construct our everyday thinking about such matters as WORK, LOVE, and LIFE could reveal the inherent masking and revealing such implicit metaphorical concepts accomplish. On a very mundane level, say we dredge up with something like,  SALES IS WAR. A lot of what people commonly think and feel about "sales" could be explained by bringing this particular figure to the surface. We will find apt-ness to be sure. A lot of sales feels like combat, a zero-sum game where I win and you lose. We might also see what the metaphor masks, that sales is in many ways a collaborative and complimentary experience, one that can be creative and mutually beneficial transaction in a way that war could never be. 

Going a bit further, perhaps a disciplined exegesis of the text of our lives could reveal the traps and opportunities to be realized by swapping old, unstudied metaphors for new ones that make us happer and more successful. We'd start with the casual language we use, then drill down to the conceptual strata below.

Not a new idea, I'm sure. Perhaps this is what cognitive therapies (the insane sentence, etc.) do. What's new here, and potentially useful to the practioner is the deeply analytical approach and the tie to insights from classic philosophy and contemporary linguistics.  

Here, I'll quote extensively from Peter Norvig, I belive a colleague at UC Berkeley:

"Lakoff and Johnson's ``Metaphors We Live By'' (henceforth ``MWLB'') is an important contribution to the study of metaphor that presents a number of controversial points. Investigating these points provides a good backdrop for presenting the state-of-the-art of metaphor in AI work.
First of all, ``Metaphors We Live By'' is an accessible and thought-provoking source of examples demonstrating the range of metaphor in everyday language and thought. This is not a technical book; it is aimed at a general audience. There is very little terminology, nary a greek letter, and no lists of `starred' ungrammatical sentences. Instead, the arguments are stated simply, and are illustrated by examples which are usually phrases one has heard, or at least could imagine someone actually saying.
The examples show that metaphor is not just a rhetorical device of poets. It is metaphor to speak of arguments in terms of battles, as in ``I demolished his argument'' or ``his claims are indefensible.'' It is metaphor to use spatial prepositions to describe non-spatial relationships, as with ``Harry is in love'' or ``Harry is in the Elks'' or ``Harry is in trouble.'' It is metaphor to personify, as when we say ``Cancer finally caught up with him.''

After demonstrating the pervasiveness of metaphor, the second contribution of Lakoff and Johnson is in showing a small number of highly productive metaphor schemata that underly much of language understanding. As an example, one particularly pervasive and productive metaphor is Michael Reddy's conduit metaphor, which underlies the understanding of communication. The conduit metaphor has three constituent metaphors: IDEAS ARE OBJECTS, LINGUISTIC EXPRESSIONS ARE CONTAINERS, and COMMUNICATING IS SENDING. The metaphor is expressed in phrases like ``it's hard to get that idea across,'' ``it's difficult to put my ideas into words,'' or ``his words carry little meaning.'' Another example of a systematic metaphor schema is MORE IS UP, which leads to expressions like ``the deficit is soaring'' or ``his income fell.'' Such schemata are motivated, but not predicted. It is easy to see why MORE IS UP is a better metaphor than MORE IS DOWN, but one still has to learn which of the many reasonable metaphors are actually used within a culture. Once the metaphor schema is learned, it is easy to generate new instances of it. Lakoff and Johnson present about fifty basic metaphor schemata, with many examples of each.
To Lakoff and Johnson, metaphors are not just matters of language, but are used extensively in reasoning and understanding. Typically, an abstract domain is understood metaphorically in terms of a more concrete domain. To a large degree, they argue, the human conceptual system is metaphorical. This is very different from the classical model of metaphor, which claims that metaphors are artifacts of language use, and have nothing to do with meaning or understanding. It is also very different from most AI models of knowledge representation and language understanding.
The classical theory of metaphor also says that metaphors arise from objective similarity. Thus, we can speak of `digesting an idea' because the mental action of attending to the expression of an idea, reasoning about it, and coming to understand it is objectively similar to the physical action of ingesting food, breaking it into nutrients, and absorbing them into the system. Lakoff and Johnson argue against the idea of a priori objective similarity. They claim metaphors do not just point out similarities that are objectively true; they create the similarities. 

The notion of digesting an idea is coherent only within the context of other metaphors, such as IDEAS ARE OBJECTS and THE MIND IS A CONTAINER. These basic metaphors both create similarities of their own and allow for the creation of further similarities in the IDEAS ARE FOOD metaphor. The second half of MWLB is not really about metaphors at all; it is a comparison of the traditional objectivist theory of semantics with a new view they call the experientialist theory of meaning."

The work leads to a deeper study of the embodiment of the mind, and another book by the same authors. I'm lifting the following (technical) pasages from John F. Sowa's review in Computational Linguistics, vol. 25, no. 4, December 1999.

"George Lakoff and Mark Johnson begin with three sentences that summarize and characterize their book:
The mind is inherently embodied.
Thought is mostly unconscious.
Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.
Part I supports these sentences with findings from cognitive science "that human reason is a form of animal reason, a reason inextricably tied to our bodies and the peculiarities of our brains" and "that our bodies, brains, and interactions with our environment provide the mostly unconscious basis for our everyday metaphysics, that is, our sense of what is real." The third sentence is a summary of their earlier work on metaphor (Lakoff and Johnson 1980), which in Part II of this book they extend to a more detailed analysis of the metaphors underlying basic philosophical issues, such as time, events and causes, mind, self, and morality. Part III applies that analysis to the metaphors tacitly assumed by philosophers ranging from the Presocratics to Noam Chomsky. Part IV presents arguments for "empirically responsible philosophy" and its potential for understanding "who we are, how we experience our world, and how we ought to live." Finally, the appendix summarizes research inspired by this philosophy that has produced computational simulations of certain aspects of embodied minds.
Given such a broad scope, the authors have not been able to cover all the topics with equal success. Instead of challenging all of western philosophy, they should have concentrated on their major opponent, Noam Chomsky and his philosophy of language. Lakoff began his career in linguistics as a student and later a teacher of Chomsky's version of transformational grammar. But in the late 1960s, he joined with other former students to promote generative semantics as an alternative to Chomsky's generative syntax. The result was a series of "linguistic wars," whose history has been retold by various participants over the past twenty years.


By showing the importance of the human motor and perceptual mechanisms for language understanding, these studies give concrete meaning to the catchphrase embodied mind. The "neural" metaphor, however, is not entirely justified, since the computational mechanisms that support these systems are mostly classical. 

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.
For the classical philosophers, the authors use their terminology of metaphors and folk theories to make a rather conventional commentary seem novel. Plato, they claim, "had the metaphor Essences As Ideas, Aristotle has the converse metaphor, Ideas Are Essences." No philosopher who hopes to be "empirically responsible" should make such statements without much deeper analysis of how those metaphors relate to the words that Plato and Aristotle actually used.


In summary, this book makes an important contribution to the ongoing debates about the roles of syntax, semantics, and world knowledge in language understanding and their dependency on the physical world and the human mechanisms for perceiving, interpreting, and interacting with the world. Its major weakness is its tendency to exclude other perspectives, such as Aristotle's, which can accommodate both formal logic and a theory of embodied mind. Although the authors frequently use the word neural, none of their discussion depends on the actual structure or method of operation of a neuron. NTL could with equal justification be considered an acronym for a Neoaristotelian Theory of Language.

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