Yesterday’s post was a response to the charge of incompleteness brought against the position that words are tools for piloting attention. The argument runs that attention cannot be directed toward unknown things; therefore, attention cannot be directed to ideas that are only imagined by the speaker. The listener cannot know what the speaker means.
This blog’s reply looked at metaphors. They direct the listener’s attention to some already-known feature of a new idea. They also provide a way of escaping the tautologies of logical systems; however, there are objections to claims for metaphors as the powerhouses of language.
Twenty six years ago, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson published a book titled Metaphors We Live By. It argued that metaphors are the tools by which people can “create a reality rather than simply to give way to the conceptualizing of a preexisting reality” (p. 144). Unfortunately, the book was published without an index, so I cannot tell quickly whether or not there were any incidental references to attention. But even without that, we can get the basic relationship: metaphors work by bringing to our attention experiences that are relevant but not part of the here and now.
Lakoff and Johnson gave more credit than seems necessary, at least for the purposes of this blog, to the notion of an underlying (and often unspoken) metaphorical concept. Thinking, for example, may use metaphors from physical handling—grasp an idea, turn over a suggestion, etc—without requiring a person to believe that an idea is literally a physical object that can be held, stolen, or turned on its head. And alternate metaphors are available. For example, ideas might be objects like stars that can be seen but not touched. He could sense the idea twinkling beyond the clouds, but could not quite make it out—a metaphor like that does not force a choice on its users. Which are they stars in the sky or sticks in the hand?
Lakoff says we can have both metaphorical concepts in our head, and that seems surely true since mixed metaphors are so common: Joe wrestled with Darwin’s ideas that whole semester until finally he grasped them, and from then on Darwinism became his pole star guiding him through biology's puzzling sea. Lakoff argues that we have both larger concepts stored in our brains, but that detail seems to add nothing to the analysis, especially since at any moment we can jump from one or the other, or be swayed by one or the other.
Lakoff is a former student of Chomsky’s who broke with him to study semantics rather than syntax. The split was recently reflected in a merciless review Stephen Pinker published in The New Republic (available here) that tore into Lakoff’s latest book, a treatise on the metaphors for freedom. (Lakoff’s reply is here) Ostensibly this review was about a political book, but the bitterness with which Pinker skewered Lakoff suggests something more was afoot.
Fortunately, Pinker does not keep his objection a secret. Metaphors are concrete while syntax is abstract. Pinker has bet on abstractions and he rejects the way Lakoff stresses the other side:
As many of Lakoff's skeptical colleagues have noted, 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. When reasoning about a relationship as a kind of journey, it is fine to mull over the counterpart to a common destination, or to the bumpy stretches along the way -- but someone would be seriously deranged if he wondered whether he had time to pack, or whether the next gas station has clean restrooms. Thinking cannot trade in metaphors directly. It must use a more basic currency that captures the abstract concepts shared by the metaphor and its topic -- progress toward a shared goal in the case of journeys and relationships, conflict in the case of argument and war -- while sloughing off the irrelevant bits.
I have marked Pinker’s use of metaphor in this passage with a bold font. At first I thought Pinker might have been joking by using such a range of metaphors to say that at bottom we don’t really think metaphorically.
But then I noticed the rhetorical power of his mixed metaphor—(1) a more basic currency (2) that captures. Since real currencies don’t capture things, we might wonder why Pinker mixed the two. It turns out that mixing metaphors directs our attention away from a problem with Pinker's argument. The deeper confusion became apparent when I tried to make metaphors (1) and (2) more consistent. I quickly found that the controlling, earlier metaphor—trade in— was the real villain. I call it a villain because it was an unnecessary metaphor that does not get at some unknowable process. There was already a simple English verb available to Pinker: use, as in Thinking cannot use metaphors directly. And we can continue: It must use a more basic system that can manipulate the abstract concepts common to the metaphor and its topic while not using the irrelevant bits. But this sentence forces a new puzzle. Why bother with metaphors at all, if neither the speaker nor the listener uses them?
By introducing the “trades in” metaphor, Pinker has directed our attention away from questions like that and the mixed metaphor, captures, moves the reader even further from the objection. Stage magicians routinely shift attention, making the audience look to the left while something critical happens stage right, but Pinker was unlikely to have been so calculatedly devious. Probably, he, like the rest of us, really does think directly in metaphors and we don’t notice when we mislead ourselves and anybody else listening in on the conversation as we move the focus of our attention off the dime.
Metaphors are double edged. One side is well known to any logician; metaphors can confuse thinking quite hopelessly and should be kept out of any formal system for manipulating symbols. The other is well known to any writer or lover of literature; metaphors lie at the heart of language’s power to break the bonds of the intellectual here-and-now.