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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

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In that paragraph, Pinker is actually echoing an objection first voiced in the literature by Greg Murphy, and since quite commonly used against conceptual metaphor theory. The objection isn't that people can't use metaphors "directly," it's that unless the concepts involved in the metaphor already have some structure of their own, then you can't know what aspects of the base are relevant for structuring the target.

A good way to think about this is from Nelson Goodman's old criticism of similarity. In order to determine how similar two things are, Goodman argued, you have to know which properties are relevant. If you don't, then all things are infinitely similar to each other. An elephant and a supernova are infinitely similar, for example, because they're both larger than an ant, and larger than a butterfly, and larger than a blade of grass, and larger than the infinite number of things that are smaller than an elephant.

In metaphor, knowing which properties of the target and base are relevant to the comparison is even more important, because metaphors generally involve two very different concepts (very different on the surface, at least). Pinker's point, then, is that in order to figure out what properties of the base to carry over to the target, the target has to have structure of its own. Thus, the idea that abstract concepts are structured metaphorically becomes nonsensical.

This doesn't do anything to your point that metaphor (I would say analogy) guides attention. In fact, there's a ton of research on the role of analogy in things like attention and memory, and much of it shows that analogies do in fact guide our attention quite effectively. This is probably why so much of our language is metaphorical, even if the metaphors are lexicalized and long dead.

BLOGGER: The difference between an analogy and a metaphor is the same as the difference between a similie and a metaphor. One says A is like B and the other says A is B. When I say, "He grasped the idea," I am using a metaphor, I am not saying he did something akin to grasping.


Pinker isn't arguing that metaphor has no role in thought. Rather, he is arguing against Lakoff's strong (and in my opinion unreasonable) position that the only thing we can think is metaphor. For Lakoff, metaphor and thought are nearly a tautology. Its unclear how critical thinking even arises in this sort of view, and indeed reading Lakoff's political essays one might think he is the only one gifted with that ability.

Pinker easily demonstrates that this cannot be the case; he also uncovers the real motives of Lakoff's political analysis in his discussion of motherhood vs. parenthood, showing that even if Lakoff is right about thought and metaphor, there is no empirical basis for the metaphors he chooses to indict.

I haven't read the book, but I have heard Lakoff give talks on its contents twice. In my opinion, Lakoff's only goal is to provide a (pseudo-)scientific justification for why liberals are better people than conservatives. It really is difficult to find any other motivation. It seems that even for Lakoff metaphors are tools, useful for manipulation but not the holistic basis for human thought.

BLOGGER: i agree that Lakoff has done neither his theory nor liberalism any favors by thring to use his notions of metaphors to provide political advice. Lakoff's application shows the weakness of his interest in an unspoken metaphorical concept, e.g., conservatives think of government as a father, liberals as a mother.

I'm not as interested in Lakoff's theory as I am in Pinker's attack. Pinker is not rejecting the (ridiculuous) notion that all thinking is metaphorical. He is denying that "all thinking is concrete<' and then goes on to imply that ultimately all thinking is abstract, "cannot trade in metaphors directly."

I do not argue that all thinking is concrete, but that at least some of it is and that metaphors provide a way of thinking concretely outside the here and now.

I'm not sure if Chris's comment voices opposition to Lakoff's attention to the unspoken metaphorical concept or to the idea of metaphorical and concrete thinking in general. If the former, I'm with him; if the latter, I'm not.

Giorgio Marchetti

How to direct attention to ideas and thoughts that are only imagined by the speaker, and that the listener cannot know? This is really one of the hardest problem in language acquisition studies (and, as far as I understand now thanks to the discussion that is goin on in this wonderful blog, also in language and thought evolution studies).

Certainly, metaphors can explain something: but only as long as the listener alredy knows something about the target and the base. The "Metaphor mechanism" seems to me to hold only in adults or in children who already have a certain knowledge of their world.

Very clear examples of something that is only in the speaker's head and that the listener cannot know are supplied by all those instances in which a mother tries to explain to her young child all those abstract realtions between things, objects and so on that are usually expressed by means of prepositions, conjunctions and so on. These relations are not in the world of "real things". While a "car" is visible, is "there", the relation between this car and aaddy is not "there": "look at daddy's car!".

I do not think that metaphors can explain that "'s" (at least as far as babies are concerned). A mother uses gestures, pilotes her baby's attention primarily with her hands, eyes, arms, the tone of the voice, and so on.

Language learning (and also evolution, I believe) starts with perceived things, gestures, actions (which only can pilot attention, at the very beginning of the process of acquisition). Metaphors come later.

Giorgio Marchetti

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