Sunday, June 05, 2011

Metaphors We Live By

I just finished reading Lakoff and Johnson's Metaphors We Live By. The most central claim of the book is that metaphor isn't just about language, but that it's a core part of cognition, and that a great deal of our experience is shaped by the metaphors that we use to understand the world.

The authors talk a few times about how we understand love: is it more like a journey, or more like a collaborative work of art? Is a marriage like a partnership, or like a haven from the outside world? One's way of thinking about either of these things probably has a direct effect on experience and behavior.

I'm left with some questions, though, and maybe you've got insights that you'd like to share. In the later chapters, the authors go on to say that understanding metaphor this way requires rethinking a lot of philosophy, particularly what it means to say that a sentence is true. I don't know enough about philosophy-of-language to say whether it's actually been shaken to its core (philosophy is a physical structure), but fairly common sentences like "she's a cool drink of water" (attractive person is refreshing), "he threw in the towel" (this situation is a boxing match and he gave up) or even "I see what you mean" (knowing/understanding is seeing) seem pretty hard to represent in propositional logic.

I think I buy the argument that establishing their truth or falsity is possible only if you understand the metaphor that the speaker is using -- but it's a very typical case, that the speaker is using some metaphor or another. It's nearly impossible to speak or reason without using metaphors (similarity is physical closeness), so maybe in general a good theory of meaning really does have to take this into account.

Is there a point at which a metaphor becomes an honestly frozen form, though? What happens if you learn an expression without knowing its etymology, and just say it because it's that kind of situation? You learn a classifier for "throw in the towel" situations, and say it appropriately, but maybe you don't know anything about boxing. I'll start watching for this sort of situation: maybe it happens a lot.

Also, do Lakoff and Johnson essentially agree or disagree with Doug Hofstadter, who says that analogy is the core of cognition? (the video of Doug's talk is totally worth watching).

I'll probably read some of the more recent work on this: More than Cool Reason (metaphor in poetry), and Moral Politics (metaphor in reasoning about politics) both sound really interesting, possibly even relevant to the real world.

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