Models and metaphors we live by
October 5, 2014 27 Comments
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors we live by is a classic, that has had a huge influence on parts of linguistics and cognitive science, and some influence — although less so, in my opinion — on philosophy. It is structured around the thought that “[m]etaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally”.
The authors spend the first part of the book giving a very convincing argument that “even our deepest and most abiding concepts — time, events, causation, morality, and mind itself — are understood and reasoned about via multiple metaphors.” These conceptual metaphors structure our reality, and are fundamentally grounded in our sensory-motor experience. For them, metaphors are not just aspects of speech but windows into our mind and conceptual system:
Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature. … Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around the world, and how we relate to others. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities. … Since communication is based on the same conceptual system that we use in thinking and actiong, language is an important source of evidence for what that system is like.
I found the book incredibly insightful, and in large agreement with many of my recent thoughts on the philosophies of mind and science. After taking a few flights to finish the book, I wanted to take a moment to provide a mini-review. The hope is to convincing you to make the time for reading this short volume.
Lakoff and Johnson present over 58 different metaphors with a series of examples. For instance, their opening metaphor, and one they return to frequently, is Argument is War. They present it with a series of examples:
Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
I’ve never won an argument with him.
You disagree? Okay, shoot!
If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
He shot down all my arguments.
Most of the metaphors they consider — like Ideas are Objects, Up is Good, and Down is Bad, or Understanding is Seeing — are so ingrained in our culture and literal seeming that I’ve never noticed them before their attention. Other examples are innovative and insightful; my favourite new metaphors are Love is a Collaborative Work of Art and Problems are Precipitates in a Chemical Solution.
Fundamentally, the book was motivated by linguistic motivations. It was “an attempt to answer influential claims about metaphor made by two major contemporary American philosophers — Donald Davidson, who claimed that metaphors are meaningless, and John Searle, who claimed that there are semantic and pragmatic principles that allow one to assign literal meanings to metaphorical sentences.” From the linguistics perspective, their response was largely a successes and resulted in a very different theory of truth and meaning than the standard analytic approach, and a theory of metaphors that departs from the common Aristotelian view of abstractions, and the more recent approach of weak homonyms. However, this is the only linguistics book I have ever read so I am reluctant to comment further.
I am more comfortable with cognitive science, where I think the book’s biggest impact lays. Here, taking the sensory-motor grounding of concepts seriously has resulted in the field of embodied cognition. In the 2003 Afterword, they push this connection to the extreme by discussing the neural basis of metaphor (for more detail, see Narayanan, 1997). In fact, I first heard about the book because of a recent article on the neurological evidence.
I am bit skeptical of how much clarify neuroscience will add, but I have greatly enjoyed embodied cognition over the recent years. I especially like Beer’s work on minimal cognition, but others aspects have been a turn off — especially Lakoff and Nunez (2010) grounding of mathematics leading to conclusions like: “Mathematics turns out not to be a disembodied, literal, objective feature of the universe but rather an embodied, largely metaphorical, stable intellectual edifice constructed by human beings with human brains living in our physical world.” Of course, such perspectives have a very large grain of truth to them, especially if one is a physicalist, but are poor reflections of how most mathematicians tend to conceive of mathematics. More importantly, they miss much of the philosophical depth that Lakoff and Johnson present when discussing truth and perspective more broadly. In particular, why accept your intuitions for the existence of an (objective) external world (or Kant’s sensible world) which holds your embodied self and others, but not accept a similar intuition for a shared (objective) “internal” world (or intelligible world — to borrow from the Kant of the Inaugural Dissertation) of mathematics? I could spill much keystrokes over this perspective — and probably will in future posts — but I don’t want to introduce too much of my own philosophy into this review.
This brings me to the general philosophy that the authors develop, which I found very insightful and — from my experience — under-appreciated in philosophic circles. They offer what they call experientialism as an alternative to the false dichotomy of objectivism versus subjectivism. They provide a nice origin story for these myths (not a derogatory term for authors focused on metaphor): “The myth of objectivism reflects the human need to understand the external world in order to be able to function successfully in it. The myth of subjectivism is focused on internal aspects of understanding — what the individual finds meaningful and what makes his life worth living.” More importantly, both myths detach person from environment, subjectivism through the struggle of alienation and objectivism through the disembodied observer. The authors try to bridge this by focusing on how our minds and their concepts are structured by our sensory-motor experience within the world. This results in a less objective view than the standard in science, but one where “scientific knowledge is still possible. But giving up the claim to absolute truth could make scientific practice more responsible, since there would be a general awareness that a scientific theory may hide as much as it highlights.” This awareness is something that I’ve attempted to get at — although, much less eloquently — with my discussion of moral methodology.
My real reason for reading the book was this sort of connection to science — especially the obvious connection between models and metaphors. Although the authors recognize that “[f]ormal scientific theories are attempts to consistently extend a set of ontological and structural metaphors”, they don’t focus on this perspective. However, I think that a mathematical or computational modeler can still benefit greatly from this book by simply replacing “metaphor” by “model” in much of the text. The book’s theory of truth and insistence on how metaphors (read: models) both focus attention and hide aspects of our experience should be of particular interest to the working modeler. Think of David Bastanta’s example of heuristic models as metro maps and how modeling is useful even when all models are wrong. You should expect several post in the coming months on more particular insights modeling inspired by Lakoff and Johnson.
Finally, unlike much of the technical work that I tend to read, the book offered some great lessons about society and everyday life. This passage on mutual understanding was particularly moving:
When people who are talking don’t share the same culture, knowledge, values, and assumptions, mutual understanding can be especially difficult. … you have to become aware of and respect both the differences in your backgrounds and when these differences are important. You need enough diversity of cultural and personal experience to be aware that divergent world views exist and what they might be like. You also need patience, a certain flexibility in world views, and a generous tolerance for mistakes, as well as a talent for finding the right metaphor to communicate the relevant parts of unshared experience or to highlight the shared experiences while deemphasizing others. Metaphorical imagination is a crucial skill in creating rapport and in communicating the nature of unshared experience. This skill consists, in large measure, of the ability to bend your world view and adjust the way you categorize your experience.
If that sentiment is not radical enough then their politics offer even more. In the closing lines of the book, they finish with a surprising anti-work sentiment that I did not know to exist in the 1980s (when the book came out):
Political and economic ideologies are framed in metaphorical terms. Like all other metaphors, political and economic metaphors can hide aspects of reality. … But virtually all major industrialized nations, whether capitalist or socialist, use the same metaphor [Labor is a Resource] in their economic theories and policies. The blind acceptance of the metaphor can hide degrading realities, whether meaningless blue-collar and white-collar industrial jobs in “advanced” societies or virtual slavery around the world.
I look forward to exploring some of the connections between Metaphors we live by and my own thought in the coming months. I have also added Lakoff & Johnson’s follow-up book Philosophy in the flesh to my reading list. If you have read either book then let me know what you thought of them in the comments.
Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. University of Chicago press.
Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the flesh. New York: Basic Books.
Lakoff, G., & Nunez (2000). Where mathematics comes from: How the embodied mind brings mathematics into being. New York: Basic Books.
Narayanan, S. (1997). Embodiment in language understanding: Sensory-motor representations for metaphoric reasoning about event descriptions. PhD Thesis (University of California, Berkeley)