Central Questions

Three Central Questions

In Philosophy In The Flesh George Lakoff and Mark Johnson claim that the central findings of cognitive science can be isolated in the form of three propositions:

  1. The mind is inherently embodied.
  2. Thought is mostly unconscious.
  3. Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical

The first finding contradicts the Cartesian division of mind and body. The second, the primacy of reason as it is generally explicated. The third, the standard definition of metaphor as a form of linguistic transgression where an improper concept is applied to a target word. Sperber and Wilson claim that the concept of “tropes” is ill formed—that tropes group together dissimilar phenomena in confusing and unproductive ways. The cognitive claim of their relevance principle is that thought “tends to be geared to the maximization of relevance” (260). This seems at odds with the second assertion of cognitive science, because if we include within the definition of cognition those unconscious procedures which furnish data for reason as it is conventionally described, sensory processing tends to make relevance a “special case” where data warrants attention. Lakoff and Johnson’s application of a tropological label to the formation of abstract concepts requires a wider definition of the trope of metaphor, as much as Sperber and Wilson’s concept of relevance seems to require a narrowed definition of cognition. Neither “naming” of the primary function of cognition can stand without explicit grounding of their assumed conventions.

Sperber and Wilson attempt to ground contextual relevance in variety of ways: “For some phenomena, the best course is to filter them out at a perceptual level. For others, it is to represent them conceptually and process them in a rich encyclopaedic context” (152). In other words, ignoring stimuli constitutes processing them for relevance. They also suggest, in congruence with Lakoff and Johnson’s second proposition, that stimuli are processed at either attentive or sub-attentive levels. Sperber and Wilson use the example of wearing aftershave to stimulate a partner as an example of communication through the “sub-attentive level” however, if effective, is this the case? If the smell is ignored (sorted as irrelevant) then how can it be processed cognitively as a communicative act? Sperber and Wilson switch abruptly to the communicative dimensions of the act of wearing aftershave, relying on a fuzzy notion of relevance—some stimuli are more completely processed as more relevant than others. This does not match well with the binary sorting behavior they initially suggest—relevant vs. irrelevant. Lakoff and Johnson’s approach appears to offer an alternative to simplified or graduated (degrees of relevance) theories of sorting stimuli.

Metaphor, for Lakoff and Johnson, is the mapping of a “source” stimulus on a target schema. Thus, when they say that “abstract concepts are largely metaphorical” they do not mean that they proceed through transgressive comparisons, but rather by cognitive comparisons that can be conscious (in the case of “creative” metaphors) or unconscious (in the case of shopworn or “dead” metaphors). Metaphor, in the widely comparative sense, is the engine which drives cognition. Thus, the “general abilities and procedures of communication” that Sperber and Wilson claim explain metaphor and other tropes, are for Lakoff and Johnson, metaphor. This seems a circular impasse. The explanation cannot be the phenomena that is supposedly explained.

2 thoughts on “Central Questions”

  1. Someone as alive to the relation of image and word as you might wish to ponder whether metaphor can gobble up the entire field, or whether it must stand in tension with something else.

  2. Actually, I wrote a paper on that last year. Jonathan Culler’s Pursuit of Signs addresses that pretty nicely. It is important to the future of the humanities that metaphor subsume metonymy (the supposedly directly referential aspect of scientific discourse). It’s also cast as a debate between the literal and the figurative.
    Lakoff pretty much argues (like others in the humanities) that even the literal discourse of science is figurative at the core. The tension is felt at every step between supposedly literal Lockean language and the notion of a living metaphoric language.

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