Tuesday, May 24, 2005

P. 137, Wherein Lakoff Proves He's Insane

I know I have chided others for snarky comments about the work of other scholars, but since I've presented much of the case against conceptual metaphor, I feel entitled to a quick jab. And since I just got my computer back from the shop, this serves as a nice quick post.

Brandon notes that George Lakoff is clearly off his rocker when it comes to the discussion of religious concepts. He can't even grasp the appropriate literal-figurative distinction for the discussion of Biblical literalism. And that may be his sanest mistake. Brandon points out many more.

All of this makes me wonder why, for the last 25 years, some people -- very few of whom are, cognitive scientists, and even fewer who publish in the mainstream journals -- have taken all of this seriously. Personally, I realized that Lakoff was completely insane as an undergrad in the mid-90s, when I read Metaphors We Live By, the book he and Mark Johnson published in 1980, marking the beginning of conceptual metaphor theory. Admittedly, I got all the way to page 137 (out of 242) before I realized it, but something they said there made the absurdity of their view so apparent that even a naive young college student like me couldn't avoid writing "ha ha!" in the margins. Here is the passage (which actually starts on page 136):
We have seen that metaphors play an important role in characterizing regularities of linguistic form. One such regularity is the use of the same word to indicate both accompaniment and instrumentality. This regularity is coherent with the conceptual metaphor INSTRUMENTS ARE COMPANIONS. Many of what we perceive as "natural" regularities of linguistic form are regularities that are coherent with metaphors in our conceptual system. Take, for example, the fact that questions typically end in what we perceive as a "rising" intonation, while statements typically end in what we perceive as "falling" intonation. This is coherent with the orientational metaphor UNKNOWN IS UP; KNOWN IS DOWN... Questions typically indicate what is unknown. The use of rising intonation in questions is therefore coherent with UNKNOWN IS UP. The use of falling intonation with statements is therefore coherent with KNOWN IS DOWN.
They go on (and on), discussing questions with falling intonation (rhetorical, indicating statements, and thus coherent with KNOWN IS DOWN), statements with rising intonation (indicating uncertainty, which is UP), and even offering an explanation for the reason that "WH-questions" have a falling intonation in English. Apparently WH-questions (they give "Who did John see yesterday?" as an example) usually indicate that only one piece of information is unknown (we know John saw someone, and we know when, we just don't know who!), and thus the rising intonation indicates that the question is statement-like.

Lest you think (as I, at the time I was first reading, desperately hoped) that they think the implausible, but at least remotely possible causal direction goes from our very early experience with intonation to a metaphorical understanding of uncertainty as UP (an abstract understanding that, in any account of cognitive development, would come well after we began uttering questions with the proper intonation), they quickly explain what all of this means, on p. 138:
Examples like this indicate that regularities of linguistic form cannot be explained in formal terms alone. Many such regularities make sense [editor's note: if only "make sense" was used ironically here] only when they are seen in terms of the application of conceptual metaphors to our spatial conceptualization of linguistic form. In other words, the syntax is not independent of meaning, especially metaphorical aspects of meaning. The "logic" of language is based on the coherence between the spatialized form of the language and the conceptual system, especially the metaphorical aspects of the conceptual system.
So, to sum up p. 137-138, the upward intonation at the end of a question is an instantiation of the conceptual metaphor UNCERTAINTY IS UP, as are many of the spatially conceived aspects of syntax and speech. I wish I could present a coherent argument against this view, but it makes so little sense that it's well-nigh impossible to do so. The best I can do is point out that plenty of linguists have made sense of intonation without reference to conceptual metaphors, and that it's hard to imagine people need to recognize the connection in order to understand or use the proper intonations in questions and sentences. Who, exactly, needs this daffy explanation to make sense of intonation, then, is a mystery.

It may be that Lakoff's understanding of theology, religion, philosophy, mathematics, and the various senses of the word "infinity" are absurd, as Brandon notes, but we shouldn't expect anything but absurdity after we've read p. 137.


MT said...

"I wish I could present a coherent argument against this view...."

Me too. What's your point? Just to be snarky? To let us know Lakoff doesn't impress you? O.K., duly noted. But I know more of Lakoff than I do of you, so I'm forced to side with Lakoff, whose reputation, unlike yours, precedes him, and who's written things I've found cogent and persuasive.

Chris said...

That's fine with me. I've presented the empirical case against Lakoff previously (see the category on the sidebar). If you don't find that convincing, then I won't argue with you.

However, there is absolutely no empirical evidence that the intonation at the end of questions is associated with the UNKOWN IS UP conceptual metaphor. In fact, Lakoff and Johnson don't even offer an argument for this other than, "It's consistent, therefore it's connected, and in order to understand it we therefore have to understand the connection." The circle leaves me dizzy. Since they don't present an argument for this absurd claim (absurd because it's simply not the case that we can't make sense of it without understanding the connection), I don't feel that I need to present one against it. If you choose to believe them in this case, I really don't know what to tell you other than that I have some really great oceanfront property to sell you in Nebraska.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it's a stretch and Lakoff has overreached in this instance. However, this doesn't make him "insane". Do you think his whole idea of conceptual metaphor is wrong? Or just this application of it? And are you "insane" enough not to be able to separate his scientific practice with his political views?

Chris said...

Oh, I think it's insane, especially when coupled with the rest of the analysis in that book. This particular absurdity, however, isn't just an overreach. It's pulled right out of their asses.

And what does any of this have to do with his politics?

Bora Zivkovic said...

Interesting. If you asked me before I read this, e.g., yesterday or 20 years ago, why the questions have rising intonation and statements do not, I would have probably come up with exactly the same explanation as Lakoff's - it is just so intuitive and common-sensical. It may or may not be correct, but is consistent with the "gut feeling" and consistent with the fact that the intonation of questions is rising in most languages, not just English (thus my intuitive answer would have been the same yesterday, thinking of English, and 20 years ago, thinking of Serbo-Croatian). And what does that have to do with Brandon's post? I was hoping, at the beginning, that you were going to clarify for me what the heck was Brandon trying to say.

Chris said...

cotrunix, the interesting thing is that the upwards intonation is common in a lot of contexts in other languages, and that not all languages have the conceptual metaphor UNKOWN IS UP (as L&J readily admit). Perhaps it is somewhat intuitive (it doesn't strike me as so, but I'm not the sort of person who thinks that my own intuitions are universal). As a linguistic theory, however, it's "insane," or at the very least, "absurd," because it conflicts with the empirical evidence. 1.) It doesn't explain other cases of upward (or downard) intonation; 2.) The causal direction is developmentally impossible and historically unlikely; 3.) even if it is the historical direction, it is not evidence of a link with the conceptual metaphor now, but, as is the case for most conceptual metaphors, an interesting (but as of yet unsupported) piece of linguistic archeology. Perhaps the worst of it, and what makes it go from absurd to insane, is that they not only present no argument for their position, but they actually claim that it is the only sensible one, when in fact there were at the time and have been since competing theories, against which they offer no evidence or arguments.

As for Brandon's post, I definitely don't want to get into the theological stuff. I'm no scholar of Christianity. However, Lakoff has frequently misused the literal-figurative distinction by conflating different senses of "literal," and his discussion of mathematics and infinity has been pretty widely criticized by cognitive scientists and mathematicians alike.

Bora Zivkovic said...

My response got too long so I posted it on my blog....

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris. I've read your blog for the last three months, and I must say I'm impressed. I'm especially fond of your research citations and footnoting.

I have a question unrelated to this post. Here it is:

If my goal is to earn a phd (skipping master's) in cognitive science (neuropsychology or cognitive psychology) and pursue brain research, how important is it to develop a relationship with a professor? I wonder this because I am not yet enrolled in graduate studies, but I am wondering if I should contact professors before I enroll. Or, should I just enroll, pursue my master's, then start looking around for research opportunities? Also, I'm not exactly up to date on the latest research, nor do I have a clear idea of what I want to specialize in. Do I need to sort that out before I enroll for a master's? Or is that only important as I talk to specific professors?

Any advice would be really helpful.

Anonymous said...

Hello, I posted the anonymous comment previously. After re-reading it I realized it may have been worded too strongly. I just meant to point out that, being a bit of a fan of Lakoff's work, the use of such a strongly emotional word, insane, caught me off guard. But I have to say this is a terrific blog, and by no means is my criticism meant to discourage you. Keep up the good work mate!