The New Enlightenment, Part 11: 2003 Edition of Metaphors We Live By

george_lakoff bwThe New Enlightenment, I will so far continue to assert, is represented well by a blend of Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and George Lakoff. You know enough about Hitchens for my purposes here, but I call your attention to the book Dennett published in 2003 titled Freedom Evolves. Trying to undo his life of sins and blasphemy, Dennett is now pretending that he has all along been for moderation, morality, free-will, the arts, and consciousness. Or maybe not. Dennett evidently has been for all these things, as suppored by citations from Dennett’s work over the last 30 years.

George Lakoff is in a similar but worse predicament. During my interdisciplinary research in 2005 and 2006, the literature I was exposed to took a largely disparaging view of conceptual metaphor, and so I did not read the original work by Lakoff & Johnson, which was regularly, albeit insufficiently, summarized by others. I have learned that this shortcut was a mistake. It is a shame I did not read Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1987) many years ago, a thought that recently motivated me to pick up my still unread copy of Lakoff’s and Johnson’s three decade old Metaphors We Live By (1980, 2003). I went right for the material at the back of the book (‘Afterward, 2003′) hoping for some attempted explanation for academia’s commitment to old and empirically unhelpful ideas. Here is the result of this 40 second research project, the conclusion of the 2003 new edition:

The Present Situation

In spite of the massive and growing evidence for them, our basic claims have nonetheless met resistance for an obvious reason: they are inconsistent with assumptions that many people in the academic world and elsewhere first learned and that shaped the research agenda they still pursue. Many mainstream philosophers, linguists, and psychologists either have vehemently denied these claims or have preferred to ignore them and to go about their ordinary business as if the claims were false. The reason is clear – our claims strike at the heart of centuries-old assumptions about the nature of meaning, thought, and language. If the new empirical results are taken seriously, then people throughout our culture have to rethink some of their most cherished beliefs about what science and philosophy are and reconsider their values from a new perspective.

Above all, the key sticking point is the existence of conceptual metaphor. If conceptual metaphors are real, then all literalists and objectivist views of meaning and knowledge are false. We can no longer pretend to build an account of concepts and knowledge on objective, literal foundations. This constitutes a profound challenge to many of the traditional ways of thinking about what it means to be human, and about how the mind works, and about our nature as social and cultural creatures.

At the same time, what we have discovered is fundamentally at odds with certain key tenets of postmodernist thought, especially those that claim that meaning is ungrounded and simply an arbitrary cultural construction. What has been discovered about primary metaphor, for example, simply does not bear this out. There appear to be both universal metaphors and cultural variation.

For these reasons, this book remains just as controversial and radical today as when it first appeared. It calls into question business as usual and requires new collaborative cross-disciplinary methods of inquiry.

If you are interested in engaging in such an inquiry, the following references provide a place to start. . . .

UCSD’s Seana Coulson (find link to the right) and Rafael Nunez  are not necessarily “a place to start”, I suppose, so it is perhaps not a surprise that they are not listed in the short reference list that follows this new afterward – although the inclusion of Coulson’s Semantic Leaps (Cambridge 2001) might have been fitting. However, UCSD’s Gilles Fauconnier  and Ronald Langacker  are listed.

Also listed:
Lera Boroditsky  (Stanford), see Newsweek on Boroditsky
Fernandez-Duque  (Villanova University)
Charles Fillmore  (UC Berkley)
Raymond Gibbs   (UC Santa Cruz, PhD UCSD)
Adele Eva Goldberg   (Princeton, previously UCSD)
Grady, C (?)
Mark Johnson  (U of Oregon)
Zoltan Kovecses (?)
David McNeill (U of Chicago)
Srini Narayanan  (UC Berkley)
Terry Regier   (U of Chicago)
Eve Sweetser (UC Berkley)
Leonard Talmy  (U at Buffalo, NY; PhD UC Berkeley)
S. Taub (?)
Mark Turner   (Case Western Reserve University, Ohio; lived in San Diego)
Stephen Winter (Wayne State University Law School, Detroit).

Thus, the intractability of the situational enviroment 30 years ago looks much the same in “the present situation”. This is a situationist insight illustrated, however ironically, by the most recent entry  at Harvard Law’s The Situationist. Marc Hauser  proposes a Chomsky-ish universal grammar-like mechanism of computation that precedes emotion, and presumably, embodied semantics, during the formulation of a moral judgment. And yet the simple experiments Hauser provided seem to be better predicted by embodied prototype effects, a basic thesis of Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1987). So I offered the following comment:

I do not think Chomsky has proven to be a serviceable heuristic, particularly here. Development within the mind sciences also has little use for static propositional content held within the unconscious mind and so I am likewise not hopeful that talk of a non-semantic calculus and unconscious principles that drive conscious judgment is going to be of much help in interpreting basic experimental data. Rather, I think Hauser’s experiments on double effect, in keeping with Lakoff (1987), reveal asymmetric prototype effects, where causing harm through direct physical causality is the central case.

Michael Metzler

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