Wednesday, October 8, 2008

A Response to an Aspect of an Excerpt of “Metaphors We Live By” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

A Response to an Aspect of an Excerpt of “Metaphors We Live By” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

“Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently. But we would probably not view them as arguing at all: they would simply be doing something different...In perhaps the most neutral way of describing this difference between their culture and ours would be to say that we have a discourse form structured in terms of battle and they have one structured in terms of dance. This is an example of what it means for a metaphorical concept, namely, ARGUMENT IS WAR, to structure (at least in part) what we do and how we understand what we are doing when we argue.”

A concept with two structures

But would this other culture translate their dancing discourse form as “argument”? Wouldn’t we want to say that this is an entirely different concept than “argument” and thus come up with some other word for it? This seems to be a fundamental problem with the thesis in this book: it seems to suggest that one concept (“argument,” in this case) may be interpreted differently between two languages.
Similar to Steven Pinker’s theory in “The Language Instinct,” these two cognitive scientists claim that there is a language of the mind which articulates pure “concepts” and which is different from any particular language. But the process which the authors of Metaphors We Live By are describing works “backwards” from Pinker’s; in this book, the language by which we use to describe something inherently structures the way we understand the concepts.*

In a way, the authors’ theory resembles another theory by one of Pinker’s self-described antagonists: Benjamin Whorf (co-author of the infamous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). Whorf suggested that language could not be distinguished from thought, that a person’s language (like English, Russian, Hindi, etc.) will limit the range of thoughts one can actually have. If the metaphors we live by actually structure our concepts, then it appears that our thoughts may be entirely limited to how we can express them in our language. If we do not describe the concept of argument in terms of a “dance,” then we will have no understanding of the concept as such. However, I have a question for the authors: can we begin to apply a description of argument in terms of a dance and still be describing the same concept?

Let us look at the different example of an "argument". In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates investigates the beliefs of his friends and fellow citizens in a dialectic. But let us look close at the way these arguments progress. The style is not often confrontational, and from a certain perspective, it is not meant to be. Socrates is investigating the nature of the claims, not necessarily attacking them, but turning them around in his mind and the minds of the others. Someone suggests a new idea or hypothesis and Socrates goes about investigating that with them as well. Secondly, none of these dialogues result in a clear winner or loser. The characters end their discussion because they must go off to some other required activity. Furthermore, from a literary standpoint, the purpose of these dialogues was not to show the reader which person was the victor and which was the loser; rather, the purpose is to result in a state of aporia for the reader, a kind of zen-like point of recognizing one’s own ignorance. Plato’s work is often more like literature than an argument, because it illustrates different ideas without giving claim to any one hypothesis as the clear winner. In such a way, we might begin to see this dialogue as a kind of dance that we are supposed to watch, marveling at the moves that each participant makes individually, and how they work in concert, and how the dialectic rises and falls and climaxes and ends, without any one participant supposedly winning over the other.

Can we apply the concept of argument to Plato's dialogues, when it seems to be so fundamentally tied to war? Is it possible for us, or any other culture for that matter, to come up with another way of describing the concept of argument in some other terms (i.e. argument is a dance)? If my illustration of Plato’s dialogues is in any way correct, then I think we would be more willing to say that we could not apply the concept of argument to this example. Rather, in presenting the discussion as Plato does, he is presenting something to which we must apply some other related concept.

*What is the basic argument of these two? What are the premises? For Lakoff and Johnson: We have concepts in the mind; the concepts in the mind must be expressed in language; the way we express concepts in language structures our understanding of them ("Structures understanding of concepts?" See next section). For Pinker: We have concepts in the mind; the concepts must be expressed in language; the way we express concepts in language is an illustration of how we understand them.

A concept of a concept?

What may be different about a concept and our understanding of a concept? At first suggestion, it seems like they must be one in the same: concepts represent our understanding of some “thing” in the world. Given that understanding, it sounds like Lakoff and Johnson are suggesting that we need to reinterpret our concepts, that we may actually have a “concept of a concept.”

But barring some major misunderstanding by the authors, this is probably not the case. For if we have concepts before we understand what they are, where do they come from? Having largely dispensed with the hypothesis of innate ideas from the era of Locke and other empiricists, it seems reasonable to believe that concepts are created in the mind through experience. But can an experience of something actually give us a concept of it? From the bare nature of experience, we may see two people facing each other, hear their words directed to each other, gather from the meaning of the statements they are making that they are referring to and investigating the statements of each other. But this does not get us as far as the concept of an argument. From such a rudimentary description, we merely seem to have a concept of dialogue or discussion.

But it is only when we utilize some metaphorical language to describe this situation that we begin to get a concept of something as specific as an argument. As the authors suggest, argument is often described using the language of war, and in some ways it is essential to structuring our understanding of an argument. But we do not get this conception of argument without using the language of war. The authors seem to suggest that our use of language works as the kind of practice from which we officially formulate our concepts. Having an experience of something is not the same as having a concept of that thing. We may witness an argument at any time, but it is only when we begin to describe that experience that we actually begin to formulate a concept of argument. Thus, the authors suggest that concepts are formulated through a process of what we might call “raw experience” (though this may include more than just sense data) and the experience of using language.

How does this play into the acceptability of the authors’ thesis?

Let me speculate for a moment about the relation between language and how humans formulate these things called “concepts.” From my rudimentary biological understanding of how the brain works, any momentary sensation is transferred from the originating nerve to a part of the brain where it registers as a feeling. The experience is alone, it is fleeting, and unless it is significant or traumatic, the experience will not make any sort of impression. However, by retracing that experience through the medium of language, and abstracting it from one particular experience, we are creating connections in the brain that are lasting which seems to be the necessity behind a concept as some kind of collection of experience which sticks in the mind and may be referred to at any later time. According to this understanding of the biological function of the brain, we can see how it would be necessary to describe something in language, or be able to describe something in language, in order to have a concept of it.

Thus, it does not seem entirely out of place to suggest that language is necessary to have understanding. But I think we may rightly question whether we can have a mutually-consistent concept like argument which one culture describes in terms of war and which another describes in terms of dance. This is a basic problem of translation. Since we may understand argument in terms of a war, but we come upon a description of a discourse with some of the same features as an argument but which is described in terms of dance, we may find it better to use a word that does not carry with it this distinction, especially since terms of war would undermine the original concept being expressed. If one culture describes some discussion in terms of a dance, then it seems incorrect to apply to it the name of argument. We might want to maintain at least the original word or phrase used in the translation in order to prevent the dissociation between understanding the original meaning of the text and some other understanding of the text. Or we may use a similar word like dialectic which contains a less antithetical metaphorical structure to the concept of argument.

The authors’ thesis is not unhelpful, though. It is especially useful in understanding the conundrum of the translator or concerns with reading a text in translation. If translations attempt to convey the meaning of the original text in a new language, then the authors thesis suggests that we should be concerned about the metaphors which are used to communicate the original concepts and attempt to preserve them as part and parcel with the original meaning. Thus, I think we should be concerned when the authors start comparing an example of a culture which has a discourse form based on the language of war, while another’s is based on the language of dance. Though they do not explicitly state it, I am concerned that the authors mean to suggest that these two discourse forms are the same concept though structured differently by their respective metaphors.