Sunday, October 4, 2009

Metaphor and the Mind

Philosophers have long wondered about the connection between metaphor and thought:
  • "We believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, and flowers, he wrote, and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things, metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities". - Niezche
  • "Inevitable clash of metaphors in all writing shows only too well that language may subvert or exceed an author's intended meaning". - Derrida
  • "A metaphor is often indispensable to express a concept (or meaning) for which words just do not exist in the language. Entire domains (spheres of knowledge such as anatomy and psychology) are mapped in other domains for lack of appropriate words". - Michel Breal
  • "Metaphors are markers of the roots of thought itself. They are the main mechanisms through which we comprehend abstract concepts and perform abstract reasoning. Abstract thought would be meaningless without bodily experience. People think with their brains and their brains are part of their bodies as well". - Lakoff and Johnson
  • "I think that metaphor really is a key to explaining thought and language. The human mind comes equipped with an ability to penetrate the cladding of sensory appearance and discern the abstract construction underneath - not always on demand, and not infallibly, but often enough and insightfully enough to shape the human condition. Our powers of analogy allow us to apply ancient neural structures to newfound subject matter, to discover hidden laws and systems in nature, and not least, to amplify the expressive power of language itself". - Steven Pinker
When we say someone is a warm person, we do not mean that they are running a fever. When we describe an issue as weighty, we have not actually used a scale to determine this. These phrases are metaphorical-they use concrete objects and qualities to describe abstractions like kindness or importance, we use them so often that we hardly notice them.

Nowadays cognitive scientists have begun to see the basic metaphors that we use all the time not just as turns of phrase, but as keys to the structure of thought. By taking these everyday metaphors as literally as possible, psychologists are upending traditional ideas of how we learn, reason, and make sense of the world around us.

They also suggest that much of what we think of as abstract reasoning is in fact a sometimes awkward piggybacking onto the mental tools we have developed to govern our body’s interactions with its physical environment. Put another way, metaphors reveal the extent to which we think with our bodies. “The abstract way we think is really grounded in the concrete, bodily world much more than we thought” says John Bargh.

Several studies about the relation between body and metaphor have been done, in one of them subjects were asked to hold a cup of either iced or hot coffee, not knowing it was part of the study, then a few minutes later asked to rate the personality of a person who was described to them. The hot coffee group, it turned out, consistently described a warmer person--rating them as happier, more generous, and more caring - than the iced coffee group. The effect seems to run the other way also.

Research about “where metaphor is grounded” is also being performed. It shows that It is not grounded in logic, nor in literary theory. There is no purely literal language in terms of which metaphor may be evaluated and objectively assessed. In the fields ranging from cognitive psychology to social anthropology, metaphors are currently subject to extensive analysis, but the findings can only be partial, and relative to the discipline involved. What is becoming clearer is that metaphors - like linguistic theory - are rooted in the beliefs, practices and intentions of language users.