Friday, December 31, 2004

Lakoff - IV: Complex metaphors

[Preamble: This is one of a series of posts about the relevance of the work of George Lakoff for public health. First a disclaimer. My aim here is not an explication of all of Lakoff, or where he stands in cognitive science versus analytic philosophy, or whether there is a "there, there" as Gertrude Stein once wondered about Oakland (where Lakoff is now situated at UC Berkeley). It is rather to take some elements of Lakoff's writings (and I think genuine insights), and see how they might illuminate a central problem in public health, having a Central Problem. Posts will be relatively short, as befits the medium. PF is Lakoff's book, Philosophy in the Flesh (1999). MP is Moral Politics (2002)]

Summarizing to this point: Lakoff is a cognitive scientist who has studied two kinds of mental constructs, categories and conceptual metaphors. He views both as "embodied," i.e., realized by neural structures in the brain. Neural structures serve the survival of our species. They are thus not "free" to assume any form whatsoever, but are conditioned by our existence as evolved biological organisms. These structures process information from our environment and perform computations. We refer to some of these computations as "inferences" when they involve reasoning, but Lakoff points out that a great deal of things that could properly be called inferences are unconscious, i.e., we are not aware of them and do not have conscious access to them. In particular, our sensorimotor system also performs conputations. Many of our primary concepts are metaphors for these embodied "inferences" (examples: higher = more, as in "a higher price", which comes from seeing piles of objects get higher as more are piled on).

Lakoff views complex metaphors as built of the primary components, like molecules are built from atoms (PF, chapter 5). To these are added commonplace knowledge like cultural models, folk theories or familiarity with everyday objects or appliances, like a car. It is the primary metaphors that are grounded directly in experience. The more complex metaphor constructed from them and glued together by items of everyday knowledge is not. Complex metaphors derive their "grounding" in the experiential elements of their constituents. Lakoff gives several detailed examples of complex metaphors, such as "Love is a Journey." Such metaphors allow us to use words and reasoning about travel to talk and reason about love ("our relationship is going nowhere; we are spinning our wheels."). We habitually employ many complex metaphors, each with many variations.

Lakoff has analyzed a number of important conceptual systems, such as morality and causation, using this framework. He was engaged in work on moral metaphors during the election of 1994 that swept conservatives into power in Congress. This started him thinking about the different kinds of reasoning used by political liberals and conservatives. More in the next post.

First post here. Previous post here. Next post here.