What's the Conceptual Metaphor for Disingenuous?

i-112ed3df356b15ae470a5eb3408cac00-snakeoil.jpgIn case you haven't heard about it, there's a relatively new blog in the cognitive science section of the blog world called Cognitive Approaches to Literature. They don't post very often over there, but if they ever start doing so, it promises to be an interesting read with lively discussions. The latest addition to the blog's stable of contributors is Michael Kimmel, a "cognitive social scientist" in Vienna whose main interests are "metaphor, imagery and embodiment." Now, if you speak the language of cognitive science, you can probably guess a few of Kimmel's major inspirations from the three words, "metaphor, imagery and embodiment," and if you've guessed them and you've hung around Mixing Memory long, you can probably guess what I'm about to start ranting on, too. But I was intrigued by the title "cognitive social scientist," which is new to me (and Google), so I stopped over at Kimmel's homepage (linked above) to see if I could find a link to a paper I could read just to get a feel for his work.

Unfortunately, there are no links to his papers there, but when I clicked on Resources and Links, and then "annotated list of my personal digest," I got the information I was looking for. There's some really good stuff on the list: Hutchins' Cognition in the Wild, a book on my list of favorites in cog sci that I don't know what to do with; Francisco Gil-White's fascinating paper, "Are Ethnic Groups Biological "Species" to the Human Brain?;" Gilles Fauconnier's as-of-yet unpaid promissory note, Mappings in Thought and Language; the classic, Metaphor and Thought, edited by Andrew Ortony; and Ronald Langacker's Concept, Image, and Symbol (I'd have chosen Foundations of Cognitive Grammar, but that's just me), to name a few. But then there are the books that you're expecting, if you speak the language.

I have to admit it upsets me less now than it has in the past that people in departments other than, say, psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, computer science (AI), philosophy, and cognitive anthropology (not really a department, I know) who are interested in cognitive science are so often drawn to conceptual metaphor theory. But when I read this description of Lakoff and Johnson's magnum opus, Philosophy in the Flesh, on Kimmel's page, I felt some of the old frustration coming back:

A startling, but lengthy survey of near to 600 pages of recent research on conceptual metaphor. Most interestingly, it also deals with issues of methodology in cognitive research and introduces the notion of "convergent evidence" from varied methods as a core pillar. In the annex fascinating evidence is produced from a new Berkeley based interdisciplinary workgroup called the "Neural Theory of Language" that encompasses artificial intelligence, psychology, and linguistics. Some first, tentative steps are made in explaining a multi-level explanatory framework that connects the brain- sciences and the mind-science.

Let me quickly say that I don't blame Kimmel for this description. It's a description Lakoff himself might have written, as it's based on the way in which Lakoff and Johnson describe not only their project, but their perceived originality and success. If you haven't read any mainstream cognitive science, you might think that cognitive linguistics is one of the most successful paradigms in the field (they tell you so, in the new introduction to Metaphors We Live By). And of course, certain parts of Kimmel's description are true. The book is lengthy, and it is about recent "research" on conceptual metaphor.

But the description is mostly misleading (in the ways that Lakoff and Johnson mislead their readers). You see, Lakoff and Johnson haven't "introduced" the "notion of converging evidence as a core pillar." That's science! Sure, the academic world is such that people, even entire research areas, can get overly enamored with a single research paradigm. Hell, cognitive linguists have written at least a couple dozen books based almost entirely on analyzing metaphors in everyday speech. But "converging evidence" is a core pillar of all cognitive science, and has been since well before "cognitive linguistics" existed.

Then there's this pair of sentences: "In the annex fascinating evidence is produced from a new Berkeley based interdisciplinary workgroup called the "Neural Theory of Language" that encompasses artificial intelligence, psychology, and linguistics. Some first, tentative steps are made in explaining a multi-level explanatory framework that connects the brain- sciences and the mind-science." So cognitive linguistics is producing an innovative research program that "encompasses artificial intelligence, psychology, and linguistics," sort of like the rest of cognitive science has been doing since, oh, the 1950s? A fact that belies the claim that within cognitive linguistics, the first steps, tentative or otherwise, are being taken "in explaining a multi-level explainatory framework that connects brain-sciences and mind-sciences." Because, you know, that's what cognitive scientists have been doing all along.

Again, I don't blame Kimmel for this nonsense. It's Lakoff and Johnson's nonsense. They really do seem to believe that they're doing something truly unique, as though embodiment wasn't a central tenet of much of 20th century philosophy (at least on the continent -- think of Bergson, Heidegger, or Merleau-Ponty, to give a few examples* [UPDATE: Commenter Cosma asks that we not forget James and Dewey.]), or thinking about thinking, and how the brain and language relate to thinking, is something they invented whole cloth in 1980 while everyone else in cognitive science was studying the ether.

Perhaps worst of all, they seem to think that they've been successful. As I've mentioned here before, outside of Lera Boroditsky's work on temporal metaphors (some of which is now being seriously challenged, as researchers are finding it difficult to replicate her findings), there really is no experimental evidence for conceptual metaphor theory, or any of the other major theories in cognitive linguistics (as I said before, Fauconnier's blending theory is just a promissory note, to date, despite what he and Mark Turner are now claiming, thought they at least have the guts to admit that they can't really make predictions). Even more damning, there's plenty of falsifying evidence (e.g., in this paper), and there are strong theoretical arguments against conceptual metaphor theory as well. Aside from Raymond Gibbs Jr. (in this paper, e.g., but see Murphy's reply), few cognitive linguists have publicly addressed such evidence and objections. I'm not sure I've ever seen Lakoff even mention it. One gets the distinct impression that he and some of the other major figures in the field (again, with the notable exception of Gibbs) tend to just ignore recalcitrant data.

I've tossed around a dozen theories as to why Lakoff talks about conceptual metaphor theory as though it were so well confirmed as to be deserving of the same status as theories like relativity or evolution, and I've settle on two possibilities. The first is that he's so attached to it that he's incapable of recognizing a.) that mainstream cognitive science generally ignores it, particularly in the study of concepts (with the exception of the recent perceptual symbol fad), where it should be the most relevant, and b.) that after almost 30 years, you'd expect a great deal of experimental evidence in favor of the theory, and little evidence against it, while in both cases the reality is the opposite. The second is that he fully recognizes both a. and b., and like so many scientists whose pet theories have failed within their fields, has taken to selling it to people outside of that field (like politicians, English professors, etc.) rather than letting it die a much deserved death. And because conceptual metaphor is such an intuitively appealing theory -- we think in metaphors! wow, that sounds cool -- the ideas have sold well (literally and, dare I say it, metaphorically).

It's because I've mostly accepted the second explanation that I'm no longer deeply troubled by Lakoff's success outside of mainstream cognitive science, and especially outside of academia altogether. Lakoff's turned into a salesman, and he's a very, very good one. So people who haven't been following the huge and often confusing literature on categories concepts that's arisen in the wake of Elanor Rosch's ground-breaking work in the early 70s (this page has a nice selection, and notice no Lakoff), or the productive though still inconclusive research on metaphor by people like Dedre Gentner or Sam Glucksberg, might not be aware that he's selling them snake oil. I just wish there was some sort of filter that would allow me to avoid ever having to read about it again.

*While we're at it, why don't we note that even the idea that concepts are metaphors isn't really a new either. There's a wonderful little essay written by some 29-year old German guy in 1873 that takes a similar position.

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I have always enjoyed my occasional visits to "Mixing memory" for the informative and entertaining posts offered here on different aspects of cognitive science. This morning post on "What�s the conceptual metaphor for disingenuous" is no exception, especially since I am currently writing a book on "Metaphor wars: Conceptual metaphor and cognitive science" which aims to offer a balanced assessment of conceptual metaphor theory. Of course, blogs on the internet written by an anonymous author is very different from a typical forum for academic debate, and thus I am happy to give you much leeway in what you say and how you say it when talking about different topics, including conceptual metaphor and the people who study it.

But I again feel compelled to take great issue with the statement(s) that there is no empirical evidence supporting the existence of conceptual metaphors. My aim in sending this note is not to broadcast my own ideas and work, but to at least suggest to readers of �Mixing memory� that your description of the (lack of) evidence on conceptual metaphor theory is just simply wrong. To be horribly brief, the hypothesis that there may be enduring metaphorical concepts, or conceptual metaphors, that play an important role in how people think and use language may be very roughly broken down into a series of more specific claims.

1. Conceptual metaphors provide some of the motivation for the evolution of language, especially how various words and phrases acquire the metaphorical meanings they do.

2. Conceptual metaphors motivate why contemporary language has very specific patterns of metaphorical conventional expressions, novel extensions, polysemy, certain textual organization, and gesture.

3. Conceptual metaphor motivates aspects of contemporary speakers� knowledge in long-term memory (i.e., structuring many abstract concepts) that motivates their tacit understandings of why various words, phrases, and texts convey the figurative meanings they do.

4. Conceptual metaphors are part of contemporary speakers� knowledge in long-term memory that is immediately recruited (i.e., accessed or activated) during online metaphorical language production and comprehension, as well as different reasoning tasks.

5. Conceptual metaphors arise from recurring patterns of bodily experience and have neural substrates that shape certain abstract thought and language use.

Ok, these are some lofty ideas, but it is important to note that conceptual metaphor theory (CMT) is not one grandiose theory but makes some very specific, and testable claims. Hypotheses 1 and 2 are best examined through detailed linguistic analyses, including corpora studies, and I think it is fair to say that there are at least 500 studies, from widely different languages, and from diverse knowledge domains that are seen as supporting aspects of these three general ideas. Many scholars within cognitive science question claims about thought and online language processing based on linguistic analyses alone (although see below), and so I won't for purposes of this post try and cite all of these (but see "Cognitive Linguistics Bibliography CD-ROM" from Mouton de Gruyter for many citations of these studies).

On the other hand, hypotheses 3 though 5 are best explored via the indirect methods of cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics (as well as computational modeling and neuroscience studies). And it is again fair to say, in my view, that there is plenty of evidence, employing a wide variety of experimental methods, out there to support these ideas. At the of these post, I list some of the published studies that claim to be consistent with aspects of hypotheses 3 though 5 (please excuse any that I have left out- I through these together in a few minutes given what I had on hand, one reason why there are so many written by me). The books I cite early on below provide partial summaries of these studies.

Now the fact that these articles appear in some of the very best, most respected journals in cognitive psychology and cognitive science does not imply that the studies or theories argued for are necessarily right or provide a completely truthful description of the human mind. There are indeed psychologists and others who have advanced contrary points of view or taken specific issue with aspects of the different studies cited here. I am sure that there will be continuing debate on these claims. But the assertion that "there really is no experimental evidence for conceptual metaphor theory" (as Chris writes) is completely indefensible.

I must also urge readers to seriously consider the linguistic evidence. At the very least, the incredible, systematic patterns of metaphoricity (across words, phrases, and entire linguistic expressions) noted in virtually every language studied requires SOME explanation- a responsibility that is rejected by too many metaphor scholars within psycholinguistics and cognitive science. There are plenty of debates in cognitive science related to important issues on language and thought relationships (e.g., the recent one on the Piraha language being one of these), where scholars take the linguistic evidence seriously. I maintain that the vastness of metaphoric language and its implications for metaphorical thoughts (and embodied groundings of language and thought) deserve the same respect.

Chris is completely right when he writes that ideas about converging evidence have a long history, well before the claims about converging evidence in favor of conceptual metaphor theory made by Lakoff, Johnson and others. But let�s give credit to cognitive linguists like Lakoff and Johnson for alerting researchers in non-cognitive science disciplines (e.g., those in the humanities where there is a lot of interest in metaphor) to the necessity of converging evidence in evaluating claims about conceptual metaphor and related notions from cognitive linguistics. In fact, the writings of Lakoff, Johnson and others have introduced a whole generation of young scholars, like Michael Kimmel, to the importance of different kinds of empirical evidence in making claims about the human mind. This has led younger scholars to pay more attention to empirical methods and the work done in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, which I believe we can all agree, is a very good thing. So le'�s not belittle these important methodological efforts on the part of people like Lakoff and others.

Finally, let's talk about the selling of snake oil. I personally know all the people Chris refers to in his "What�s the conceptual metaphor for disingenuous" post and can attest that these are incredibly smart, passionate, dedicated scholars who are by no means "selling snake oil," as if they do not believe or care about what they are doing. People can disagree with the ideas and empirical evidence (if they bother to look at it) advanced by people working on conceptual metaphor theory. People can even disparage a scholar like Lakoff for daring to be a "public intellectual" who believes his work and those in the cognitive linguistic/science movement have broad application to our real lives (e.g., the world of Politics and what people we citizens elect to run our governments). And people may just not like certain scholars within our fields for the way they write, talk, dress, act or even post comments on some blog-site. But calling these serious scholars of mind snake oil salesmen is just downright cruel and unnecessary.

The topic of why conceptual metaphor theory arouses such vehemence is one that greatly interests me and is again the subject of my in progress book. My own opinion is that conceptual metaphor theory, and other related ideas from cognitive linguistics are threatening to traditional scholars because it is contrary to prevailing, enduring beliefs that the mind is literal and disembodied. Put simply, many cognitive scientists could not continue to work in the ways they do if they embraced some of these alternative views. Might this be the reason why some scholars seem resistant to looking at the real evidence?

Thanks again for the great blogs here.

All the best

Ray Gibbs
UC Santa Cruz

Some relevant empirical/experimental evidence on conceptual metaphor theory (in random order)

Gibbs, R. (1994). The poetics of mind: Figurative thought, language, and understanding.
New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gibbs, R. (2006). Embodiment and cognitive science. New York: Cambridge University

Gibbs, R. (Ed.) (in press). Cambridge handbook of metaphor and thought. New
York: Cambridge University Press.

Katz, A., Cacciari, C., Gibbs, R., & Turner, M. (1998). Figurative language and
thought. New York: Oxford University Press.

Feldman, G. (2006). From molecules to metaphors: A neural theory of language.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gibbs, R., & Nayak, N. (1989). Psycholinguistic studies on the syntactic behavior
of idioms. Cognitive Psychology, 21, 100-138.

Gibbs, R., Nayak, N., Bolton, J., & Keppel, M. (1989). Speakers' assumptions about
the lexical flexibility of idioms. Memory & Cognition, 16, 58-68.

Gibbs, R., Nayak, N., & Cutting, C. (1989). How to kick the bucket and not
decompose: Analyzability and idiom processing. Journal of Memory
and Language, 28, 576-593.
Gibbs, R. (1990). Psycholinguistic studies on the conceptual basis of idiomaticity.
Cognitive Linguistics, 1, 417-451.

Gibbs, R., & O'Brien, J. (1990). Idioms and mental imagery: The metaphorical
motivation for idiomatic meaning. Cognition, 36, 35-68.

Nayak, N., & Gibbs, R. (1990). Conceptual knowledge in the interpretation of idioms.
Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 119, 315-330.

Gibbs, R., & Nayak, N. (1991). Why idioms mean what they do. Journal of
Experimental Psychology: General, 120, 93-95.

Gibbs, R. (1992). What do idioms really mean? Journal of Memory and Language,
31, 485-506.

Gibbs, R. (1992). Categorization and metaphor understanding. Psychological Review,
99, 572-577.

Gibbs, R., Beitel, D., Harrington, M., & Sanders, P. (1994). Taking a stand on the
meanings of stand: Bodily experience as motivation for polysemy. Journal
of Semantics, 11, 231-251.

Gibbs, R., & Beitel, D. (1995). What proverb understanding reveals about
how people think? Psychological Bulletin, 118, 133-154.

Gibbs, R., & Colston, H. (1995). The cognitive psychological reality of image
schemas and their transformations. Cognitive Linguistics, 6, 347-378.

Gibbs, R. (1996). Why many concepts are metaphorical. Cognition, 61, 309-319.

Gibbs, R., Colston, H., & Johnson, M. (1996). Proverbs and the metaphorical mind.
Metaphor and Symbolic Activity, 11, 207-216.

Gibbs, R., Bogdonovich, J., Sykes, J., & Barr, D. (1997). Metaphor in idiomcomprehension. Journal of Memory and Language, 37, 141-154.

Pfaff, K., Gibbs, R., & Johnson, M. (1997). Metaphor in using and understanding
euphemisms and dysphemisms. Applied Psycholinguistics, 18, 59-83.

Gibbs, R., Strom, L., & Spivey-Knowlton, M. (1997). Conceptual metaphor in mental
imagery for proverbs. Journal of Mental Imagery, 21, 83-110.

Gibbs, R., & Bogdonovich, J. (1999). Mental imagery in interpreting poetic metaphor.
Metaphor and Symbol, 14, 37-44.

Gibbs, R., & Franks, H. (2002). Embodied metaphors in womens' narratives about
their experiences with cancer. Health Communication, 14, 139-165.

Gibbs, R., Lima, P., & Francuzo. E. (2004). Metaphor is grounded in embodied
experience. Journal of Pragmatics, 36, 1189-1210.

Gibbs, R. (2006). Metaphor interpretation as embodied simulation. Mind & Language,
21, 434-458.

Gibbs, R., Gould, J., & Andric, M. (2006). Imagining metaphorical actions:
Embodied simulations make the impossible plausible. Imagination, Cognition, & Personality, 25, 221-238.

Gibbs, R., & Nascimento, S. (1996). How we talk when we talk about love:
Metaphorical concepts and understanding love poetry. In R. Kreuz & M. MacNealy (Eds.), Empirical approaches to literature and aesthetics. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Gallese, V., & Lakoff, G. (2005). The brain�s concepts� The role of sensory-motor
system in conceptual knowledge. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 22, 455-479.

Matlock, T, Ramscar, M., & Boroditsky, L. (2005). The experiential link between spatial
and temporal language. Cognitive Science, 29, 655-664.

McGlone, M.S., & Harding, J.L. (1998). Back (or forward?) to the future: The role of perspective in temporal language comprehension. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 24, 1211-1223.

Langston, W. (2002). Violating orientational metaphor slows reading.
Discourse P rocesses, 34, 281-310.
Allbritton, D., McKoon, G., & Gerrig, R. (1995). Metaphor-based schemas and text representation: Making connections through conceptual metaphors. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 21 (3), 612-625.

Gentner, D., Imai, M., & Boroditsky, L. (2002). As time goes by: Evidence for two systems in processing space-time metaphors. Language and Cognitive Processes, 17 (5), 537-565.
Boroditsky, L., & Ramscar, M. (2002). The roles of body and mind in abstract thought.
Psychological Science, 13, 185-189.

Casasanto, D. (2007). When is a Linguistic Metaphor a Conceptual Metaphor?
In V. Evans & S. Pourcel (Eds.), New Directions in Cognitive Linguistics.
Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Casasanto, D. & Lozano, S. ( 2007). The Cognitive Function of Metaphorical Gestures.
In A. Cienki & C. M�ller (Eds.), Metaphor and Gesture. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

By Ray Gibbs (not verified) on 18 Jun 2007 #permalink