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18 January 2011

Waxing Metaphorical

After missing Edge's Annual Question for a couple of years, someone pointed me in the direction of this year's question: what scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit? As usual, there are too many interesting answers to read them all (not in a single sitting, anyway) but I was pleased to see several answers by linguists and by people whose works I studied as a linguistics student, as well as answers that are language related.

Steven Pinker - Positive-Sum Games
Gary Marcus - Cognitive Humility
Dan Sperber - Cognitive Attractors
Tecumseh Fitch - An Instinct to Learn
George Lakoff - Conceptual Metaphor

In the latter, Lakoff outlines the content of his book with Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, which I read several times. The book contains a fascinating description of common metaphors (Love is War; The Future Is Ahead; Time Is Money) and also explains why metaphor is key for the understanding of the complex relationship between language and thought. As Lakoff puts it in his Edge answer:
Every time you think of paying moral debts, or getting bogged down on a project, or losing time, or being at a crossroads in a relationship, you are unconsciously activating a conceptual metaphor circuit in your brain, reasoning using it, and quite possibly making decisions and living your life on the basis of your metaphors. And that's just normal. There's no way around it!
MWLB, incidentally, is well worth a read and very accessible. NB, I don't know anything about Lakoff's battle with Pinker a few years ago; some of the metaphors from the Argument Is War section of MWLB would no doubt be relevant:

His claims are indefensible.
My criticisms were right on target.
demolished his argument.
shot down all of his theories.

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