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Anthropologists’ metaphorical shenanigans: Or how (not) to research metaphor

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Over on the excellent ‘Genealogy of Religion’, Cris Campbell waved a friendly red rag in front of my eyes to make me incensed over exaggerated claims (some) anthropologists make about metaphors. I had expressed some doubts in previous comments but felt that perhaps this particular one deserves its own post.

The book Cris refers to is a collection of essays  America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus (1991, ed. Alvin Josephy) which also contains an essay by Joel Sherzer called “A Richness of Voices”.  I don’t have the book but I looked up a few quotes on metaphor from the book.

The introduction summarizes the conclusion thus:

“Metaphors about the relations of people to animals and natural forces were essential to the adaptive strategies of people who lived by hunting.” (p. 26)

This is an example what Sherzer has to say about metaphor:

“Another important feature of native vocabularies was the metaphor – the use of words or groups of words that related to one realm of meaning to another. To students they provide a window into American Indian philosophies. … The relationship between the root and the derived form was often metaphorical.” (p. 256)

The first part of both statements is true but the second part does not follow. That is just bad bad scholarship. I’m not a big Popperian but if you want to make claims about language you have to postulate some hypotheses and try really really really hard to disprove them. Why? Because there are empirical aspects to the questions that can have empirical support. Instead the hypotheses are implied and no attempt is made to see if they work. So this is what I suggest are Sherzer’s implicit hypotheses that should be made explicit and tested:

  1. American Indian languages use metaphors for essential parts of their understanding of the world. (Corollary: If we understand the metaphors, we can understand the worldview of the speakers of those languages.)
  2. American Indian language use of metaphors was necessary to their survival because of their hunter-gatherer lifestyles.
  3. American Indian languages use metaphor than the SAE (Standard Average European) languages.

Re 1: This is demonstrably true. It is true of all languages so it is not surprising here. However, exactly how central this metaphorical reasoning is and how it works cognitively is an open question. I addressed some of this in my review of Verena Haser’s book.

As to the corollary, I’ve mentioned this time and time again. There is no straightforward link between metaphor and worldview. War on poverty, war on drugs, war on terror all draw on different aspects of war. As does Salvation Army, Peace Corps and the Marine Corps. You can’t say that Salvation Army subscribes to the same level of violence than a ‘real’ Army. The same goes for metaphors like ‘modern Crusades’ or the various notions of ‘Jihad’. Metaphor works exactly because it does not commit us to a particular course of action.

That’s not to say that the use of metaphor can never be revealing of underlying conceptualizations. For instance, calling something rebellion vs. calling it a ‘civil war’ imposes a certain order on the configuration of participants and reveals the speaker’s assumptions. But calling one ‘my rock’ does not reveal any cultural preoccupation with rocks. The latter (I propose) is much more common than the former.

Re 2: I think this is demonstrably false. From my (albeit incomplete) reading of the literature, most of the time metaphors just got in the way of hunting. Thinking of the ‘Bear’ as the father to whom you have to ritually apologise before killing him seems a bit excessive. Over metaphorisation of plants and animals has also led to their over or under exploitation. E.g. the Nuer not eating birds and foregoing an important source of nutricion or the Hawains hunting rare birds to extinction for their plumes. Sure, metaphors were essential to the construction of folk taxonomies but that is equally true of Western ‘scientific’ taxonomies which map into notions of descent, progress and containment. (PS: I’ve been working on a post called ‘Taxonomies are metaphors where I elaborate on this).

Re 3: This is just out and out nonsense. The example given are stuff like bark of the tree being called ‘skin’ and spacial prepositions like ‘on top of’ or ‘behind’ being derived from body parts. The author obviously did not bother to consult an English etymological dictionary where he could discover that ‘top’ comes from ‘tuft’ as in ‘tuft of hair’ (or is at the very least connected). And of course the connection of ‘behind’ to body part (albeit in the other direction) should be pretty obvious to anyone. Anyway, body part metaphors are all over all languages in all sorts similar but inconsistent ways: mountains have feet (but not heads), human groups have heads (but not feed), trees have trunks (but not arms), a leader may have someone as their right arm (but not their left foot). And ‘custard has skin’ in English (chew on that). In short, unless the author can show even a hint of a quantitative tendency, it’s clear that American Indian languages are just as metaphorical as any other languages.

Sherzer comes to this conclusion:

“Metaphorical language pervaded the verbal art of the Americas in 1492, in part because of the closeness Native American had always felt to the natural world around them and their social, cultural, aesthetic, and personal identification with it and in part because of their faith in the immediacy of a spirit world whose presence could be manifest in discourse.”

But that displays fundamental misunderstanding of how metaphor works in language. Faith in immediacy has no link to the use of metaphors (or at the very least Sherzer did not demonstrate any link because he confused lyricism with scholarship). Sure, metaphors based on the natural world might indicate ‘closeness to the natural world around’ but that’s just as much of a discovery as saying that people who live in an area with lots of oaks have a word that means ‘oak’. The opposite would be surprising. The problem is that if you analyzed English without preconceptions about the culture of its speakers you would find as much of a closeness to the natural world (e.g a person can be ‘a force of nature’, ‘eyes like a hawk’, ‘dirty as a pig’, ‘wily as a fox’, ‘slow as a snail’, ‘beautiful as a flower’, ‘sturdy as a tree’, etc.).

While this seems deep, it’s actually meaningless.

“The metaphorical and symbolic bent of Mesoamerica was reflected in the grammars, vocabularies, and verbal art of the region. (p. 272)

Mesoamerica had no ‘symbolic bent’. Humans have a symbolic bent, just like they have spleens, guts and little toes.  So let’s stop being all gushy about it and study things that are worth a note.

PS: This just underscores my comments on an earlier post of Cris’ where I took this quote to task:

“Nahuatl was and is a language rich in metaphor, and the Mexica took delight in exploring veiled resemblances…” This is complete and utter nonsense. Language is rich in metaphor and all cultures explore veiled resemblances. That’s just how language works. All I can surmise is that the author did not learn the language very well and therefore was translating some idioms literally. It happens. Or she’s just mindlessly spouting a bullshit trope people trot out when they need to support some mystical theory about a people.

And the conclusion!? “In a differently conceptualized world concepts are differently distributed. If we want to know the metaphors our subjects lived by, we need first to know how the language scanned actuality. Linguistic messages in foreign (or in familiar) tongues require not only decoding, but interpretation.” Translated from bullshit to normal speak: “When you translate things from a foreign language, you need to pay attention to context.” Nahuatl is no different to Spanish in this. In fact, the same applies to British and American English.

Finally, this metaphor mania is not unique to anthropologists. I’ve seen this in philosophy, education studies, etc. Metaphors are seductive… Can’t live without them…

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