Category Archives: Metaphor

Not ships in the night: Metaphor and simile as process

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In some circles (rhetoric and analytics philosophy come to mind), much is made of the difference between metaphor and simile.

(Rhetoricians pay attention to it because they like taxonomies of communicative devices and analytic philosophers spend time on it because of their commitment to a truth-theoretical account of meaning and naive assumptions about compositionality).

It is true that their surface and communicative differences have an impact in certain contexts but if we’re interested in the conceptual underpinnings of metaphor, we’re more likely to ignore the distinction altogether.

But what’s even more interesting, is  to think about metaphor and simile as just part of the process of interpersonal meaning construction.  Consider this quote from a blog on macroeconomics:

[1a] Think of [1b] the company as a ship. [2] The captain has steered the ship too close to the rocks, and seeing the impending disaster has flown off in the ship’s helicopter and with all the cash he could find. After the boat hit the rocks no lives were lost, but many of the passengers had a terrifying ordeal in the water and many lost possessions, and the crew lost their jobs. [3] Now if this had happened to a real ship you would expect the captain to be in jail stripped of any ill gotten gains. [4] But because this ship is a corporation its captains are free and keep all their salary and bonuses. [5] The Board and auditors which should have done something to correct the ship’s disastrous course also suffer no loss.

Now, this is really a single conceptual creation but it happens in about 5 moves highlighted above (I picked these 5 as an illustrative heuristic but this is not to assume some fixed sequence).

[1] The first move establishes an idea of similarity through a simile. But it is not in the traditional form of ‘X is like Y’. Rather, it starts with the performative ‘Think of’ [1a] and then uses the simile ‘as’. [1b]. ‘Think of X as Y’ is a common construction but it is rarely seen as an example in discussions of similes.

[2] This section lays out an understanding of the source domain for the metaphorical projection. It also sets the limit on the projection in that it is talking about ‘company as a ship’ in this scenario, not as a ship (for instance, the similarities in internal organisation structure.) This is another very common aspect of metaphor discourse that is mostly ignored in thinking about it. It is commonly deployed instrument in the process of what I like to call ‘frame negotiation’. On the surface, this part seems like a narrative with mostly propositional content that could easily stand alone. But…

[3] By saying, ‘if this happened to a real ship’ the author immediately puts the preceding segment into question as an innocent proposition and reveals that it was serving a metaphorical purpose all along. Not that any of the readers were really lulled into a false sense of security, nor that the author was intending some dramatic reveal. But it is an interesting illustration of how the process of constructing analogies contains many parts.

[4] This part looks like a straightforward metaphor: ‘the ship is a corporation’ but it is flipped around (one would expect ‘the corporation is a ship’. This move links [2] and [3] and reminds us that [1].

[5] This last bit seems to refer to both domains at once. ‘The board and the auditors’ to the business case and ‘ships course’ to the narrative in the simile. But we could even more profitably think of it as referring to this new blended domain in which we have a hypothetical model in which both the shipping and business characteristics were integrated.

But the story does not end there even though people who are interested in metaphors often feel that they’ve done enough at this stage (if they ever reach it). My recommended heuristic for metaphor analysts is to always look at what comes next. This is the start of the following paragraph:

To say this reflects everything that is wrong with neoliberalism is I think too imprecise. [1] I also think focusing on the fact that Carillion was a company built around public sector contracts misses the point. (I discussed this aspect in an earlier post.)

If you study metaphor in context, this will not surprise you. The blend is projected into another domain that is in a complex relationship to what precedes and what follows. This is far too conceptually intricate to take apart here but it is of course completely communicatively transparent to the reader and would have required little constructive effort on the part of the author (who is most likely to have spent time on constructing the simile/metaphor and its mappings but little on their embedding into the syntactic and textual weave that give it its intricacy).

In the context of the whole text, this is a local metaphor that plays as much an affective as it does a  cognitive role. It opens up some conceptual spaces but does not structure the whole argument.

The metaphor comes up again later and in this case it also plays the role of an anaphor by linking 2 sections of the text:

Few people would think that never being able to captain a ship again was a sufficient disincentive for the imaginary captain who steered his boat too close to the rocks.

Also of note is the use of the word ‘imaginary’ which puts that statement somewhere between a metaphor (similarity expressed as identity) and simile (similarity expressed as comparison).

There are two lessons here:

  1. The distinction between metaphor and simile could be useful in certain contexts but in practice, their use blends together and is not always easy to establish boundaries between them. But even if we could, the underlying cognition is the same (even if truth-conditionally they may differ). We could even complicate things further and introduce terms such as analogy, allegory, or even parable in this context but it is hard to see how much they would help us elucidate what is going on.

  2. Both metaphor and simile are not static components of a larger whole (like bricks in a wall or words in a dictionary). They are surface aspects of a rich and dynamic process of meaning making.  And the meaning is ‘literally’ (but not really literally) being made here right in front of our eyes or rather by our eyes.  What metaphor and simile (or the sort of hybrid metasimile present here) help structure the conceptual spaces (frames) being created but they are not doing it alone. There are also narratives, schemas, propositions,  definitions, etc. All of these help fill out the pool of meaning into which we may slowly immerse ourselves or hurtle in headlong.  This is not easy to see if we only look at metaphor and simile outside their natural habitat of real discourse. Let that be a lesson to us.

Therapy for Frege: A brief outline of the theory of everything

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Frege’s trauma

I found the following quote from Frege on the Language goes on holiday blog and it struck as the perfect starting point for this essay which has been written for a while now:

“Frege (“Logic in Mathematics”): Definitions proper must be distinguished from elucidations [Erläuterungen]. In the first stages of any discipline we cannot avoid the use of ordinary words. But these words are, for the most part, not really appropriate for scientific purposes, because they are not precise enough and fluctuate in their use. Science needs technical terms that have precise and fixed Bedeutungen, and in order to come to an understanding about these Bedeutungen and exclude possible misunderstandings, we provide elucidations. Of course in so doing we have again to use ordinary words, and these may display defects similar to those which the elucidations are intended to remove. So it seems that we shall then have to provide further elucidations. Theoretically one will never really achieve one’s goal in this way. In practice, however, we do manage to come to an understanding about the Bedeutungen of words. Of course we have to be able to count on a meeting of minds, on others’ guessing what we have in mind.”

Duncan Richter’s commentary then follows:

“Frege’s problem is of a different kind [from Mill]. There is something wrong with what he wants. He sees the problems himself, but still, apparently, goes on wanting the same thing. So pointing out the problems won’t help at all. We might say he needs a kind of therapy, although this won’t be regular psycho-therapy.”

Well, I have been thinking about the need for exactly such a therapy and it must stem from an understading that Frege was wrong about the extent to which we can in practice determine the precise Bedeutungen of our terms. As I hope to show below, the infinite regress of elucidation intrudes on our every day thinking in many ways that make even relatively simple communication or understanding difficult (a never ending process of negotiation). Difficulties stemming from what I call below the impossibility of perfect reference are not a matter of some distant perifery of hypothetical paradoxes, they make themselves known as insurmountable obstacles in seemingly innocuous. Or in other words, it is Erläuterungen all the way down.

And this problem does not have an epistemological solution (even if we don’t have to go as far as Rorty in rejecting epistemology as a beneficial enterprise altogether). Our only course of action is acceptance and making peace with the fundamental indeterminacy of reference. The acknowledgment of the need to make peace is the therapeutic part because the alternative is dissolution into madness of circularity or arbitrary absolutism (which is a kind of madly willful blindness, in itself).

Halting Problem of Rationality

The original impetus for these notes was reading a recent review of Elezier Yudkovsky’s new book on Inadequate Equilibria by Scott Alexander. Yudkovsky and Alexander’s review seem to me an object study of what I’ve come to thinking about as the halting problem of rationality.

This problem has many formal kindred spirits in the form undecidability, computability (P=NP), etc. From everything we know, we should be exteremely skeptical of rationality to solve its own problems without any appeal to a sort of axiomatic arbiter (a Godelian ‘because I said so’, perhaps.)

Scott Alexander shows the infinite regression of the process of finding the final level at which to decide which perspective is valid (or even useful). Based on Yudkovsky’s book, he arbitrarily (or perhaps magically) uses two perspectives but they are clearly just points on a continuum which itself is on an infinite plane rather than just a neat straight line.

Now, Yudkovsky does not seem to be bothered by the infinity of it all. He uses a whole lot of Bayesian heuristics to build up a priors machine that spits out one good decision after another. Prior ex machina, if you will. And it’s not always good. That’s why Alexander calls the book’s core argument ‘theodicy’. And that’s how most rationalist epistemological arguments strike me. They are the same sort of hermeneutics performed on the Bayesian heuristic canon that biblical scholars engaged in with the Bible. Read the text and its understanding will reveal THE truth.

The impossibility of true hermeneutics

My arguement is that hermeneutics (in this sense) is impossible and always the wrong goal. What’s more it is very easy to mistake our heuristics for hermeneutics. In other words, it is almost an instinct to assume that the analytic instruments we use to handle the world around us for specific (if often implicit) purposes are isomorphic with the world. And the more successful the instrument, the more likely it is we will assume it reflects the actual ‘true’ and complete image of the world. So computers, have been hugely influential and successful in emulating (and enhancing) some previously difficult mental processes and therefore the world is made up of information and our minds are just computers. We can control so much of the world around us by manipulating chemical elements, and therefore everything we are is really chemistry and our goal in describing the human condition should be a transcription into chemical notation because only that is the language in which a true image of the world can be captured. We can describe a sentence with a transformational rule and therefore the true representation of language is a formal description. We can design precise logical proofs for truth conditions, and therefore all that a meaning of a word or a statement is, is its conditions for truth. We can describe the utility of an economic transation by its marginal value and therefore all that defines value is the margin. And so on.

Richard Rorty pretty much showed how this works in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and later on also showed how to deal with it through his ironist approach. But rationalists are too cool to read Rorty. Wittgenstein and Derrida saw the problem and instead of talking about it, they tried to reveal it through cryptic koans.

I’d like to go about this differently and offer an outline of what a proof might look like that there is no ultimate external referent available for adjudication of referential problems. I also show that this causes problems not just on the edges but all the time across all aspects of academic and daily life.

Outline of the theory of everything

Lets start with a key assumption from which everything else derives:

Everything exists!

On the word ‘exist’

Now, the word exist obviously has multipe meanings. I’m obviously not saying that everything exists as an object in the world. So I’m perfectly happy with the statement ‘Unicorns don’t exist’. I’m using it in the most universal sense similar to the logical notation E. In this sense it is impossible for something I can refer to with the word ‘something’ or even think about not to exist. But I don’t have to have a word or a thought for something to exist. In facts, words make it seem as if everything existed as some kind of entity. But those words and thoughts themselves exist and so does the relationship between them and the things they refer to as well as my reference to that relationship and my reference to that reference. And so on ad infinitum. In fact, the very act of naming brings things into existence. Existence in this sense is a Parmenidian totality – it is not temporal. Everything includes past and future. It is not dimensional – if it turns out there are infinite parallel worlds, everything will still exist. Parallel words are also part of everything. And if it turns out there’s no such thing, everything will still exist. The parallel worlds will just exist as an idea that turned out not to have identifiable external correlate. Everything does not require finiteness nor infinity. Infinity is still everything. But even if it turns out that infinity is just a mathematical construct and the physical world is actually finite in the shape of some bizzare multidimensional space-time sphere, that’s still everything. When Wittgenstein said ‘That of which I cannot speak, I must stay silent’, he was alluding to the same concept of everything. If it can exist it does exist, if it cannot, it does not. Everything exists. Anything that does not exist does not exist. What it means that there is nothing outside of existence in the sense of x E everything. There is no such special mode of being as metaexistence – existence beyond existence, existence about existence. Now, this is not the proof, this is the Cartesian axiom abstracted – X exists, therefore X exists.

Impossibility of perfect reference

The key consequence of everything existing is the impossibility of perfect referrentiality. This presents a problem because our entire epistemology is built on the assumption of referentiality. If something exists, we can refer to it with a concept, word, label, or at least point at it. In other words, signifier vs signified. We cannot speak or think without relying the perfect applicability of this abstraction. And most of the time it sort of works. In ‘Pass the salt’, ‘pass’ refers to an action, ‘salt’ to an object, ‘the’ to a relationship between the object and our perception of it. The ‘sort of’ refers to the fact that even simple sign/meaning pairings get very complicated very fast. Semioticians have been dining out on this since at least Peirce. (But medieval logicians and Indian ones before that have also taking this complexity apart as far as it can be taken apart.)

But it stops even sort of working very soon when we get even close to any attempt at metareferentiality. Just look what sort of verbal gymnastics I had to go through to even hint at what I mean by a simple statement ‘everything exists’. The problem is that referentiality is not a passive fact outside of existence. Every act of reference creates a new relationship between the refered, referee, and reference (at its most oversimplified). And that’s something we can then go and refer to, thus creating an infinite regress, that’s not linear but exponential. Because any new act of reference creates not one but at least four potential things to refer to. 1. The act of reference itself, 2. the referee in the act of reference, 3. the referent as being referred to, 4. the signfifier being used for that reference. Most often we can multiply that by referring to other participants in the act of reference, the relationship of that act to prior acts and their relationship to this act. In short, it’s not a pretty picture.

Borges in his psychedelic ways showed how the quest for perfect reference falls on its face in his short story about the mapmakers trying to create an ever better map but making it more and more closely resemble reality until it became as big as the land it was representing. By the end of his story, it simply lay abandoned on the edge of town. But the mapmakers did not even come close to achieving perfection. Because in the perfect representation of the world, the map itself would have to be included as well. But then an even bigger map would have to be created to capture the map, the reality and their relationship, but then we’d need another even bigger map to capture the previous relationships. And so on. A perfect map is a physical impossibility. Even in an infinite universe, there’s not enough transfinity to hold it.

There’s nothing new about this. Zeno, Russell, Goedel, Turing, Mandelbrot are just the most famous of the names who dealt with this problem in one way or another in the formal realm of mathematics. And Rorty did it for philosophy – while of course all the major philosophers of the last 300 years had hints of it, as well. Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Rorty, Feyerabend. Of the western ancients Parmenides. But of course, so called eastern philosophy is rife with this, as well.

Meaning without perfect reference

So what does this mean? Is meaning impossible? Can we not speak? No. Meaning is obviously possible. But not in the way it suggests itself to us. When we say something means something we are implying a perfect one-to-one mapping of symbol to entity. But this is a false implication. When I point at an object and say this is a ‘chair’, I have a feeling that I have thus exhaustively described that object. That I engaged in perfect reference. But because everything about that chair exists, not just it chairness, I have simply pointed to a whole complex of existence and the word ‘chair’ only describes one of its infinitely many dimensions. When I set the chair on fire, at what point does it stop being a chair? When does it start being a chair during the contruction process? When the tree’s cut down with the intention of making furniture? When the last bit of varnish dries? Or somewhere in between? Maybe when it takes on the recognizable shape of a chair or when it can start functioning as a chair. What if it is a modernist chair and I can only recognize it as such when somebody puts a label on it? What if it is a chair in a picture? The label chair can do a lot of this work but it is not a perfect reference that maps nicely onto a thing.

This is all kind of obvious, so obvious that we take it all in our stride in our everyday acts of reference. But it starts causing problems as soon as we try to pin it down in the assumption that if we only stop being everyday about our reference, we can easily identify the ‘real’ referent exactly in the way our usual every-day unthinking reference suggests we are doing already. Oh, we’re just being sloppy thinkers, taking quick shortcuts for convenience. But if we sacrifice some of that convenience, take a bit more time, we will be able to stop the infinite referential regress. There has to be an end to it. But there cannot be. Not within the system of reference itself. Every moment we take to try to nail down the reference, creates another referent for us to refer. It just never ends.

Infinite perfect reference is impossible in principle. And we cannot resolve this by stepping outside the system of reference as we can do with maths in Godel’s theorem. Because, we can only consider reference using referential tools. This is so crazy-making and frustrating that generations of great thinkers simple assumed that it cannot be so. But in fact, it cannot be otherwise. Or if you think, it can. Show me how! I’ve been wrong before. (Obviously the Augustinian God who is outside of time – and presumably reference, or Buddhist karma – the extinguishment of existence itself – are pretty good conceptual exits out of the worry but they don’t provide any usable heuristics for dealing with the paradoxes of reference within the referential model itself.)

Summary of the key consequence

In summary, there’s a paradoxical consequence of the theory of everything. Beause everything exists, perfect reference is impossible, and therefore nothing exists in the way our words and thoughts make it seem it does. Or in a pithier (but less accurate) heuristic I recommend to all philosophers and rationalists:
“Just because there’s a word for it, it does not mean it exists.”

Edge cases in our midst

So what? Who cares about some edge cases on the margins of infinity? We can just happily go on to use our ‘ordinary’ language and take care of the really important problems like designing more efficient energy storage.

If only it were that easy. But as the example with the chair showed, the problems of reference are all around us. They pop up all the time in daily conversation or in basic academic discourse. They are not just something people in the most abstract domains have to deal with on their darker days. They are something we all deal with everyday – all of us – from Socrates to the Macedonian swineherd.

Lets take energy storage. It is a perfect way of thinking about batteries or pumping up water on an incline. But is there really a thing called energy we are storing the same way we may be storing bags of dried beans in a cupboard? Is there even such a ‘thing’ as energy? Well, there’s a whole lot of maths used to describe the measurements in the physical world that make it easy to think about a lot of things in terms of energy. Not only can we think of the world that way, we can all of a sudden compare things like burning fire and the rubbing of hands and the running of horses, pile of coal and pile of dinosaurs, etc. But what is happening when we say X is releasing energy? Is the pumping of water up a hill the same thing as a burning fire? What is it that we’re describing with the math? It is certainly not a given that energy is always a useful concept. People say things like, because everything is energy, I don’t believe in God but in universal energy that connects us all. We may laugh at charlatans like Deepak Chopra, but what is the mathematics describing energy really referring to? Is that one example of perfect reference? There is one energy and one value of energy in the world? Further indivisible? The ultimate building block of our semantics?

No. Theory of everything does not claim that no reference is possible. Or even that it is impossible to have one perfect one to one relationship between a signifier and signified. Just that that sort of atomic reference is not very useful. I can agree with my fellow referees that henceforth ‘dog’ refers to Spot at 5pm on July 23, 2011 in my living room (with the rest of the infinite specification taken as read). But that will render the word completely useless. I will have to then come up with a new word to refer to Spot at 5.01pm or Spot who’s wondered into the garden. Or I may choose the much more sensible option of refering to the fuzzy and ever changing universe of dogness. That word will be imprecise and fuzzy but that will make it useful. We will have broad agreement and negotiate around the edges.

So I can equally say, the word energy refers only to a set of mathematical formulae. But then I severly constrain what I can do with it. Which (in the case of physics) maybe exactly what I want. But it is a solution that does not scale as every effort to come up with a precise language has demonstrated and even if it did, it would necessarily run into paradoxes predicted by the theory of everything.

Possible objections

What are some possible objections to the theory of everything? I can think of several.

  1. The premise is wrong. Everything does not exist. There is a mode of metaexistence (for instance, human consciousness or a state of nirvana) that will make it possible to know all.
  2. There’s no problem. We just need an alternative epistemology which does not rely on reference.
  3. So what if perfect reference is impossible. We just need to come up with simpler formulae that will describe more complex ones and build a perfect reference by proxy.
  4. How does this apply to the theory of everything? How can you say everything exists when by your definition you should not be able to make any statements like that?
  5. You made a logical mistake and it is indeed possible to have perfect reference even when everything exists.

Re 1: Many years ago I read about a Buddhist school of semantics that claimed that the meaning of anything is everything that it is not. And the way Buddha himself was able to confirm that something does not exists was by looking at everything and finding that nothing was it. (This was a long time ago and I’m probably mangling this but it will suffice for illustration.) So is it possible that we can achieve some alternate level of consciousness – perhaps even stepping outside the ‘karmic wheel’ on which everything turns and grasping the whole world non-referrentially as one or simply being aware of everything through a vastly expanding consciouness where the limits of infinity don’t apply. Every mystical tradition would have you believe that you can.

But even if you could (and why not), it wouldn’t solve any of the problems in the here and now. Maybe we should realign our goals and instead of striving for accumulating ever more referential possessions, seek this new alternative consciousness. Sure. But again, this does not solve the problem for this consciousness.

re 2. Well, if you can come up with an epistemology not based around some notion of reference I’d like to see it. Now, there are many philosophical approaches that take the very impossibility (or at least great difficulty) of perfect (or even very good) reference to heart and integrate it into its epistemological toolbox. Zen Koans are one example, floating signifiers of post-modernist semioticians are another. But these approaches don’t actually transcend referentiality. They merely break it and through that breakage reveal the boundaries that reference imposes on us. The best Zen masters such as Derrida in his postcards or Wittgenstein in his investigations do a great job.

But, again this only exarcebates the problem rather than resolve it. There is no bulshit filter on koans. I can just as easily remain clueless as englightened and I have no way of knowing which one I am. Most of the reference transcending statements are as likely as not interpretted as if they are referential and simply referring to something not yet seen. Well, that does not help anyone.

re 3. The whole point of reference is that it simplifies the world. Who cares about perfection. As long as we can come up with simple and beautiful mathematics to describe the complex world, we’ll be in good shape. I call this generative referentiality. And if it could get us out of the jam, it would be nice. But it fails on two counts.

Count 1: Assume you come up with a nice function to describe a chunk of the world. Now, if you plug it into a computer, it will eventually spit out a perfect image of that chunk of the world. But then you’ve created a new object that needs to be generated by another function, including that function itself. Now, you might think that you could Cantor your way out of this. Just map one to one until infinity – no problem if it seems that one set should be smaller than the other. Yes, but Cantor never worried about everything. Russell did and look where that got him.

Count 2: But even if we assumed that generative referentiality can solve this problem, it is still arguable that it actually does do the job we assume referentiality does. Look at Madelbrot’s set. It is a dead simple formula (albeit with complex numbers) that generates infinitudes of self-similar shapes when plotted in a 2D space. But does knowing the formula actually constitute knowing the set? Can we know the set without knowing the formula? Do we need to know both? We can certainly take the formula as the signifier of the whole complex thing. But then it would seem to be mostly doing a job of referring to something complicated and calling it Bob (or Madelbrot’s set) would be just as good. There is something magical about knowing the names of things but knowing the names is not knowing the things. Generative referentiality is extermely useful and we might say it provides the foundations of our current civilisation. But confusing it with perfect referentiality has caused a lot of problems.

re 4. How do the epistemological limitations of the theory of everything apply to the theory itself? This is a typical worry of any foundational epistemological theory that tries to encompass all of cognition. How do you deal with self-referentiality without running into a paradox? The strictures are even more severe on any theory that tries to deal with self-referentiality itself. The limits on perfect reference of course apply to anything I say just as much as anything else. However, there is a small reprieve for reference that does not try to do anything useful. The whole point of reference is that it allows us to grasp something external to us. And the hidden strength of reference (at least hidden from most mainstream logicians) is that it is profoundly simplifying. It only works because it ignores almost everything and only zooms in on what is most important. However, there is a kind of perfect reference that is profoundly useless except as a foundational axiom. And that is tautology.

I can in fact avoid all the problems with chairs, love, kings of France or anything referentiality struggles with if I just say they are exactly what they are. So instead of positing that X = a, I simply say X = X. I can thus refer to everything as being everything and be quite happy that that reference includes itself and everything that surrounds it. Just like I can say that a set of all sets is a set of truly all sets including itself. The problems start when I try to build a non-selfreferntial system out of this assumption. Because I can’t.

I would say that the foundation of the theory of everything is purely therapeutic. It points to some fundamental impossibilities of our system without saying ‘and for my next trick, I will now show you how to simply resolve it’. There is no next trick. However, I will try to outline some heuristics that can be used to get around this. Deconstruction is one such approach – Derrida’s horizons come to mind here (but not something I know a lot about.) But even very simple rationalist heuristics will do as long as we don’t assume that they are external to the limits on perfect reference.

re 5. It is possible that I made a mistake somewhere. In fact, I would not be surprised in the least if I did – this kind of thinking is hard and not my strong suit. But what remains is the empirical fact that perfect reference is nearly impossible. It is so hard that nobody has yet managed to crack it in any system capable of expressing something like language. Even algebra. I never quite managed to understand the details of Goedel’s proof but this is what I imagine he was after. But for him, undecidability was an internal problem for any system with an outside observer. But with everything there is no outside observer. (Or at least not any outside observer we have access to.)

Words-as-models heuristic and the halting problem

So what are we to do? Perfect reference is impossible but our language-thought processes behave as if all reference was perfect. Is there a way out? No, there is no way out. You cannot be out of everything but there’s a way of living with this limitation.

One simple heuristic I suggest is to think of anything we say or think as a model. Each word, sentence, concept. It is a model of the thing it refers to. Then we can then go on and live with the statistician’s dictum: All models are wrong, but some are useful.

Of course, the world does not need me for this. Those assumptions have been around for a long time. But what has been missing is the next step. Ok, so some models are useful, how do we know which ones? Can we come up with a universal procedure for determining usefulness of models? And here the analogy with the halting problem comes in.

Models are a type of (by definition) imperfect reference. So, if we could get a perfect procedure for identifying the utility of models, we could build out a model of the whole world just based on utility. But utility of models is itself a mode and, therefore, by its nature imperfect. Which means we cannot have a perfect external procedure for identifying utility. So, what can we have?

As always, we need to remind ourselves of the heuristic ‘just because there’s a word for it, does not mean it exists’. We have a notion and a word of utility but that does not mean that there is a nice monadic entity of utility floating around in the world that we can attach that word to. We can pretend there is (just like the utilitarians) but that is not going to help us avoid paradoxes and other odius conclusions (just like the utilitarians). We don’t know whether a model is useful until we have examined all of its aspects with respect to all aspects of reality. But that is no more possible than it is possible to examine all steps of an infinitely recursive algorithm. At best we can follow the line of steps as far as the eye can see and say, well, it seems like it will continue for a while. Let’s go get a sandwich.

But with utility, things are even more difficult because it is not intrinsically a point on a simple scale from less useful to more useful. To simplify dealing with utility, we may convert it into a unidimensional scale of ‘utils’ spanning from negative to positive infinity. But that only makes the calculations of utility themselves easier by pushing all the difficult work one step down the line. We still have to decide in every case how to map the utility we perceive onto that scale. And we also have to decide how to measure that mapping. So by committing to a simple scale we have simplified one part of the process but we didn’t solve any of the problems. We simply pushed them upstream to the foundational issues.

How do we halt the infinite regress if we don’t know whether there is an actual end to it? In practice, we already do the only thing we can do. We give up when it feels right. Or when we’re exhausted. Or when we’ve reached a point of some sort of equilibrium or conversely leverage. Our only sane option is to do what we’re doing and not pretend that we’ve cracked the halting problem. Pretend (with conviction to the point of self-delusion) that we’ve come to a decision because a decision at that point makes sense. Dance as if noone is watching and there’s an externally arbitrated rational reason for stopping. Or a common sense one. But those are just pragmatic, ad hoc (or as Rorty insists contingent) decisions. The assumptions of external rationality are therapeutic ones, not epistemological.

Dealing with imperfect reference through heuristics: rationalists, postmodernists and pragmatists

Now, given we know all of the above and assuming we want to be reasonably honest about acknowledging there’s a problem, how do we go about continuing to speak and reason referentially while knowing that the reference we are working with as real is actually impossible? The postmodernists have suggested provisional knowledge. And they’re not wrong. All knowledge has to be provisional. The rationalists have come up with the Bayesian ‘strong opinions weakly held’ and updating priors. And they’re not wrong. And the Pragmatists have come up with conflating epistemology with ethics. I like these the most.

But these are just the general slogans of intent. What is really interesting (and actually useful) are the heuristics developed by each of these traditions.

The rationalists assume (implicitly) that perfect reference is indeed possible but very hard. They have come up (as the scholastics – Western and Eastern – before them) with a number of heuristics in the form of logical fallacies that help point out some of the paradoxes. They sort of present them as if avoiding these fallacies would avoid all problems. But while they help avoiding a lot of problems, they don’t avoid all or even most and they also create new ones. But simply dismissing them because of this would be foolish.

The postmodernists, on the other hand, focus on the impossibility of perfect reference and emphasize the provisionality of knowledge. They have developed a lot of deconstructive techniques to direct the mind to the boundaries of possibility. They almost write poetry about the abundance of everything and the futility of its conquest (Feyerabend being one of the most eloquent here). But they tend to reject even some of the more useful heuristics and are very likely to drown in bulshit. The rationalists are prone to non-sense, as well, but I think the profound embarassment of the Sokal hoax is unique to the postmodernists. The rationalists just assume that the infinite regress can be halted if we put up enough barriers of logic in its way, but postmodernists are sometimes all too happy to see something rhyme and don’t care if it could be made reasonable sense of (albeit provisionally) with some simple rationalist heuristics.

Then, there are the pragmatists. They are closest to my heart and I think Rorty pretty much said everything that I ever wanted to say. They emhasize the contingency of knowledge on situation and social commitments. But unlike the postmodernists, they are happy to take provisional stances for something and do something specific with them. When James spoke about the importance of commitments to others as being the foundation of epistemology, he touched on something fundamental. I came up with the slogan ‘epistemology is ethics’ without knowing about James or the details of Rorty’s analysis but when I read Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, I knew Rorty and I were soul mates.

But I think Rorty was too quick to dismiss epistemology. He rightly took it down a lot of pegs and showed the impossibility of an ultimate epistemological theory. But he did not give it enough credit in thinking through some of the impossible problems while asssuming they are merely very hard. His ‘liberal ironist’ stance in later essays is a good practical application of the core insight but again, it does not give enough room to the basic heuristics.

That makes it much easier for the traditional epistemologists and scientists to dismiss him as irrelevant. While in fact, he speaks to the very core of their enterprise. But it feels to them like he is taking away the very foundations on which all of their heuristics stand and somehow invalidates them along with it.

But Rorty should be viewed as therapeutic. If I can hope to add anything to Rorty, it is this. Similar to the New Wittgenstein studies. Everytime we run into a referential paradox, we can take solace in its totality and turn away from the brink. We can also just simply save time and not worry about justifying stopping following the referential regress. But we can also let ourselves an out by remembering that we stopped simply for pragmatic reasons. And if new reasons (contingencies) appear, we can resume our journey along the infinite refrential web.

Serenity through disciplined conversation

What I am ironically calling ‘theory of everything’ is designed to do just that. Acknowledge that there is a problem and that there’s nothing that can be done about it.

Very much like Alcoholics Anonymous. The difference is that the wisdom to tell the difference between things we can and cannot do something about is not revealed by a deity but is a constant subject of disciplined conversation. Conversation that reflects the contingencies of the present as much as those of the past. A conversation that cannot have an end but which we must inevitably take part in. The serenity one hopes to get out of this will not come from resignation but from embracing of the totality without assuming that we can grasp its every possible aspect.

This is the therapy Frege needs. As do we all.

What language looks like: Dictionary and grammar are to language what standing on one foot is to running

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Background

Sometimes a rather obscure and complex analogy just clicks into place in one’s mind and allows a slightly altered way of thinking that just makes so much sense, it hurts. Like putting glasses on in the morning and the world suddenly snapping into shape.

This happened to me this morning when reading the Notes from Two Scientific Psychologists blog and the post on Do people really not know what running looks like?

It describes the fact that many famous painters (and authors of instructional materials on drawing) did not depict running people correctly. When running, it is natural (and essential) to put forward the arm opposite the leg that’s going forward. But many painters who depict running (including the artist who created the poster for the 1922 Olympics!) do it the wrong way round. Not just the wrong way, the way that is almost impossible to perform. And this has apparently been going for as long depiction has been thing. But it’s not just artists (who could even argue that they have other concerns). What’s more when you ask a modern human being to imitate somebody running in a stationary pose (as somebody did on the website Phoons­) they will almost invariably do it the wrong way round. Why? There are really two separate questions here.

  1. Why don’t the incorrect depictions of running strike most people as odd?
  2. Why don’t we naturally arrange our bodies into the correct stance when asked to imitate running while standing still?

Andrew Wilson (one of the two psychologists) has the perfect answer to question 2:

Asking people to pose as if running is actually asking them to stand on one leg in place, and from their point of view these are two very different things with, potentially, two different solutions. [my emphasis]

And he prefaces that with a crucial point about human behavior:

people’s behaviour is shaped by the demands of the task they are actually solving, and that might not be the task you asked them to do.

Do try this at home, try to imitate a runner standing up, then slowly (mime-like), then speed it up. Standing into the wrong configuration is the natural thing to do. Doing it the ‘right’ way round, is hard. It’s not until I sped up into an actual run that my arms found the opposite motion natural until I could keep track of what was going on any more. I would imagine that this would be the case for most people. In fact, the few pictures I could find of runners arranged standing at the start of the race have most of them also with the ‘wrong’ hand/leg position and they’re not even standing on one leg. (See here and here.)

Which brings us back to the first question. Why does not anybody notice? I personally find it really hard to even identify the wrong static description at a glance. I have to slow down, remember what is correct, then match it to the image. What’s going on. We obviously don’t have any cognitive control over the part of running that controls the movement arms in relation tot he movement of legs. We also don’t have any models or social scripts that pay attention to this sort of thing. It is a matter of conscious effort, a learned behaviour, to recognize these things.

Why is this relevant to language?

If you ask someone to describe a language, they will most likely start telling you about the words and the rules for putting them together. In other words, compiling a dictionary and a grammar. They will say something like: “In Albanian, the word for ‘bread’ is ‘bukë'”. Or they will say something like “English has 1 million words.”, “Czech has no word for training.” or “English has no cases.”

All of these statements reflect a notion of language that has a list of words that looks a little like this:

bread n. = 1. baked good, used for food, 2. metaphor for money, etc.
eat v. = 1. process of ingestion and digestion, 2. metaphor, etc.
people n. plural = human beings

And a grammar that looks a little bit like this.

Sentence = Noun (subj.) + Verb + Noun (obj.)

All of this put together will give us a sentence:

People eat food.

All you need is long enough list of words and enough (but not as many) rules and you got a language.

But as linguists have discovered through not a bit of pain, you don’t have a language. You have something that looks like a language but not something that you can actually speak as a language. It’s very similar to language but it’s not language.

Kind of like the picture of the runner with the arms going in the opposite direction. It looks very much like someone running but it’s not it’s just a picture of them running and the picture is fundamentally wrong. Just not in a way that is at all obvious to most people most of the time.

Why grammars and dictionaries seem like a good portrait of language

So, we can ask the same two questions again.

  1. Why does the stilted representation of language as rules and words not strike most people (incl. Steven Pinker) as odd?
  2. Why don’t we give more realistic examples of language when asked to imitate one?

Let’s start with question 2 again which will also give us a hint as to how to answer question 1.

So why, when asked to give an example of English, am I more likely to give:

John loves Mary.

or

Hello. Thank you. Good bye.

than

Is it cold in here? Could you pass the sugar, please. No no no. I’ll think about it?

It’s because I’m achieving a task that is different from actually speaking the language. When asked to illustrate a language, we’re not communicating anything in the language. So our very posture towards the language changes. We start thinking in equivalencies and left and right sides of the word (word = definition) and building blocks of a sentence. Depending on who we’re speaking to, we’ll choose something very concrete or something immediately useful. We will not think of nuance, speech acts, puns or presupposition.

But the vast majority of our language actions are of the second kind. And many of the examples we give of language are actually good for only one thing: Giving an example of the language. (Such as the famous example from logic ‘A man walks’ which James MacCawley analysed as only being usable in one very remote sense.)

As a result, if we’re given the task of describing language, coming up with something looking like a dictionary and a grammar is the simplest and best way of achieving fullfilling the assignment. If we take a scholarly approach to this task over generations, we end up with something that very much looks like the modern grammars and dictionaries we all know .

The problem is that these don’t really give us “a picture of language”, they give us “a picture of a pose of language” that looks so much like language to our daily perception, that we can’t tell the difference. But in fact, they are exactly the opposite of language looks like.

Now, we’re in much more complex waters than running. Although, I imagine the exact performance of running is in many ways culturally determined, the amount of variation is going to be limited by the very physical nature of the relatively simple task. Language on the other hand, is almost all culture. So, I would expect people in different contexts to give different examples. I read somewhere (can’t track down the reference now) that Indian grammarians tended to give examples of sentences in the imperative. Early Greeks (like Plato) had a much more impoverished view of the sentence than I showed above. And I’m sure there are languages with even more limited metalanguage. However, the general point still stands. The way we tend to think about language is determined by the nature of the task

The key point I’ve repeated over and over (following Michael Hoey) is that grammars and dictionaries are above all texts written in the language. They don’t stand aprt from it. They have their own rules, conventions and inventories of expression. And they are susceptible to the politics and prejudices of their time. Even the OUP. At the same time, they can be very useful tools to developing language skills or dealing with unfamiliar texts. But so does asking a friend or figuring out the meaning in context.

Which brings us to question 1. Why has nobody noticed that language doesn’t quite work that way? The answer is that – just like with running – people have. But only when they try to match the description with something that is right in front of them. Even then, they frequently (and I’m talking about professional linguists like Stephen Pinker here) ignore the discrepancy or ascribe it to a lack of refinement of the descriptions. But most of the time, the tasks that we fulfil with language do not require us to engage the sort of metacognitive aparatus that would direct us to reflect on what’s actually going on.

What does language really look like

So is there a way to have an accurate picture of language? Yes. In fact, we already have it. It’s all of it. We don’t perhaps have all the fine details, but we have enough to see what’s going on – if we look carefully. It’s not like linguists of all stripes have not described pretty much everything that goes on with language in one way or another. The problem is that they try to equate the value of a description to the value of the corresponding model that very often looks like an algorithm amenable to being implemented in a computer program. So, if I describe a phenomenon of language as a linguist, my tendency is to immediately come up with a fancy looking notation that will look like ‘science’. If I can make it ‘mathematical’, all the better. But all of these things are only models. They are ways of achieving a very particular task. Which is to – in one way or another – model language for a particular purpose. Development of AI, writing of pedagogic grammars, compiling word lists, predicting future trends, tracing historical developments, estimating psychological impact, etc. All of these are distinct from actual pure observation of what is going on. Of course, even simple description of what I observe is a task of its own with its own requirements. I have to choose what I notice and decide what I report on. It’s a model of a sort, just like an accurate painting of a runner in motion is just a model (choosing what to emphasize, shadows, background detail, facial expression, etc.) But it’s the task we’re really after: Coming up with as accurate and complete a picture of language as is possible for a collectivity of humans.

People working in construction grammars in the usage-based approach are closest to the task. But they need to talk with people who work on texts, as well, if they really want to start painting a fuller picture.

Language is signs on doors of public restrooms, dirty jokes on TV, mothers speaking to children, politicians making speeches, friends making small talk in the street, newscasters reading the headlines, books sold in bookshops, gestures, teaching ways of communication in the classroom, phone texts, theatre plays, songs, blogs, shopping lists, marketing slogans, etc.

Trying to reduce their portrait to words and rules is just like trying to describe a building by talking about bricks and mortar. They’re necessary and without them nothing would happen. But a building does not look like a collection of bricks and mortar. Nor does knowing how to put a brick to brick and glue them together help in getting a house built. At best, you’d get a knee-high wall. You need a whole of other knowledge and other kinds of strategies of building corners, windows, but also getting a planning permission, digging a foundation, hiring help, etc. All of those are also involved in the edifices we construct with language.

An easy counterargument here would be: That’s all well and good but the job of linguistics is to study the bricks and the mortar and we’ll leave the rest to other disciplines like rhetoric or literature. At least, that’s been Chomsky’s position. But the problem is that even the words and grammar rules don’t actually look like what we think they do. For a start, they’re not arranged in any of the ways in which we’re used to seeing them. But they probably don’t even have the sorts of shapes we think of them in. How do I decide whether I say, “I’m standing in front of the Cathedral” or “The Cathedral is behind me.”? Each of these triggers a very different situation and perspective on exactly the same configuration of reality. And figuring out which is which requires a lot more than just the knowledge of how the sentence is put together. How about novel uses of words that are instantly recognizable like “I sneezed the napkin off the table.” What exactly are all the words and what rules are involved?

Example after example shows us that language does not look very much like that traditional picture we have drawn of it. More and more linguists are looking at language with freshly open eyes but I worry that they may get off task when they’re asked to make a picture what they see.

Where does the metaphor break

Ok, like all metaphors and analogies, even this one must come to an end. The power of a metaphor is not just finding where it fits but also pointing out its limits.

The obvious breaking point here is the level of complexity. Obviously, there’s only one very discretely delineated aspect of what the runners are doing that does not match what’s in the picture. The position of the arms. With language, we’re dealing with many subtle continua.

Also, the notion of the task is taken from a very specific branch of cognitive psychology and it may be inappropriate extending it to areas where tasks take a long time, are collaborative and include a lot of deliberately chosen components as well as automaticity.

But I find it a very powerful metaphor nevertheless. It is not an easy one to explain because both fields are unfamiliar. But I think it’s worth taking the time with it if it opens the eyes of just one more person trying to make a picture of language looks like.

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…

Image by moune.drah CC BY NC SA

What is not a metaphor: Modelling the world through language, thought, science, or action

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The role of metaphor in science debate (Background)

Recently, the LSE podcast an interesting panel on the subject of “Metaphors and Science”. It featured three speakers talking about the interface between metaphor and various ‘scientific’ disciplines (economics, physics and surgery). Unlike many such occasions, all speakers were actually very knowledgeable and thoughtful on the subject.

In particular, I liked Felicity Mellor and Richard Bronk who adopted the same perspective that underlies this blog and which I most recently articulated in writing about obliging metaphors. Felicity Mellor put it especially eloquently when she said:

“Metaphor allows us to speak the truth by saying something that is wrong. That means it can be creatively liberating but it can also be surreptitiously coercive.”

This dual nature of coerciveness and liberation was echoed throughout the discussion by all three speakers. But they also shared the view of ubiquity of metaphor which is what this post is about.

What is not a metaphor? The question!

The moderator of the discussion was much more stereotypically ambivalent about such expansive attitude toward metaphor and challenged the speakers with the question of ‘what is the opposite of metaphor’ or ‘what is not a metaphor’. He elicited suggestions from the audience, who came up with this list:

model, diagram, definition, truths, math, experience, facts, logic, the object, denotation

The interesting thing is that most of the items on this list are in fact metaphorical in nature. Most certainly models, diagrams and definitions (more on these in future posts). But mathematics and logic are also deeply metaphorical (both in their application but also internally; e.g. the whole logico mathematical concept of proof is profoundly metaphorical).

Things get a bit more problematic with things like truth, fact, denotation and the object. All of those seem to be pointing at something that is intuitively unmetaphorical. But it doesn’t take a lot of effort to see that ‘something metaphorical’ is going on there as well. When we assign a label (denotation), for instance, ‘chair’ or ‘coast’ or ‘truth’ we automatically trigger an entire cognitive armoury for dealing with things that exist and these things have certain properties. But it is clear that ‘chair’, ‘coast’ and ‘metaphor’ are not the same kind of thing at all. Yet, we can start treating them the same way because they are both labels. So we start asking for the location, shape or definition of metaphor, just because we assigned it a label in the same way we can ask for the same thing about a chair or a coast. We want to take a measure of it, but this is much easier with a chair than with a coast (thus the famous fractal puzzle about the length of the coast of Britain). But chairs are not particularly easy to nail down (metaphorically, of course) either, as I discussed in my post on clichés and metaphors.

Brute facts of tiny ontology

So what is the thing that is not a metaphor? Both Bronk and Mellor suggested the “brute fact”. A position George Lakoff called basic realism and I’ve recently come to think of as tiny ontology. The idea, as expressed by Mellor and Bronk in this discussion, is that there’s a real world out there which impinges upon our bodily existence but with which we can only interact through the lens of our cognition which is profoundly metaphorical.

But ultimately, this does not give us a very useful answer. Either everything is a metaphor, so we might as well stop talking about it, or there is something that is not a metaphor. In which case, let’s have a look. Tiny ontology does not give us the solution because we can only access it through the filter of our cognition (which does not mean consciously or through some wilful interpretation). So the real question is, are there some aspects of our cognition that are not metaphorical?

Metaphor as model (or What is metaphor)

The solution lies in the revelation hinted at above that labels are in themselves metaphors. The act of labelling is metaphorical, or rather, it triggers the domain of objects. What do I mean by that? Well, first let’s have a look at how metaphor actually works. I find it interesting that nobody during the entire discussion tried to raise that question other than the usual ‘using something to talk about something else’. Here’s my potted summary of how metaphor works (see more details in the About section).

Metaphor is a process of projecting one conceptual domain onto another. All of our cognition involves this process of conceptual integration (or blending). This integration is fluid, fuzzy and partial. In language, this domain mapping is revealed through the process of deixis, attribution, predication, definition, comparison, etc. Sometimes it is made explicit by figurative language. Figurative language spans the scale of overt to covert. Figurative language has a conceptual, communicative and textual dimension (see my classification of metaphor use). In cognition, this process of conceptual integration is involved in identification, discrimination, manipulation. All of these can be more or less overtly analogical.

So all of this is just a long way of saying, that metaphor is a metaphor for a complicated process which is largely unconscious but not uncommonly conscious. In fact, in my research, I no longer use the term ‘metaphor’ because it misleads more than it helps. There’s simply too much baggage from what is just overt textual manifestation of metaphor – the sort of ‘common sense’ understanding of metaphor. However, this common sense ordinary understanding of ‘metaphor’ makes using the word a useful shortcut in communication with people who don’t have much of a background in this thought. But when we think about the issue more deeply, it becomes a hindrance because of all the different types of uses of metaphor I described here (a replay of the dual liberating and coercive nature of metaphor mentioned above – we don’t get escape our cognition just because we’re talking about metaphors).

In my work, I use the term frame, which is just a label for a sort of conceptual model (originally suggested by Lakoff as Idealized Cognitive Model). But I think in this context the term ‘model’ is a bit more revealing about what is going on.

So we can say that every time, we engage conceptually with our experience, we are engaging in an act of modelling (or framing). Even when I call something ‘true’, I am applying a certain model (frame) that will engage certain heuristics (e.g. asking for confirmation, evidence). Equally, if I say something like ‘education is business’, I am applying a certain model that will allow me to talk about things like achieving economies of scale or meeting consumer demand but will make it much harder to talk about ethics and personal growth. That doesn’t mean that I cannot apply more than one model, a combination of models or build new models from old ones. (Computer virus is a famous example, but natural law is another one. Again more on this in later posts.)

Action as an example of modelling

The question was asked during the discussion by an audience member, whether I can experience the world directly (not mediated by metaphoric cognition). The answer is yes, but even this kind of experience involves modelling. When I walk along a path, I automatically turn to avoid objects – therefore I’m modelling their solid and interactive nature. Even when I’m lying still, free of all thought and just letting the warmth of the shining sun wash over me, I’m still applying a model of my position in the world in a particular way. That is, my body is not activating my ears to hear the sun rays, nor is it perceiving the bacteria going about their business in my stomach. A snake, polar bear or a fish would all model that situation in a different way.

This may seem like unnecessary extension of the notion of a model. (But it echos the position of the third speaker Roger Kneebone who was talking about metaphor as part of the practice of surgery.) It is not particularly crucial to our understanding of metaphor, but I think it’s important to divert us from a certain kind of perceptual mysticism in which many people unhappy with the limitations of their cognitive models engage. The point is that not all of our existence is necessarily conceptual but all of it models our interaction with the world and switches between different models as appropriate. E.g. my body applies different models of the world when I’m stepping down from a step on solid ground or stepping into a pool of water.

The languages of metaphor: Or how a metaphor do

I am aware that this is all very dense and requires a lot more elaboration (well, that’s why I’m writing a blog, after all). But I’d like to conclude with a warning that the language used for talking about metaphor brings with it certain models of thinking about the world which can be very confusing if we don’t let go of them in time. Just the fact that we’re using words is a problem. When words are isolated (for instance, in a dictionary or at the end of the phrase ‘What is a…’) it only seems natural that they should have a definition. We have a word “metaphor” and it would seem that it needs to have some clear meaning. The kind of thing we’re used to seeing on the right-hand side of dictionaries. But insisting that dictionary-like definition is what must be at the end of the journey is to misunderstand what we’ve seen along the way.

There are many contexts in which the construction “metaphor is…” is not only helpful but also necessary. For example when clarifying one’s use: “In this blog, what I mean by metaphor is much broader than what traditional students of figurative language meant by it.” But in the context of trying to get at what’s going on in the space that we intuitively describe as metaphorical, we should almost be looking for something along to the lines of “metaphor does” or “metaphors feels like”. Or perhaps refrain from the construction “metaphor verb” altogether and just admit that we’re operating in a kind of metaphor-tasting soup. We can get at the meaning/definition by disciplined exploration and conversation.

In conclusion, metaphor is a very useful model when thinking about cognition, but it soon fails us, so we can replace it with more complex models, like that of a model. We are then left with the rather unsatisfactory notion of a metaphor of metaphor or a model of model. The sort of dissatisfaction that lead Derrida and his like to the heights of obscurity. I think we can probably just about avoid deconstructionist obscurantism but only if we adopt one of its most powerful tools, the fleeting sidelong glance (itself a metaphor/model). Just like the Necker cube, this life on the edge of metaphor is constantly shifting before our eyes. Never quite available to us perceptually all at once but readily apprehended by us in its totality. At once opaque and so so crystal clear. Rejoice all you parents of freshly screaming thoughts. It’s a metaphor!
Photo Credit: @Doug88888 via Compfight cc

Pervasiveness of Obliging Metaphors in Thought and Deed

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when history is at its most obliging, the history-writer needs be at his most wary.” (China by John Keay)

Die Mykologen - Glückspilze - Lucky Fellows - Fungi ExpertsI came across this nugget of wisdom when I was re-reading the Introduction to John Keay’s history of China. And it struck me that in some way this quote could be a part of the motto of this blog. The whole thing might then read something like this:

Hack at your thoughts at any opportunity to see if you can reveal new connections through analogies, metonymies and metaphors. Uncover hidden threads, weave new ones and follow them as far as they take you. But when you see them give way and oblige you with great new revelations about how the world really is, be wary!

Metaphors can be very obliging in their willingness to show us that things we previously thought separate are one and the same. But that is almost always the wrong conclusion. Everything is what it is, it is never like something else. (In this I have been subscribing to ‘tiny ontology’ even before I‘ve heard about it). But we can learn things about everything when we think about it as something else. Often we cannot even think of many things other than through something else. For instance, electricity. Electrons are useful to think of as particles or as waves. Electrons are electrons, they are not little balls nor are they waves. But when we start treating them as one or the other, they become more tractable for some problems (electrical current makes more sense when we think of them as waves and electricity generating heat makes sense when we think of them as little balls).

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson summarize metaphors in the X IS Y format (e.g. LOVE IS A JOURNEY) but this implied identity is where the danger lies. If love is a journey as we can see in a phrase like, ‘We’ve arrived at a junction in our relationship’, then it surely must be a journey in all respects: it has twists and turns, it takes time, it is expensive, it happens on asphalt! Hold on! Is that last one the reason ‘love can burn with an eternal flame’? Of course not. Love IS NOT a journey. Some aspects of what we call love make more sense to us when we think of them as a journey. But others don’t. Since it is obvious that love is not a journey but is like a journey, we don’t worry about it. But it’s more complicated than that. The identities implied in metaphor are so powerful (more so to some people than others) that some mappings are not allowed because of the dangers implied in following them too far. ‘LOVE IS A CONTRACT’ is a perfectly legitimate metaphor. There are many aspects of a romantic relationship that are contract-like. We agree to exclusivity, certain mode of interaction, considerations, etc. when we declare our love (or even when we just feel it – certain obligations seem to follow). But our moral compass just couldn’t stomach (intentional mix) the notion of paying for love or being in love out of obligation which could also be traced from this metaphor. We instinctively fear that ‘LOVE IS A CONTRACT’ is a far too obliging a metaphor and we don’t want to go there. (By we, I mean the general rules of acceptable discourse in certain circles, not every single cognizing individual.)

So even though metaphors do not describe identity, they imply it, and not infrequently, this identity is perceived as dangerous. But there’s nothing inherently dangerous about it. The issue is always the people and how willing they are to let themselves be obliged by the metaphor. They are aided and abetted in this by the conceptual universe the metaphor appears in but never completely constrained by it. Let’s take the common metaphor of WAR. I often mention the continuum of ‘war on poverty’, ‘war on drugs’, and ‘war on terror’ as an example of how the metaphors of ‘war’ do not have to lead to actual ‘war’. Lakoff showed that they can in ‘metaphors can kill’. But we see that they don’t have to. Or rather we don’t have to let them. If we don’t apply the brakes, metaphors can take us almost anywhere.

There are some metaphors that are so obliging, they have become cliches. And some are even recognized as such by the community. Take, for instance, the Godwin law. X is Hitler or X is Nazi are such seductive metaphors that sooner or later someone will apply them in almost any even remotely relevant situation. And even with the awareness of Godwin’s law, people continue to do it.

The key principle of this blog is that anything can be a metaphor for anything with useful consequences. Including:

  • United States is ancient Rome
  • China today is Soviet Union of the 1950s
  • Saddam Hussein is Hitler
  • Iraq is Vietnam
  • Education is a business
  • Mental difficulties are diseases
  • Learning is filling the mind with facts
  • The mind is the software running on the hardware of the brain
  • Marriage is a union between two people who love each other
  • X is evolved to do Y
  • X is a market place

But this only applies with the HUGE caveat that we must never misread the ‘is’ for a statement of perfect identity or even isomorphims (same shapedness). It’s ‘is(m)’. None of the above metaphors are perfect identities – they can be beneficially followed as far as they take us, but each one of them is needs to be bounded before we start drawing conclusions.

Now, things are not helped by the fact that any predication or attribution can appear as a kind of metaphor. Or rather it can reveal the same conceptual structures the same way metaphors do.

‘John is a teacher.’ may seem like a simple statement of fact but it’s so much more. It projects the identity of John (of whom we have some sort of a mental image) into the image schema of a teacher. That there’s more to this than just a simple statement can be revealed by ‘I can’t believe that John is a teacher.’ The underlying mental representations and work on them is not that different to ‘John is a teaching machine.’ Even simple naming is subject to this as we can see in ‘You don’t look much like a Janice.’

Equally, simple descriptions like ‘The sky is blue’ are more complex. The sky is blue in a different ways than somebody’s eyes are blue or the sea is blue. I had that experience myself when I first saw the ‘White Cliffs of Dover’ and was shocked that they were actually white. I just assumed that they were a lighter kind of cliff than a typical cliff or having some white smudges. They were white in the way chalk is white (through and through) and not in the way a zebra crossing is white (as opposed to a double yellow line).

A famous example of how complex these conceptualisations can get is ‘In France, Watergate would not have harmed Nixon.’ The ‘in France’ and ‘not’ bits establishe a mental space in which we can see certain parts of what we know about Nixon and Watergate projected onto what we know about France. Which is why sentences like “The King of France is bald.” and “Unicorns are white.” make perfect sense even though they both describe things that don’t exist.

Now, that’s not to say that sentences like ‘The sky is blue’, ‘I’m feeling blue’,’I’ll praise you to the sky.’, or ‘He jumped sky high.’ and ‘He jumped six inches high.’ are cognitively or linguistically exactly the same. There’s lots of research that shows that they have different processing requirements and are treated differently. But there seems to be a continuum in the ability of different people (much research is needed here) to accept the partiality of any statement of identity or attribution. On the one extreme, there appears something like autism which leads to a reduced ability to identify figurative partiality in any predication but actually, most of the time, we all let ourselves be swayed by the allure of implied identity. Students are shocked when they see their teacher kissing their spouse or shopping in the mall. We even ritualize this sort of thing when we expect unreasonable morality from politicians or other public figures. This is because over the long run overtly figurative sentence such as ‘he’s has eyes like a hawk’ and ‘the hawk has eyes’ need similar mental structures to be present to make sense to us. And I suspect that this is part of the reason why we let ourselves be so easily obliged by metaphors.

Update: This post was intended as a warning against over-obliging metaphors that lead to perverse understandings of things as other things in unwarranted totalities. In this sense, they are the ignes fatui of Hobbes. But there’s another way in which over-obliging metaphors can be misleading. And that is, they draw on their other connections to make it seem we’ve come to a new understanding where in fact all we’ve done is rename elements of one domain with the names of elements of another domain without any elucidation. This was famously and devastatingly the downfall of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior under Chomsky’s critique. He simply (at least in the extreme caricature that was Chomsky’s review) took things about language and described them in terms of operant conditioning. No new understanding was added but because the ‘new’ science of psychology was in as the future of our understanding of everything, just using those terms made us assume there was a deeper knowledge. Chomsky was ultimately right-if only to fall prey to the same danger with his computational metaphors of language. Another area where that is happening is evolution, genetics and neuroscience which are often used (sometimes all at once) to simply relabel something without adding any new understanding whatsoever.

Update 2: Here’s another example of overobliging metaphor in the seeking of analogies to the worries about climate change: http://andrewgelman.com/2013/11/25/interesting-flawed-attempt-apply-general-forecasting-principles-contextualize-attitudes-toward-risks-global-warming/#comment-151713.  My comment was:

…analogies work best when they are opportunistic, ad hoc, and abandoned as quickly as they are adopted. Analogies, if used generatively (i.e. to come up with new ideas), can be incredibly powerful. But when used exegeticaly (i.e. to interpret or summarize other people’s ideas), they can be very harmful.

The big problem is that in our cognition, ‘x is y’ and ‘x is like y’ are often treated very similarly. But the fact is that x is never y. So every analogy has to be judged on its own merit and we need to carefully examine why we’re using the analogy and at every step consider its limits. The power of analogy is in its ability to direct our thinking (and general cognition) i.e. not in its ‘accuracy’ but in its ‘aptness’.

I have long argued that history should be included in considering research results and interpretations. For example, every ‘scientific’ proof of some fundamental deficiencies of women with respect to their role in society has turned out to be either inaccurate or non-scalable. So every new ‘proof’ of a ‘woman’s place’ needs to be treated with great skepticism. But that does not mean that one such proof does not exist. But it does mean that we shouldn’t base any policies on it until we are very very certain.

Image Creative Commons License Hartwig HKD via Compfight

How we use metaphors

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I was reminded by this blog post on LousyLinguist that many people still see metaphor as an unproblematic homogeneous concept leading to much circular thinking about them.  I wrote about that quite a few years ago in:

Lukeš, D., 2005. Towards a classification of metaphor use in text: Issues in conceptual discourse analysis of a domain-specific corpus. In Third Workshop on Corpus-Based Approaches to Figurative Language. Birmingham.

I suggested that a classification of metaphor had better focused on their use rather than inherent nature. I came up with the heuristic device of: cognitive, social and textual uses of metaphor.

Some of the uses I came up with (inspired by the literature from Halliday to Lakoff) were:

  • Cognitive
    • Conceptual (constitutive)
      • Explanative
      • Generative
    • Attributive
  • Social (Interpersonal)
    • Conceptual/Declarative (informational)
    • Figurative (elegant variation)
    • Innovative
    • Exegetic
    • Prevaricative
    • Performative
  • Textual
    • Cohesive (anaphoric, cataphoric, exophoric)
    • Coherent
      • Local
      • Global

I also posited a continuum of salience and recoverability in metaphors:

  • High salience and recoverability
  • Low salience and recoverability

Read the entire paper here.

My thinking on metaphor has moved on since then – I see it as a special case of framing and conceptual integration rather than a sui generis concept – but I still find this a useful guide to return to when confronted with metaphor use.

Do we need a gaming literacy: Literacy metaphor hack

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I am a gaming semi-literate!

I was listening to the discussion of the latest BioShock game on the latest TWiT podcast when I realized that I am in fact game illiterate. I am hearing these stories and descriptions of experiences but I know I can’t access them directly without a major investment in knowledge and skill acquisition. So, this is what people with no or limited literacy must feel like in highly literacy-dependent environments. I really want to access the stories in the way they are told by the game. But I know I can’t. I will stumble, be discouraged, not have a very good time before I can have a good time. I will be a struggling gamer, in the same way that there are struggling readers.

Note: When I say game, I mean mostly a non-casual computer game such as BioShock or War of Worldcraft or SimCity.

What would a game literacy entail?

What would I need to learn in order to access gaming? Literacy is composed of a multiplicity of knowledge areas and skills. I already have some of these but not enough. Roughly, I will need to get at the following:

  • Underlying cognitive skills (For reading: transforming the sight of letters into sounds or corresponding mental representations. For gaming: transforming desired effects on screen into actions on a controller)
  • Complex perceptual and productive fluency (Ability to employ the cognitive skills automatically in response to changing stimuli in multiple contexts).
  • Context-based or task-based strategies (Ability to direct the underlying skills towards solving particular problems in particular contexts. For reading: Skim text, or look things up in the index, or skip acknowledgements, discover the type of text, or adopt reading speed appropriate to type of text, etc. For gaming Discover the type of game, or gather appropriate achievements, or find hidden bonuses, etc.)
  • Metacognitive skills and strategies (Learn the terminology and concepts necessary for further learning and to achieve the appropopriate aims using stratgies.)
  • Socialization skills and strategies (Learn to use the skills and knowledge to make connections with other people and exploit those connections to acquire further skill, knowledge as well as social capital derriving from those)

Is literacy a suitable metaphor for gaming? Matches and mismatches!

With any metaphor it is worth to explore the mapping to see if there are sufficient similarities. In this case, I’ll look at the following areas for matches and mismatches:

  • Skill
  • Mode
  • Status
  • Socialization
  • Content
  • Purpose

Skill

Both reading/writing (I will continue to use reading for both unless I need to stress the difference) and gaming require skill that can become automatic and that takes time to acquire. People can be both “better” and “worse” at gaming and reading.

But reading is a more universal skill (although not as universal as most people think) whereas gaming skills are more genre based.

The skill at gaming can be more easily measured by game achievement. Quality of reading measures are a bit more tenuous because speed, fluency and accuracy are all contextual measures. However, even game achievement is a bit more relative, such as in recommendations to play at normal or easy to experience the game.

In this gaming is more like reading than for instance, listening to music or watching a skill which do not require any overt acquisition of skill. See Dara O’Briain’s funny bit on the differences between gaming and reading. Of course, when he says “you cannot be bad at watching a film”, we could quibble that much preparation is required for watching some films, but such training does not involve the development of underlying cognitive skills (assuming the same cultural and linguistic environment). Things are a bit more complex for some special kind of listening to music. Nevertheless people do talk about “media literacy”.

Mode

Reading is mostly a uni-modal experience. It is possible to read out loud or to read while listening but ultimately reading is its own mode. Reading has an equivalent in writing that though not a mirror image skill, requires relatively the same skill.

Gaming is a profoundly multimodal experience combining vision, sound, movement (and often reading, as well). There are even efforts to involve smell. Gaming does not have a clear expressive counterpart. The obvious expressive equivalent to writing would be game design but that clearly requires a different level of skill. However, gaming allows complex levels of self-expression within the process of game play which does not have an equivalent in reading but is not completely dissimilar to creative writing (like fanfiction).

Status

Reading is a neutral to high status activity. The act itself is neutral but status can derrive from content. Writing (expressive rather than utilitarian) is a high status activity.

Gaming is a low status to neutral activity. No loss of status derives from inability to game to not gaming in a way that is true of reading. Some games have less questionable status and many games are played by people who derive high status from outside of gaming. There are emerging status sanction systems around gaming but none have penetrated outside gaming, yet.

Socialization

Reading and writing are significant drivers of wider socialization. They are necessary to perform basic social functions and often represent gateways into important social contexts.

Gaming is only required to socialize in gaming groups. However, this socialization may become more highly desirable over time.

Content

Writing is used to encode a wide variety of content – from shopping lists to neuclear plant manuals to fiction.

Games on the other hand, encode a much more narrower range of content. Primarily narrative and primarily finctional. Although more non-narrative and non-fictional games may exist. There are also expository games but so far, none that would afford easy storage of non-game information without using writing.

Purpose

Reading and writing are very general purpose activities.

Gaming on the other hand has a limited range of purposes: enjoyment, learning, socialization with friends, achieving status in a wider community. You won’t see a bus stop with a game instead of a timetable (although some of these require puzzle solving skills to decipher).

Why may game literacy be important?

As we saw, there are many differences between gaming and reading and writing. Nevertheless, they are similar enough that the metaphor of ‘game literacy’ makes sense provided we see its limitations.

Why is it important? There will be a growing generational and populational divide of gamers and non-gamers. At the moment this is not very important in terms of opportunities and status but it could easily change within a generation.

Not being able to play a game may exclude people from social groups in the same way that not-playing golf or not engaging in some other locally sanctioned pursuit does (e.g. World of Warcraft).

But most importantly, as new generations of game creators explore the expressive boundaries of games (new narratives, new ways of story telling), not being able to play games may result in significant social exclusion. In the same way that a quick summary of what’s in a novel is inferior to reading the novel, films based on games will be pale imitations of playing the games.

I can easily imagine a future where the major narratives of the day will be expressed in games. In the same way that TV serials have supplanted novels as the primary medium of sharing crucial societal narratives, games can take over in the future. The inner life novel took about 150 years to mature and reigned supreme for about as long while drama and film functioned as its accompaniment. The TV serial is now solidifying its position and is about where the novel was in the 1850s. Gaming may take another couple of decades to get to a stage where it is ready as a format to take over. And maybe nothing like that will happen. But if I had a child, I’d certainly encourage them to play computer games as part of ensuring a more secure future.

The complexities of simple: What simple language proponents should know about linguistics [updated]

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Update

Part of this post was incorporated into an article I wrote with Brian Kelly and Alistair McNaught that appeared in the December issue of Ariadne. As part of that work and feedback from Alistair and Brian, I expanded the final section from a simple list of bullets into a more detailed research programme. You can see it below and in the article.

Background: From spelling reform to plain language

Simple
Simple (Photo credit: kevin dooley)

The idea that if we could only improve how we communicate, there would be less misunderstanding among people is as old as the hills.

Historically, this notion has been expressed through things like school reform, spelling reform, publication of communication manuals, etc.

The most radical expression of the desire for better understanding is the invention of a whole new artificial language like Esperanto with the intention of providing a universal language for humanity. This has had a long tradition but seemed to gain most traction towards the end of last century with the introduction and relative success of Esperanto.

But artificial languages have been a failure as a vehicle of global understanding. Instead, in about the last 50 years, the movement for plain English has been taking the place of constructed languages as something on which people pinned their hopes for clear communication.

Most recently, there have been proposals suggesting that “simple” language should become a part of a standard for accessibility of web pages along side other accessibility standards issued by the W3C standards body. http://www.w3.org/WAI/RD/2012/easy-to-read/Overview. This post was triggred by this latest development.

Problem 1: Plain language vs. linguistics

The problem is that most proponents of plain language (as so many would be reformers of human communication) seem to be ignorant of the wider context in which language functions. There is much that has been revealed by linguistic research in the last century or so and in particular since the 1960s that we need to pay attention to (to avoid confusion, this does not refer to the work of Noam Chomsky and his followers but rather to the work of people like William Labov, Michael Halliday, and many others).

Languages are not a simple matter of grammar. Any proposal for content accessibility must consider what is known about language from the fields of pragmatics, sociolinguistics, and cognitive linguistics. These are the key aspects of what we know about language collected from across many fields of linguistic inquiry:

  • Every sentence communicates much more than just its basic content (propositional meaning). We also communicate our desires and beliefs (e.g. “It’s cold here” may communicate, “Close the window” and “John denied that he cheats on his taxes” communicates that somebody accused John of cheating on his taxes. Similarly chosing a particular form of speech, like slang or jargon, communicates belonging to a community of practice.)
  • The understanding of any utterance is always dependent on a complex network of knowledge about language, about the world, as well as about the context of the utterance. “China denied involvement.” requires the understanding of the context in which countries operate, as well as metonomy, as well as the grammar and vocabulary. Consider the knowledge we need to possess to interpret “In 1939, the world exploded.” vs. “In Star Wars, a world exploded.”
  • There is no such thing as purely literal language. All language is to some degree figurative. “Between 3 and 4pm.”, “Out of sight”, “In deep trouble”, “An argument flared up”, “Deliver a service”, “You are my rock”, “Access for all” are all figurative to different degrees.
  • We all speak more than one variety of our language: formal/informal, school/friends/family, written/spoken, etc. Each of these variety has its own code. For instance, “she wanted to learn” vs. “her desire to learn” demonstrates a common difference between spoken and written English where written English often uses clauses built around nouns.
  • We constantly switch between different codes (sometimes even within a single utterance).
  • Bilingualism is the norm in language knowledge, not the exception. About half the world’s population regularly speaks more than one language but everybody is “bi-lingual” in the sense that they deal with multiple codes.
  • The “standard” or “correct” English is just one of the many dialects, not English itself.
  • The difference between a language and a dialect is just as much political as linguistic. An old joke in linguistics goes: “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”
  • Language prescription and requirements of language purity (incl. simple language) are as much political statements as linguistic or cognitive ones. All language use is related to power relationships.
  • Simplified languages develop their own complexities if used by a real community through a process known as creolization. (This process is well described for pidgins but not as well for artificial languages.)
  • All languages are full of redundancy, polysemy and homonymy. It is the context and our knowledge of what is to be expected that makes it easy to figure out the right meaning.
  • There is no straightforward relationship between grammatical features and language obfuscation and lack of clarity (e.g. It is just as easy to hide things using active as passive voice or any Subject-Verb-Object sentence as Object-Subject-Vern).
  • It is difficult to call any one feature of a language universally simple (for instance, SVO word order or no morphology) because many other languages use what we call complex as the default without any increase in difficulty for the native speakers (e.g. use of verb prefixes/particles in English and German)
  • Language is not really organized into sentences but into texts. Texts have internal organization to hang together formally (John likes coffee. He likes it a lot.) and semantically (As I said about John. He likes coffee.) Texts also relate to external contexts (cross reference) and their situations. This relationship is both implicit and explicit in the text. The shorter the text, the more context it needs for interpretation. For instance, if all we see is “He likes it.” written on a piece of paper, we do not have enough context to interpret the meaning.
  • Language is not used uniformly. Some parts of language are used more frequently than others. But this is not enough to understand frequency. Some parts of language are used more frequently together than others. The frequent coocurrence of some words with other words is called “collocation”. This means that when we say “bread and …”, we can predict that the next word will be “butter”. You can check this with a linguistic tool like a corpus, or even by using Google’s predictions in the search. Some words are so strongly collocated with other words that their meaning is “tinged” by those other words (this is called semantic prosody). For example, “set in” has a negative connotation because of its collocation with “rot”.
  • All language is idiomatic to some degree. You cannot determine the meaning of all sentences just by understanding the meanings of all their component parts and the rules for putting them together. And vice versa, you cannot just take all the words and rules in a language, apply them and get meaningful sentences. Consider “I will not put the picture up with John.” and “I will not put up the picture with John.” and “I will not put up John.” and “I will not put up with John.”

It seems to me that most plain language advocates do not take most of these factors into account.

Some examples from the “How to write in plain English” guide: http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/files/howto.pdf.

Try to call the reader ‘you’, even if the reader is only one of many people you are talking about generally. If this feels wrong at first, remember that you wouldn’t use words like ‘the applicant’ and ‘the supplier’ if you were speaking to somebody sitting across a desk from you. [emphasis mine]

This example misses the point about the contextuality of language. The part in bold is the very crux of the problem. It is natural to use a different code (or register) with someone we’re speaking to in person and in a written communication. This is partly a result of convention and partly the result of the different demands of writing and speaking when it comes to the ability to point to what we’re speaking about. The reason it feels wrong to the writer is that it breaks the convention of writing. That is not to say that this couldn’t become the new convention. But the argument misses the point.

Do you want your letters to sound active or passive − crisp and professional or stuffy and bureaucratic?
Using the passive voice and sounding passive are not one and the same thing. This is an example of polysemy. The word “passive” has two meanings in English. One technical (the passive voice) and one colloquial (“he’s too passive”). The booklet recommends that “The mine had to be closed by the authority. (Passive)” should be replaced with “The authority had to close the mine. (Active)” But they ignore the fact that word order also contributes to the information structure of the sentence. The passive sentence introduces the “mine” sooner and thus makes it clear that the sentence is about the mine and not the local authority. In this case, the “active” construction made the point of the sentence more difficult to understand.

The same is true of nominalization. Another thing recommended against by the Plain English campaign: “The implementation of the method has been done by a team.” is not conveying the same type of information as “A team has implemented the method.”

The point is that this advice ignores the context as well as the audience. Using “you” instead of “customers” in “Customers have the right to appeal” may or may not be simpler depending on the reader. For somebody used to the conventions of written official English, it may actually take longer to process. But for someone who does not deal with written English very often, it will be easier. But there is nothing intrinsically easier about it.

Likewise for the use of jargon. The campaign gives as its first example of unduly complicated English:

High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process.

And suggests that we use this instead:

Children need good schools if they are to learn properly.

This may be appropriate when it comes to public debate but within the professional context of, say, policy communication, these 2 sentences are not actually equivalent. There are more “learning environments” than just schools and the “learning process” is not the same as having learned something. It is also possible that the former sentence appeared as part of a larger context that would have made the distinction even clearer but the page does not give a reference and a Google search only shows pages using it as an example of complex English. http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/examples.html

The How to write in plain English document does not mention coherence of the text at all, except indirectly when it recommends the use of lists. This is good advice but even one of their examples has issues. They suggest that the following is a good example of a list:

Kevin needed to take:
• a penknife
• some string
• a pad of paper; and
• a pen.

And on first glance it is, but lists are not just neutral replacements for sentences. They are a genre in its own right used for specific purposes (Michael Hoey called them “text colonies”.) Let’s compare the list above to the sentence below.

Kevin needed to take a penknife, some string, a pad of paper and a pen.

Obviously they are two different kinds of text used in different contexts for different purposes and this would impinge on our understanding. The list implies instruction, and a level of importance. It is suitable to an official document, for example something sent before a child goes to camp. But it is not suitable to a personal letter or even a letter from the camp saying “All Kevin needed to take was a penknife, some string, a pad of paper and a pen. He should not have brought a laptop.” To be fair, the guide says to use lists “where appropriate”, but does not mention what that means.

The issue is further muddled by the “grammar quiz” on the Plain English website: http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/quiz.html. It is a hodgepodge of irrelevant trivia about language (not just grammar) that has nothing to do with simple writing. Although the Plain English guide gets credit for explicitly not endorsing petty peeves like not ending a sentence with a preposition, they obviously have peeves of their own.

Problem 2: Definition of simple is not simple

There is no clear definition of what constitutes simple and easy to understand language.

There are a number of intuitions and assumptions that seem to be made when both experts and lay people talk about language:

  • Shorter is simpler (fewer syllables, charactes, sounds per word, fewer words per sentence, fewer sentences per paragraph)
  • More direct is simpler (X did Y to Z is simpler than Y was done to Z by X)
  • Less variety is simpler (fewer different words)
  • More familiar simpler

These assumptions were used to create various measures of “readability” going back to the 1940s. They consisted of several variables:

  • Length of words (in syllables or in characters)
  • Length of sentences
  • Frequency of words used (both internally and with respect to their general frequency)

Intuitively, these are not bad measures, but they are only proxies for the assumptions. They say nothing about the context in which the text appears or the appropriateness of the choice of subject matter. They say nothing about the internal cohesion and coherence of the text. In short, they say nothing about the “quality” of the text.

The same thing is not always simple in all contexts and sometimes too simple, can be hard. We could see that in the example of lists above. Having a list instead of a sentence does not always make things simpler because a list is doing other work besides just providing a list of items.

Another example I always think about is the idea of “semantic primes” by Anna Wierzbicka. These are concepts like DO, BECAUSE, BAD believed to be universal to all languages. There are only about 60 of them (the exact number keeps changing as the research evolves). These were compiled into a Natural Semantic Metalanguage with the idea of being able to break complex concepts into them. Whether you think this is a good idea or not (I don’t but I think the research group working on this are doing good work in surveying the world’s languages) you will have to agree that the resulting descriptions are not simple. For example, this is the Natural Semantic Metalanguage description of “anger”:

anger (English): when X thinks of Y, X thinks something like this: “this person did something bad; I don’t want this; I would want to do something bad to this person”; because of this, X feels something bad

This seems like a fairly complicated way of describing anger and even if it could be universally understood, it would also be very difficult to learn to do this. And could we then capture the distinction between this and say “seething rage”? Also, it is clear that there is a lot more going on than combining 60 basic concepts. You’d have to learn a lot of rules and strategies before you could do this well.

Problem 3: Automatic measures of readability are easily gamed

There are about half dozen automated readability measures currently used by software and web services to calculate how easy or difficult it is to read a text.

I am not an expert in readability but I have no reason to doubt the references in Wikipedia claiming that they correlate fairly well overall with text comprehension. But as always correlation only tells half the story and, as we know, it is not causation.

It is not at all clear that the texts identified as simple based on measures like number of words per sentence or numbers of letters per word are actually simple because of the measures. It is entirely possible that those measures are a consequence of other factors that contribute to simplicity, like more careful word choice, empathy with an audience, etc.

This may not matter if all we are interested in is identifying simple texts, as you can do with an advanced Google search. But it does matter if we want to use these measures to teach people how to write simpler texts. Because if we just tell them use fewer words per sentence and shorter words, we may not get texts that are actually easier to understand for the intended readership.

And if we require this as a criterion of page accessibility, we open the system to gaming in the same way Google’s algorithms are gamed but without any of the sophistication. You can reduce the complexity of any text on any of these scores simply by replacing all commas with full stops. Or even with randomly inserting full stops every 5 words and putting spaces in the middle of words. The algorithms are not smart enough to capture that.

Also, while these measures may be fairly reliable in aggregate, they don’t give us a very good picture of any one individual text. I took a blog post from the Campaign for Plain English site http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/news/chrissies-comments.html and ran the text through several websites that calculate ease of reading scores:

  • http://www.online-utility.org/english/readability_test_and_improve.jsp,
  • http://www.editcentral.com
  • http://www.read-able.com

The different tests ranged by up to 5 years in their estimate of the length of formal education required to understand the text from 10.43 to 15.57. Read-able.com even went as far as providing an average, coming up with 12. Well that doesn’t seem very reliable.

I preferred http://textalyser.net which just gives you the facts about the text and doesn’t try to summarize them. The same goes for the Plain English own little app that you can download from their website http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/drivel-defence.html.

By any of these measures, the text wasn’t very simple or plain at all. The longest sentence had 66 words because it contained a complex embedded clause (something not even mentioned in the Plain English guide). The average sentence length was 28 words.

The Plain English app also suggested 7 alternative words from their “alternative dictionary” but 5 of those were misses because context is not considered (e.g. “a sad state” cannot be replaced by “a sad say”). The 2 acceptable suggestions were to edit out one “really” and replace one “retain” with “keep”. Neither of which would have improved the readability of the text given its overall complexity.

In short, the accepted measures of simple texts are not very useful for creating simple texts of training people in creating them.

See also http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Readability&oldid=508236326#Using_the_readability_formulas.

See also this interesting study examining the effects for L2 instruction: http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/EJ926371.pdf.

Problem 4: When simple becomes a new dialect: A thought experiment

But let’s consider what would happen if we did agree on simple English as the universal standard for accessibility and did actually manage to convince people to use it? In short, it would become its own dialect. It would acquire ways of describing things it was not designed to describe. It would acquire its own jargon and ways of obfuscation. There would arise a small industry of experts teaching you how to say what you want to say or don’t want to say in this new simple language.

Let’s take a look at Globish, a simplified English intended for international communication, that I have seen suggested as worth a look for accessibility. Globish has a restricted grammar and a vocabulary of 1500 words. They helpfully provide a tool for highlighting words they call “not compatible with Globish”. Among the words it highlighted for the blog post from the Plain English website were:

basics, journalist, grandmother, grammar, management, principle, moment, typical

But event the transcript of a speech by its creator, Jean-Paul Nerriere, advertised as being completely in Globish, contained some words flagged up as incompatible:

businessman, would, cannot, maybe, nobody, multinational, software, immediately

Globish seems to based on not much more than gueswork. It has words like “colony” and “rubber” but not words like “temperature” or “notebook”, “appoint” but not “appointment”, “govern” but not “government”. But both the derived forms “appointment” or “government” are more frequent (and intuitively more useful) than the root forms. There is a chapter in the eBook called “1500 Basic Globish Words Father 5000” so I assume there are some rules for derivation, but the derived forms more often than not have very “idiomatic” meanings. For example, “appointment” in its most commons use does not make any sense if we look at the core meanings of “appoint” and the suffix “-ment”. Consider also the difference between “govern” and “government” vs “enjoy” and “enjoyment”.

Yet, Globish supposedly avoids idioms, cultural references, etc. Namely all the things that make language useful. The founder says:

Globish is correct English without the English culture. It is English that is just a tool and not a whole way of life.

Leaving aside the dubious notion of correctness, this would make Globish a very limited tool indeed. But luckily for Globish it’s not true. Why have the word “colony” if not to reflect cultural preference? If it became widely used by a community of speakers, the first thing to happen to Globish would be a blossoming of idioms going hand in hand with the emergence of dialects, jargons and registers.

That is not to say that something like Globish could not be a useful tool for English learners along the way to greater mastery. But it does little for universal accessibility.

Also we need to ask ourselves what would it be like from the perspective of the users creating these simplified texts? They would essentially have to learn a whole new code, a sort of a dialect. And as with any second language learning, some would do it better than others. Some would become the “simple nazis”. Some would get jobs teaching others “how to” speak simple. It is not natural for us to speak simply and “plainly” as defined in the context of accessibility.

There is some experience with the use of controlled languages in technical writing and in writing for second language acquisition. This can be done but the universe of subjects and/or the group of people creating these texts is always extremely limited. Increasing the number of people creating simple texts to pretty much everybody would increase the difficulty of implementation exponentially. And given the poor state of automatic tools for analysis of “simplicity”, quality control is pretty much out of reach.

But would even one code/dialect suffice? Do we need one for technical writing, govenment documents, company filings? Limiting the vocabulary to 1500 words is not a bad idea but as we saw with Globish, it might need to be different 1500 words for each area.

Why is language inaccessible?

Does that mean we should give up on trying to make communication more accessible? Definitely not. The same processes that I described as standing in the way of a universal simple language are also at the root of why so much language is inaccessible. Part of how language works to create group cohesion which includes keeping some people out. A lot of “complicated” language is complicated because the nature of the subject requires it, and a lot of complicated language is complicated because the writer is not very good at expressing themselves.

But as much complicated language is complicated because the writer wants to signall belonging to a group that uses that kind of language. The famous Sokal Hoax provided an example of that. Even instructions on university websites on how to write essays are an example. You will find university websites recommending something like “To write like an academic, write in the third person.” This is nonsense, research shows that academics write as much in the first as in the third person. But it also makes the job of the people marking essays easier. They don’t have to focus on ideas, they just go by superficial impression. Personally, I think this is a scandal and complete failure of higher education to live up to its own hype but that’s a story for another time.

How to achieve simple communication?

So what can we do to avoid making our texts too inaccessible?

The first thing that the accessibility community will need to do is acknowledge Simple language is its own form of expression. It is not the natural state we get when we strip out all the artifice out of our communication. And learning how to communicate simply requires effort and practice of all individuals.

To help with the effort, most people will need some guides. And despite what I said about the shortcomings of the Plain English Guide above, it’s not a bad place to start. But it would need to be expanded. Here’s an example of some of the things that are missing:

  • Consider the audience: What sounds right in an investor brochure won’t sound right in a letter to a customer
  • Increase cohesion and coherence by highlighting relationships
  • Highlight the text structure with headings
  • Say new things first
  • Consider splitting out subordinate clauses into separate sentences if your sentence gets too long
  • Leave all the background and things you normally start your texts with for the end

But it will also require a changed direction for research.

Further research needs for simple language language

I don’t pretend to have a complete overview of the research being done in this area but my superficial impression is that it focuses far too much on comprehension at the level of clause and sentence. Further research will be necessary to understand comprehension at the level of text.

There is need for further research in:

  • How collocability influences understanding
  • Specific ways in which cohesion and coherence impact understanding
  • The benefits and downsides of elegant variation for comprehension
  • The benefits and downsides of figurative language for comprehension by people with different cognitive profiles
  • The processes of code switching during writing and reading
  • How new conventions emerge in the use of simple language
  • The uses of simple language for political purposes including obfuscation

[Updated for Ariadne article mentioned above:] In more detail, this is what I would like to see for some of these points.

How collocability influences understanding: How word and phrase frequency influences understanding with particular focus on collocations. The assumption behind software like TextHelp is that this is very important. Much research is available on the importance of these patterns from corpus linguistics but we need to know the practical implications of these properties of language both for text creators and consumers. For instance, should text creators use measures of collocability to judge the ease of reading and comprehension in addition to or instead of arbitrary measures like sentence and word lengths.

Specific ways in which cohesion and coherence affect understanding: We need to find the strategies challenged readers use to make sense of larger chunks of text. How they understand the text as a whole, how they find specific information in the text, how they link individual portions of the text to the whole, and how they infer overall meaning from the significance of the components. We then need to see what text creators can do to assist with these processes. We already have some intuitive tools: bullets, highlighting of important passages, text insets, text structure, etc. But we do not know how they help people with different difficulties and whether they can ever become a hindrance rather than a benefit.

The benefits and downsides of elegant variation for comprehension, enjoyment and memorability: We know that repetition is an important tool for establishing the cohesion of text in English. We also know that repetition is discouraged for stylistic reasons. Repetition is also known to be a feature of immature narratives (children under the age of about 10) and more “sophisticated” ways of constructing texts develop later. However, it is also more powerful in spoken narrative (e.g. folk stories). Research is needed on how challenged readers process repetition and elegant variation and what text creators can do to support any naturally developing meta textual strategies.

The benefits and downsides of figurative language for comprehension by people with different cognitive profiles: There is basic research available from which we know that some cognitive deficits lead to reduced understanding of non-literal language. There is also ample research showing how crucial figurative language is to language in general. However, there seems to be little understanding of how and why different deficits lead to problems with processing figurative language, what kind of figurative language causes difficulties. It is also not clear what types of figurative language are particularly helpful for challenged readers with different cognitive profiles. Work is needed on typology of figurative language and a typology of figurative language deficits.

The processes of code switching during writing and reading: Written and spoken English employ very different codes, in some ways even reminiscent of different language types. This includes much more than just the choice of words. Sentence structure, clauses, grammatical constructions, all of these differ. However, this difference is not just a consequence of the medium of writing. Different genres (styles) within a language may be just as different from one another as writing and speaking. Each of these come with a special code (or subset of grammar and vocabulary). Few native speakers never completely acquire the full range of codes available in a language with extensive literacy practices, particularly a language that spans as many speech communities as English. But all speakers acquire several different codes and can switch between them. However, many challenged writers and readers struggle because they cannot switch between the spoken codes they are exposed to through daily interactions and the written codes to which they are often denied access because of a print impairment. Another way of describing this is multiple literacies. How do challenged readers and writers deal with acquiring written codes and how do they deal with code switching?

How do new conventions emerge in the use of simple language? Using and accessing simple language can only be successful if it becomes a separate literacy practice. However, the dissemination and embedding of such practices into daily usage are often accompanied by the establishment of new codes and conventions of communication. These codes can then become typical of a genre of documents. An example of this is Biblish. A sentence such as “Fred spoke unto Joan and Karen” is easily identified as referring to a mode of expression associated with the translation of the Bible. Will similar conventions develop around “plain English” and how? At the same time, it is clear that within each genre or code, there are speakers and writers who can express themselves more clearly than others. Research is needed to establish if there are common characteristics to be found in these “clear” texts, as opposed to those inherent in “difficult” texts across genres?

All in all, introducing simple language as a universal accessibility standard is still too far from a realistic prospect. My intuitive impression based on documents I receive from different bureaucracies is that the “plain English” campaign has made a difference in how many official documents are presented. But a lot more research (ethnographic as well as cognitive) is necessary before we properly understand the process and its impact. Can’t wait to read it all.

Cliches, information and metaphors: Overcoming prejudice with metahor hacking and getting it back again

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Professor Abhijit Banerjee
Professor Abhijit Banerjee (Photo credit: kalyan3)

“We have to use cliches,” said professor Abhijit Banerjee at the start of his LSE lecture on Poor Economics. “The world is just too complicated.” He continued. “Which is why it is all the more important, we choose the right cliches.” [I’m paraphrasing here.]

This is an insight at the very heart of linguistics. Every language act we are a part of is an act of categorization. There are no simple unitary terms in language. When I say, “pull up a chair”, I’m in fact referring to a vast category of objects we refer to as chairs. These objects are not identified by any one set of features like four legs, certain height, certain ways of using it. There is no minimal set of features that will describe all chairs and just chairs and not other kinds of objects like tables or pillows. But chairs don’t stand on their own. They are related to other concepts or categories (and they are really one and the same). There are subcategories like stools and armchairs, containing categories like furniture or man-made objects and related categories like houses and shops selling objects. All of these categories are linked in our minds through a complex set of images, stories and definitions. But these don’t just live in our minds. They also appear in our conversations. So we say things like, “What kind of a chair would you like to buy?”, “That’s not real chair”, “What’s the point of a chair if you can’t sit in it?”, “Stools are not chairs.”, “It’s more of a couch than a chair.”, “Sofas are really just big plush chairs, when it comes down to it.”, “I’m using a box for a chair.”, “Don’t sit on a table, it’s not a chair.” Etc. Categories are not stable and uniform across all people, so we continue having conversations about them. There are experts on chairs, historians of chairs, chair craftsmen, people who buy chairs for a living, people who study the word ‘chair’, and people who casually use chairs. Some more than others. And their sets of stories and images and definitions related to chairs will be slightly different. And they will have had different types of conversations with different people about chairs. All of that goes into a simple word like “chair”. It’s really very simple as long as we accept the complexity for what it is. Philosophers of language have made a right mess of things because they tried to find simplicity where none exists. And what’s more where none is necessary.

But let’s get back to cliches. Cliches are types of categories. Or better still, cliches are categories with a particular type of social salience. Like categories, cliches are sets of images, stories and definitions compressed into seemingly simpler concepts that are labelled by some sort of an expression. Most prominently, it is a linguistic expression like a word or a phrase. But it could just as easily be a way of talking, way of dressing, way of being. What makes us likely to call something a cliche is a socially negotiated sense of awareness that the compression is somewhat unsatisfactory and that it is overused by people in lieu of an insight into the phenomenon we are describing. But the power of the cliche is in its ability to help us make sense of a complex or challenging phenomenon. But the sense making is for our benefit of cognitive and emotional peace. Just because we can make sense of something, doesn’t mean, we get the right end of the stick. And we know that, which is why we are wary of cliches. But challenging every cliche would be like challenging ourselves every time we looked at a chair. It can’t be done. Which is why we have social and linguistic coping mechanisms like “I know it’s such a cliche.” “It’s a cliche but in a way it’s true.” “Just because it’s a cliche, doesn’t mean, it isn’t true.” Just try Googling: “it’s a cliche *”

So we are at once locked into cliches and struggling to overcome them. Like “chair” the concept of a “cliche” as we use it is not simple. We use it to label words, phrases, people. We have stories about how to rebel against cliches. We have other labels for similar phenomena with different connotations such as “proverbs”, “sayings”, “prejudices”, “stereotypes”. We have whole disciplines studying these like cognitive psychology, social psychology, political science, anthropology, etc. And these give us a whole lot of cliches about cliches. But also a lot of knowledge about cliches.

The first one is exactly what this post started with. We have to use cliches. It’s who we are. But they are not inherently bad.

Next, we challenge cliches as much as we use them. (Well, probably not as much, but a lot.) This is something I’m trying to show through my research into frame negotiation. We look at concepts (the compressed and labelled nebulas of knowledge) and decompress them in different ways and repackage them and compress them into new concepts. (Sometimes this is called conceptual integration or blending.) But we don’t just do this in our minds. We do it in public and during conversations about these concepts.

We also know that unwillingness to challenge a cliche can have bad outcomes. Cliches about certain things (like people or types of people) are called stereotypes and particular types of stereotypes are called prejudices. And prejudices by the right people against the right kind of other people can lead to discrimination and death. Prejudice, stereotype, cliche. They are the same kind of thing presented to us from different angles and at different magnitudes.

So it is worth our while to harness the cliche negotiation that goes on all the time anyway and see if we can use it for something good. That’s not a certain outcome. The medieaval inquistions, anti-heresies, racism, slavery, genocides are all outcomes of negotiations of concepts. We mostly only know about their outcomes but a closer look will always reveal dissent and a lot of soul searching. And at the heart of such soul searching is always a decompression and recompression of concepts (conceptual integration). But it does not work in a vacuum. Actual physical or economic power plays a role. Conformance to communcal expectations. Personal likes or dislikes. All of these play a role.

George Lakoff
George Lakoff (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what chance have we of getting the right outcome? Do we even know what is the right outcome?

Well, we have to pick the right cliches says Abhijit Banerjee. Or we have to frame concepts better says George Lakoff. “We have to shine the light of truth” says a cliche.

“If you give people content, they’re willing to move away from their prejudices. Prejudices are partly sustained by the fact that the political system does not deliver much content.” says Banerjee. Prejudices matter in high stakes contexts. And they are a the result of us not challenging the right cliches in the right ways at the right time.

It is pretty clear from research in social psychology from Milgram on, that giving people information will challenge their cliches but only as long as you also give them sanction to challenge the cliches. Information on its own, does not seem to always be enough. Sometimes the contrary information even seems to reinforce the cliche (as we’re learning from newspaper corrections).

This is important. You can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Even if you can fool a lot of them a lot of the time. Information is a part of it. Social sanction of using that information in certain ways is another part of it. And this is not the province of the “elites”. People with the education and sufficient amount of idle time to worry about such things. There’s ample research to show that everybody is capable of this and engaged in these types of conceptual activities. More education seems to vaguely correlate with less prejudice but it’s not clear why. I also doubt that it does in a very straightforward and inevitable way (a post for another day). It’s more than likely that we’ve only studied the prejudices the educated people don’t like and therefore don’t have as much.

Bannerjee draws the following conclusion from his work uncovering cliches in development economics:

“Often we’re putting too much weight on a bunch of cliches. And if we actually look into what’s going on, it’s often much more mundane things. Things where people just start with the wrong presumption, design the wrong programme, they come in with their own ideology, they keep things going because there’s inertia, they don’t actually look at the facts and design programmes in ignorance. Bad things happen not because somebody wants bad things to happen but because we don’t do our homework. We don’t think hard enough. We’re not open minded enough.”

It sounds very appealing. But it’s also as if he forgot the point he started out with. We need cliches. And we need to remember that out of every challenge to a cliche arises a new cliche. We cannot go around the world with our concepts all decompressed and flapping about. We’d literally go crazy. So every challenge to a cliche (just like every paradigm-shifting Kuhnian revolution) is only the beginning phase of the formation of another cliche, stereotype, prejudice or paradigm (a process well described in Orwell’s Animal Farm which itself has in turn become a cliche of its own). It’s fun listening to Freakonomics radio to see how all the cliche busting has come to establish a new orthodoxy. The constant reminders that if you see things as an economist, you see things other people don’t don’t see. Kind of a new witchcraft. That’s not to say that Freakonomics hasn’t provided insights to challenge established wisdoms (a term arising from another perspective on a cliche). It most certainly has. But it hasn’t replaced them with “a truth”, just another necessary compression of a conceptual and social complex. During the moments of decompression and recompression, we have opportunities for change, however brief. And sometimes it’s just a memory of those events that lets us change later. It took over 150 years for us to remember the French revolution and make of it what we now think of as democracy with a tradition stretching back to ancient Athens. Another cliche. The best of a bad lot of systems. A whopper of a cliche.

So we need to be careful. Information is essential when there is none. A lot of prejudice (like some racism) is born simply of not having enough information. But soon there’s plenty of information to go around. Too much, in fact, for any one individual to sort through. So we resort to complex cliches. And the cliches we choose have to do with our in-groups, chains of trust, etc. as much as they do with some sort of rational deliberation. So we’re back where we started.

Humanity is engaged in a neverending struggle of personal and public negotiation of concepts. We’re taking them apart and putting them back together. Parts of the process happen in fractions of a second in individual minds, parts of the process happen over days, weeks, months, years and decades in conversations, pronouncements, articles, books, polemics, laws, public debates and even at the polling booths. Sometimes it looks like nothing is happening and sometimes it looks like everything is happening at once. But it’s always there.

So what does this have to do with metaphors and can a metaphor hacker do anything about it? Well, metaphors are part of the process. The same process that lets us make sense of metaphors, lets use negotiated cliches. Cliches are like little analogies and it takes a lot of cognition to understand them, take them apart and make them anew. I suspect most of that cognition (and it’s always discursive, social cognition) is very much the same that we know relatively well from metaphor studies.

But can we do anything about it? Can we hack into these processes? Yes and no. People have always hacked collective processes by inserting images and stories and definitions into the public debate through advertising, following talking points or even things like pushpolling. And people have manipulated individuals through social pressure, persuasion and lies. But none of it ever seems to have a lasting effect. There’re simply too many conceptual purchase points to lean on in any cliches to ever achieve a complete uniformity for ever (even in the most totalitarian regimes). In an election, you may only need to sway the outcome by a few percent. If you have military or some other power, you only need to get willing compliance from a sufficient number of people to keep the rest in line through a mix of conceptual and non-conceptual means. Some such social contracts last for centuries, others for decades and some for barely years or months. In such cases, even knowing how these processes work is not much better than knowing how continental drift works. You can use it to your advantage but you can’t really change it. You can and should engage in the process and try to nudge the conversation in a certain way. But there is no conceptual template for success.

But as individuals, we can certainly do quite a bit monitor our own cognition (in the broadest sense). But we need to choose our battles carefully. Use cliches but monitor what they are doing for us. And challenge the right ones at the right time. It requires a certain amount of disciplined attention and disciplined conversation.

This is not a pessimistic message, though. As I’ve said elsewhere, we can be masters of our own thoughts and feelings. And we have the power to change how we see the world and we can help others along with how they see the world. But it would be foolish to expect to world to be changed beyond all recognition just through the power of the mind. In one way or another, it will always look like our world. But we need to keep trying to make it look like the best possible version of our world. But this will not happen by following some pre-set epistemological route. Doing this is our human commitment. Our human duty. And perhaps our human inevitability. So, good luck to us.