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So you think you have a historical analogy? Revisionist history and anthropology reading list

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What is this about

How badly we’re getting history

While the world of history and anthropology of the last 30-40 years has completely redrawn the picture of our past, the common perception of the overall shape of history and the development of humanity is still firmly rooted in the view that took hold in the 1800s’ mixture of enlightenment and romanticism.

On this view, we are the pinnacle of development, the logical and inevitable outcome of all that came before us. The development of what is us, the changes in history and culture, can be traced in a straight line from the primitive of the past to the sophisticated of the present. From the savage to the civilized (even if we may eschew these for more polite terms).

But nothing could be farther away from the truth. The shape of global history looks nothing like what we have in our minds from textbooks and popular culture. For a start, it is a lot more complicated, circuitous and fuzzy than we might imagine. That won’t surprise many people. Things are always more complicated when looked at closely. But what I would suggest is that the popular image has completely misplaced the centre of gravity of historical and cultural development. It is the universe before Copernicus and Gallileo, it is the physics before Einstein and Heisenberg.

Yet, all we need to find the right balance is readily available in print, online lectures and courses. We just need to seek it out.

What is on this list

In this post, I compiled what I consider key books of the last 20 years (with a few older exceptions) that can help anyone get a better picture of the history of human politics and culture. And through that history, we can also see the balance of the present better.

Not all these books are flawless and they all bring new biases into the picture. No doubt, they too, will eventually be subject to revision as new perspectives open up. Also, they don’t entirely reject all that came before them. They simply provide a better balance and shine light in important blind spots.

I can imagine that many people reading any one of these books might feel compelled to reject them as outliers. But together, they are hard to ignore. They come from different perspectives and disciplines, yet, they complement and reinforce each other.

This was originally meant to be a short list of a few key works but as I was going through my notes, I kept adding new ones. I tried to keep the list to books that synthesize larger areas rather than histories or ethnographies of individual societies even though, these can often be as illustrative.

Most of these books are histories or contain historical data. Yet, many are written by anthropologists or historians with a distinctly anthropological point of view. This very much reflects my personal bias towards the ethnographic.

I divided the list into 2 sections: 1. Easy reads for a general audience and 2. Dense and extensive works for specialists. But in this, I was very much going by intuition.

I decided to provide some illustrative quotes for each book but I went a bit too far with some of them. At the same time, I could have quoted many more important passages. Remember, they all make much more sense in context.

Where available, I also provided links to podcasts or online lectures by the authors. I also compiled a YouTube playlist with key videos which I will keep up-to-date as I discover more.

I would also recommend to anybody that they listen to the New Books Network podcasts. I find those from the New Books in History, Milirary History, South Asian Studies, Islamic Studies, Anthropology and Genocide studies particularly illuminating and would recommend that anybody goes through the archive, as well.

What are the key lessons

This section was rewritten based on Reddit comments.

The overarching message of these books is one of anti-reductionism. They do not look for inevitable overarching trends but they do show repeating patterns. The key points that stand out to me as a lesson to take away from reading these books could be:

  • The global dominance of Western-European culture and politics is a lot more recent than our history books taught us pretty much starting with the Industrial Revolution and not completed until the end of the 19th century.
  • The balance of global history lies in the East rather than the West. Even those we consider the roots of our civilisation (Rome, Greeks) looked to the East.
  • We are blinkered by focusing our perspective on civilizational artifacts such as architecture and writing. This leads us to overlook important political and social units that outnumbered those we can see at any one point in history.
  • The role of the state throughout history was much more complex and uncertain than it may seem from today’s perspective. It was much weaker, less stable and more transient. And it was also not nearly as attractive to its subjects – ie. walls were often built more to keep people in than out.
  • We cannot view the ‘hunter gatherers’ and other ‘pre-technological’ societies of today as remnants of previous evolutionary stages of history. They are as much part of modernity as the technologically-dependent urban centres we know.

Who should read this

  • Anyone who thinks ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’ is the last word in historical analysis.
  • Rationalists, economists and futurists. I very much enjoy listening to podcasts like EconTalk and Rationally Speaking. But whenever they or their guests make any points regarding history, I cannot but cringe.
  • Anyone who makes historical analogies based on what they learned in school.
  • When I last worked with Peace Corps volunteers, I shared some of these books with them and they were well received. So I think many development and international policy workers would also benefit.
  • Curriculum reformers in the mould of Michael Gove or Pat Buchanan.

Easy, accessible reads

I felt the books in this section are more accessible and aimed at audiences outside the strict confines of their discipline. Some of them are fairly popular accounts but they are all sufficiently scholarly that it is possible to track down their sources and confront them with alternative perspectives. None of them are by popularisers in the vein of Gladwell or Pinker.

‘Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States’ by James C Scott, 2018

Scott is best known for ‘Seeing Like a State’ but this is a much more important and in many ways better book. His main thesis is ‘Everything we thought about the invention of agriculture and its role in the formation of early civilisations is wrong.’

In this book, Scott summarises recent decades of research on the emergence of agriculture and emergence of early states and finds that we cannot trust any of our assumptions. The early states were temporary, partial and patchy. They cannot be seen as a final stage in some sort of a process of social evolution. A point elaborated by Yoffee below in greater detail.

My main impression from this book is how recent the dominance of state control is. Until about 1500, most people lived outside the control of the great civilisational behemoths. And this was, for many of them, a conscious choice. As Scott described in his earlier book ‘The Art of Not Being Governed’ (also well worth a read).

Similarly to Diamond, Scott also focuses on the importance of certain crops but from the perspective of their utility for taxation. This point is elaborated in Graeber’s ‘Debt’ (see below).

You can see Scott speak about many of these points in several lectures.

Note: I wrote a review of this book for the Czech daily Lidové noviny.

Illustrative quotes

“Contrary to earlier assumptions, hunters and gatherers—even today in the marginal refugia they inhabit—are nothing like the famished, one-day-away-from-starvation desperados of folklore. Hunters and gathers have, in fact, never looked so good—in terms of their diet, their health, and their leisure. Agriculturalists, on the contrary, have never looked so bad—in terms of their diet, their health, and their leisure.”

“In unreflective use, “collapse” denotes the civilizational tragedy of a great early kingdom being brought low, along with its cultural achievements. We should pause before adopting this usage. Many kingdoms were, in fact, confederations of smaller settlements, and “collapse” might mean no more than that they have, once again, fragmented into their constituent parts, perhaps to reassemble later. In the case of reduced rainfall and crop yields, “collapse” might mean a fairly routine dispersal to deal with periodic climate variation. Even in the case of, say, flight or rebellion against taxes, corvée labor, or conscription, might we not celebrate—or at least not deplore—the destruction of an oppressive social order?”

“until the past four hundred years, one-third of the globe was still occupied by hunter-gatherers, shifting cultivators, pastoralists, and independent horticulturalists, while states, being essentially agrarian, were confined largely to that small portion of the globe suitable for cultivation. Much of the world’s population might never have met that hallmark of the state: a tax collector.”

“Where grain, and therefore agrarian taxes, stopped, there too did the state’s power begin to degrade. The power of the early Chinese states was confined to the arable drainage basins of the Yellow and Yangzi Rivers. […] The territory of the Roman Empire, for all its imperial ambitions, did not extend much beyond the grain line.”

much that passes as collapse as, rather, a disassembly of larger but more fragile political units into their smaller and often more stable components.

‘Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest’ by Matthew Restall, 2003

The title of the book says it all. Almost anything we say (and Jared Diamond said) about the likes of Columbus, Cortez or Pizarro is wrong. Factually and structurally. Perhaps the most important myth Restall presents is that of ‘completion’. The Spanish and later other conquests were more a case of expanding enclaves and negotiations. To imagine the conquistadors as ruling a geographic area in the same way a modern state governs its territory is completely misleading. This is also a point repeated in Yoffee and Scott with respect to ‘ancient civilisations’.

The other point made by Restall is the complete dependence of the European invaders on local political aliances and the relative ineffectiveness and ultimate irrelevance of their ‘technology’. We see this expanded in Thornton and Sherman into other contexts

You can hear Restall talk about many of the same themes in an interview about his more recent book “When Montesuma met Cortez” in this New Books Podcast.

There is also an illustrated lecture available on YouTube that covers the same topics.

Illustrative quotes

“Looking at Spanish America in its entirety, the Conquest as a series of armed expeditions and military actions against Native Americans never ended.”

“Only very gradually did community autonomy erode under demographic and political pressures from non-native populations. From the native perspective, therefore, the Conquest was not a dramatic singular event, symbolized by any one incident or moment, as it was for Spaniards. Rather, the Spanish invasion and colonial rule were part of a larger, protracted process of negotiation and accommodation.”

‘Empires of the Weak: The Real Story of European Expansion and the Creation of the New World Order’ by Jason Sharman, 2019

The central thesis here is that the relationship between the European conquerors and the conquered around the world was very different from the traditional stories. It was not sudden overwhelming military force but gradual exploitation of local political conditions taking place over the course of centuries that resulted in the world we see today.

Most importantly, the thesis of political competition in Europe resulting in European dominance by 1800 purely through superiority of Western military technology is completely dismantled. European weapons made little difference until the 1800s. Updated based on Reddit comments.

Sharman is a political scientist, so perhaps could be accused of moonlighting outside his core expertise, but we’ll see that this thesis is repeated again and again in many of the other books on this list from various perspectives.

I could not find any videos or audio recordings of Sharman about the book. But I’m sure some will appear, soon.

Key quote

‘Europeans did not enjoy any significant military superiority vis-à-vis non-Western opponents in the early modern era, even in Europe. Expansion was as much a story of European deference and subordination as one of dominance. Rather than state armies or navies, the vanguards of expansion were small bands of adventurers or chartered companies, who relied on the cultivation of local allies.’

‘The Silk Roads: A New History of the World’ by Peter Frankopan, 2015

‘The Silk Roads’ is the history of the world that should be the core textbook for anyone interested in the balance of events. It provides the same correction to the shape of history that an alternative projection gives to the distortions taught to us by the Mercator of school atlases.

Frankopan’s book on the First Crusade is also extremely eye-opening and worth a read. It is the one that most balances the perspectives of east, west and the Byzantines.

Here are some places where you can see Frankopan talk about his book:

Jerry Brotton’s ‘This Orient Isle’ could be thought of as a companion book in that it rethinks the position of Britain in this newly rebalanced history. You can watch Brotton talk about his 2016 book ‘in an online lecture. Brotton’s ‘History of the World in 12 Maps’ also adds new perspectives on the orientation of the world.

Illustrative quotes

We think of globalisation as a uniquely modern phenomenon; yet 2,000 years ago too, it was a fact of life, one that presented opportunities, created problems and prompted technological advance.

Rome’s transition into an empire had little to do with Europe or with establishing control across a continent that was poorly supplied with the kind of resources and cities that were honeypots of consumers and taxpayers. What propelled Rome into a new era was its reorientation towards the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond. Rome’s success and its glory stemmed from its seizure of Egypt in the first instance, and then from setting its anchor in the east – in Asia.

the ancient world was much more sophisticated and interlinked than we sometimes like to think. Seeing Rome as the progenitor of western Europe overlooks the fact that it consistently looked to and in many ways was shaped by influences from the east.

Cities like Merv, Gundesāpūr and even Kashgar, the oasis town that was the entry point to China, had archbishops long before Canterbury did. These were major Christian centres many centuries before the first missionaries reached Poland or Scandinavia.

Baghdad is closer to Jerusalem than to Athens, while Teheran is nearer the Holy Land than Rome, and Samarkand is closer to it than Paris and London.

‘Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane’ by F. Frederick Starr, 2013

Starr’s book was a real revelation. I had spent a lot of time in Central Asia and read some history of the region. But other than Samarkand, all of that history has now been lost. And I didn’t get a sense that the people living in the region knew much about it.

Much like Davies in ‘Vanished Kingdoms’ in Europe, Starr shows on a global scale how even major civilisations with real impact can disappear without much trace. But even more importantly, he shows that the trajectory of ‘modern’ intellectual development was much more complex than most people believe.

You can see Starr talk about his book in this online lecture.

Illustrative quotes

“This was truly an Age of Enlightenment, several centuries of cultural flowering during which Central Asia was the intellectual hub of the world. India, China, the Middle East, and Europe all boasted rich traditions in the realm of ideas, but during the four or five centuries around AD 1000 it was Central Asia, the one world region that touched all these other centers, that surged to the fore. It bridged time as well as geography, in the process becoming the great link between antiquity and the modern world.”

“every major Central Asian city at the time boasted one or more libraries, some of them governmental and others private.”

“Above all, Central Asia was a land of cities. Long before the Arab invasion, the most renowned Greek geographer, Strabo, writing in the first century BC, described the Central Asian heartland as ‘a land of 1,000 cities.’”

“At the Merv oasis the outermost rampart ran for more than 155 miles, three times the length of Hadrian’s Wall separating England from Scotland. At least ten days would have been required to cover this distance on camelback.”

‘Genghiz Khan and the Making of the Modern World’ by Jack Weatherford, 2004

Jack Weatherford’s portrayal of the Mongol conquests is definitely not non-partisan. He’s with the Mongols. Nevertheless, he opens important vistas about the foundations of modern interconnectedness. This is a good complement to Starr’s covering of the preceding period in the same region.

Here’s a video lecture by Weatherford about some aspects of this story.

Illustrative quotes

In twenty-five years, the Mongol army subjugated more lands and people than the Romans had conquered in four hundred years. Genghis Khan, together with his sons and grandsons, conquered the most densely populated civilizations of the thirteenth century. Whether measured by the total number of people defeated, the sum of the countries annexed, or by the total area occupied, Genghis Khan conquered more than twice as much as any other man in history.

The majority of people today live in countries conquered by the Mongols; on the modern map, Genghis Kahn’s conquests include thirty countries with well over 3 billion people.

Genghis Khan’s empire connected and amalgamated the many civilizations around him into a new world order. At the time of his birth in 1162, the Old World consisted of a series of regional civilizations each of which could claim virtually no knowledge of any civilization beyond its closest neighbor. No one in China had heard of Europe, and no one in Europe had heard of China, and, so far as is known, no person had made the journey from one to the other. By the time of his death in 1227, he had connected them with diplomatic and commercial contacts that still remain unbroken.

‘Lies my Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong’ by James W. Loewen, 1995

This book is slightly outside the scope of this list, but I thought it would be of interest to those who were educated in the American school system. But many of its points apply to all school history books. It will open your eyes to how little you can trust to what you learned in school and what was then reinforced through popular cultural reflection of history.

Here’s an extended interview with the author.

Illustrative quotes

“Many history textbooks list up-to-the-minute secondary sources in their bibliographies, yet the narratives remain totally traditional unaffected by recent research.”

“Most Americans tend automatically to equate educated with informed or tolerant. Traditional purveyors of social studies and American history seize upon precisely this belief to rationalize their enterprise, claiming that history courses lead to a more enlightened citizenry. The Vietnam exercise suggests the opposite is more likely true.”

Comprehensive and/or less accessible

These books require more serious commitment and possibly some comfort with reading relatively dense historical and ethnographic accounts. They are not necessarily poorly written or full of jargon but they are not primarily aimed at an audience too far outside the profession of the author (except ‘Debt’ which I included here because it is so long).

‘A Cultural History of the Atlantic World: 1250 – 1820’ by John K. Thornton, 2012

This is a truly impressive historical synthesis that covers an extensive geographic area as well as a significant stretch of time. It provides detailed elaborations of the central thesis of Sharman’s and Restall’s books and should be consulted every time we feel like we want to make a general statement about the developments in that region and in that time. Which we do all the time.

A podcast interview about this book from the New Books Network will give a good sense of what the book is about.

You can also hear Thornton speak on a related topic in this YouTube lecture on the Slave trade.

Illustrative quotes

“Europeans did not possess decisive advantages over any of the people they met, even though their sailing craft were indeed capable of nautical achievements that no other culture up to that time was able to perform.”

“there was really no economic Third World at the time of European expansion in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, if one uses proxy measures of average quality of life as a guide. The crucial quality-of-life determinant was, in fact, social and economic stratification.”

“African states had the upper hand if the game of force was to be played. Although Europeans often fortified their “factories,” as trading posts were usually called, these fortifications could not resist an attack by determined African authorities.”

“Slow-firing weapons cannot allow small numbers of people to defeat larger numbers unless other factors are in play.”

“Cavalry are most effective only when massed in sufficient numbers to inflict sustained casualties on fleeing infantry, and the dozens and on occasion low hundreds of mounted men in Spanish service did not meet this decisive threshold. Native Americans were reasonably quick in establishing tactical countermeasures against the horsemen after the initial encounters.”

‘Myths of the Archaic State: Evolution of the Earliest Cities, States, and Civilizations’ by Norman Yoffee, 2005

This was perhaps the most embarrassingly eye-opening book for me given that I started out my early adult life by studying Egyptology. Yoffee, building on his work and that of others, shows the limits of what a so-called ‘ancient civilisation’ was and could have been. Collapses and interregna were all much less of tragedies for all involved – point made by Scott in a more accessible way. His reimagining of the position of Hammurabi as a political and literary rather than a legal document was just one of the many myths that this book burst for me.

Norman Yoffee speaks about new perspectives on the collapse summarizing his more recent work.

Illustrative quotes

“[Myth of the archaic states include:] (1) the earliest states were basically all the same kind of thing (whereas bands, tribes, and chiefdoms all varied within their types considerably);(2) ancient states were totalitarian regimes, ruled by despots who monopolized the flow of goods, services, and information and imposed “true” law and order on their powerless citizens; (3) the earliest states enclosed large regions and were territorially integrated; (4) typologies should and can be devised in order to measure societies in a ladder of progressiveness; (5) prehistoric representatives of these social types can be correlated, by analogy, with modern societies reported by ethnographers; and (6) structural changes in political and economic systems were the engines for, and are hence necessary and sufficient conditions that explain, the evolution of the earliest states.”

That the laws of Hammurabi were copied in Mesopotamian schools for over a millennium after Hammurabi’s death attests to the literary success of the composition and has nothing to do with its juridical applicability. […] There is no mention of the code of Hammurabi in the thousands of legal documents that date to his reign and those of his immediate successors.

Order could not survive the frequent shocks it suffered if people were not able to construct the institutions of legitimacy and to determine the quality of illegitimacy. Legitimacy normally invokes the past as something that is absolute and that acts as a point of reference for the present, normally by transmuting the past into some form of the present.

‘Debt: The First Five Thousand Years’ by David Graeber, 2011

I think this is perhaps the best intro to modern anthropological thinking in general. It is very readable and accessible but also very comprehensive. It certainly has its agenda but Graeber tells a convincing story that undermines the classical thinking about the role of exchange in maintaining civilisations. It is easy to get bogged down in the discussions about the nature of money when discussing this book but what it really does is show the great variety of ways in which people relate to each other.

Graeber gave a lecture on his book at Google which is available on YouTube. But this book works best when read as a whole.

Illustrative quotes

there is good reason to believe that barter is not a particularly ancient phenomenon at all, but has only really become widespread in modern times. Certainly in most of the cases we know about, it takes place between people who are familiar with the use of money, but for one reason or another, don’t have a lot of it around.

Through most of history, when overt political conflict between classes did appear, it took the form of pleas for debt cancellation—the freeing of those in bondage, and usually, a more just reallocation of the land.

“Kingdoms rise and fall; they also strengthen and weaken; governments may make their presence known in people’s lives quite sporadically, and many people in history were never entirely clear whose government they were actually in. … It’s only the modern state, with its elaborate border controls and social policies, that enables us to imagine “society” in this way, as a single bounded entity.”

there are three main moral principles on which economic relations can be founded, all of which occur in any human society, and which I will call communism, hierarchy, and exchange.

“communism” is not some magical utopia, and neither does it have anything to do with ownership of the means of production. It is something that exists right now—that exists, to some degree, in any human society, although there has never been one in which everything has been organized in that way, and it would be difficult to imagine how there could be. All of us act like communists a good deal of the time. None of us acts like a communist consistently.

“baseline communism”: the understanding that, unless people consider themselves enemies, if the need is considered great enough, or the cost considered reasonable enough, the principle of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” will be assumed to apply.

In many periods—from imperial Rome to medieval China—probably the most important relationships, at least in towns and cities, were those of patronage.

‘Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of Nations’ by Norman Davies, 2010

Most of the books on the list focus on forgotten, misunderstood or ignored aspects of global history or culture. But Davies shows that even in our own backyard, entire kingdoms vanished without a trace in our consciousness. Perhaps, I should have chosen his ‘Europe: A History’ which is also revisionist in that it places Europe’s cultural, geographic and historical center of gravity much further east and south than is typical. But I found this book much more revelatory and impactful for the purposes of this list.

Davies gave a lecture about his book at the LSEwhich is available as a recording.

A brief interview with Davies about this book is available on YouTube.

Illustrative quotes

“As soon as great powers arise, whether the United States in the twentieth century or China in the twenty-first, the call goes out for offerings on American History or Chinese History, and siren voices sing that today’s important countries are also those whose past is most deserving of examination, that a more comprehensive spectrum of historical knowledge can be safely ignored.”

Most importantly, students of history need to be constantly reminded of the transience of power, for transience is one of the fundamental characteristics both of the human condition and of the political order.

Popular memory-making plays many tricks. One of them may be called ‘the foreshortening of time’. Peering back into the past, contemporary Europeans see modern history in the foreground, medieval history in the middle distance, and the post-Roman twilight as a faint strip along the far horizon.

One has to put aside the popular notion that language and culture are endlessly passed on from generation to generation, rather as if ‘Scottishness’ or ‘Englishness’ were essential constituents of some national genetic code.

To all who have been seduced by the concept of ‘Western Civilization’, therefore, the Byzantine Empire appears as the antithesis – the butt, the scapegoat, the pariah, the undesirable ‘other’.6 Although it formed part of a story that lasted longer than any other kingdom or empire in Europe’s past, and contains in its record a full panoply of all the virtues, vices and banalities that the centuries can muster, it has been subjected in modern times to a campaign of denigration of unparalleled virulence and duration.

‘The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000’ by Chris Wickham, 2009

The ‘Fall of Rome’ and the subsequent ‘dark ages’ have been one of the big obsessions of historical introspection for centuries. They are the frequent source domain of civilizational analogies even though, as Chris Wickham shows, almost nothing we think of as a given holds up. This book is just one of many in recent historical scholarship that revisits the notion of the dark ages and shines a light on the period of ‘late Rome’ as seen from the perspective of its own time. Of course, many controversies remain but the change in emphasis seems incontrovertible. There are echoes of similar points in the early chapters of Davies’ ‘Vanished Kingdoms’.

I could not find any lectures on the subject by Wickham but some of these questions were raised in this panel he chaired on the middle ages.

Note: I wrote a review of this book for the Czech daily Lidové noviny.

There are also a number of lecture series on this period that reflect the latest scholarship in The Great Courses from the Teaching Company that are available via Audible, as well. I particularly recommend those by Kenneth Harl.

Illustrative quotes

“Anyone in 1000 looking for future industrialization would have put bets on the economy of Egypt, not of the Rhineland and Low Countries, and that of Lancashire would have seemed like a joke.”

Byzantine ‘national identity’ has not been much considered by historians, for that empire was the ancestor of no modern nation state, but it is arguable that it was the most developed in Europe at the end of our period.

the East remained politically and fiscally strong, and eastern Mediterranean commerce was as active in 600 as in 400.

Far from ‘corruption’ being an element of Roman weakness, this vast network of favours was one of the main elements that made the empire work. It was when patronage failed that there was trouble.

The Persian state was almost as large as the Roman empire, extending eastwards into central Asia and what is now Afghanistan; it is much less well documented than the Roman empire, but it, too, was held together by a complex tax system, although it had a powerful military aristocracy as well, unlike Rome.

‘The Anthropology of Eastern Religions: Ideas, Organizations, and Constituencies’ by Murray Leaf, 2014

This was a late addition to this list and it is an imperfect volume in that, as one reviewer put it: “[its] worthwhile aims are met unevenly, resulting in a book that is certainly informed and informative, but often inconsistent in tone and level of analysis.” But I think its core message in chapter one of religion as a social institution which has much more in common with others than traditional religious studies would have us believe.

I couldn’t find any interviews or lectures. But I believe that this interview with Russell McCutcheon about the limits of religious studies would provide a useful complement.

Illustrative quotes

The world religions are complex social phenomena. They use ideas of several different kinds. They include substantial systems of physical infrastructure. They have provisions for economic support. They embody their own systems of scholarship. They produce propaganda and they are politically important in many different ways. From time to time their leaders in various places have commanded armies and conducted wars. This cannot be explained simply by reviewing them as so many sets of beliefs.

The most conspicuous problem in contemporary comparative religion is that they underrate diversity. […] One result is to overstate what the major religions have in common with each other while understating or ignoring what they have in common with traditions considered non-religious.

The general class of cultural phenomena to which world religions belong can be described as large-scale, translocal, multi-organizational, professionalized cultural complexes.

Virtually all Japanese have recourse to the ideas and organizations of Buddhism and Shinto, and for the most part this is also true of Confucianism. […] Japanese parks are Shinto and the system of Shinto shrines in Japan has much the same place in Japanese emotional life as the system of national parks does for Americans. Confucian ideas are important in administrative and professional contexts.

‘Europe and the People without History’ by Eric R Wolf, 1982

This is the oldest book on the list and it has inspired many others.

Unlike Graeber, reading Wolf is hard going. This is certainly for the committed but it repays the effort. Even just looking at the maps showing the intricate trade routes going from the heart of Africa to the Baltic Sea is eye-opening.

Wolf’s central point is also the central point all the authors on this list return to again and again. We invented history based on the things that were easy to see. But this was very much looking for the keys under the lamppost where the light was and not where we lost them. Wolf (similarly to Graeber and Scott) has a distinctly untraditional politics leaning to the left (if perhaps not as much to anarchism).

Illustrative quotes

“Africa south of the Sahara was not the isolated, backward area of European imagination, but an integral part of a web of relations that connected forest cultivators and miners with savanna and desert traders and with the merchants and rulers of the North African settled belt. This web of relations had a warp of gold, “the golden trade of the Moors,” but a weft of exchanges in other products. The trade had direct political consequences. What happened in Nigerian Benin or Hausa Kano had repercussions in Tunis and Rabat. When the Europeans would enter West Africa from the coast, they would be setting foot in a country already dense with towns and settlements, and caught up in networks of exchange that far transcended the narrow enclaves of the European emporia on the coast. We can see such repercussions at the northern terminus of the trade routes in Morocco and Algeria. Here one elite after another came to the fore, each one dependent on interaction with the Sahara and the forest zone. Each successive elite was anchored in a kin-organized confederacy, usually mobilized around a religious ideology.”

Pre-cursors and proto-revisionists

In many ways, almost any history is revisionist history. Each generation writes its own history books to reflect new knowledge but also new perspectives. Most history book authors feel they have something new with which to contribute and that can revise current understanding of the subject matter.

So it is not surprising that even revisionism in the vein that I’m looking at here is not just a matter of the last 20 or so years.

Much of the current revision was inspired by‘The Great Transformation’ by Karl Polanyi) published in 1944 which in turn rests on many of the anthropological revisions started by people like Franz Boas in the US and Bronisław Malinowski.

There is a continued thread of back and forth since at least then. Marshall Sahlins’ ‘Stone Age Economics’ from 1972 (with papers going back to the mid 1960s) started much revision and revision of the hunter gatherer condition. And so on.

At the same time but independently, people like Joseph Needham were painstakingly collecting data on the great civilizations of the ‘East’ which can now give us a fuller and more balanced picture of the world.

We should also not forget the work that has gone into revising the simplistic view of the 19th and 20th centuries, most notably to do with the emergence of the nation state. Here names such as Eric Hobsbawn, Ernest Gellner, Miroslav Hroch and, of course, Benedict Anderson, come to mind. And then there are the many people who are rethinking more recent events such as Timothy Snyder or Antony Beevor.

The list just goes on.

The other side of the coin

Of course, there is also the other side. Historical revisionists with grand schemes and overarching historical narratives. I’ve already mentioned Jared Diamond but also worth reading is Ian Morris. I’ve critiqued some of their work in my thesis proposing the metaphor of ‘History as Weather’. There are also people like Niall Ferguson who cannot be doing with all this rebalancing and want to put ‘the West’ back at the centre of things. I found his attempt in Civilization extremely unconvincing but he is a prominent voice in the anti-revisionist camp.

Note: I wrote a joint review of Morris and Ferguson for the Czech daily Lidové noviny under the title of ‘New historical eschatology’. I also wrote a positive review of Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse’ soon after it came out which I would now revise significantly – see Questioning Collapse and After Collapse.

Steven Pinker’s ‘Better Angels of Our Nature‘ is another example of a grand sweep of history that tries to make the progress of humanity appear more directional and straightforward than the books on this list suggest it is or can be. And we should not forget the great systematisers of the 1990s Fukuyama andHuntington.

The temptation to discover the key to what makes human history tick is great. FromToynbee to Hari Seldon. And it is not difficult to discover interesting patterns.

The picture that the books on this list paint is that grand narratives of history do not stand up well to scrutiny. They may provide a useful lens through which to view the past, or more often the present. But there is always another grand narrative just around the corner.

In thinking about the predictive utility of history, I asked: “So what is the point of history then? Its accurate predictions are not very useful and its useful predictions are not very accurate.” History and ethnography show us the range of possible ways of being human. They don’t tell us what to do next or how to be, but they are essential components of our never-ending quest to find out what we could be.

What would make linguistics a better science? Science as a metaphor

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Background

This is a lightly edited version of a comment posted on Martin Haspelmath’s blog post “Against traditional grammar – and for normal science in linguistics“.  In it he offers a critique of the current linguistic scene as being unclear as to its goals and in need of better definitions. He proposes ‘normal science’ as an alternative:

In many fields of science, comparative research is based on objective measurements, not on categories that are hoped to be universal natural kinds. In linguistics, we can work with objectively defined comparative concepts (Haspelmath 2010).

While I am in broad agreement with the critique, I’m not sure the solution is going to lead to a ‘better science’ of linguistics. (Also, I’m not sure that this is an accurate description of how science actually works.)

Problem with ‘normal science’ approach to linguistics

I would say that the problem with the ‘normal science’ approach is that it makes it seem natural to turn to a structural description as a mode of ‘doing good linguistics’. But I think that this is misleading as to the nature of language. The current challenge of the radical potential coming from the constructionism (covering Fillmore, Croft, Goldberg) on the one hand and cognitive semantics (Lakoff, Talmy, Langacker) on the other makes a purely structural description (even imbued with functionalism) less appealing as the foundation of a newly scientificised linguistics.

It’s curious that it’s physics and chemistry that get mentioned in this context with their fully mathematised personas and not biology or geography. In both of those, precise definitions are much more provisional and iterative. Even foundational terms such as species or gene are much more fluid and less well defined than it might seem (I recommend Keller’s ‘Century of the Gene’ for an account of how discrepancies on how gene is defined among various labs was actually beneficial for the development of genetics).

That’s not to say that I strongly disagree with any of Haspelmath’s proposals but they don’t particularly make me excited to do linguistics. I found Dixon’s ‘Basic Linguistic Theory’ an exhilarating read but it was not because I felt that Dixon’s programme would lead to more consistency but because it was a radically new proposal (despite his claims to the contrary) for a theoretical basis for a comparative linguistic research agenda. Which is also why I like Haspelmath’s body of work (exemplified in projects such as the World Atlas of Language Structures and Glottolog).

But I doubt that the road ahead is in better definitions. I’m not opposed to them just skeptical that they will lead to much. The road ahead is in better data and better theory. I think that between corpus linguistics, frame semantics and construction grammar we can get both. I proposed the analogy of ‘dictionary and grammar being to language what standing on one foot is to running‘ . I think linguistics needs to embrace the dynamism of language as a human property rather than as a fixed effect (to borrow Clark’s phrase). Fillmore and Kay’s early writing on construction grammar was a first step but things seemed to have settled into the bad old ways of static structural description.

Data and theory need each other in a dialectic fashion. You need data to create a theory but you needed some proto-theory to see the data in the first place. And then you need your theory to collect more data and that data then further shapes your theory which in turns let you see the data in different ways. The difference between biology and linguistics is that our proto-theories of the biological world correspond much better to the dynamic structures which can be theorized (modeled) based on systematic data collection and its modeling. Which is why folk taxonomies of the biological world are much closer to those of botany or zoology than folk taxonomies of language are to linguistic structures. (They are much more elaborate – to start with – at least at the level available to human perception.)

My proposal is to take seriously human ability to reflect (hypostaticaly) on the way they speak (cf. Talmy’s defense of introspection) because this is at the start of any process that bootstraps a theory of language. We then need to be mindful of the way this awareness interacts with the subconscious automaticity in which the patterns of regularity we call structures seem to be used. In the same way that Fillmore and Kay asked any theory of grammar to account for the exceptions (or even take them as a starting point), I’d want to ask any theory of language to take bilingualism and code mixing as its starting point (inspired by Elaine Chaika) and take seriously the variability of acquisition of the ability to automatically use those structures.

None of this is precludes or denies the utility of the great work of linguistics like Haspemath. But it is what I think would lead to linguistics being a ‘better’ science (at least, in the sense of Wissenschaft or ‘natural philosophy’ rather than in the sense implied by the physics envy which often characterizes these efforts).

Update: 

After I finished writing this, I was listening to this episode of the Unsupervised Thinking podcast where the group was discussing two papers critiquing some of the theoretical foundations of biology (“Can a biologist fix a radio?”) and neuroscience (“Could a Neuroscientist Understand a Microprocessor?”). The general thrust of the discussion was that better definitions would be important. Because they would allow better measurement and thus quantifiable models.  But the discussion also veered towards the question of theory and pre-theoretical knowledge. To me it underscored the tension between data and theory.

My concern is only about the assumption that definitions are the solution. But I’d say that a definition (unless purely disambiguating of polysemy) is just a distillation or a snapshot of a slice in time in the never-ending push and pull of data and the model used to make sense of it as well as collect it (otherwise known as theory). This is not that different from the definition of a lexical item in a dictionary.

That is not to deny the heuristic usefulness of definitions. Which reminded me of the critique of modern axiomatic mathematics (in particular set theory and number theory) exemplified by NJ Wildberger in his online courses on Math Foundations. Wildberger is also calling for more precise definitions in mathematics and less reliance on axioms.

Future directions:

I outlined some of the fundamental epistemological problems with definitions (as a species of a referential theory of meaning).

I’m working on a more extensive elaboration of some of the issues of comparing epistemic heuristics used to model the physical and the social world with a subtitle “The differential susceptibility of units to idealization in the social and physical realms” that addresses some of the questions I outlined above.

In it, I want to suggest that the key difference between the social and physical sciences is due to how easy it is to usefully idealize units and sets in the physical and the social world. Key passage from this:

All of physics is based on idealization. You have ideal gas, perfect motion, perfect vacuum, etc. All of Newtonian physics  is based on the mathematical description of a world where things like friction don’t exist. An ideal world, if you will. Platonic, almost. And it turned out that this type of idealization can take us extremely far, if we let engineers loose on it.

Because all the progress we attribute to science has really been made by engineers. People who take a ballistic curve and ask ‘how about we add a little cross wind’. The modern world of technology around us is all built on tolerances – encoded in books of tables describing how far can we take the idealized formulas of science into the non-ideal conditions of the ‘real’ world.

In the social world, the ideal individual and ideal society are more difficult to treat as units of analysis than perfect vacuum or ideal gas. But even if we could define them, there’s far less we can do with them that would make them anywhere as useful as the idealizations of physics and chemistry. That’s why engineering a solution is a positive description when we talk about the physical world but a negative when we talk about social.

How to read ‘Women, Fire and Dangerous Things’: Guide to essential reading on human cognition

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Note:

These are rough notes for a metaphor reading group, not a continuous narrative. Any comments, corrections or elaborations are welcome.

Why should you read WFDT?

Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind is still a significantly underappreciated and (despite its high citation count) not-enough-read book that has a lot to contribute to thinking about how the mind works.

I think it provides one of the most concise and explicit models for how to think about the mind and language from a cognitive perspective. I also find its argument against the still prevalent approach to language and the mind as essentially fixed objects very compelling.

The thing that has been particularly underused in subsequent scholarship is the concept of ‘ICMs’ or ‘Idealised Cognitive Models’ which both puts metaphor (for work on which Lakoff is most well known) in its rightful context but also outlines what we should look for when we think about things like frames, models, scripts, scenarios, etc. Using this concept would have avoided many undue simplifications in work in the social sciences and humanities.

Why this guide

Unfortunately, the concision and explicitness I extolled above is surrounded by hundreds of pages of arguments and elaborations that are often less well-thought out than the central thesis and have been a vector for criticism (I’ve responded to some of these in my review of Verena Haser’s book).

As somebody who translated the whole book into Czech and penned extensive commentary on its relevance to the structuralist linguistic tradition, I have perhaps spent more time with it than most people other than the author and his editors.

Which is why when people ask me whether to read it, I usually recommend an abreviated tour of the core argument with some selections depending on the individual’s interest.

Here are some of my suggestions.

Chapters everyone should read

Chapters 3, 4, 5, 6 – Core contribution of the book – Fundamental structuring principles of human cognition

These four chapters summarize what I think everybody who thinks about language, mind and society should know about how categories work. Even if it is not necessarily the last word on every (or any) aspect, it should be the starting point for inquiry.

All the key concepts (see below) are outlined here.

Preface and Chapter 1 – Outline of the whole argument and its implications

These brief chapters lay out succinctly and, I think very clearly, the overall argument of the book and its implications. This is where he outlines the core of the critique of objectivism which I think is very important (if itself open to criticism).

Chapter 2: Precursors

This is where he outlines the broader panoply of thinkers and research outcomes in recent intellectual history whose insights this books tries to systematise and take further.

The chapter takes up some of the key thinkers who have been critical of the established paradigm. Read it not necessarily for understanding them but for a way of thinking about their work in the context of this book.

Case studies

The case studies represent a large chunk of the book and few people will read all 3. But I think at least one of them should be part of any reading of the book. Most people will be drawn to number 1 on metaphor but I find that number 2 shows off the key concepts in most depth. It will require some focus and patience from non-linguists but I think is worth the effort.

Case study 3 is perhaps too linguistic (even though it introduces the important concept of constructions) for most non-linguist.

Key concepts

No matter how the book is read, these are the key concepts I think people should walk away with understanding.

Idealized Cognitive Models (also called Frames in Lakoff’s later work)

I don’t know of any more systematic treatment of how our conceptual system is structured than this. It is not necessarily the last word but should not be overlooked.

Radial Categories

When people talk about family resemblances they ignore the complexity of the conceptual work that goes into them. Radial categories give a good sense of that depth.

Schemas and rich images

While image schemas are still a bit controversial as actual cognitive constructs, Lakoff’s treatment of them alongside rich images shows the importance of both as heuristics to interpreting cognitive phenomena.

Objectivism vs Basic Realism

Although objectivism (nothing to do with Ayn Rand) is not a position taken by any practicing philosophers and feels a bit straw-manny, I find Lakoff’s outline of it eerily familiar as I read works across the humanities and social sciences, let alone philosophy. When people read the description, they should avoid dismissing it with ‘of course nobody thinks that’ and reflect on how many people approach problems of mind and language as if they did think that.

Prototype effects and basic-level categories

These concepts are not original to Lakoff but are essential to understanding the others.

Role of metaphor and metonymy

Lakoff is best known for his earlier work on metaphor (which is why figurative language is not a key concept in itself) but this book puts metaphor and metonymy in perspective of the broader cognition.

Embodiment and motivation

Embodiment is an idea thrown around a lot these days. Lakoff’s is an important early contribution that shows some of the actual interaction between embodiment and cognition.

I find it particularly relevant when he talks about how concepts are motivated but not determined by embodied cognition.

Constructions

Lakoff’s work was taking shape alongside Fillmore’s work on construction grammar and Langacker’s on cognitive grammar. While the current construction grammar paradigm is much more influenced by those, I think it is still worth reading Lakoff for his contribution here. Particularly case studies 2 and 3 are great examples of the power of this approach.

Additional chapters of interest

Elaborations of core concepts

Chapters 17 and 18 elaborate on the core concepts in important ways but many people never reach them because they follow a lot of work on philosophical implications.

Chapter 17 on Cognitive Semantics takes another more deeper look at ICMs (idealized cognitive models) across various dimensions.

Chapter 18 deals with the question of how conceptual categories work across languages in the context of relativism. The name of the book is derived from a non-English example but this takes the question of universals and language specificity head on. Perhaps not the in the most comprehensive way (the debate on relativism has moved on) but it illuminates the core concepts further.

Case studies

Case Studies 2 and 3 should be of great interest to linguists. Not because they are perfect but because they show the depth of analysis required of even relatively simple concepts.

Philosophical implications

Lakoff is not shy about placing his work in the context of disrruption of the reigning philosophical paradigm of his (and to a significant extent our) day. Chapter 11 goes into more depth on how he understands the ‘objectivist paradigm’. It has been criticised for not representing actual philosophical positions (which he explicitly says he’s not doing) but I think it’s representative of many actual philosophical and other treatments of language and cognition.

This is then elaborated in chapters 12 – 16 and of course in his subsequent book with Mark Johnson Philosophy in the Flesh. I find the positive argument they’re making compelling but it is let down by staying on the surface of the issues they’re criticising.

What to skip

Where Lakoff (and elsewhere Lakoff and Johnson) most open themselves to criticism is their relatively shallow reading of their opponents. Most philosophers don’t engage with this work because they don’t find it speaks their language and when it does, it is easily dismissed as too light.

While I think that the broad critique this book presents of what it calls ‘objectivist approaches’ is correct, I don’t recommend that anyone takes the details too seriously. Lakoff simultaneously gives it too little and too much attention. He argues against very small details but leaves too many gaps.

This means that those who should be engaging with the very core of the work’s contribution fixate on errors and gaps in his criticism and feel free to dismiss the key aspects of what he has to say (much to their detriment).

For example, his critique of situational semantics leaves too many gaps and left him open to successful rejoinders even if he was probably right.

What is missing

While Lakoff engages with cognitive anthropology (and he and Johnson acknowledge their debts in the preface to Metaphors We Live By), he does not reflect the really interesting work in this area. Goffman (shockingly) gets no mention, nor does Victor Turner whose work on liminality is pretty important companion.

There’s also little acknowledgement of work on texts such as that by Halliday and Hasan (although, that was arguably still waiting for its greatest impact in the mid 1980s with the appearance of corpora). But Lakoff and most of the researchers in this areas stay firmly at the level of a clause. But give that my own work is mostly focusing on discourse and text-level phenomena, I would say that.

What to read next

Here are some suggestions for where to go next for elaborations of the key concepts or ideas with relevance to those outlined in the book.

  • Moral politics by Lakoff launched his forays into political work but I think it’s more important as an example of this way of thinking applied for a real purpose. He replaces Idealized Cognitive Models with Frames but shows many great examples of them at work. Even if it falls short as an exhaustive analysis of the issues, it is very important as a methodological contribution of how frames work in real life. I think of it almost as a fourth case study to this book.
  • The Way We Think by Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner provides a model of how cognitive models work ‘online’ during the process of speaking. Although, it has made a more direct impact in the field of construction grammar, its importance is still underappreciated outside it. I think of it as an essential companion to the core contribution of this book. Lakoff himself draws on Fauconnier’s earlier work on mental spaces in this book.
  • Work on construction grammar This book was one of the first places where the notion of ‘construction’ in the sense of ‘construction grammar’ was introduced. It has since developed in its own substantive field of study that has been driven by others. I’d say the work of Adele Goldberg is still the best introduction but for my money William Croft’s ‘Radical Construction Grammar’ is the most important. Taylor’s overview of the related ‘Cognitive Grammar’ is also not a bad next read.
  • Work on cognitive semantics There is much to read here. Talmy’s massive 2 volumes of ‘Cognitive Semantics’ are perhaps the most comprehensive but most of the work here happens across various journals. I’m not aware of a single shorter introduction.
  • Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature by Richard Rorty is a book I frankly wish Lakoff had read. Rorty’s taking apart of philosophy’s epistemological imaginings is very much complementary to Lakoff’s critique of ‘objectivism’ but done while engaging deeply with the philosophical issues. While I basically go along with Lakoff’s and later Lakoff and Johnson’s core argument, I can see why it could be more easily dismissed than Rorty. Of course, Rorty’s work is also better known for its reputation than deeply reflected in much of today’s philosophy. Lakoff and Johnson’s essential misunderstanding of Rorty’s contribution and fundamental compatibility with their project in Philosophy in the Flesh is an example of why so many don’t take that aspect of this work seriously. (Although, they are right that both Rorty and Davidson would have been better served by a less impoverished view of meaning and language.)

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

Linguistics according to Fillmore

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While people keep banging on about Chomsky as being the be all and end all of linguistics (I’m looking at you philosophers of language), there have been many linguists who have had a much more substantial impact on how we actually think about language in a way that matters. In my post on why Chomsky is not really a linguist at all I listed a few.

Sadly, one of these linguists died yesterday. It was Charles J Fillmore who was a towering figure among linguists without writing a single book. In my mind, he changed the face of linguistics three times with just three articles (one of them co-authored). Obviously, he wrote many more but compared to his massive impact, his output was relatively modest. His ideas have been with me all through my life as a linguist and on reflection, they form a foundation about what I know language to be. Therefore, this is not so much an obituary (for which I’m hardly the most qualified person out there) as a manifesto for a linguistics of a truly human language.

The case for Fillmore

The first article, more of a slim monograph at 80 odd pages, was Case for Case (which, for some reason, I first read in Russian translation). Published in 1968 it was one of the first efforts to find deeper functional connections in generative grammar (following on his earlier work with transformations). If you’ve studied Chomskean Government and Binding, this is where thematic roles essentially come from. I only started studying linguistics in 1991 which is when Case for Case was already considered a classic. Particularly in Prague where function was so important. But even after all those years, it is still worth reading for any minimalist  out there. Unlike so many in today’s divided world, Fillmore engaged with the whole universe of linguistics, citing Halliday, Tesniere, Jakobson,  Whorf, Jespersen, and others while giving an excellent overview of the treatment of case by different theories and theorists. But the engagement went even deeper, the whole notion of ‘case’ as one “base component of the grammar of every language” brought so much traditional grammar back into contact with a linguistics that was speeding away from all that came before at a rate of knots.

From today’s perspective, its emphasis on the deep and surface structures, as well as its relatively impoverished semantics may seem a bit dated, but it represents an engagement with language used to express real meaning.  The thinking that went into deep cases transformed into what has become known as Frame Semantics (“I thought of each case frame as characterizing a small abstract ‘scene’ or ‘situation’, so that to understand the semantic structure of the verb it was necessary to understand the properties of such schematized scenes” [1982]) which is where things really get interesting.

Fillmore in the frame

When I think about frame semantics, I always go to his 1982 article Frame Semantics published in the charmingly named conference proceedings ‘Linguistics in the morning calm’ but it had its first outing in 1976. George Lakoff used it as one of the key inspirations to his idealized cognitive models in Women, Fire, and Dangerous things which is where this site can trace its roots. As I have said before, I essentially think about metaphors as a special kinds of frames.

In it, he says:

By the term ‘frame’ I have in mind any system of concepts related in such a way that to understand anyone of them you have to  understand the whole structure in which it fits; when one of the things in such a structure is introduced into a text, or into a conversation, all of the others are automatically made available. I intend the word ‘frame’ as used here to be a general cover term for the set of concepts variously known, in the literature on natural language understanding, as ‘schema: ‘script’, ‘scenario’, ‘ideational scaffolding’, ‘cognitive model’, or ‘folk theory’.

It is a bit of a mouthful but it captures in a paragraph the absolute fundamentals of the semantics of human language as opposed to projecting the rules of formal logic and truth conditions onto an impoverished version of language that all the generative-inspired approaches try to do. Also, it brings together many other concepts from different fields of scholarship. Last year I presented a paper on the power of the concept of frame where I found even more terms that have a close affinity to it which only underscores the far reaching consequences of Fillmore’s insight.

As I was looking for some more quotes from that article, I realized that I’d have to pretty much cut and paste in the whole of it. Almost, every sentence there is pure gold. Rereading it now after many many years, it’s becoming clear how many things from it I’ve internalized (and frankly, reinvented some of the ideas I forgot had been there).

Constructing Fillmore

About the same time, and merging the two earlier insights, Fillmore started working on the principles that have come to be known as construction grammar. Although, by then, the ideas were some years old, I always think of his 1988 article with Paul Kay and Mary Catherine O’Conner as a proper construction grammar manifesto. In it they say:

The overarching claim is that the proper units of a grammar are more similar to the notion of construction in traditional and pedagogical grammars than to that of rule in most versions of generative grammar.

Constructions, according to Fillmore have these properties:

  1. They are not limited to the constituents of a single syntactic tree. Meaning, they span what has been considered as the building blocks of language.
  2. They specify at the same time syntactic, lexical, semantic and pragmatic information.

  3. Lexical items can also be viewed as constructions (this is absolutely earth shattering and I don’t think linguistics has come to grips with it, yet).

  4. They are idiomatic. That is, their meaning is not built up from their constituent parts.

Although Lakoff’s study of ‘there constructions’ in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things came out a year earlier (and is still essential reading), I prefer Fillmore as an introduction to the subject (if only because I never had to translate it).

The beauty of construction grammar (just as the beauty of frame semantics) is in that it can bridge much of the modern thinking about language with grammatical insights and intuitions of generations of researchers from across many schools of thought. But I am genuinely inspired by its commitment to language as a whole, expressed in the 1999 article by Fillmore and Kay:

To adopt a constructional approach is to undertake a commitment in principle to account for the entirety of each language. This means that the relatively general patterns of the language, such as the one licensing the ordering of a finite auxiliary verb before its subject in English as illustrated in 1, and the more idiomatic patterns, such as those exemplified in 2, stand on an equal footing as data for which the grammar  must provide an account.

(1) a. What have you done?  b. Never will I leave you. c. So will she. d. Long may you prosper! e. Had I known, . . . f. Am I tired! g. . . . as were the others h. Thus did the hen reward Beecher.

(2) a. by and large b. [to] have a field day c. [to] have to hand it to [someone]  d. (*A/*The) Fool that I was, . . . e. in x’s own right

Given such a commitment, the construction grammarian is required to develop an explicit system of representation, capable of encoding economically and without loss of generalization all the constructions (or patterns) of the language, from the most idiomatic to the most general.

Notice that they don’t just say ‘language’ but ‘each language’. Both of those articles give ample examples of how constructions work and what they do and I commend them to your linguistic enjoyment.

Ultimately, I do not subscribe to the exact version of construction grammar that Fillmore and Kay propose, agreeing with William Croft that it is still too beholden to the formalist tradition of the generative era, but there is something to learn from on every page of everything Fillmore wrote.

Once more with meaning: the FrameNet years

Both frame semantics and construction grammar impacted Fillmore’s work in lexicography with Sue Atkins and culminated in FrameNet a machine readable frame semantic dictionary providing a model for a semantic module to a construction grammar. To make the story complete, we can even see FrameNet as a culmination of the research project begun in Case for Case  which was the development of a “valence dictionary” (as he summarized it in 1982). While FrameNet is much more than that and has very much abandoned the claim to universal deep structures, it can be seen as accomplishing the mission of a language with meaning Fillmore set out on in the 1960s.

Remembering Fillmore

I only met Fillmore once when he came to lecture at a summer school in Prague almost twenty years ago. I enjoyed his lectures but was really too star struck to take advantage of the opportunity. But I saw enough of him to understand why he is remembered with deep affection and admiration by all of his colleagues and students whose ranks form a veritable who’s who of linguists to pay attention to.

In my earlier post, I compared him in stature and importance to Roman Jakobson (even if Jakobson’s crazy voluminous output across four languages dwarfs Fillmore’s – and almost everyone else’s). Fillmore was more than a linguist’s linguist, he was a linguist who mattered (and matters) to anyone who wanted (and wants) to understand how language works beyond a few minimalist soundbites. Sadly it is possible to meet graduates with linguistics degrees who never heard of Jakobson or Fillmore. While it’s almost impossible to meet someone who doesn’t know anything about language but has heard of Chomsky. But I have no doubt that in the decades of language scholarship to come, it will be Fillmore and his ideas that will be the foundation upon which the edifice of linguistics will rest. May he rest in peace.

Post Script

I am far from being an expert on Fillmore’s work and life. This post reflects my personal perspective and lessons I’ve learned rather than a comprehensive or objective reference work. I may have been rather free with the narrative arc of his work. Please be free with corrections and clarifications. Language Log reposted a more complete profile of his life.

References

  • Fillmore, C., 1968. The Case for Case. In E. Bach & R. Harms, eds. Universals in Linguistic Theory. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, pp. 1–88. Available at: http://pdf.thepdfportal.com/PDFFiles/123480.pdf [Accessed February 15, 2014].
  • Fillmore, C.J., 1976. Frame Semantics and the nature of language. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 280 (Origins and Evolution of Language and Speech), pp.20–32.
  • Fillmore, C., 1982. Frame Semantics. In The Linguistic Society of Korea, ed. Linguistics in the morning calm : International conference on linguistics : Selected papers. Seoul  Korea: Hanshin Pub. Co., pp. 111–139.
  • Fillmore, C.J., Kay, P. & O’Connor, M.C., 1988. Regularity and Idiomaticity in Grammatical Constructions: The Case of Let Alone. Language, 64(3), pp.501–538.
  • Kay, P. & Fillmore, C.J., 1999. Grammatical constructions and linguistic generalizations: the What’s X doing Y? construction. Language, 75(1), pp.1–33.

Storms in all Teacups: The Power and Inequality in the Battle for Science Universality

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The great blog Genealogy of Religion posted this video with a somewhat approving commentary:

The video started off with panache and promised some entertainment, however, I found myself increasingly annoyed as the video continued. The problem is that this is an exchange of cliches that pretends to be a fight of truth against ignorance. Sure, Storm doesn’t put forward a very coherent argument for her position, but neither does Minchin. His description of science vs. faith is laughable (being in awe at the size of the universe, my foot) and nowhere does he display any nuance nor, frankly, any evidence that he is doing anything other than parroting what he’s heard on some TV interview with Dawkins. I have much more sympathy with the Storms of this world than these self-styled defenders of science whose only credentials are that they can remember a bit of high school physics or chemistry and have read an article by some neo-atheist in Wired. What’s worse, it’s would be rationalists like him who do what passes for science reporting in major newspapers or on the BBC.

But most of all, I find it distasteful that he chose a young woman as his antagonist. If he wished to take on the ‘antiscience’ establishment, there are so many much better figures to target for ridicule. Why not take on the pseudo spiritualists in the mainstream media with their ecumenical conciliatory garbage. How about taking on tabloids like Nature or Science that publish unreliable preliminary probes as massive breakthroughs. How about universities that put out press releases distorting partial findings. Why not take on economists who count things that it makes no sense to count just to make things seem scientific. Or, if he really has nothing better to do, let him lay into some super rich creationist pastor. But no, none of these captured his imagination, instead he chose to focus his keen intellect and deep erudition on a stereotype of a young woman who’s trying to figure out a way to be taken seriously in a world filled with pompous frauds like Minchin.

The blog post commenting on the video sparked a debate about the limits of knowledge (Note: This is a modified version of my own comment). But while there’s a debate to be had about the limits of knowledge (what this blog is about),  this is not the occasion. There is no need to adjudicate about which of these two is more ‘on to something’. They’re not touching on anything of epistemological interest, they’re just playing a game of social positioning in the vicinity of interesting issues. But in this game, people like Michin have been given a lot more chips to play with than people like Storm. It’s his follies and prejudices and not hers that are given a fair hearing. So I’d rather spend a few vacuous moments in her company than endorse his mindless ranting.

And as for ridiculing people for stupidity or shallow thinking, I’m more than happy to take part. But I want to have a look at those with power and prestige, because they just as often as Storms act just as silly and irrationally the moment they step out of their areas of expertise. I see this all the time in language, culture and history (where I know enough about to judge the level of insight). Here’s the most recent one that caught my eye:

It comes from a side note in a post about evolutionary foundations of violence by a self-proclaimed scientist (the implied hero in Minchin’s rant):

 It is said that the Bedouin have nearly 100 different words for camels, distinguishing between those that are calm, energetic, aggressive, smooth-gaited, or rough, etc. Although we carefully identify a multitude of wars — the Hundred Years War, the Thirty Years War, the American Civil War, the Vietnam War, and so forth — we don’t have a plural form for peace.

Well, this paragon of reason could be forgiven for not knowing what sort of non-sense this ‘100 words for’ cliche is. The Language Log has spilled enough bits on why this and other snowclones are silly. But the second part of the argument is just stupid. And it is a typical scientist blundering about the world as if the rules of evidence didn’t apply to him outside the lab and as if data not in a spreadsheet did not require a second thought. As if being a PhD in evolutionary theory meant everything else he says about humans must be taken seriously. But how can such a moronic statement be taken as anything but feeble twaddle to be laughed at and belittled? How much more cumulatively harmful are moments like these (and they are all over the place) than the socializing efforts of people like Storm from the video?

So, I should probably explain why this is so brainless. First, we don’t have a multitude of words war  (just like the Bedouin don’t have 100 or even 1 dozen for a camel). We just have the one and we have a lot of adjectives with which we can modify its meaning. And if we want to look for some that are at least equivalent to possible camel attributes, we won’t choose names of famous wars but rather things like civil war, total war, cold war, holy war, global war, naval war, nuclear war, etc. I’m sure West Point or even Wikipedia has much to say about a possible classification. And of course,  all of this applies to peace in exactly the same way. There are ‘peaces’ with names like Peace of Westphalia, Arab-Israeli Peace, etc. with just as many attributive pairs like international peace, lasting peace, regional peace, global peace, durable peace, stable peace, great peace, etc.  I went to a corpus to get some examples but that this must be the case was obvious and a simple Google search would give enough examples to confirm a normal language speaker’s  intuition. But this ‘scientist’ had a point to make and because he’s spent twenty years doing research in evolution of violence, he must surely be right about everything on the subject.

Creative Commons License jbraine via Compfight

Now, I’m sure this guy is not an idiot. He’s obviously capable of analysis and presenting a coherent argument. But there’s an area that he chose to address about which he is about as qualified to make pronouncements as Storm and Minchin are about the philosophy of science. And what he said there is stupid and he should be embarrassed for having said it. Should he be ridiculed and humiliated for it the way I did here? No. He made the sort of mistake everyone makes from high school students to Nobel laureates. He thought he knew something and didn’t bother to examine his knowledge. Or he did try to examine it but  didn’t have the right tools to do it. Fine. But he’s a scientist (and a man not subject to stereotypes about women) so we give him and too many like him a pass. But Storm, a woman who like so many of her generation uses star signs to talk about relationships and is uncomfortable with the grasping maw of classifying science chomping on the very essence of her being, she is fair game?

It’s this inequality that makes me angry. We afford one type of shallowness the veneer respectability and rake another one over the coals of ridicule and opprobrium. Not on this blog!

Creative Commons License Juliana Coutinho via Compfight

UPDATE: I was just listening to this interview with a philosopher and historian of science about why there was so much hate coming from scientists towards the Gaia hypothesis and his summation, it seems to me, fits right in with what this post is about. He says: “When scientists feel insecure and threatened, they turn nasty.” And it doesn’t take a lot of study of the history and sociology of science to find ample examples of this. The ‘science wars’, the ‘linguistics wars’, the neo-Darwinst thought purism, the list just goes on. The world view of scientism is totalising and has to deal with exactly the same issues as other totalising views such as monotheistic religions with constitutive ontological views or socio-economic utopianisms (e.g. neo-liberalism or Marxism).

And one of those issues is how do you afford respect to or even just maintain conversation with people who challenge your ideological totalitarianism – or in other words, people who are willfully and dangerously “wrong”. You can take the Minchin approach of suffering in silence at parties and occasionally venting your frustration at innocent passerbys, but that can lead to outbreaks group hysteria as we saw with the Sokal hoax or one of the many moral panic campaigns.

Or you can take the more difficult journey of giving up some of your claims on totality and engaging with even those most threatening to to you as human beings; the way Feyerabend did or Gould sometimes tried to do. This does not mean patiently proselytizing in the style of evangelical missionaries but more of an ecumenical approach of meeting together without denying who you are. This will inevitably involve moments where irreconcilable differences will lead to a stand on principles (cf. Is multi-culturalism bad for women?) but even in those cases an effort at understanding can benefit both sides as with the question of vaccination described in this interview. At all stages, there will be temptation at “understanding” the other person by reducing them to our own framework of humanity. Psychologizing a religious person as an unsophisticate dealing with feelings of awe in the face of incomprehensible nature or pitying the atheist for not being able to feel the love of God and reach salvation. There is no solution. No utopia of perfect harmony and understanding. No vision of lions and lambs living in peace. But acknowledging our differences and slowing down our outrage can perhaps make us into the better versions of us and help us stop wasting time trying to reclaim other people’s stereotypes.

Storm in a teacupCreative Commons License BruceW. via Compfight

UPDATE 2: I am aware of the paradox between the introduction and the conclusion of the previous update. Bonus points for spotting it. I actually hold a slightly more nuanced view than the first paragraph would imply but that is a topic for another blog post.

Sunsets, horizons and the language/mind/culture distinction

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For some reason, many accomplished people, when they are done accomplishing what they’ve set out to accomplish, turn their minds to questions like:

  • What is primary, thought or language.
  • What is primary, culture or language.
  • What is primary, thought or culture.

I’d like to offer a small metaphor hack for solving or rather dissolving these questions. The problem is that all three concepts: culture, mind and language are just useful heuristics for talking about aspects of our being. So when I see somebody speaking in a way I don’t understand, I can talk about their language. Or others behave in ways I don’t like, so I talk about their culture. Then, there’s stuff going on in my head that’s kind of like language, but not really, so I call that sort of stuff mind. But these words are just useful heuristics not discrete realities. Old Czechs used the same word for language and nation. English often uses the word ‘see’ for ‘understand’. What does it mean? Not that much.

Let’s compare it with the idea of the setting sun. I see the Sun disappearing behind the horizon and I can make some useful generalizations about it. Organize my directions (East/West), plant plants to grow better, orient how my dwelling is positioned, etc. And my description of this phenomenon as ‘the sun is setting behind the horizon’ is perfectly adequate. But then I might start asking questions like ‘what does the Sun do when it’s behind the horizon?’ Does it turn itself off and travel under the earth to rise again in the East the next morning? Or does it die and a new one rises again the next day? Those are all very bad questions because I accepted my local heuristic as describing a reality. It would be even worse if I tried to go and see the edge or the horizon. I’d be like the two fools who agreed that they would follow the railway tracks all the way to the point they meet. They keep going until one of them turns around and says ‘dude, we already passed it’.

So to ask questions about how language influences thought and culture influences language is the same as trying to go see the horizon. Language, culture and mind are just ways of describing things for particular purposes and when we start using them outside those purposes, we get ourselves in a muddle.

Great Lakes in Sunglint (NASA, International Space Station, 06/14/12) NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center via Compfight

RaAM 9 Abstract: Of Doves and Cocks: Collective Negotiation of a Metaphoric Seduction

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Given how long I’ve been studying metaphor (at least since 1991 when I first encountered Lakoff and Johnson’s work and full on since 2000) it is amazing that I have yet to attend a RaAM (Researching and Applying Metaphor) conference. I had an abstract accepted to one of the previous RaAMs but couldn’t go. This time, I’ve had an abstract accepted and wild horses won’t keep me away (even though it is expensive since no one is sponsoring my going). The abstract that got accepted is about a small piece of research that I conceived back in 2004, wrote up in a blog post in 2006, was supposed to talk about at a conference in 2011 and finally will get to present this July at RaAM 9).

Unlike most academic endeavours, this one needs to come with a parental warning. The materials described contains profane sexual and scatological imagery as employed for the purposes of satire. But I think it makes a really important point that I don’t see people making as a matter of course in the metaphor studies literature. I argue that metaphors can be incredibly powerful and seductive but that they are also routinely deconstructed and negotiated. They are not something that just happens to us. They are opportunistic and random just as much as they are systematic and fundamental to our cognition. Much of the current metaphor studies is still fighting the battle against the view that metaphors are mere peripheral adornments on the literal. And to be sure the “just a metaphor” label is still to be seen in popular discourse today. But it has now been over 40 years since this fight has been intellectually won. So we need to focus on the broader questions about the complexities of the role metaphor plays in social cognition. And my contribution to RaAM hopes to point in that direction.

 

Of Doves and Cocks: Collective Negotiation of a Metaphoric Seduction

In this contribution, I propose to investigate metaphoric cognition as an extended discursive and social phenomenon that is the cornerstone of our ability to understand and negotiate issues of public importance. Since Lakoff and Johnson’s groundbreaking study, research in linguistics, cognitive psychology, as well as discourse studies, has tended to view metaphor as a purely unconscious phenomenon that is outside of a normal speaker’s ability to manipulate. However important this view of metaphor and cognition may be, it tells only a part of the story. An equally important and surprisingly frequent is the ability of metaphor to enter into collective (meta)cognition through extended discourse in which acceptable cross-domain mappings are negotiated.
I will provide an example of a particular metaphorical framing and the metacognitive framework it engendered that made it possible for extended discourse to develop. This metaphor, a leitmotif in the ‘Team America’ film satire, mapped the physiological and phraseological properties of taboo body parts onto geopolitical issues of war in such a way that made it possible for participants in the subsequent discourse to simultaneously be seduced by the power of the metaphor and empowered to engage in talk about cognition, text and context as exemplified by statements such as: “It sounds quite weird out of context, but the paragraph about dicks, pussies and assholes was the craziest analogy I’ve ever heard, mainly because it actually made sense.” I will demonstrate how this example is typical rather than aberrant of metaphor in discourse and discuss the limits of a purely cognitive approach to metaphor.
Following Talmy, I will argue that significant elements of metaphoric cognition are available to speakers’ introspection and thus available for public negotiation. However, this does not preclude for the sheer power of the metaphor to have an impact on both cognition and discourse. I will argue that as a result of the strength of this one metaphor, the balance of the discussion of this highly satirical film was shifted in support of military interventionism as evidenced by the subsequent popular commentary. By mapping political and gender concepts on the basic structural inevitability of human sexual anatomy reinforced by idiomatic mappings between taboo words and moral concepts, the metaphor makes further negotiation virtually impossible within its own parameters. Thus an individual speaker may be simultaneously seduced and empowered by a particular metaphorical mapping.

21st Century Educational Voodoo

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Jim Shimabukuro uses Rupert Murdoch’s quote “We have a 21st century economy with a 19th century education system” to pose a question of what should 21st Century Education look like (http://etcjournal.com/2008/11/03/174/) “what are the key elements for an effective 21st century model for schools and colleges?”.

However, what he is essentially asking us to do is perform an act of voodoo. He’s encouraging us to start thinking about what would make our education similar to our vision of what the 21st Century Economy looks like. Such exercises can come up with good ideas but unfortunately this one is very likely to descend into predictability. People will write in how important it is to prepare students to be flexible, learn important skills to compete in the global markets, use technology to leverage this or the other. There may be the odd original idea but most respondents will stick with cliches. Because that’s what our magical discourse about education encourages most of all (this sounds snarky but I really mean this more descriptively than as an evaluation).

There are three problems with the whole exercises.

First, why should we listen to to moguls and venture capitalists about education? They’re no more qualified to address this topic than any random individual who’s given it some thought and are more likely to have ulterior motives. To Murdoch we should say, you’ve messed up the print media environment, failed with your online efforts, stay away from our schools.

Second, we don’t have a 19th century education system. Sure, we still have teachers standing in front of students. We have classes and we have school years. We have what David Tyack and Larry Cuban have called the “grammar of schooling”. It hasn’t changed much on the surface. But neither has the grammar of English. Yet, we can express things in English now that we couldn’t in the 1800s. We use the English grammar with its ancient roots to express what we need in our time. Likewise, we use the same grammar of schooling to have the education system express our societal needs. It is imperfect but it is in NO way holding us down. The evidence is either manufactured or misinterpreted. Sure, if we sat down and started designing an education system today from scratch, we’d probably do it differently but the outcomes would probably be pretty much the same. Meaning, the state of the world isn’t due to the educational system but rather vice versa.

Third, we don’t have a 21st century economy. Of course, the current economy is in the 21st century but it is much less than what we envision 21st century economy to imply. It is global (as it was in the 1848 when Marx and Engels were writing their manifesto). It is exploitative (of both human and natural resources). It is in the hands of the powerful and semicompetent few. Just because workers get fired by email from a continent away and stocks crash in matter of minutes rather than hours, we can’t really talk about something fundamentally unique. Physical and symbolic property is still the key part of the economy. Physical property still takes roughly as long to shift about as it did two centuries ago (give or take a day or a month) and symbolic property is still traded in the same way (can I interest you in a tulip?). Sure, there are thousands particular differences we could point to but the essence of our existence is not that much changed. Except for things like indoor plumbing  (thank God!), modern medicine and speed of communication – but the education system of today has all of those pretty much in hand.

My conclusion. Don’t expect people to be relevant or right just because they are rich or successful. Question the route they took to where they are before you take their advice on the direction you should go. And, if you’re going to drag history into your analogies, study it very very carefully. Don’t rely on what your teachers told you, it was all lies!

There’s more to memory than the brain: Psychologists run clever experiments, make trivial claims, take gullible internet by storm

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The online media are drawn to any “scientific” claims about the internet’s influence on our nature as humans like flies to a pile of excrement. Sadly, in this metaphor, only the flies are figurative. The latest heap of manure to instigate an annoying buzzing cloud of commentary from Wired to the BBC, is an article by Sparrow et al. claiming to show that because there are search engines, we don’t have to remember as much as before. Most notably, if we know that some information can be easily retrieved, we remember where it can be obtained instead of what it is. As Wired reports:

“A study of 46 college students found lower rates of recall on newly-learned facts when students thought those facts were saved on a computer for later recovery.” http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2011-07/15/search-engines-memory

Sparrow et al. designed a bunch of experiments that “prove” this claim. Thus, they holler, the internet changes how we remember. This was echoed by literally hundreds of headlines (Google claims over 600). Here’s a sample:

  • Google Effect: Changes to our Brains
  • Search engines like Google ‘changing the way human memory works’
  • Search engines change how memory works
  • Google Is Destroying Our Memories, Scientists Find
  • It pays to remember, search engines ruining our memory
  • Google rewiring the way we remember, study says
  • Has Google turned your memory to mush?
  • Internet search engines cause poor memory, scientists claim
  • Researchers: Search Engines Supplanting Our Memory
  • Google changing way brain remembers information

Many of these headlines are from “reputable” publications and they can be summarized by three words: Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!

All they had to do is read this part of the abstract to understand that nothing like the stuff they blather about follows from the study:

“The results of four studies suggest that when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it. The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.”

But they were not helped by Science whose publication of these results is more of a self-serving stunt than a serious attempt to further knowledge. The title of the original “Google Effects on Memory” is all but designed to generate bat-shit crazy headlines. If the title were to be truthful, it would have to be “Google has no more effects on memory than a paper and pen or a friend.” Even the Science Magazine report on the study entitled “Searching for the Google Effect on People’s Memory” concludes it “doesn’t directly answer that question”. In fact, it says that the internet is filling in the role of “transactive memory” which describes the fact that we rely on people to remember things. Which means it has no impact on our brains at all. It just magnifies the transactive effects already in existence.

Any claim about a special effect of Google on any kind of memory can be debunked in two words: “shopping list”! All Sparrow at al. discovered is that the internet has changed us as much as a stub of a pencil and a grubby piece of paper. Meaning, not at all.

Some headlines cottoned onto this but they are few and far between:

  • Search Engine “Memory Loss” in Fact a Sign of Smart Behavior‎
  • Search Engines Ruin Our Memory, Make Us Smarter

Sparrow, the lead author of the study, when interviewed by Wired said: “It’s very similar to how we use people in our lives, The internet is really just an interface with a lot of other people.”

In other words, What the internet has changed is the deployment of strategies we have always used for managing our memory. Sparrow et al. use an old term “transactive memory” to describe this but that’s needed only because cognitive psychology’s view of memory has been so limited. Memory is not just about storage and retrieval. Like all of our cognition it is tied in with a whole host of strategies (sometimes lumped together under the heading of metacognition) that have a transactive and social dimension.

Let’s take the example of mobile phones. About 15 years ago I remembered about 4 phone numbers (home, work, mother, friend). Now, I remember none. They’re all stored in my mobile phone. What’s happened? I changed my strategy of information storage and retrieval because of the technology available. Was this a radical change? No, because I needed a lot more number so I carried a little booklet where I kept the rest of the numbers. So the mobile phone freed my memory of four items. Big deal! Arguably, these four items have a huge potential transactional impact. They mean that if my mobile phone is dead or lost, I cannot call the people most likely to be able to offer assistance. But how often does that happen? It hasn’t happened to me yet in an emergency. And in an non-emergency I have many backups. At any rate, in the past I was much more likely to be caught up in an emergency where I couldn’t find a phone at all. So the change has been fairly minimal.

But what’s more interesting here is that I didn’t realize this change until I heard someone talk about it. This transactional change is a topic of conversation, it is not just something that happened, it is part of common knowledge (and common knowledge only becomes common because of a lot of people talk about it to a lot of other people).

The same goes for the claims made by Sparrow et al. The strategies used to maintain access to factual knowledge have changed with the technology available. But they didn’t just change, people have been talking about this change. “Just Google it” is a part of daily conversation. In his podcasts, Leo Laporte has often talked about how his approach to remembering has changed with the advent of Google. One early strategy for remembering websites has been the Bookmark. People have made significant collections of bookmarks to sites, not unlike rollodexes of old. But about five or so years ago Google got a lot better at finding the right sites, so bookmarks went away. Personally, now that Chrome syncs bookmarks so seemlessly, I’ve started using them again. Wow, change in technology, facilitates a change in strategy. Sparrow et al. should do some research on this. Since I started using the Internet when it was still spelled with a capital “I”, I still remember urls of key websites: Google, Yahoo, Gmail, BBC, my own, etc. But there are people who don’t. I’ve personally observed a highly intelligent CEO of a company to type “Google” in the Bing search box in Internet Explorer. And a few years ago, after a university changed its portal, I was soothing an angry professor, who complained that the link to Google was removed from the page that automatically came up on his computer. He never learned how to get there any other way because he didn’t need to. Now he does. We acquire strategies to deal with information as we need them.

Before the availability of writing (and even after), there were a whole lot of strategies available for remembering things. These were part of the cultural conversation as much as the internet is today. Some of these strategies became part of religious ritual. Some of them are a part of a trickster’s arsenal – Joshua Foer describes some in Moonwalking with Einstein. Many are part of the art of “study skills” many people talk about.

All that Sparrow et al. demonstrated is that when some of these strategies are deployed, it has a small effect on recall. This is not a bad thing to know but it’s not in any way worth over 600 media stories about it. To evaluate this much reduced claim we would have to carefully examine their research methodology and the underlying assumptions which is not what this post is about. It’s about the mistreatment of research results by media hungry academics.

I don’t begrudge Sparrow et al. their 15 minutes of fame. I’m not surprised, dismayed or even disappointed at the link greed of the journalistic herd who fell over themselves to uncritically spread this research fluff. Also, many of the actual articles were quite balanced about the findings but how much of that balance will survive the effect of a mendatiously bombastic headline is anybody’s guess. So all in all it’s business as usual in the popularization of “science” in the “media”.

ResearchBlogging.org Bohannon, J. (2011). Searching for the Google Effect on People’s Memory Science, 333 (6040), 277-277 DOI: 10.1126/science.333.6040.277

Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D. (2011). Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1207745

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