"Metaphors We Live By" by Lakoff and Johnson

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eldin raigmore
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"Metaphors We Live By" by Lakoff and Johnson

Post by eldin raigmore » 10 Nov 2014 17:55

I have been reading George Lakoff's and Mark Johnson's "Metaphors We Live By" with increasing disappointment.
I might not be able to finish it; I'm reminded of the times I tried to read Karl Marx's "Das Kapital" and couldn't go for more than two paragraphs without having to take a break for a couple of days.

My first clue that something is wrong could have been, but wasn't, the title, which is a big hint (perceptible to me only in retrospect) that it's a book-length advocation of the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Or, maybe, of a "strengthened weak Sapir-Whorf hypothesis".

But my actual first clue was the part of chapter 20 beginning on page 136 headed "Regularities of Linguistic Form". This is a rationale for why questions should end with rising intonation and statements should end with falling intonation. They say it's based on the metaphor "UP IS UNKNOWN, DOWN IS KNOWN".
The trouble is, it's completely arbitrary, as far as anyone knows, that the more-often-per-second frequencies with the shorter wavelengths should be considered "high" and the less-often-per-second frequencies with the longer wavelengths should be considered "low". In the earliest ancient Greek writing about pitch those metaphors were reversed; longer wavelengths (greater frequencies) were "high" and shorter wavelengths (lesser frequencies) were "low". And there's no reason the metaphor has to be vertical. It could be color. Sometimes the shorter-wavelength more-frequent pitches are called "blue" and the longer-wavelength less-frequent pitches are called "red". It depends on language, on history, on time, on culture. (It's relative, as will become relevant later in this post.)
So it's ridiculous to use this coincidence between to metaphors to explain that, "in most non-tonal languages", queries tend to end with increasing frequency and decreasing wavelength, while statements end with decreasing frequency and increasing wavelength.

At first I just thought this was a flaw in what the authors probably considered an unimportant side-issue. I thought they probably had these things fact-checked by a graduate-student intern, who must have slipped up. That's a mistake big-shot authors often make in first editions; especially authors who are reputed among other academics in their specialty to be somewhat combative. They don't seem to realize that their target audience is the moderately-educated lay-person, who will be put off from thinking about the hard-to-understand main points of the author, by noticing the errors that they can easily detect even with the understanding they now have. Those mistakes are usually (or, at least, frequently) corrected in second (sometimes third) editions.

But the more I read the more disenchanted I became.

The authors spend the last seven or eight chapters of their thirty-chapter book preaching relativism. They marshal "facts" they claim are objectively true to support the idea that there is no such thing as objective truth. They absolutely believe that relativism is absolutely true and that anything different from relativism is absolutely wrong. They spend a quarter of their book explaining their opinion that there aren't any facts,, only opinions. After and while carefully saying that, in effect, they just don't care about "truth", they have a chapter explaining why we should all care about "truth".

So now I think that I couldn't possibly write to them any criticism they would recognize as valid, that would ask for more or better or better-handled evidence, or better fact-checking of the plausibility of their explanations. Why check facts when there aren't any such things as facts? They probably won't see the need to correct these errors in a second edition; they may not even see the need for a second edition at all.

I've met and conversed with and corresponded with many a relativist who believed in relativism because they were raised that way, or because it was their fad or fashion, or just because their experience had led them to believe that way. None of them would have been as opposed to the idea of objectivity as these guys.

These authors' virulent opposition to objectivity is so unreasoning that it demands a psychiatric explanation. What, were they molested by scientists as children? Is that why they're so anti-scientific?

From a conlanging point-of-view this work is probably still pretty valuable. Even ideas that turn out to be inconsistent with reality can be useful in fiction.

From the point-of-view of linguistics-as-a-science, this is useful in the same way some creationist or intelligent-design Chick tract would be to a biologist, or some "climate change is a hoax" tract would be to a climatologist or ecologist. Namely, it would warn the scientist that there are people out there opposed to their conclusions, to their methods, and to their entire science, who can't possibly be swayed by any scientific evidence.

This book is very alarming; and the fact that these authors have such high academic positions is as disturbing as the fact that "I am not a scientist" has been the keynote of so many successful political campaigns this year.

It is objectively true that some things are relative rather than absolute.
But there is an objective truth about some questions; it's just not likely to be found in an editorial on the opinion page.
And the scientific method does uncover objective truths; science is not just another "belief system", like a religion.
Some things are not relative.

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