Unreal Nature

February 28, 2012


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:42 am

… The inferences we make about causal situations come from the metaphorical structure of our causation concepts. You cannot grasp the meaning of the causal terms, nor can you do appropriate causal reasoning, without the metaphors.

…  correspondence is mediated by embodied understanding of both the sentence and the situation.

This is from an essay, ‘Philosophy’s Debt to Metaphor’ by Mark Johnson in The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought edited by Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr. (2008):

… The history of western philosophy is, for the most part, one long development of the objectivist dismissal of metaphor, punctuated rarely by bold declarations of the pervasiveness of metaphor in thought, of which Nietzsche is the most famous proponent. Where a philosopher stands on this key issue can be determined by their answer to one question: are our abstract concepts defined by metaphor, or not? Once the question is formulated in this manner, it is easy to see the profound philosophical stakes at issue. If our most fundamental abstract concepts — such as those for causation, events, will, thought, reason, knowledge, mind, justice, and rights — are irreducibly metaphoric, then philosophy must consist in analysis, criticism, and elaboration of the metaphorical concepts out of which philosophies are made.

… Anyone who thinks that there is really nothing very important at stake here should consider the following. There are a number or perennial philosophical questions that arise over and over again throughout history any time you reflect on the nature of human experience. These are questions such as What is mind, and how does it work? What does it mean to be a person? Is there such a thing as human will, and is it free? What is the nature of reality? What can I know, and how can I go about gaining that knowledge? What things or states are “good” and should therefore be pursued? Are certain actions morally required of us? Does God exist (and what difference would it make)? Is there any meaning to human existence, or is life absurd? Both the framing of these questions and the kinds of answers we give to them depend on metaphor. You cannot address any of these questions without engaging metaphor.

… I will examine one key concept — causation — to indicate its metaphorical constitution, and I will point to research suggesting that we use metaphors to define all of our abstract concepts and thus all of our philosophical concepts.

… In one philosophical treatise after another, I was struck by how philosophers referred to “causes” as if they were objective forces or entities and as if there existed basically one kind of natural causation (as revealed in expressions such as “X caused Y” and “The cause of Y is X”). In an attempt to explain human actions, many philosophers also spoke of “agent causality,” in order to carve out a space for human “willing,” but in physical nature, natural causes ruled the day. So, there seemed to be at least one type of cause (i.e. physical) but not more than two types (adding agent causation to physical causation), and both conceptions were thought to be literal, not metaphorical. Causes were alleged to be literal entities or forces in the world.

… The location event-structure metaphor comprises a vast complex system of several submappings, each of which is what Grady calls a “primary” metaphor. In English, the semantics of our terms for events is given by the detailed structure of the mapping. Each submapping supports a large number of expressions whose dependence on metaphor goes largely unnoticed in our ordinary discourse. For example the submapping Change of State Is Movement underlies expressions such as “The water went from hot to cold,” “The system is moving toward homeostasis,” and “The pizza is somewhere between warm and cold.” Causation Is Forced Movement is evident in “The fire brought the soup to a boil,” “His treachery pushed the King over the edge,” “The candidate’s speech threw the crowd into a frenzy.”

… The inferences we make about causal situations come from the metaphorical structure of our causation concepts. You cannot grasp the meaning of the causal terms, nor can you do appropriate causal reasoning, without the metaphors.

… The submapping Causation Is Transfer Of Possession is evident in expressions such as “Professor Johnson’s lecture on causation gave me a headache, but the aspirin  took it away,” “Mary gave her cold to Janice,” and “Janice caught Mary’s cold.” Moreover, even our common philosophical notion of a “property” is based on this metaphorical mapping. What does it mean for an object to “possess” a property? When something has a property, it is in a certain state (defined by that property). When something loses that property, it no longer manifests the features appropriate to that property.

… In the social sciences … there are a number of quite specific metaphors that can be used for the types of causal explanation appropriate for the science of those fields. One especially common case is the causal path metaphor.

… Millions of dollars and sometimes even the lives of citizens are sacrificed to supposedly ensure the smooth unrestricted motion of some metaphorical entity (a country, an economy, or a political institution) along a metaphorical causal path to a metaphorically defined destination.

[ … ]

… According to objectivist metaphysics and theory of knowledge, the world consists of objects, properties, and relations that exist in themselves, independent of human conceptual systems and human agency. Meaning is a matter of how our concepts map onto or pick out aspects of this mind-independent objective reality. Literal concepts are the direct connection between what we think (or what’s in our mind) and how the world is, and this connection (sometimes called “intentionality”) is the basis for the possibility of truth, which is taken to be a correspondence relation between propositions and states of affairs in the world. There cannot be any significant role for metaphor in this picture of mind and world because the cognitive content of a metaphor would need to be reducible to some set of literal concepts or propositions, if it is to have any meaning and play a role in truth claims.

Quite obviously, if conceptual metaphor is essential for abstract thought, then the classic objectivist/literalist picture cannot be correct. Conceptual metaphor is a structure of human understanding, and the source domains of the metaphors come from our bodily, sensory-motor experience, which becomes the basis for abstract conceptualization and reasoning. From this perspective, truth is a matter of how our body-based understanding of a sentence fits, or fails to fit, our body-based understanding of a situation. And when we are thinking with abstract concepts, that understanding involves conceptual metaphor. There is a form of “correspondence” here — a fitting of our understanding of a situation. But this is not the classic correspondence of literal propositions to objective states of affairs in the world. Instead, the correspondence is mediated by embodied understanding of both the sentence and the situation.

… Virtually all of our abstract concepts appear to be structured by multiple, typically inconsistent conceptual metaphors. If this is true, then philosophical theories are not systems of foundational literal truths about reality but rather elaborations of particular complex intertwining sets of metaphors that support inferences and forms of reasoning. Humanizing and embodying philosophy in this manner does not devalue it in any way. On the contrary, it reveals why we have the philosophies we do, explains why and how they can make sense of our experience, and traces out their implications for our lives.

All theories are based on metaphors because all our abstract concepts are metaphorically defined. Understanding the constitutive metaphors allows you to grasp the logic and entailments of the theory.

… Even the theories of metaphor themselves must be analyzed. The theory of conceptual metaphor, for example, employs metaphors of “mapping” and “projection” to conceptualize the nature of metaphor itself. Such a conceptualization could never be absolute — could never tell the whole story or cover all the data — and so we must always be self-reflectively aware of our own metaphorical assumptions and their limitations.

… If you acknowledge conceptual metaphor, then you have to give up literalism. If you give up literalism, you must abandon objectivist theories of knowledge. If you reject objectivist metaphysics and epistemology, you must abandon the classical correspondence theory of truth. Eventually, you will have to rethink even your most basic conception of what cognition consists in.

… We need not be slaves operating blindly under the harsh influence of our metaphors. We can learn what our founding metaphors are and how they work. We can analyze the metaphors underlying other cultures and philosophical systems, too. Our ability to do this type of analysis is, admittedly, always itself shaped by metaphorical conceptions of which we are hardly ever aware. However, we can become aware of those metaphors, we can subject them to critical evaluation, and we can creatively elaborate them in developing new philosophies to help us deal with the problems that confront us in our daily lives.

My previous post from this collection of essays is here.





  1. B*###*r … another book I’m going to have to buy … I’ve resisited so far, even after your last post, but now there’s no way out … and it’s ALL YOUR FAULT

    Comment by Felix — February 28, 2012 @ 9:02 am

  2. It’s my metaphault.

    I’m glad you like it … because I’ve already got Johnson’s most recent book, The Meaning of the Body lined up to do after I get through this collection.

    Comment by unrealnature — February 28, 2012 @ 4:51 pm

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