.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Monday, July 10, 2006

metaphors, reversal, and subjugation

I'm reading through Lakoff and Johnson's Metaphors We Live By for the first time (something I should have done long ago), and I had a bit of a stumbling with their first chapter. they want to talk about how metaphor is not just a linguistic device, but is actually a tool in our conceptual systems with which we understand the world. the example with which they start is that of "argument is war." they give several examples of how the very way in which we approach an argument is framed as if it were a war (original emphases): "Your claims are indefensible;" "I demolished his argument;" "If you use that strategy, he'll wipe you out." they argue that we don't just talk about arguments as if they were war, but our very conceptual approach to an argument and definition of what it means to be an argument is dictated by the metaphor, "argument is war."

they then very quickly turn this around, saying, "Many of the things we do in an argument are structured by the concept of war." this is an interesting turn, because they go from claiming that our approach to an argument is guided by the metaphor of argument is war, to claiming that the metaphor of argument is war actually dictates some of the behaviors in which we engage when participating in an argument. they have turned the metaphor from a comprehensional tool to a generative one. I'm not entirely sure this makes sense, especially in light of the ideas that follow.

they next suggest that one could have a culture in which the metaphor was not "argument is war," but rather "argument is dance." they claim that, in such a culture, arguments would be talked about in very different ways, would look very different, and would be carried out very differently. in fact, that which in this culture was called an argument might not even be recognizable to us as such. because they would approach argument as a dance and we would approach argument as a war, the behaviours in which we would engage while arguing would be entirely different.

here, I'm not so sure that their generative claims hold. I want to get down into some of the specifics here and ask, what is an argument? in the most general sense, I suspect we might define an argument as when one person is trying to convince a second person to adopt or accept the first's opinion or view. in this case, it doesn't matter whether I'm approaching the argument as a war or as a dance, my behaviors are still going to be recognizable as an argument. furthermore, depending on an individual's approach, the same argument may look like a dance or it may look like a war. it's less a matter of what's actually guiding the argument and more a matter of how the observing is framing what s/he sees.

it is certainly the case, as Lakoff and Johnson point out, that when we take a certain metaphorical stance, such as "aurgment is war," it frames and guides our future behavior with respect to arguments. however, to say that using another metaphorical approach would result in something not even recognizable as an argument puts too much emphasis on the metaphor's vehicle (source) and not enough on the tenor (target), essentially subjugating the tenor to the vehicle. later on, though, they say, "The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of things in terms of another," which makes me think that they're not trying to push the generative bit all that much.

all this by page 5. we'll see what the next 200+ pages bring.


  • Might it be that your definition of argument as an attempt to convince someone of something (implicitly, against some resistance) is itself grounded in an adversarial notion of argument? It seems to focus on an argument as something that could be "won."

    The notion of argument as dance perhaps draws attention to a different notion of argument as a way in which two people co-construct an account of some problem or situation.

    Concepts don't come singly, but in systems. Lakoff and Johnson show the ways in which those systems are structured through metaphor, but it's impossible to separate those systems which makes this stuff hard to think about. I think the generative argument is better read not so much that the metaphor of war produces the activities of argument, but rather that the metaphorical relation colors our understandings of what we (collectively) do when we argue.

    By Anonymous Paul Dourish, at Tuesday, July 11, 2006 8:10:00 AM  

  • Paul - very good points all around. let me see if I can at least partially address some of them.

    it certainly could be that my notion of an argument is couched in notions of adversariality. in which case, how do we then define what an argument is? perhaps when we use the metaphor of "argument is dance," then we don't even call the same things arguments. I guess this gets back to what Lakoff and Johnson were saying, that our metaphors color our interpretation of what's going on.

    I just don't see why "argument is dance" and "argument is war" must be mutually exclusive. maybe I've misunderstood and that's not what they're claiming, it's just that the same collective discursive phenomenon might be approached equally well as an argument and as a dance; the different approaches will certainly highlight different aspects of the phenomenon, but I don't think it's necessarily the case that one approach will allow you to see something as an argument where the other won't.

    then again, being only a chapter or two into the book, I can't say I fully understand Lakoff and Johnson's position. it's more like a gut reaction to some early content.

    By Blogger Jystar, at Tuesday, July 11, 2006 10:20:00 PM  

  • I just don't see why "argument is dance"
    and "argument is war" must be mutually

    Boy. I'm sure glad I'm not dancing with you. :-)

    By Anonymous Paul Dourish, at Tuesday, July 11, 2006 11:35:00 PM  

  • This is a tangential anecdote, but possibly interesting. I once dated a girl who didn't feel like we had a relationship in which we cared about each other unless we were fighting constantly.

    We talked about it once and for her a relationship meant "war". She had this need for violently emotional catharsis in order to detect passion and interest. For me a relationship meant "dancing", more of a push and pull emotional dynamic with unexpected twists perhaps but not constant clashing.

    And in the end, while our views of relationships were not mutually exlusive, they also could not exist in harmony for a prolonged period of time. Hence the fact that I no longer date the girl.

    By Blogger Rubikzube*, at Thursday, August 10, 2006 9:33:00 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home