Bryn Mawr College

Center for Science In Society

To facilitate the broad conversations, involving both scientists and non-scientists, which are essential to continuing explorations of
  • the natural world and humanity's place in it,
  • the nature of education,
  • the generation, synthesis, and evaluation of information,
  • technology and its potentials,
  • the relationships between forms of understanding.

Language: A Conversation

Meeting Notes
9 December 2002

Doug Blank (Computer Science), Carol Bernstein (English), Anne Dalke (English. Gender Studies), Paul Grobstein (Biology), Deepak Kumar (Computer Science), George Lakoff (Linguistics, University of California at Berkeley) and George Weaver (Philosophy)

One Summary View (In the lamented absence of Eric Raimey, an alternative sort of report prepared by Anne Dalke. Views by other participants encouraged and can be sent either by email or posted using our working group forum area):

Discussion began with the question of what difference George Lakoff's work "of putting metaphor on a scientific basis" makes for literary theory. He has given us an "origin story," a description of how metaphors are generated within the body; but he also moves from a descriptive account to a normative one, suggesting that metaphors need to be revised and adopted (by the left, for example, to further certain political aims; they need to understand their conceptual system in order better to articulate it).

But what is the difference between a metaphor and an ideology? A metaphor is explanatory, and may be used by an ideology. Lots of ideologies involve taking metaphor literally. Metaphor is not just a term, but rather a theory that explains why and how we map from one domain to another. If all we know is in our synapses, how manipulatable is metaphor? Might it be that we have several metaphoric models available in the brain, and certain experiences activate one or the other? We really think using frames, and frames always overwhelm the facts; just knowing the facts is not going to "set you free." Literary metaphors are extensions of the everyday variety; there is also the anti-metaphoric mode, which refuses first-order meanings, the "least resisting" ones, in search of what does not fit, what is purposely not stable, but forces into strangeness and so generates lots of interpretations.

For George Lakoff, the interesting questions have to do with why things mean what they mean, how we can use analogies to construct complex frames, how we can use one concept to bootstrap onto others. Can new meanings actually be created? Only by using and extending those already available? How labile are the terms that we use to build from and with? Can we consciously break out of frames? If we do, will we inevitably find ourselves in another one? Is it frames all the way down? Or are there lots of phenomena which we cannot frame? (George Lakoff himself experienced a year and half of disorientation, as he moved from generative to cognitive linguistics, and that move was made with difficulty, by only very few others.) If we are sense-making creatures, we can make sense by paying attention to contradictions. All science involves the attempt to explain a wide range of phenomena, by naming a model, and tracing the attributes which flow from it. The first lesson of linguistics is that what is said exists only the surface, that generalizations are deeper. Since most language and thought is unconscious, you really can't ask people what they think, and expect to find out.

In the time remaining, we turned to a consideration of mathematics. Beginning with the claim that a Platonic view of math doesn't make any sense, there was much discussion of the prehistory of model theory, and an exploration of whether there could be a non-metaphorical logic.

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