Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Book Review: "Metaphors We Live By" by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

I have been wrestling with this question: How would a rhetorician approach Metaphors We Live By? Certainly, the various approaches possible to rhetoricians is as diverse as the number of rhetoricians who interpret. After some time, I find myself wondering about the role of rhetoric in myth construction. I wonder if rhetoric functions to shape mythos—in the construction of gestalt. The one problem I see with this book is what happens when a culture constructs competing gestalts; in other words, what happens when a culture understands a metaphor in such a way as to construct two (or more) opposed interpretations of experience?

Certainly, metaphors can allow two people or groups of people to understand individual views of reality. The essence of metaphor is to understand one concept in the light of another [1, p. 5] and this comparison is best realized within a given culture. Still, within a given culture, conflicts can arise and these conflicts can produce competing metaphors [1, p. 23]. The authors argue that although individuals and sub-groups place priority on metaphors that reflect ways that are good and virtuous to them, “individual value systems are coherent with the major orientation metaphors of the main-stream culture” [1, p. 26]. So, one way to determine cohesion in a given culture is to explore the orientation metaphors (ie active is up) and the ontological metaphors (ie entity and substance) of a given social group. Thus, metaphors tend to be coherent across social strata [1, p. 44] and reflect may reflect a common conceptual system in which metaphors grounded by “virtue of systematic correlates within our experience” [1, p. 58]. This cohesion allows metaphors to emerge naturally in a given culture because what it highlights corresponds to what the members of a given culture collectively experience [1, p. 68].

At this point in the book, the authors introduce the notion of a gestalt: a whole construct of meaning that humans find more basic than the parts [1, p. 70]. This is a basic tenant of prototype theory, which examines the way that different social groups understand or place value on the world in which they exist. For instance, when one is presented with the category of ‘snake’ people from different cultures would react differently. In some cultures a snake is a symbol of evil while in others it is a symbol of wisdom. The authors eventually complicate this idea with the notion of ‘truth’ by which they reject the ‘myths’ of objective category and subjective interpretation. Rather, they advocate that categories such as truth are best understood within the “interactional [sic.] properties that make sense only relative to human functioning” [1, p. 164]. Interaction properties and experiential gestalts form the “experientialist myth” that can best explain how humans understand and function in their world [1, p. 228]. This understanding “emerges from interaction, from constant negotiation with the environment and other people” [1, p. 230]. Meaning is negotiated and metaphor is crucial to create rapport and to communicate the nature of unshared experience [1, p. 231].

My question is still unanswered by the “experientialist myth”, however. I think that, in this theory, rhetoric is instrumental in the negotiation of meaning between competing views but I am not sure that the authors address a possibility that one culture may actually hold competing and inconsistent experiential gestalts. They seem to assume that a culture is more cohesive than a pluralistic entity like the United States. Earlier [1, pp. 22-24] they give lip service to cultural difference only to move to a more basic (or universal) understanding of metaphor. What happens when competing gestalts, within a given culture, exist (or emerge) to explain categories such as truth?

-Safari Bob


[1] Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. ISBN: 0-226-46801-1

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