Top positive review
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Fundamental and debatable
on 3 October 2011
This book has become a classic and some will even say some kind of pioneering gospel in the field of the study of metaphors. As a starting point, or rather a prompter, I will quote the 2003 Afterword: "In short, metaphor is a natural phenomenon." Lakoff is a linguist and as such of course he does not neglect language ane knows metaphors are a linguistic phenomenon. Still as a prompter I will ask the question: is language a natural phenomenon or a man-made invention?
I will not answer that question here. It is a wider question than the book itself. I am surprised that he actually wrote this sentence that leads to that question. But he states this sentence because he never ever considers the phylogeny of language in the emerging Homo Sapiens, nor the real psychogenesis of language in a real child. And yet he is stating some of the fundamental principles of these two approaches of language, of the linguistic faculty of man.
I will not discuss his approach of the Objectivist conception or of the Subjectivist conception. These approaches are just unrealistic. They do not consider man and his linguistic invention in the real genetic conditions that produced the emergence of language in Homo Sapiens, nor the mergence of language in a new-born child. Why waste time on such a passé if not archaic discussion. The book did it when it came out in 1979. That was OK then, though already slightly wilted, but today it sounds absurd to discuss such theories or myths that have nothing to do with reality. I will remain in this review within the theoretical approach of Lakoff himself, what he calls the Experientialist approach. And that is already a lot to consider.
In the book the best summary is p. 272-3. But you have to read the whole book to really understand the arguments.
The first one is: "Metaphors are fundamentally conceptual in nature: metaphorical language is secondary" meaning of a second level of generation. If metaphors are conceptual they depend on the brain/mind activity and there we have to widen the question: what is "mind"? The answer is not easy and Lakoff or the Neuro-Linguistic Programming that he quotes is even less clear on that concept and they ignore the approach that is most detached from western philosophy that Lakoff systematically dismantle, i.e. Buddhism, the fact that the "mind" is the sixth sense, in fact a meta-sense that receives, analyzes and discriminates in all kinds of ways the stimuli coming from the five other senses. That would really help these people to build the real experiential approach of what concepts are. They are on the right track but they are not able to go to the end of it because they miss that simple fact.
That means those concepts cannot exist without being invented, discriminated, devised first and there the conditions as seen by Lakoff are in the right direction again but not to the end. The concepts are the result of one particular capability the "mind" has within the brain and the central nervous system and the sensori-motor management of the body: the capacity to conceptualize through direct experience collectively both received or suffered.
The new-born, and before him Homo Sapiens, has the genetic possibility to develop a central nervous system and a brain that give him the ability to learn - or develop - language which is the possibility to invent concepts and categories that are in phase with the brain itself, hence easy to be acquired and rather easy to be invented, but this invention/acquisition cannot occur without some fundamental circumstantial experiential elements, what I call the trauma of birth and hunger, the trauma of the first cry that means the total separation from the mother, the absolute impotence if not even worse of the child who is absolutely dependent on his environment to survive.
Lakoff does not seem to understand that. The only time he speaks of children he says: "All children struggle against the physical manipulations of their parents." (p. 265) This is on the verge of an unacceptable student assertion. It is not acceptable from a researcher. It is obvious (and that is no intimidation, just something anyone can check in any maternity in the world) that the new-born is longing and welcoming and needing the physical contact with the mother and the other nurturers who are going to take care of them. The first cry of the child only means they have a feeling of want or need but pretty soon, after just a few instances, the child will cry to call for the nurturer.
If Lakoff had just reflected on this point he would not have committed this second mistake: "This neural learning mechanism produces a stable conventional system of primary metaphors that tend to remain in place indefinitely within the conceptual system and are independent of language" (p. 256) Lakoff is right up to the last and. The child, even before their birth is in contact, all the time, with language from the mother, her direct environment during pregnancy and the various people around her after delivery. From the 24th week of the pregnancy the child can hear clearly what is being said and around their mothers. The mother and all other nurturers are going to speak to the child and put words on every single element of their experience. The child is going to build in their experiential mind the concepts for the objects they are confronted to, the people they are dealing with, the relations with these people and these objects, the functions they hold in these relations. All that is first of all experiential psychology for the child whose mind is being built through this experience and at the same time is building in the child the concepts, categories and notions the child will need to acquire the language/s spoken around them and then to build their discourse from these deep langue categories.
All that is not only neglected but ignored by Lakoff, just as much as it is by the people of the NLP. This is a serious shortcoming because language, and metaphors are sooner or later always expressed with words, though they could and can be expressed with gestures, or music notes and intervals, rhythms and colors, language is the first structured and articulated product of the mind of a child confronted to and surrounded by the nurturing and caring world of adults he is going to be attached to and he will have to learn how to get detached from. We are far from "independent of language" and "struggle against the physical manipulations of their parents".
Yet this book is essential if you want to really get into the deep debate about the phylogeny and psychogenesis of language. Have a good trip.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU