metaphors and minds
Elizabeth Camp interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Elisabeth Camp thinks all the time about metaphor, fiction and why they don’t fit into long-standing models of the mind, about constructing a more ecumenical theory, about the differences between metaphor and make-believe, about the imagination and thought experiments, about the link between metaphor and literal speech, about slurs, about the philosophical importance of what baboons display, about what George Lakoff gets right and wrong, about progress in philosophy and about waging a two-front war about both language and human cognition. Groovy dooby.
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher? Were you always philosophically bothered?
Elisabeth Camp: I came to philosophy by fleeing literature – first because I was determined not to major in English like my parents, and later, after I had become an English major after all, because I often found literary theory unsatisfying. But I was always one of those kids asking annoying apparently pointless questions, so in that sense I suppose I was always philosophical.
3:AM: You work in fields where philosophy interfaces with art. Is that because you see things happening in art that philosophical models often miss – or might not be able to accommodate straightforwardly?
EC: Initially I was interested in art, especially literature, just because it is an area of human activity I find intriguing – a place where all the varieties of human experience are vividly on display. But as I got deeper into philosophy, I started to realize that aesthetically-loaded aspects of life (explicitly ‘artistic’ or not) often pose useful test cases for standard philosophical views, because philosophers tend to ignore or dismiss them.
3:AM: So you think about metaphor, fiction and imagination. Why and how do these pose a philosophical challenge?
EC: At the broadest level, metaphor and fiction are challenging because they don’t fit smoothly into a long-standing philosophers’ model of the mind. (Sometimes I think no one really believes this model, but often it seems like plenty of people still do.) On this model, the mind is a rational calculator, a kind of logic machine. It combines representations of how the world is (beliefs, which are sentences in a language of thought) with representations of how the world should be (desires) to produce action. This model also takes linguistic speech to be an especially important tool for action, because it allows us to share our inner states by producing outer manifestations that mirror them.
If you buy this model, then the very fact that so many people spend so much time on something that doesn’t help them change the world in any very useful way can seem puzzling. So can the fact that people so often speak in ways that break the linguistic rules – that they utter literal nonsense when a sentence that matches the one in their head is supposedly available. Worse, these behaviors can seem like failures of rationality, even invitations to mental sloth and error. (Thus, Coleridge wrote that “where the reading of novels prevails as a habit, it occasions in time the entire destruction of the powers of the mind…it is not so much to be called pass-time as kill-time.” And Locke wrote that “We must allow that all…the artificial and figurative application of words eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead the judgment; and so indeed are perfect cheats.”) The challenge, then, is to construct a more plausible and ecumenical theory of the mind and language which explains the ease and pervasiveness – and the profundity – of imaginative phenomena like metaphor and fiction in ordinary human life.
3:AM: So what do you take to be the interesting difference between metaphor and pretense?
EC: When I look at familiar cases of metaphor and make-believe, they seem to differ in the following way. In the case of make-believe, we pretend that something that’s not true is; our imaginative activity is directed at transforming some thing or situation into something it’s not. In the case of metaphor, we interpret something as or in terms of something it’s not; our imaginative activity is directed at transfiguring our understanding of some thing. In this sense, pretense is a content-directed mode of imagination, and metaphor is a concept-directed, or interpretive, mode. If this is right, then metaphor and pretense differ both in their level of attention (contents versus concepts) and in their direction of fit (holding fixed how we conceptualize the world while altering its contents, versus holding fixed the world while altering our perspective). Of course, sometimes we mix these two imaginative activities in interesting ways; but at least in the first instance, they differ in their objects, mechanisms, and output. (I should say that Ken Walton thinks I misunderstand his view of metaphor, and in particular that I don’t take seriously the sense in which he thinks it involves prop-oriented pretense. I’d like to understand his view better, but even so I think these are interesting differences between metaphorical imagination and make-believe.)
3:AM: Timothy Williamson and Roy Sorensen are outspoken supporters of the role of imagination and thought experiments having an important role in philosophical investigation, but Paul Horwich is an example of a philosopher who argues that it should have no role. So why do you defend the idea that making stuff up can lead to advances in philosophy?
EC: I’m enough of a methodological traditionalist to think philosophy often involves getting clearer on our ordinary concepts; and I think thought experiments can help do this. But unlike Williamson and Sorenson, I also think our intuitive responses to described situations are typically the result, not just of our concepts per se, but also of all sorts of (more or less culturally freighted or idiosyncratic) cognitive and emotional associations, many of which we might not reflectively endorse. I think the solution is not to abjure thought experiments altogether, but to test our intuitions against a wide variety of scenarios.
Judith Jarvis Thomson’s classic “famous violinist” case, for instance, does just this: it argues that standard arguments against abortion as the impermissible killing of an innocent person are invalid, because our intuitions about permissibility change when we alter features of the case that are assumed to be morally irrelevant. At the same time, her example also reframes our understanding of abortion, by highlighting aspects of an unwanted pregnancy that fit with the violinist case (e.g. the loss of self-determination) and downplaying those that don’t (e.g. biological relatedness). To me, this suggests that not just pretense, but metaphorical framing, can play a legitimate role in philosophy – so long as we use them wisely, especially to identify ways we might already be engaged in framing without realizing it.
3:AM: Why do you argue that metaphors don’t do anything different in kind from literal speech? Doesn’t that lead you to deny Searle’s principle of expressibility, the idea that whatever can be meant can be said?
EC: When people appeal to a radical difference between metaphorical and literal speech, they are usually impressed – appropriately so – by the large gap between the strict meaning of the sentence uttered and the rich cognitive effects that metaphors produce. But then they tend to compare this with an unduly restricted view of what literal speech can accomplish: they compare a puzzling line of poetry, like ‘The hourglass whispers to the lion’s paw,’ to a straightforward assertion like ‘There’s beer in the fridge’. Metaphors pull together several different features: they presuppose, and often thereby promulgate, complex, open-ended perspectives. They compare one thing to another. They are (often) imagistically and emotionally loaded. And their main communicative point is not explicit. But literal speech can do each of these things too, and often more than one at once. (Consider, for example, an utterance of ‘She’s just another aspiring model/bartender.’) It’s the combination that’s distinctive to metaphor, and that lends it its distinctive rhetorical punch.
I reject Searle’s principle of expressivity not because I think metaphors capture some special, inherently ineffable kind of content, as Max Black for one claimed, but because metaphors allow us to transcend the contingent communicative limitations of actual languages as they’re used in actual contexts. This is especially palpable for the communication of experiential and emotional properties. Once when Bjork was speaking to a chorus, she said “Make it dolcissimo, like marzipan.” I think she was driven to metaphor here because there was a very specific property she wanted their voices to have – a particular combination of richness, sweetness, and bitterness – that we don’t have a word for in our language (English or Icelandic). She couldn’t demonstrate the sound directly herself, because she’s not a whole chorus. But once they hit on the sound she wanted, she could say “Yes, like that. Let’s call that the marzipan tone.” And from then on, ‘the marzipan tone’ would literally refer, by stipulation, to the sound she could only metaphorically gesture at before. Searle would agree with all this, but thinks such constraints on communication are uninteresting precisely because they’re contingent. I think they have interesting theoretical implications – say, about the dispensability of metaphor to communication.
3:AM: You challenge some of the ideas of Paul Grice and his notion of implicature. Sarcasm is the vehicle you’ve recently used to do this, alongside metaphor. So what is there about sarcasm that leads to interesting philosophy?
EC: From a theoretical point of view, the most interesting thing about sarcasm is that it is typically cited as the paradigmatic case of a gap between semantics and pragmatics: where what a speaker means comes apart from what she says. And in plenty of cases this is true – indeed, in plenty of cases the speaker does implicate the opposite of what she says, just as Grice suggested. But it also turns out that there are several varieties of sarcasm, all of which operate with the same basic mechanism, but some of which are very plausibly classified as semantic rather than pragmatic. So this is a case where looking closely at the full range of some phenomenon leads us to notice both surprising variety and surprising unity, and in particular to observe the same basic type of (“sarcastic”) behavior occurring in both semantic and pragmatic modes.
3:AM: Are slurs doing the same kind of thing?
3:AM: Slurs are like many metaphors, and sarcasm, in evoking complex, open-ended perspectives on their topics, and in being imagistically and emotionally charged. But unlike figurative speech, slurs are conventionally associated with the perspectives they evoke – part of their established job is to express a speaker’s commitment to them. So I think slurs offer an especially clear case for showing that the sorts of messy cognitive phenomena that metaphors and sarcasm traffic in are also harnessed by the semantic engine – and hence, that we can’t confine semantics to the clean calculation of truth conditions.
3:AM: If you’re right about denying Searle’s principle, does that mean that creatures without language could nevertheless mean stuff? Could dogs think metaphorically?
EC: There are a few different issues here, all of them interesting. One is whether a creature without language could have the complex reflexive intention that Grice thinks defines non-natural meaning: the intention to produce an effect in someone else by way of their recognition of that very intention. This leads to questions about theory of mind in non-human animals, and about the role of a linguistic format in supporting hierarchically-structured thought. Though this is largely an empirical question, my suspicion is that some other animals (maybe dogs, though I doubt it) can indeed form intentions to produce thoughts in others about their own thoughts; but also that nobody besides humans can form the reflexive Gricean intention. Another issue is whether we should agree with Grice that these complex intentions are required to mean anything at all. Here, I increasingly side with people like Mitch Green and Dorit Bar-on, who argue that there are theoretically interesting varieties of meaning and communication that fall short of Gricean non-natural meaning, and which some social non-human animals (especially monkeys and birds) engage in.
You also ask about the connection between language, thought, and metaphor. It’s an important, and good, feature of Grice’s view of non-natural meaning that it isn’t distinctively linguistic: a ‘speaker’ can deploy any means at her disposal, linguistic or not, conventional or not, to get her audience to recognize her communicative intention. It also seems like metaphor needn’t be linguistic: for instance, Richard Wollheim argues that sometimes paintings can be metaphorical, as when the rough brushwork of a painting’s surface stands in for and filters our experience of the skin, and soul, of a person it depicts as being tortured. So it looks like nothing about either meaning or metaphor directly entails a need for language. However, I suspect that the cognitive resources required for thinking metaphorically are abstract enough, and have a complex enough structure, that it would be hard to think metaphorically without a representational system that’s a lot like language. That is, metaphorical thinking requires a sort of imaginative flexibility that’s not inherently linguistic, but which seems to flourish only in the context of a rich and highly flexible representational system.
3:AM: Why are baboons important for illustrating some of your ideas about conditions for thought and the connection between language and thought?
EC: The short answer is that they display a really interesting mixture of cognitive sophistication and cognitive limitation. Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney have done amazing field work showing that baboons are capable of fairly abstract, hierarchically structured thought about social relations. For instance, female baboons groom or attack other baboons they have no direct interest in, but who are kin to baboons they do want to reconcile or fight with. And the outcomes of defeats and reconciliations between particular pairs of baboons have systematic ripple effects on the ways other baboons interact with each other. But at the same time, baboons also fail to act in ways you might assume they would if they had a complex theory of mind; for instance, they appear to be oblivious to the fear their offspring display when they’re in danger. I agree that these cognitive abilities show that baboons possess a hierarchically structured, abstract cognitive architecture. But where Seyfarth and Cheney think this is tantamount to having a language of thought, I think baboons’ cognitive limitations highlight an important difference in the representational flexibility of diagrams – like family trees – and language: the former can only represent ancestry relations, say, while the latter can represent just about anything. If so, then an important step in the development of distinctively human cognition might have been the exaptation of a pre-existent, hierarchically-structured but domain-restricted representational system for increasingly general ends.
3:AM: So is your position one that is able to reconcile two seemingly irreconcilable traditions of thought – the philosophical one that says you need language for thought and the cognitive science alternative that says that ‘systematic deployment of representational capacities is sufficient for conceptual thought’?
EC: I suppose the less lofty but more likely suggestion is that I’d like to convince each of them to acknowledge a middle way: cognitive scientists should agree that there’s an important species of cognition that involves more than just systematically recombinable representations, and philosophers should accept that there’s a form of genuine cognition which requires less than language or a capacity for epistemic reflection. I would love for both parties to accept that what’s distinctive about conceptual thought is the ability to think a wide range of thoughts at any given time, without being narrowly constrained by what’s impinging on you from your immediate circumstances. You can do this without language, though language is an especially efficient means for achieving it.
3:AM: You’re not convinced by George Lakoff and his claim that all thought or nearly all thought is metaphorical are you? Are you arguing that a poet like Mallarme working at full imaginative tilt is processing thoughts in an essentially different way from when using metaphor in conventionalized settings, like when he says he could eat a horse?
EC: I think Lakoff is right that analogical, embodied, associative processes are pervasive in human thought, and that metaphorical speech often reveals metaphorical patterns of thought rather than simply dressing literal thoughts up in pretty clothes. But where Lakoff thinks these analogical processes are so pervasive that they block any possibility of a literal representation of an objective reality, I think we often think and talk literally – or at the very least, that we can do so with a modicum of effort.
Methodologically, Lakoff is happy to take dead metaphors as evidence of current cognitive structures, where I think we need to look to independent evidence about how people think and experience the world. Here we face a bit of a methodological challenge: the most straightforward way to study the cognitive processing of metaphors is with fairly conventional examples, because these are the cases that are most likely to produce statistically robust intersubjective agreement. And for these cases, it looks like metaphors are processed basically on a par with literal speech. But psycholinguists like Rachel Giora and Dedre Gentner who have studied novel metaphors find important differences in processing from literal speech. From a theoretical perspective we can see why the examples are all intuitively metaphors – they all appeal, at least implicitly, to framing one thing through and in terms of something else. But the actual on-line role played by those frames seems to be quite different. And of course, the creative construction of novel metaphors, especially by an innovative, densely imagistic poet like Mallarmé, is likely to involve much richer, more active cognitive processes than mere comprehension does.
3:AM: There’s talk in some quarters about whether philosophy makes progress or whether it’s stuck in a circling groove. There seems to be genuine progress in your domain doesn’t there?
EC: Well, I think so! But I’m also attracted to areas where progress seems to be possible: either because not many people have thought systematically about the topic, or because we can bring new empirical evidence to bear on long-standing questions. I don’t believe science is a magical solvent for eliminating philosophy, and I often think scientists misinterpret the implications of their own findings. Journalists and the rest of us are way too inclined to accept ‘what science says’ as determining how things should be – cognitive neuroscience in particular seems to be the religion of our age. (Mark Liberman, at languagelog.com, has many wonderful posts about this, dissecting what journalists report and what the reported studies actually show.) But I also think that real philosophical progress can come from the attempt to reconcile our ordinary intuitions with scientific evidence. Moreover, this is a distinctively philosophical task: trying to construct a coherent, reflective, and justified sense of the world and our place in it by operating at a higher level of abstraction than scientists can afford to do.
3:AM: Your account of language and thought suggests that some cherished ideas about our self-image – such as the idea that we’re the only meaning-making beings because we are the only species with language – ought to be abandoned. Animals that use maps rather than sentences might be up to very interesting things we just haven’t recognized yet?
EC: I seem to wage a two-front war about both language and human cognition. On the one hand, I want to acknowledge that we’re not so special, because other animals do some version of some fancy things we do, like using tools, communicating intentionally, and deceiving and manipulating others. Similarly, I want to argue that maps and diagrams can perform many of the representational tasks philosophers attribute to language. On the other hand, I also think it’s important to acknowledge the ways that we are distinctive: nobody else builds bridges or judicial systems, writes novels or does philosophy. And no other representational system has the expressive flexibility of language. These two things are surely correlated, but not in the simple way philosophers have tended to assume. That is, it’s not just language, either internal or external, that underwrites our more impressive feats, but a complex package that also includes associative intuition, imagination, and sociability. Different cognitive packages – say, map thought, massive memory, and magnetic navigation – lead other animals to do things that are impossible for us.
3:AM: And for the voracious readers here at 3ammagazine, are there five books you could recommend to take us further into this philosophical world of yours?
EC: None of these books are by philosophers, nor do I agree with everything in any of them; but they have all significantly changed the way I think about the mind and language.
I already mentioned Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney’s work, especially Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind. Methodologically, they show how to take cognitive ethology – the study of non-human animal cognition in a natural environment – beyond observation and into the realm of carefully controlled experiment. Substantively, they show that baboons (and other primates) are capable of highly complex, nuanced cognition about abstract matters like dominance relations.
Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow summarizes many decades of his research showing that humans are not as cleanly rational as we would like to pretend. While I have trouble with a crude bifurcation of the mind into two ‘systems’ – a dirty, fast, heuristic one and a rule-governed, slow, logical one – I think the contrast between two patterns of cognitive operation is important, and Kahneman is an especially careful researcher and interpreter of the data. In a related vein, Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender provides methodological criticisms of a wide swath of studies that purport to establish innate sex differences in neurological function – differences that are taken in turn to cause, and justify, pervasive cultural differences. I like her book not just for the specific criticisms it lodges, but also for Fine’s positive claim that many of these differences are actually the result of overlearned, intuitive but highly contingent cultural associations. In this way, the study of sex and gender difference offers a particularly fertile and important window into the way our minds function in general, and in particular how we tend to transform intuitive statistical associations into rule-governed, absolute categories.
The last two books I want to mention focus not on the empirical study of cognition, but on the theoretical interpretation of language and literature. In Meaningful Games: Exploring Language with Game Theory, Robin Clark uses the formal machinery of game theory to imbue the old slogan that ‘meaning is use’ with new precision. He argues that we should see sentences as signals agents use to coordinate substantive assumptions and negotiate social status. He shows how speakers exploit fine-grained differences in the grammatical and lexical options to generate pragmatic, defeasible implicatures; ultimately, he thinks, we can explain how grammatical and lexical meanings arise from repeated iterations of speakers’ coordination and negotiation. I’m not sure I buy it, but I want to think harder about just where I get off the boat.
Finally, switching gears a bit, Rita Felski offers a rapid-fire tour through current literary theory in Uses of Literature. It’s an accessible and exceedingly well written manifesto against formalist structuralist hermeneutics and for the relevance of literature to our souls and our lives, focusing on literature’s power to produce self-recognition, enchantment, phenomenological knowledge, and the shock of encountering something radically other. And it’s chock full of nuanced examples and brimming with smart observations and arguments. For at least a moment, it even made me think that maybe I shouldn’t have fled English all those years ago, after all.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, January 31st, 2014.