20.092 problematic metaphors

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Mon, 3 Jul 2006 06:46:11 +0100

                Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 92.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Sun, 02 Jul 2006 13:41:29 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: problematic metaphors

I wish to draw your attention to an essay by
Michael J Reddy, "The conduit metaphor: A case of
frame conflict in our language about language",
in Metaphor and Thought, ed. Andrew Ortony, 2nd
edn (Cambridge, 1993): 164-201. For those
familiar with the work by Lakoff and Johnson on
metaphors, this is required reading, since as
Lakoff points out in his contribution to the same
volume, it was the inspiration for his research.

Reddy describes a set of common metaphors we use
to talk about human communication, which he names
under the collective term in his title. These
metaphors, he argues, have us talking as if words
were containers for meaning, and communication
happened by sending and receiving ideas.
Borrowing from Donald Schön (author of The
Reflective Practitioner) the idea of the
metaphorical "frames" within which we reason and
communicate, and so of the "frame conflicts" that
render communication difficult to impossible,
Reddy documents the profound extent to which the
logic of the conduit metaphor runs like threads
in many directions through the fabric of our speech habits.

In opposition to the conduit metaphor, Reddy
proposes a "radical subjectivist" model of
communication he calls the "toolmaker's
paradigm", in which meaning is constructed, not
simply received, in communicative acts. This
paradigm depends crucially on highly
conversational communication, with much
interaction to and fro, so that a common meaning may be established.

Among the many problematic consequences of the
conduit metaphor is the passivity it attributes
to those who communicate. Reddy cites numerous
examples of its variants in common use to
demonstrate its pervasive influence, which he
argues structures how we think about what we do.
In the concluding section of his essay, on the
social consequences of the conduit metaphor, he
observes the following. I quote at length (from
pp 186-8) to give you enough to see why I bother.

>Another point from the story worth emphasizing is that, to the extent
>that the conduit metaphor does see communication as requiring some slight
>expenditure of energy, it localizes this expenditure almost totally in the
>speaker or writer. The function of the reader or listener is trivialized. The
>radical subjectivist paradigm, on the other hand, makes it clear that readers
>and listeners face a difficult and highly creative task of reconstruction and
>hypothesis testing....

He then goes on to explicate an example of an utterance using the conduit

> (53) You'll find better ideas than that in the library,
>is derived from the conduit metaphor by a chain of metonymies. That is,
>we think of the ideas as existing in the words,
>which are clearly there on the
>pages. So the ideas are "there on the pages" by metonymy. Now the pages
>are in the books - and again, by metonymy. so are the ideas. But the books
>are in the libraries. with the final result that the ideas, too, are "in the
>libraries." The effect of this, and the many other minor framework core
>expressions is to suggest that the libraries,
>with their books, and tapes, and
>films, and photographs. are the real repositories of our culture. And if this
>is true. then naturally we of the modern period are preserving our cultural
>heritage better than any other age, because we have more books, films,
>tapes, and so on, stored in more and bigger libraries.
>Suppose now that we drop the conduit metaphor and think of this same
>situation in terms of the toolmakers paradigm. From this point of view,
>there are of course no ideas in the words. and therefore none in any books,
>nor on any tapes or records. There are no ideas whatsoever in any libraries.
>All that is stored in any of these places are odd little patterns of marks or
>bumps or magnetized particles capable of creating odd patterns of noise.
>Now. if a human being comes along who is capable of using these marks or
>sounds as instructions, then this human being may assemble within his head
>some patterns of thought or feeling or perception which resemble those of
>intelligent humans no longer living. But this is a difficult task, for these
>ones no longer living saw a different world from ours, and used slightly
>different language instructions. Thus. if this human who enters the library
>has not been schooled in the art of language, so that he is deft and precise
>and thorough in applying instructions, and if he does not have a rather full
>and flexible repertoire of thoughts and feelings to draw from, then it is not
>likely that he will reconstruct in his head
>anything that deserves to be called
>"his cultural heritage."
>Quite obviously, the toolmakers paradigm makes it plain that there is no
>culture in books or libraries. that, indeed,
>there is no culture at all unless it
>is reconstructed carefully and painstakingly in the living brains of each new
>generation. All that is preserved in libraries is the mere opportunity to
>perform this reconstruction. But if the language skills and the habit of
>engaging in reconstruction are not similarly preserved, then there will be
>no culture. no matter how large and complete the libraries may become.
>We do not preserve ideas by building libraries and recording voices. The
>only way to preserve culture is to train people
>to rebuild it, to "regrow" it,
>as the word "culture" itself suggests, in the only place it can grow - within
>The difference of viewpoint here between the conduit metaphor and the
>toolmakers paradigm is serious, if not profound. Humanists appear to be
>dying these days, and administrators and governments seem to feel few
>compunctions about letting this occur. We have the greatest. most sophisti-
>cated system for mass communication of any society that we know about,
>yet somehow mass communication becomes more and more synonymous
>with less communication. Why is this? One reason, at least, may be that we
>are following our instruction manual for use of the language system quite
>carefully - and it is the wrong manual. We have the mistaken, conduitmetaphor
>influenced view that the more signals we can create, and the
>more signals we can preserve, the more ideas we "transfer" and "store."
>We neglect the crucial human ability to reconstruct thought patterns on the
>basis of signals and this ability founders.
>After all, "extraction" is a trivial
>process, which does not require teaching past the most rudimentary level.
>We have therefore, in fact, less culture - or certainly no more culture -
>than other, less mechanically inclined, ages have had. Humanists, those
>traditionally charged with reconstructing culture and teaching others to
>reconstruct it, are not necessary in the scheme of the conduit metaphor. All
>the ideas are "there in the library," and anyone can go in and "get them."
>In the toolmakers paradigm, on the other hand, humanists themselves are
>the repositories, and the only real repositories of ideas. In the simplest of
>terms, the conduit metaphor lets human ideas slip out of human brains, so
>that, once you have recording technologies, you do not need humans any



Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities
Computing | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London | Kay House, 7
Arundel Street | London WC2R 3DX | U.K. | +44
(0)20 7848-2784 fax: -2980 ||
willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/wlm/
Received on Mon Jul 03 2006 - 02:02:00 EDT

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