Steven Pinker has a good stab at explaining metaphor, but his belief that brains work like computers proves a big limitation. We still need poets to understand the imaginationby John Cornwell / October 27, 2007 / Leave a comment
The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, by Steven Pinker Allen Lane, £25
Steven Pinker begins a key chapter of his new book, The Stuff of Thought, by unpicking the US declaration of independence to reveal the metaphors beneath the abstractions. The very title, “declaration,” he maintains, appeals to the task of clarifying, making clear, dispelling the murk. The colonies, moreover, are said to be connected by “bands” to England, which it was necessary to “dissolve” in order to effect a “separation.” In the final analysis, according to Pinker, the metaphors allude to a single, unstated metaphor: alliances are bonds, which can blossom into multi-layered attachments like family ties, but can also bind like manacles. From here, Pinker launches into a discussion of the underlying mechanisms of metaphor.
For the past 20 years, Pinker has been writing blockbusters, such as The Language Instinct and The Blank Slate, which explore language, thought, memory and human identity in the light of neuroscience, artificial intelligence research and linguistics. This new book finds him for the first time in the realms of the imagination—metaphor-making. How do we fuse disparate images and ideas to create striking analogies, thereby promoting fresh insights?
Pinker, currently a professor of psychology at Harvard, comes out of MIT, where computer science has developed in tandem with linguistics and psychology for three decades. His dominant image of the mind-brain relationship is the computer: neurons, in his view, are no more essential to the phenomena of thought and consciousness than feathers are needed for flight. Hence he disagrees with neuroscientists like Gerald Edelman, who believe that the mind can only be understood via neurophysiology. Pinker, meanwhile, agrees with Noam Chomsky that language is constrained by an innate grammar in the mind-brain, but, unlike Chomsky, argues that this grammar is shaped by evolutionary forces.
Reading Pinker on metaphor is to embark on a busy journey through a prodigious thesaurus of punning, wordplay and double entendre. He believes that our capacity for creating and understanding metaphor is underpinned by what he terms “conceptual semantics,” an assembly of innate basic concepts that distinguish such opposing physical categories as coming and going, human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate, past and future, cause and prevention. These are clothed and elucidated by language and imagery, but precede it. For example, the phrase “bread is the staff of life,” which requires us to understand…