Symbolic language

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 imagination
October 26, 2007
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 the ways in which "bread" and a "staff" are both unalike and alike, can be grasped through our cross-referencing of contrasts between edible and inedible, animate and inanimate, support and non-support. The terms in which Pinker articulates this theory are reminiscent of computer architecture, an impression reinforced by his tendency to refer to "filing" when describing the development of language skills in children.

The most interesting section of the book involves the use of political metaphor, although the arguments are somewhat obscured by Pinker's tendency to snub his old linguistics rival, George Lakoff, champion of the notion that dominant metaphors are composed by those in power to serve their interests. It was Lakoff who suggested that "taxes" should be renamed "membership fees," as if unaware that George Orwell had ironically suggested "revenue enhancement" as a euphemism for "tax increase." There are fascinating chapters, moreover, on obscenity and swearing, and some amusing citation of metaphorical euphemisms in the ambit of sexuality: "Would you like to come up for a coffee?"

Where the book fails to satisfy, however, is precisely where metaphor achieves its deepest and richest potential. Reading Pinker one would think that not a single poet, critic or philosopher had ever had a decent thought about metaphor in art and poetry. Is it that Pinker does not care for the critical work of his predecessors in these related fields? Or is it that the deconstructionist literary theories, which hit the US in the 1970s, created a blind spot in Pinker's reading that excludes all the critical thinking on imagination that runs from Coleridge's Biographia Literaria to Frank Kermode's Romantic Images?

Only a handful of poets are cited in Pinker's book, with pride of place reserved for Philip Larkin and his mention of the "f" word. Shakespeare gets a mention: not in respect of Shakespearean metaphor, but in the footling dispute over the bard's true identity. The word "imagination" does not offer page references in the index: instead, the reader is referred to the term "mental imagery," which leads to this strange proposition: "The human imagination is a wondrous concocter. We can visualise unicorns and centaurs, people who are faster than a speeding bullet, and a brotherhood of man sharing all the world." Concocter? Mention of Coleridge is, again, apt at this point. It was he who challenged, in the 1790s, an early attempt to create a mechanical theory of the mind-brain relationship: Observations on Man by David Hartley, the 18th-century physician-philosopher. Observations was the first English attempt at a complete, non-dualist, mind-brain-body theory in the modern period. It proposed that language and ideas were laid down in a deterministic fashion through vibrations acting on the brain and the nervous system via minuscule tubes in the nerve fibres. Hartley's theory encouraged the heady optimism of England's political radicals in the 1790s—Joseph Priestley, Horne Tooke, William Frend—on the score of the perfectibility of human nature. To put it crudely, poverty, conflict and oppression were the result of bad social and political vibes.

Coleridge found himself rejecting Hartley's vibrations and microtubules as he entered the most creative period of his life. Hartley's theory simply did not match his consciousness of the dynamic, protean power of the symbol that "always partakes of the reality which it renders intelligible." Coleridge was to spend much of the rest of his life wrestling with a philosophy of imagination—symbol, metaphor, allegory—while drawing from the parallel endeavours of figures such as Fichte and Schelling in Germany. The lesson of Coleridge's story for Steven Pinker should be this: however smart and technically impressive a theory of metaphor, just try it on a practising poet before running with it.