Re: "Like Minded People"
From: Stuart Staniford (
Date: Fri, 14 Jul 2000 16:14:32 -0600 (MDT)

Kay Argyle wrote:

> I don't see why we should, without a struggle, let people misappropriate
> perfectly sound words for their own ends, destroying the word's utility for
> expressing its neutral, literal meaning (as has happened to the word
> "literal" itself -- "He literally exploded!"  Really?  He went splat all
> over? -- It's become a meaningless intensifier) and robbing the rest of us
> of the word and everything that could have been said with it -- silencing
> us.

I've recently become very excited by the work of George Lakoff, a cognitive
linguist at UC Berkeley.  He's written a number of very readable books, and
his main thesis is that metaphor is not an incidental linguistic frill, but
the organizing principal for most human reasoning.  So there really isn't
such a thing as the "neutral literal meaning" of most sentences.  We reason
(largely unconsciously) by metaphors, and it shows up in our language.

An example of the kinds of metaphors he talks about is
Organization-is-a-Person", as in these examples:
        Exxon is scheming to cover up the oil spill.
        Marsh Commons is mad at me after I missed cooking dinner.
        I really adore The Body Shop.

He shows in a large number of examples that the way people in a particular
culture use such metaphors tends to be very consistent across our speech
and writing.  Other metaphors: Time-is-a-resource,  Happy-is-Up, 

When Kay writes "let people misappropriate perfectly sound words for their
own use", it seems to me she's using several metaphors: Words-are-objects
and  Speech-is-property-ownership-of-objects.  More specifically
Words-are-fragile-objects, as "perfectly sound" is suggesting that although
these particular words are objects in good shape to begin with, the
word-objects might get broken or in poor condition, and that this happens
when ignorant people steal the word objects from their rightful owners
(presumably including Kay) and then abuse their misgotten property.

Thus Kay's whole argument for the literal use of words is an argument
couched in terms of a metaphor.  If you found it convincing, it's probably
because that metaphor unconsciously fit very naturally for you, and not
because she presented any evidence that real harm occurs due to the
changing or metaphorical meaning of words.

And you'll note that, without thinking about it, I used metaphors too in
the above paragraphs.  Once you've played with this for a while, try to
write a paragraph expressing a fairly complicated idea without using any
metaphors.  IME, it's just about impossible.

Brain teaser: why is it metaphorically consistent to speak of time in both
the following ways?  "I can see the future and I don't like what I see"
(implying the future is in front of us (and therefore can be "seen":
Future-is-front?).  "In the week following my birthday, I'm taking a
vacation" (implying dates later than other dates are behind those other
dates: Future-is-back?).  What is the underlying metaphor for time here?

Lakoff's books (with different co-authors) include:

        * Metaphors we Live by
        * Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things
        * Moral Politics

The last is particularly mind blowing.  He shows very convincingly that
political positions (Liberal and Conservative) arise because both liberals
and conservatives are unconsciously reasoning about politics using the
metaphor "Nation is Family" with the government in the parental role and
citizens cast as children.  But Liberals and Conservatives have different
models of how families should operate (Liberals believing in the primary
importance of love and choice for children, and conservatives believing in
the primary importance of discipline and reward/punishment).  He goes
through and explains how this model is able to predict what the liberal
position will be on almost any issue, and what the conservative position
will be.  Eg what does lowering taxation on the rich have to do with being
anti-abortion?.  Why are liberals very likely to be pro-choice, and also
much more likely to be vegetarian (do they care about sanctity of life or
not)?  Why do conservatives despise Hilary Clinton so much?  The book
explains it all.  It also shows that both are strongly held moral
positions, not mainly driven by self-interest.


The book also makes it way clearer why there are very few conservatives in
cohousing, and aren't ever likely to be many (not to discourage the heroic
few, who are doing something very important IMO).

> To avoid using a term such as "like-minded" to say exactly what it says --
> people who think alike on some subject, as given in the context -- for fear
> that people might make unfounded out-of-context assumptions about what we
> _really_ mean, is to give a victory to the forces of ignorance and
> thought-control.

Argument-is-war ("victories to the forces").  Theories-are-buildings
("unfounded assumptions").

The meaning of words is a matter of rough cultural consensus, and it shifts
over time since humans are very linguistically inventive.  

(The meaning of words "shifts", hmmmm).  I guess you can't hold back the
sand dune when the wind's blowing it towards your house, Kay :-)


Stuart Staniford  ---  President  ---  Silicon Defense
                   stuart [at]
(707) 445-4355                     (707) 445-4222 (FAX)

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