Concept Exchange Society


Wednesday, February 11, 1998 6:30 pm

At Glenn Johnston's House.

Presentation: Curtis Degler


Pre-Meeting Notice:

Curtis Degler will present a brief exposition of the work and thoughts of George Lakoff, Professor of Linguistics at UC Berkeley, and lead a discussion of how his critique of the objectivist theory of human categorization and reason extends to the scientific method.

Books by Lakoff are WOMEN, FIRE AND DANGEROUS THINGS, 1987, U of Chicago Press and METAPHORS WE LIVE BY with Mark Johnson, 1980, U of Chicago Press

For exerpts from Lakoff's writing go to:
and, from a political perspective

Participants are asked to bring idiomatic utterances from colloquial English descriptive of character and morality a (e.g. - "Politicians are crooked").


Present: Qalbi, Douglas (both first time), Jeff, Curtis, Don, Meredyth, Roger, Glenn, Roberto, Rachel and Marvin

Curtis came well prepared. With notes and a heavily bookmarked tome. He told us about two books of George Lakoff, Professor of Linguistics at UC Berkeley. One is "Metaphor, Morality and Politics" and another, that Curtis brought with him, is called "Women, Fire and Dangerous Things".

Lakoff's central thesis, says Curtis, is that metaphor is rampant in our speech. Unconsciously it determines meaning. Meaningfulness is given by metaphor.

To make us aware of the pervasiveness of metaphor Curtis gave us a plethora of examples.
A metaphor is a word or phrase that stands for another.
Saying someone is a snake conjures up a picture of a particular kind of evil character.
There are a host of geometric metaphors.
A politician is crooked. People are described as straight, square, acute, obtuse, twisted, warped . . .

Some languages have required prefixes or suffixes that shape descriptions of every concept. The language itself imposes metaphor in speech. We are familiar with European languages - such as French - that classify everything as male or female. The sun is male, the moon female. (In German it is the other way round!)

The Australian aboriginal language called Dyirbal requires that all nouns be preceded by one of four classifiers:
baie which embraces the moon and men
balan which embraces the sun, women, fire and dangerous things (Whence comes the title of Lakoff's book)
balam: non-flesh food . . .
bala: body parts, sticks. . .

Lakoff draws some philosophical conclusions from his observations. He feels that the notion of objectivism must be abandonned. Explaining Lakoff, Curtis says: "Objectivism means that entities have well defined fixed properties and relations to each other. That symbols are related to entities in a one-to-one way. That categories have objective existence. That there is a world out there."
Curtis didn't discuss what an alternative philosophy might be. Apparently Lakoff discussed only what is wrong with objectivism, not what might replace it. He cites mathematical authorities who believe the understanding of human reason is beyond the capabilities of mathematics. Curtis explained Lakoff's idea as follows: Everything is metaphor based. That puts limits on what we can know. Metaphor, by its nature, is imprecise. It forbids fixed precision. Thus it forbids access to objective nature. Formal logic has only limited application because meaningfulness is given by metaphor.

To Marvin these sound like unsubstantiated pontifications. The assertion of a thought in several different ways doesn't prove it to be true.
Metaphor is simply speech poetry. Because people speak poetically is not a reason to expect that great minds will never understand nature! That in French 'moon' is a feminine noun has not made Frenchmen inferior astronomers!

The imprecision argument is invalid. The science process eventually uncovers imprecision in thought. Besides allowance for imprecision is already built into the current fundamental understanding of nature.

Lakoff's style, his resouce material, his comparisons and suggested ways of viewing them are informative, suggestive and above all entertaining. His philosophy is superficial. I'll ignore it.

Curtis' presentation was a resounding success. Passionate, informative and stimulating. A good time was had by all.

February 1998
Marvin Chester

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© m chester 1998 Occidental CA