Raising the question of ‘beg the question’

December 9, 2015

One of the phrases most guaranteed to annoy usage traditionalists and purists is beg the question meaning raise the question or evade the question. While raise the question (or invite, elicit, prompt, etc.) is by far the most common meaning, it differs from the initial philosophical one. So it makes a good case study for language change and attitudes to it.

First, the traditional use: beg the question was originally a logical fallacy also known as petitio principii. It’s kin to circular reasoning in which a person assumes the conclusion in their premise. That is, the truth of their argument is based on an assumption that hasn’t been proved, and needs to be.

For instance:

Same-sex marriage should be forbidden, because marriage must be between a man and a woman.

Democracy is the best system of government because of the wisdom of the crowd.

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Idries Shah on words for Sufis

January 3, 2015

Idries Shah’s 1964 book The Sufis, which I read over the holidays, has several interesting passages on language, a couple of which I quote below. The first excerpt concerns the history and use of the protean word Sufism and some of the various terms used to refer to Sufis:

Exactly how old is the word “Sufism”? There were Sufis at all times and in all countries, says the tradition. Sufis existed as such and under this name before Islam. But, if there was a name for the practitioner, there was no name for the practice. The English word “Sufism” is anglicized from the Latin, Sufismus; it was a Teutonic scholar who, as recently as 1821, coined the Latinization which is now almost naturalized into English. Before him there was the word tasawwuf – the state, practice or condition of being a Sufi. This may not seem an important point, but to the Sufis it is. It is one reason why there is no static term in use among Sufis for their cult. They call it a science, an art, a knowledge, a Way, a tribe – even by a tenth-century portmanteau term, perhaps translatable as psychoanthropology (nafsaniyyatalinsaniyyat) – but they do not call it Sufism.

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The Mind is a Metaphor is a database

July 2, 2012

The Mind is a Metaphor is an extensive database of historical metaphors of the mind. Assembled and maintained by Brad Pasanek, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Virginia, it serves as “an evolving work of reference, an ever more interactive, more solidly constructed collection of mental metaphorics”.

The collection of metaphors – almost ten thousand and counting – is categorised by literary period, genre, type, and (where known and applicable) author’s gender, nationality, politics, and religion. Examples span millennia, from classical texts to more recent works, with a strong focus on the period 1660–1819.

Currently on the front page are several lines from Heraclitus. Clicking through each quotation, we are provided with additional context, strengthening a site that even on a brief visit is rewarding to browse. Every page offers a wealth of images; I plucked these from a few minutes’ meandering:

What an April weather in the mind! (Alexander Pope, 1713)

My heart is melting wax (Charles Wesley, 1749)

Every time I tried to concentrate, my mind glided off, like a skater, into a large empty space, and pirouetted there, absently. (Sylvia Plath, 1963)

The Mind, in peaceful Solitude, has Room / To range in Thought, and ramble far from home (Mary Barber, 1735)

Heads overfull of matter, be like pens over full of ink, which will sooner blot, than make any fair letters at all. (Roger Ascham, 1570, quoted by Samuel Johnson, 1755)

A letter always seemed to me like Immortality, for is it not the mind alone, without corporeal friend? (Emily Dickinson, 1882)

Flowers, rivers, woods, the pleasant air and wind, / With Sacred thoughts, do feed my serious mind. (Rowland Watkyns, 1662)

The back of the mind is a small hotel / And when the residents go on picnics / Or take buckets and spades down to the sea / The betrayals begin. (Michael Longley, 1980)

My own brain is to me the most unaccountable of machinery–always buzzing, humming, soaring roaring diving, and then buried in mud. (Virginia Woolf, 1932)

Pasanek describes the database as more a “heap or helter-skelter anthology” than an online archive, and invites readers to go looking for its “many strange and surprising metaphors”. You can search by keyword and by faceted browsing, dipping in at random or tracing patterns in intellectual and cultural attitudes through time.

I tweeted about this site back in March and meant to blog about it then, but my notes are a bit helter-skelter too, and I let it go until now. There’s also a Mind is a Metaphor blog, which analyses particular metaphors in more detail, but it hasn’t been updated in a few years.

For more on metaphorical language, see my previous posts about metaphor.

John Searle on language, literacy, and the mind

January 17, 2012

Written language is where language acquires not just a much greater creative power but an enduring power…

Below is a short, lively interview with philosopher John Searle on language and the mind, in particular the impact of spoken and written language on human cognition, culture, and civilisation.

Total running time is approx. 23 minutes, in three parts; transcript link is below:

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Dictionary of faded metaphors

May 4, 2011

Over the last few weeks, I’ve written some articles about metaphorical English for Macmillan Dictionary Blog. This is a round-up of those articles, along with related links and additional thoughts. All of Macmillan’s blog posts, links and other resources on metaphorical English are collected on this page.

In Vorschule der Ästhetik (Pre-School of Aesthetics, 1804), philosopher Jean Paul wrote that every language was ‘ein Wörterbuch erblasseter Metaphern’: a dictionary of faded metaphors, or metaphors turned pale. Metaphors will fade – we can’t help that – but by paying heed to their histories and how we use them, we can perhaps avoid blanching them altogether. In any case, we keep coming up with new ones. We can’t help that, either.

Metaphors are commonly thought of as similes, analogies and so on, but single words can be metaphorical too. In ‘Depending on metaphor‘, I point out that although the current use of depend is chiefly abstract, its original meaning was ‘hang down’, as in pendulum. So its meaning has slid from physical reliance to figurative reliance. Semantic drift from physical to figurative is a routine linguistic pattern:

Metaphors tend to be based on a key conceptual correspondence. This is one reason they’re so productive. We can retain a metaphor’s central idea, but extend it and play with it and still be understood even as we conjure up unprecedented descriptions. Our natural creativity with language gives words whole constellations of related meanings. . . . Abstraction has become so commonplace in our thoughts and words that we tend to ignore what lies beneath it. Familiarity has fostered invisibility. [more]

Metaphorical language has come in for some rough judgement from philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes. Was his tongue (figuratively) in his cheek when he relied on metaphors in order to decry them? It doesn’t seem so. Nowadays we give them more credit. My next article, ‘For I met a metaphor‘, refers to several of Macmillan Dictionary’s ‘metaphor boxes’, written by lexicographer Rosamund Moon, which offer examples of familiar metaphors arranged systematically:

An organisation is like a body. A conversation is like a journey. . . . Gaining knowledge is like navigating, understanding is like seeing, and an opinion is like a view. . . . Reading the metaphors Rosamund has collected, we find them intuitively true because they’re intimately tied to how we conceptualise. We use metaphors to handle complex or abstract ideas by showing their similarity to simpler or more concrete or familiar things. Many metaphors originate in our impressions of our bodies and their interaction with the physical world. They are integral to how we make sense of our experiences. [more]

Illustration by Fritz Kahn

This is something I’ve written about here before: many metaphors are rooted in how we sense, experience, and orient in our environments. On Twitter I read a charming example of the body-as-container metaphor that stayed with me for weeks until I just had to write about it, noting that when a novel metaphor appears – in this instance from a child – it suddenly shows the scaffolding beneath the structure of our imaginations.

The body as a container is a good example of how metaphors assemble around core ideas and correspondences that are often basically physical or biological. In ‘Dirty tricks and honest metaphors‘, I discuss how the language we use to talk about honesty and dishonesty springs logically from certain key concepts. For example, we characterise dishonesty as dark, dirty, crooked, down, covered and closed:

Metaphor can be a subtle way of handling truth – hence the quote with which I began my previous article: ‘the defining feature of a metaphor is that it’s real’ [Sarah Kane, 4:48 Psychosis]. Even criminals who live in bright airy penthouses operate underground in the black market. They are called snakes and rats, slithering and scurrying in the dirt instead of being upstanding citizens. A detective in Scarface (1932) describes gangsters as ‘crawling lice’, which evokes this low plane and also hints at the connections between hygiene, disgust, and morality – connections we make in our minds and express in our metaphors. [more]

Science and philosophy are full of models and metaphors, since they involve devising useful representations of phenomena. The trouble is that we forget they are only models, based on human symbols and perceptions: recall the prolonged dispute over whether light is composed of waves or particles.* Metaphor in the form of allegory is central to many myths, fairy tales, and religious parables. Embedding and extending metaphors in stories gives us more room to convey psychological, social, and moral instruction.

Nietzsche wrote that we are all greater artists than we realise. This is true in several ways. To rephrase one of them: perception is creation. In perceiving the world then describing it to ourselves and to one another, we add lines and form, measuring, shaping, and connecting. Doing so creatively is second nature to us. Evolving to manipulate symbols, our minds also evolved to be manipulated by them. Hence the power of poetic language and the potency of a good metaphor.


* Answer: Both. Either. It depends on how you look at it. It’s complicated.

Containers of jokes and metaphors

February 14, 2011

The world is emblematic (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

On Twitter I follow an account called preschoolgems, which posts some of the things spoken by children attending a pre-school where, presumably, the account holder works. For instance:

I was born on a space needle.”
A clock is a house for time.”
Your eyes look extra magical today.”
I keep trying to go off in the distance.”
There’s a wolf in my tummy and a porcupine in my bum.”
Once, a long time ago, I had the whole world, and then I lost it.”
What was the first word ever?”
Plants are more important than games.”

You get the idea. Some are amusing but unremarkable, others irresistible; most are pretty charming, fresh, and effortlessly imaginative.

A few weeks ago I read the following gem: “One day I will tell the last of my jokes and then I will have to fill my body up with jokes again.”

As well as amusing me, it reminded me of a book I’d recently read: George Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. The book covers some of the same ground as the better-known Metaphors We Live By, a shorter work Lakoff co-wrote with the philosopher Mark Johnson. Both books make the case that our conceptual and linguistic systems are intrinsically and deeply metaphorical.

Metaphors are vital for the communication of ideas, especially complex or abstract ones, e.g., covers some of the same ground. Countless everyday metaphors are rooted in how we physically sense, experience, and orient in our environments. A familiar example of this is how we conceptualise our bodies as three-dimensional containers – vessels with boundaries through which things pass in and out.

Many metaphors are based on this simple concept. One of the ways we understand and talk about emotions is as substances, often fluids, in these containers. When we are sad we feel empty inside. Recovering, we are filled with relief, and may even brim with joy. If we lose our temper we cannot contain our anger; we need to get it out of our system. The language of eating evokes the analogy closely: when we overeat, we are stuffed, fit to burst, with no room for more.

We rely automatically on such expressions. The associations that inspired them are effectively invisible, integral to the flows of speech and thought – inevitably, given their ubiquity. Metaphor is a way for us to relate to (grasp) abstract ideas in terms of simpler, more concrete ones; it is pervasive in, and indispensable to, our language and our mental activity.

So when a novel example appears – from a child, say – suddenly and clearly it shows the scaffolding beneath the structure of our imaginations.

Emerson, in his famous essay Nature (1836), remarked on our ancient habit of using words we have “borrowed from some material appearance”; he said this tendency “may be daily observed in children . . . As we go back in history, language becomes more picturesque, until its infancy, when it is all poetry”. The child I quoted might run out of jokes now and then, but not of poetic metaphors.

The ubiquity of metaphor

September 14, 2010

Metaphor lives a secret life all around us. – James Geary

The conventional meaning of metaphor, familiar from school lessons in poetry and literature, is a description of something in terms of another – a representative or symbolic relation based on similarity. But in a more general sense, metaphor can be considered much more fundamental and prevalent, no mere literary flourish but the very stuff of language and thought. (There’s an example: metaphor as a substance, or, more generically, ideas as objects.)

In Metaphors We Live By (1980), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson contend that metaphor pervades not only language but everyday thought and action. They describe metaphor as a matter of “conceptual structure” that “involves all the natural dimensions of our experience, including aspects of our sense experiences: colour, shape, texture, sound, etc.” Lakoff and Johnson supply many examples (e.g., argument is war, life is a journey, happy is up, less is down), each supported by examples of familiar expressions. A selection is here.

Julian Jaynes felt similarly. He considered metaphor to be central to consciousness, describing it as “the very constitutive ground of language” in a controversial book published in 1976. According to Jaynes, consciousness “operates by way of analogy, by way of constructing an analog space with an analog ‘I’, that can observe that space, and move metaphorically in it.” Spatialisation is characteristic of this practice: concepts that lack spatial qualities are given them in our minds for easier handling – time, for example, or ideas themselves. (Handling concepts is another metaphor.)

The quote at the top of this post comes from a talk in which James Geary reaches similar though less philosophical conclusions. Metaphors are everywhere – Geary says we utter about six a minute – but this goes largely unnoticed because they hide in plain hearing in our common speech. Signifiers become hidden in words whose familiarity then obscures their origins. Take for example the ubiquitous be, whose roots (Proto-Indo-European *bheu-, *bhu-, ‘grow’, ‘become’) reveal its close connection to the body as a process.

“Abstract words,” wrote Jaynes, “are ancient coins whose concrete images in the busy give-and-take of talk have worn away with use.” That’s a metaphor to leave by.

[image source]
[more posts about metaphor]