Metonymies and literalism

Keith Hamon’s wonderful post on metaphors vs. models, reminded me of similar tropes mistaken for models.

He sees the rhizome as a metaphor and explains how viewing it as a model, is a misunderstanding. This quote suggests who is most at risk of such misunderstanding:

“They [two metaphors of love] both say something more or less useful about love, but only the most left-brained, fundamentalist, reductionist critic would say, ‘Okay, which is it? Is love a rose or a fish-hook, because it can’t be both.'”

Literalistic thinking that dismisses each hunch of similarity until it is scientifically evidenced, takes many ideas as a futile attempt of reductionist explanation of things that only exist in folk psychology or even only in pop science.

A prominent example is the “Left Brain/Right Brain” myth, which is being attacked twice at the same time in this year’s Edge responses of “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?”. What they are really attacking, is a literalist idea that the different kinds of information processing were physically exactly represented by the hemispheres.

They do not contest that there are different modes. (In fact, both Kosslyn, who I very much respect, and Blakemore say a lot of interesting facts about the differences, and furthermore, Kosslyn does so in his exchange with McGilchrist).

So the problem seems to be that we say “the left brain does such and such” instead of “this one mode of operation does …”, because this sounds like false science rather than like an approximation, or comparison, like some kind of rhetorical “improper expression” or  trope, perhaps like a kind of synecdoche that uses the whole for the part. Perhaps we should only speak of the Master and the Emissary to clearly express that it is just a metaphor (or more precisely, an allegory).

Another example are the notoriously negated learning styles. Again, the simplistic reduction on a basis of modalities (VAK) sounds like a fake concretion of something that does not exist.

Similarly, in the early years of hypertext there was a “Cognitive Plausibility ‘Misconception'”: the idea that both the brain and a hypertext were a network, was foreshortened to model the neuroconnections by hyperlinks, and subsequently ridiculed.

This is where the central metaphor of connectivism comes in: the similarity of neuroconnections which is applied to three levels, from neural, to conceptual, to social/ external: The neural connections show similarities with connections between people and between concepts.

But, strictly speaking, it is not a metaphor on the neural level because a rhetorical construct is called a metaphor only if a  leap is made to a different domain, e.g. from neural to social, but not if it relates to something within the same domain (then it is a metonymy). And unfortunately, also the conceptual level is very close to the neuroscience/ cognitive science domain. Within the same or similar domain, however, such an  analogy is easily mistaken for faked reality, or at least for a misconception.

So I have not yet succeeded in finding an appropriate metonymy for my pet idea that notions are somehow similar like the collection of connections between words, including their end-point “ports” within these words (word senses), which I tried to depict by colored sets of lines here: once the lines are mistaken for actual dendrites between granny neurons, the whole thing of course appears ridiculous.

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8 Responses to Metonymies and literalism

  1. Frances Bell says:

    Matthias – very interesting post that I need to read and re-read.
    I really struggle with what you say here “This is where the central metaphor of connectivism comes in: the similarity of neuroconnections which is applied to three levels, from neural, to conceptual, to social/ external: The neural connections show similarities with connections between people and between concepts.”
    I have flaky knowledge of neuroscience but the whole thing of connections when they involve people makes me want to ask about (not just the counting of the connections) the quality of the connections.

  2. x28 says:

    Thanks for asking. For me the most important aspects of neural-like connections among people is that they “are not all of equal strength” but may be gradually strengthening, and that they are related to the conceptual connections (see ), in particular that they form fuzzy categories, and are involved in echo and resonance.

  3. Frances Bell says:

    So do you think that there are other connections between people that are not ‘neural-like’?

  4. VanessaVaile says:

    This and the 2008 link are most welcome. I confess to dealing with this fuzzy area in connectivism very often by moving onto the next paragraph. The metaphor works well for me — a fit what much of my learning experience (from both sides) has been and continues to be like. I’m usually a want to know why person but here it’s more like sausages and internal combustion engines — how is secondary to outcome and it working.

    Some connections take more time than others to develop, some may weaken over time. Others can lay fallow but be picked up as though no time had passed.

  5. x28 says:

    Frances, you are right, my sloppy expression suggests this, but I have not thought about such connections. Perhaps, closed group connections are hard to find among the neural ones.

    Vanessa, thanks once more for your colorful amplification. In particular, I love the sausages metaphor which I had never heard.

  6. francesbell says:

    To me the metaphor of neural connections used for complex networks of people and things breaks down quite quickly. I only have to think of Facebook likes and it’s gone for me;)

  7. keith.hamon says:

    Matthias, thanks for the clear distinction between metaphor and metonymy, which I think, is highly useful in this conversation. When theorists suggest that social networks are like neural networks, they are speaking metaphorically; however, others too often take them to be suggesting a model. The theorists are not, as neither neural nor social network is a model of the other. Rather, they are types of networks within different domains, as you note, and they each shed light on the other, depending on which domain is more familiar and accessible. The metaphor, then, is a kind of gateway for moving from a more familiar space to a less familiar space and can work either way: neural network social network. A model works only one way: model -> original. Typically, the original does not model the model.

    Though, now that I’ve said that, I’m not sure. Hmm … what if the original does model the model? I’ll have to think about that.

  8. x28 says:

    Keith, I admire how you make things still clearer. And perhaps you have narrowed down the special problem of modelling the special case of language and notions which might be originals that somehow “model the model”?

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