Saturday, February 2, 2013
Agenticity in language
Many times people speak about the world as if the objects within it have agency. "Be careful around that lamp, it wants to fall over." "My car is very fussy, she doesn't like the rain." This kind of talk is part of the ubiquity of metaphor in speech. Neither of my examples posit some kind of animism, or point at my own softheadedness; they both explain something about an object.
The first sentence uses agent like language to warn my house guest that the lamp is unstable. And the second sentence is something I could say of my car even if I knew what the electrical problem was and could describe it. The fact that "agent talk" and narrative description make easy sense to our very social brain does not mean that when we use this kind of talk that we have totally lost our wits.
It can be dangerous thinking, one can fall in for some kind of animism because "the car really does seem fussy". But it bothers me when I hear critiques of peoples thinking when all that is being critiqued is a manner of description.
And let’s not miss the advantage of agent like description. My lamp might look sturdy but fall over easily, so describing it as an agent that desires to fall over tells the listener how to interact with the lamp in a way that "that lamp's center of gravity is too high for size of its base" wouldn't obviously convey. And telling someone about the wires in my car doesn't tell you what to look out for. Bad wiring can do almost anything in a car, so the "fanciful" description of my car as a stuck up little princess who won’t start in the rain is, for the person interacting with my car as a driver, more informative than the formal diagnosis.