Michael Reddy, Ph.D, CPC
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Monday August 21, 2017
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Original Conduit Metaphor Article

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The text of my groundbreaking article on a coherent, underlying "folk model" for human communication found in the English language follows.  Comments are turned on here, so feel free to make them or ask questions.  You can also read a summary of this work in Wikipedia.  MR

The conduit metaphor: A case of frame conflict in our language about language.

by Michael J. Reddy

I should like to respond to Professor Schön’s chapter by replaying his theme several octaves lower. In my opinion, he has struck exactly the right set of notes. “Problem setting” should indeed be considered the crucial process, as opposed to “problem solving.” And the “stories that people tell about troublesome situations” do set up or “mediate” the problem. And “frame conflict” between various stories should be studied in detail, precisely because it is quite often “immune to resolution by appeal to the facts.”

It is hard to think of a better overture to genuine advance in the social and behavioral sciences than this. At the same time, it seems to me that Schön has managed to sound these excellent notes only in their overtones, so that the fundamental frequency is barely to be heard—even though, to my ears at least, Schön’s kind of thinking is real and long awaited music.

Quite simply, what I believe is missing is the application of Schön’s wisdom—this paradigm-consciousness—to human communication itself. It may seem predictable that I, a linguist, would take such a position. But, if I do, it is hardly disciplinary narrow-mindedness that motivates me. In 1954, Norbert Wiener, one of the originators of information theory, and the “father of cybernetics,” stated quite flatly: “Society can only be understood through a study of the messages and communications facilities which belong to it” (Wiener, 1954, p. 16).

I have never thought of this statement as referring to things like the size and adequacy of the telephone system. Wiener was talking primarily about the basic processes of human communication—how they work, what sort of wrinkles there are in them, when and why they are likely to succeed or fail. The problems of society, government, and culture depend ultimately on something like the daily box score of such successes or failures to communicate. If there are too many failures, or systematic types of failure, troubles will multiply. A society of near-perfect communicators, though it would no doubt still face conflicts of interest, might well be able to avoid many of the destructive, divisive effects of these inevitable conflicts.

What lies behind Schön’s term “frame restructuring,” and Kuhn’s term “translation” (Kuhn, 1970a) seems to be just this much: better communication. Alleviating social and cultural difficulties requires better communication. And the problem that faces us is, how do we improve our communication? But, if we come around to saying this, then it is high time that we listened to Schön’s good advice. It will not do to set out posthaste to “solve the problem” of inadequate communication. The most pressing task is rather to start inquiring immediately about how that problem presents itself to us. For problem setting, not problem solving is the crucial process. What kinds of stories do people tell about their acts of communication? When these acts go astray, how do they describe “what is wrong and what needs fixing”?

In this chapter, I am going to present evidence that the stories English speakers tell about communication are largely determined by semantic structures of the language itself. This evidence suggests that English has a preferred framework for conceptualizing communication, and can bias thought process toward this framework, even though nothing more than common sense is necessary to devise a different, more accurate framework. I shall thus be trying to convince you of what may be a disturbing premise: that merely by opening our mouths and speaking English we can be drawn into a very real and serious frame conflict.

My own belief is that this frame conflict has considerable impact on our social and cultural problems. If we are largely unable, despite the vast array of communications technologies available to us today, to bring about substantive improvements in human communication, it may well be because this frame conflict has led us to attempt faulty solutions to the problem.

It is, of course, impossible to make such assertions without calling to mind the speculations and arguments of many twentieth-century figures—notably those of Whorf (1956) and of Max Black’s (1962d) reluctant but thorough refutation of Whorf. There is an old joke about the Whorf hypothesis to the effect that, if it should be true, then it would be by definition unprovable. For if two human beings not only spoke radically different languages, but also thought and perceived the world differently, well then they would be far too busy throwing rocks and spears at one another to ever sit down and establish this as a fact. The grain of truth in this facetiousness can be found in Schön’s dictum that frame conflicts are “immune to resolution by appeal to the facts.” As he says, “New facts have a way of being either absorbed or disregarded by those who see problematic situations under conflicting frames.”

Now, for the past several years, I have been collecting some new facts and talking about them with many different people. Very slowly, during this period of time, these new facts initiated a frame change in my own thinking about language. I had always been interested in Uriel Weinreich’s observation that “Language is its own metalanguage.” But after the frame change, I knew that, as a metalanguage, English, at least, was its own worst enemy. And I knew that there was something more than mysticism to Whorf’s ideas. At this point, curiously enough, when everything seemed to fall into place for me, it became much harder to talk to others about the new facts. For now I was speaking across the chasm of frame conflict.

I mention these things because I want to suggest at the outset that the discussion that follows is a marvelous opportunity for one of those failures to communicate which we are concerned to prevent. It is a little bit like the joke about Whorf. If I am right in what I believe about frames, then it may well be difficult to convince you, because the frames I am talking about exist in you and will resist the change. For my part, in writing this, I have made strenuous efforts to remember what it was like before I shifted frames, and how long it took before the “new facts” made sense to me. At the same time, I should like to request that you, on your side, make yourselves receptive to what may be a serious alteration of consciousness. To use Schön’s terminology, we are engaged perforce in frame restructuring, and special effort is called for.

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