Assignment 1 of Module 5 was originally written like this:

Assignment 1: Bats

Read through George Cuvier's explanation of bats. He describes how bats see based on the concept of "aerial impressions." Looking at the definition of "impression" in the O.E.D., can you tell if its meaning depends upon a given technology?

Read through Rachel Carlson's essay on bats in Readers' Digest, then at the definitions of radar, sonar, and echolocation. Has Carlson also metaphorically equated bats ability to see with a technology?

Has our understanding of bats has changed since 1884? Has technology affected the way we understand bats?

Student responses to this assignment, quoted below, showed some learning needs.

Student's Response to the Question:

George Cuvier’s explanation of bats' navigational ability relies on our understanding of the word “impression”. However, it does not necessarily rely on our comprehension of a given technology. “Aerial impressions” is the exact wording Cuvier uses. The OED has four main meaning for the word “impression”. One of them relates this use of the word in particular. It defines “impression” as an effect produced by an external force on the senses. This is exactly the meaning of the word Cuvier was using. The meaning does not depend on technology because there are multiple meanings for this word.

Professor's Response to the Student:

That’s interesting, ___. One thing you are presuming is that people can choose to mean one definition out of many when they write or speak a word. But words carry all their meanings with them at all times, and they carry even more than the meanings listed in the dictionary; they carry “connotations” as well that are cultural and historical. As an experiment, whenever you wish to tell someone that you feel happy, say instead "I feel gay" (Webster's definition number 1 being "happily excited"). Can you ignore meaning 3 ("homosexual")? Perhaps you cannot at this moment use the word "gay" without implying something about your sexual preferences. A word's impression depends upon its connotations, and its connotations come from the way it is used -- all its definitions. You will never be able to erase an impression you create by using a word with connotations and/or meanings you didn’t intend. Moreover, Lakoff and Johnson are trying to show that words do in fact always retain their metaphorical sense.

For Lakoff and Johnson, that words are being used metaphorically is visible insofar as they are part of a whole system. In the ordinary way we talk, impressions are the kinds of things that can be “erased” or “effaced” or “obliterated” but not “deleted” (you would not say in our language, “I deleted my impression of him,” but rather “He makes a bad first impression, but seems like a nice guy once you get to know him”). That you wouldn't say in English "I deleted my impression of him" -- even though there is no grammatical reason not to say it -- shows that the word "impression" retains its metaphorical meaning: we imagine some idea pressed on our minds, just as print is pressed on paper.

Finally, we have seen in Locke (Hume’s precursor) that he thinks of the mind as white paper upon which ideas are impressed: he explicitly uses that metaphor. All the ideas that empirical scientists such as Hume have about how sensation operates are influenced by this metaphor – as we will see later, when talking about data. Further evidence of this fact is seen in the excerpt you read about “data”: notice that, when technologies changed, the term for what sensations are changed as well. As data has come to refer more and more to information on a computer, we have come more and more to think of brains operating as software.

Student's Response to the Question:

Carlson is clearly comparing the way a bat sees to out current day technology of radar. This comparison makes much more sense to me than does the metaphor of a bat and aerial impressions. Using this metaphor hides that with our concept of radar we do not sense where things are, but rather we see them on a monitor. Bats, on the other hand, would use radar by sending high pitch sounds and sense (not see, especially from far distances like we can) objects as the sounds echo back to them.

Professor's Response to the Student:

O.k., good, so bats don’t have a radar screen; in fact, the metaphor implies that they ARE radar machines, not viewers of the radas as are we humans who use such machines. Clearly we have gained some important knowledge about night flying by thinking about bats as radar. What might the "bats=machines" metaphor hide about bats?

Student's Response to the Question:

I think that instead of technology affecting our understanding of bats, bats have affected our understanding of technology.

Professor's Response to the Student:

Really interesting idea, ____. It’s hard to tell exactly which came first, given that the discoveries of how bats fly and of radar both occur in 1941. I wonder if the same ideas that prompted technology developers to invent radar also prompted scientists, the zoologists studying bat behavior, to bind up bats’ mouths before letting them fly – certainly an odd idea for an experiment!

Student's Response to the Question:

I think that the metaphor (a bat’s method of sensing objects = radar) might even cross the line between being a metaphor and being literal.

Professor's Response to the Student:

That is a perfectly respectable point of view. Notice what assumptions it entails, however. It means that, in your view, we will not discover in a few hundred years another technology that helps us explain better what bats do. Are you sure? If you aren't sure (beyond a reasonable doubt, let's say), what do you think makes us want to say that we know bats better than any future generations will know bats? What motive could there be to think such a thing?

[Advanced] Student's Response to the Question:

Consider some of Carlson’s language: “…bats developed their sonic detection apparatus…” If I overheard someone talking about a “sonic detection apparatus,” I would certainly think of machines and high-tech instruments. This is a clear use of a technology metaphor. I think it’s worth mentioning, though, that a bat’s echolocation system really is a “sonic detection apparatus.” So it’s literal, too. Our understanding of it, though, does rely on technology.

Professor's Response to the Student:

You have sorted out the issues here beautifully. You want to say that bats really do have radar, but you are also aware that it takes having radar technology, and metaphorically applying radar to bats, for us to understand bats. Even if bats really do have radar, is there anything about bats that might be hidden by the metaphor "bats=radar machine"? Mightn't the metaphor stimulate a way of behaving toward bats, and, if so, what might that be?

Student's Response to the Question:

When compared to the other definitions, I can see the correlation to the previous metaphor of the mind as a paper upon which impressions or writing, can be made.

Professor's Response to the Student:

It is terrific that you bring up our previous work on Locke. When Locke says that our minds are white paper on which characters are imprinted, he is using the technology of printing as a model for the way minds work. I think he is metaphorically equating sensation with print technology as opposed to handwriting because I think, had Locke been thinking about handwriting, he would have called sensations "scratches" (given the quill pens people used at the time) or "marks" rather than "impressions."

 

BACK