Metaphors about Metaphors

    This page is a personal homework reflection for Kira's Ways of Knowing workshop.

    The title of the session is Metaphor - Treat or Trap?

    * * *

    To look into the topic of metaphor gets one pretty quickly into the murky depths (metaphor intended) of the philosophy of language.  But rather than standing back and looking at the history of philosophy since classical times, I'm tempted to cut to the chase ... or rather, to dive right in.

    To understand the concept of metaphor -- let's start right away by digging into some metaphors hidden within common language.  To understand suggests to stand underneath; to get to the bottom of something.  To "dig up" some of these understanding-like possibilities is to be with something in a certain way -- to be underneath it and yet, to be standing up.  And that in turn (you can start to see the network of meanings here -- as if meanings were like knots in a space-filling structure of string, tied together systematically) ... means that you are not lying down, you aren't snowed under like a log in winter, but are on your feet, alert, able to look around, turn, to step this way and that; and to orient yourself at will to look in different directions;  your hands are free so that you can do an effective job of grasping (whatever is there to grasp,  when doing this thing called understanding, applied to a certain thing, which in this case is metaphor).

    It's interesting to consider the metaphor present in the common word concept:

    1550s, from M.L. conceptum "draft, abstract," in classical Latin "(a thing) conceived," from concep-, pp. stem of concipere "to take in" (see conceive). (from The Online Etymology Dictionary)

    What does this suggest?  The same root is used for conception.  So this "says" that to learn a concept is like taking something new in, becoming pregnant with the possibility that something will grow, hidden inside, and emerge later with a life of its own.  So the concept metaphor is about a basic function of life itself. 

    Ordinary language is laden with metaphors, like a fruit tree heavy with fruit, except that they aren't all the same kind of thing, like apples on a tree.  We could pick them (that is, to select and take away from the whole) and if we like, in a certain way, eat them (as when we take something in and make it part of ourselves, part of our own structure of knowledge or concepts or ideas).  But metaphors are not all alike like apples on a tree.  Maybe they're more like different kinds of animals.  How many species of metaphor are there?  (And are we getting closer to some basic, literal meanings?  Maybe that's not possible!)  Even here we're not going to completely escape the pull toward further metaphor;  for example the naturalist Linnaeus, in 1735, advanced biology by creating a system for categorizing animal "species" as if they were parts of a big tree.  That of course may have been influenced both by ideas of taxonomy (the word implies "method of managing an arrangement") and by the earlier metaphoric archetype of the Tree of Life.  Thus, in some way, our intellectual ancestors thought, in metaphoric terms, Life is like a Tree.  Isn't that nicer than a file cabinet?  To really understand what Linnaeus was up to, we'd need to know what influences he followed, or on which he based his ideas.

    If one were to follow the concept network in nearly any use of natural language as far as it goes, what would it include?  Life, the Universe, and Everything! 

    The most prevalent theories of language are the background assumptions that -- implicitly and for the main part without awareness -- make sense of language-like things such as metaphor, and while they do that, they carry inside certain attitudes and values.  Metaphors are a Trojan Horse filled with lots of potential actions that we don't comprehend when we use them, and ideas about metaphor also carry hidden implications.  The basic story with these theories is that there is a "real world" that is separate from the "world of language", and language tries to correspond with or refer to the world;  that it doesn't do a very good job of this, and that we shouldn't trust it.  Perhaps, we're even trapped in it in some ways.

    Now the story of the Trojan Horse was about a problem ... but that depends on your point of view -- it was a problem for the Trojans, but a clever solution for the Athenians, invented by the wily Odysseus.  Clearly (meaning it's presumably possible to see through this topic) metaphors say certain things about the things and ideas we talk about, and say them in certain ways, and don't say them in a multitude of possible other ways.  Pretty cool, huh?  And efficient, too!  Imagine trying to state explicitly, all the subtle meanings wrapped in a single metaphor, for example, one embedded in a common word like "understand".  Or quite naturally, without analysis, you as a skilled user of natural language will almost instantly find a different, but similar metaphor that carries the meaning you want in a certain way that is important to you and your situation.  I understand.   I grasp what you're saying.  I see it clearly.  I "dig it".  I'm with you.

    Do metaphors "mislead" us?  They send our thinking in certain directions, but isn't that just part of life, that you say certain things and not others, at any particular time, in a way that is roughly appropriate to the circumstances and what needs to happen?   The wily Odysseus (or rather, Homer) understood this when he plotted his escape from the den of the Cyclops, telling his captor his name was "No-Man", which his captor thought identified him.  (It's no accident in that metaphor that the Cyclops had one eye, and the human had two, meaning he could see things in more than one way.)  When Odysseus escaped, and the Cyclops called out to his tribe for help, saying "No-Man has blinded me!", they thought he meant nothing had happened, and they did not come to his aid.  Thus Odysseus exploited the ambiguity in this metaphor in a way that was useful to him, but not to the Cyclops.  (And the name "No-Man" was itself a Trojan Horse.)  This early story, the Odyssey, is full of metaphoric insights into language and metaphor; including the wisdom to know that ambiguity is a good thing.

    Words as Ways of Knowing

    What theories of language say about metaphor has a whole story behind it, or said differently, that came before it.  Moreover, they provide a system of possibilities that set the stage for what can come after, as metaphors are used, unfolded and played out in thinking, meaning making, and communication. 

    Words and phrases in common use abound in metaphoric meaning.  Some are open, some are packed more tightly, some are dried out but can be reconstituted by adding the water of your attention.  A dictionary may shed some light on the ways words do their meaning magic.  Another way to do this is through etymology, which shows not just word origins but the meanings words used to have, and may still carry packed within.  (Note the metaphor "a word is a container for meaning.")  A thesaurus can also be interesting, to compare words that are close together -- try getting a sense of just what the differences are.  There are also books of idioms, cliches, and proverbs.  Oh, and of course there's poetry and its current cultural form, the lyrics of popular songs.

    "This is a map of the wheel-ruts of modern English. Etymologies are not definitions; they're explanations of what our words meant and how they sounded 600 or 2,000 years ago."
    The Online Etymology Dictionary

    Beyond Symbols

    Language theory carries the idea that words are symbols that refer to the world, but imperfectly, and that symbols and the physical world are of different kinds altogether, separate domains with a gulf between them.  But what if we consider some alternatives? 

    • What if metaphors are grounded in the world and embodied ways of knowing?
    • What if metaphors are an expression of how the brain works, based on sensing and moving in the world?
    • What if metaphors arise from a direct knowing of rather than arbitrary symbolic description of features of the world?
    • Metaphors say "something is in some certain way like something else".  What if everything is in certain non-symbolic ways like something else, and metaphors are what language does to recognize it?  Suppose you have a friend visiting, and you both look at the computer monitor, and ask "Does this have a foot?  Does it have a face?" and find out you agree.  You've invented a metaphor, but perhaps it was already there in the world?  How many things have faces, and feet, and backs, and legs ... how many things are like You?
    • What if this relationship between symbols and things is seen as a two way association?  Then things-in-the-world themselves function as non-linguistic symbols.  Then the world itself "speaks" to you.  If you look into the Grand Canyon, the world says "you are huge, and deep".  If you look at a tree, or green moss on a stone, then nature says something else.  Or if you look at a bus in rush hour traffic ... And your friend looks too, and you see them seeing you seeing it, then can that be nonlinguistic communication?


    A Tentative Summary

    What are metaphors and where do they come from?  What do they do for us?

    • They are more than figures of speech or conceptual structures; more than descriptive of logic-like statements about the world.  They are intrinsically gestural and participatory -- ways of being in and of the world.
    • They bring tacit (assumed or subconscious) knowledge into play in the background around what we say, shining a certain light on it, making it look a certain way.
    • They are the way our thinking (cognitive process) participates in the world.
    • They are a way that the world structures itself within our process of thinking and ways of knowing.
    • They provide efficient, nuanced communication that references multiple levels of knowing at once.
    • They provide poetic or artistic means of expression and communication.  And that is in fact the real way that communication happens, in a larger sense.
    • They support the presence and participation of body and emotion in the process of thinking, expressing, and communicating.
    • They bring tacit awareness of context -- common ground, shared understanding -- the fabric of both individual "thinking" and social "communication".


    How can one deepen understanding of metaphor (and by extension, language and knowledge)?

    • Unpack words and phrases -- enjoy them, like a present; open the box, peel them, look under the hood. 
    • But know that words don't "have" or even "contain" meanings -- though that's a common metaphor.  The meaning of language is its use by people -- that is, what happens.
    • Use language (thinking, reading, speaking) "twice"  (like Odysseus and not the Cyclops, with double vision) looking for latent meanings of language constructs, seeing how they work in practice.
    • Put yourself imaginatively into the "action" of the possibilities that language hints at.
    • Use your feeling awareness (bodily felt sense) to distinguish between and understand the meaning of different words, phrases, and uses of language.  Notice the role of the sense of feeling in discriminating subtle differences between similar things.
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    Viewing 2 of 2 comments: view all
    Brilliantly written, Cal. I've printed out a hard-copy for safe-keeping, and I've made the Etymology Dictionary one of my major bookmarks. MANY THANKS! - - - Bruce
    Posted 20:43, 13 Oct 2011
    This is wonderful Cal. I really appreciate your deph of thought on this subject/
    Posted 00:28, 6 Nov 2011
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