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Metaphor Project (Explanations)

Significance: Cognitive role of metaphor

Metaphor Project


1. Resurgence of metaphor

Since the early 1970s there has been a progressive increase in studies of metaphor. Interest in the subject outside the literary world has markedly increased, accompanied by a number of breakthroughs in understanding about the function of metaphor. There is a very extensive literature on metaphor. A bibliography of post-1970 publications on metaphor records 4193 items (J P van Noppen, et al, 1985). A subsequent edition of this bibliography covering the 1980s, contains some 3,500 entries (J P van Noppen, et al, 1990).

Of special interest to many authors in the social and natural sciences is the degree to which concept formation is guided by metaphor or may even be totally based on metaphor. There appears to be increasing recognition of the power of metaphor to facilitate communication in situations where groups are fragmented by disciplinary, language or educational barriers.

2. Conventional use of metaphor

Metaphor is a classic device through which a complex set of elements and relationships can be rendered comprehensible - when any attempt to explain them otherwise could easily be meaningless. It is the peculiar strength of metaphor that it can convey the essential without excessive oversimplification, preserving its complexity by perceiving it through a familiar pattern of equivalent complexity.

A metaphor according to Nelson Goodman, "typically involves a change not merely of range but also of realm. A label along with others constituting a schema is in effect detached from the home realm of that schema and applied for the sorting and organizing of an alien realm. Partly by thus carrying with it a reorientation of a whole network of labels does a metaphor give clues for its own development and elaboration... A whole set of alternative labels, a whole apparatus of organization takes over a new territory... and the organization they effect in the alien realm is guided by their habitual use in the home realm. A schema may be transported almost anywhere. The choice of territory for invasion is arbitrary; but the operation within that territory is almost never completely so... which elements in the chosen realm are warm, or are warmer than others, is then very largely determinate. Even where a schema is imposed upon a most likely and uncongenial realm, antecedent practice channels the application of the labels." (The Language of Art, 1976, p. 72-74)

3. Pervasive cognitive role of metaphor

It is now recognized that metaphors permeate use of both everyday language and the jargons of many disciplines including physics (R Dirven and W Paprotte, The Ubiquity of Metaphor, 1984 and R S Jones, Physics as Metaphor, 1980).

As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson note: "Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish - a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language...most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature." (Metaphors We Live By, 1980, p.3)

Lakoff and Johnson demonstrate this with many examples which are confirmed in Roger Jones study of Physics as Metaphor (1980). The authors conclude that "If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor." (Metaphors We Live By, 1980, p.3)

They started their work from a concern that the understanding of meaning as explored by Western philosophy and linguistics had very little to do with what people found meaningful in their lives and quickly discovered that the assumptions of those disciplines precluded them from even raising the kinds of issue they wished to address. "The problem was not one of extending or patching up some existing theory of meaning but of revising central assumptions in the Western philosophical tradition. In particular, this meant rejecting the possibility of any objective or absolute truth... It also meant supplying an alternative account in which human experience and understanding, rather than objective truth, played the central role." (p.x)

4. Beyond objectivism

The authors show how metaphor reveals the limitations of objectivism, namely the assumption that the world is made of distinct objects with inherent properties and fixed relations between them. In a subsequent paper Lakoff takes the investigation a step further with an extensive exploration of classical assumptions about categories and cognitive models.

He concludes: "Changing our ideas about categories will require changing our ideas about rational thought, the nature of the mind and its relation to the body, and, in the process, changing our conception of man. Rationality, rather than being disembodied, purely mental, asocial, unfeeling and mechanical, is something which essentially involves the body, the senses, the emotions, social structure, interactions with other people, the imagination, and the capacity for idealization and for understanding based on the totality of experience. And the use of many partial models, some of which are inconsistent with each other, to comprehend experience is not irrational, but rather fits the paradigm of human rationality." (Categories and Cognitive Models, 1982)

This does not necessarily imply that objectivist categories and models should be abandoned. It does suggest that these constitute only one form of language and that there are others on whose resources society can draw at this critical time.

5. Metaphor as a way of knowing

For Robert Nisbet (Social Change and History, 1969): "Metaphor is a way of knowing -- one of the oldest, most deeply embedded, even indispensable ways of knowing in the history of human consciousness." Gibson Winter (1981) argues that artistic process and techno-scientific discourse are bound together on the deepest level through metaphoric power. He quotes Robert Nisbet to the effect that: "It is easy to dismiss metaphor as "unscientific" or "non-rational", a mere substitute for the hard analysis that rigorous thought requires...but metaphor belongs to philosophy and even to science. It is clear from many studies of the cognitive process generally, and particularly of creative thought that the act of thought in its more intense phases is often inseparable from metaphor -- from that intuitive, iconic, encapsulating grasp of a new entity or process."

For Kathleen Forsythe (Cathedrals in the Mind, 1986): "It can be argued that metaphor is the fundamental core of our conceptual system as surely as the logic of form which we use in argument and debate." She cites Gregory Bateson: "...metaphor is not just pretty poetry, it is not either good or bad logic, but it is in fact the logic upon which the biological world gas been built, the main characteristic and organizing glue of this world of mental process...". Then she argues: "However, because our conceptual system is not something we are normally aware of, we have failed to account for its metaphorical nature in our discussion of truth and meaning. Yet its pervasiveness suggests a central and basic role in the underlying architecture of thought. Metaphor can create new meaning, create similarities and so define a new insight and new perception of reality.. Such a view has no place in the dominant objectivist picture of the world."

Philip Wheelwright (1962) argues: "What really matters in a metaphor is the psychic depth at which things of the world, whether actual or fancied, are transmuted by the cool heat of the imagination. The transmutative process that is involved may be described as semantic motion: the idea of which is implicit in the very word "metaphor", since the motion (phora) that the word connotes is a semantic motion -- the double' imaginative act of outreaching and combining that essentially marks the metaphoric process."

Anne Buttimer (1982) notes that: "Metaphor, it has been claimed, touches a deeper level of understanding than "paradigm", for it points to the process of learning and discovery - to those analogical leaps from the familiar to the unfamiliar which rally imagination and emotion as well as intellect". Furthermore she points out that (citing Cassirer and Lange): "This propensity to make symbolic transformation of reality is the most characteristically human activity of all". She quotes E L Doctorow (1977): "The development of civilizations is essentially a progression of metaphors".

Wheelright also argues that there is a release of semantic energy through the tensive fusion of terms. This notion has been elaborated by Paul Ricoeur (The Rule of Metaphor, 1977) who argues that a metaphor "tells us something new about reality". In this sense metaphoric utterance is a creative mode of knowledge.

6. Reality construction

According to Andrew Ortony (Metaphor and Thought, 1979) one of the dominant presuppositions of our culture is that the description and explanation of physical reality is a respectable and worthwhile enterprise -- an enterprise called "science". Science aims at a precise, unambiguous, literal language. There continues to be considerable faith in such literal language for good reason. A different approach is however possible. "The central idea of this approach is that cognition is the result of mental construction. Knowledge of reality, whether it is occasioned by perception, language, memory, or anything else, is a result of going beyond the information given."

The objective world is not directly accessible, but is constructed on the basis of the constraining influences of human knowledge and language. Ortony points out that this constructivist approach seems to entail an important role for metaphors in both language and thought, since the use of language becomes an essentially creative activity. By contrast, the conventional nonconstructivist position has metaphors as rather unimportant, deviant, and parasitic on "normal usage". Both perspectives have advantages and disadvantages. The advantages of the constructivist use of metaphors have not been adequately explored in relation to the current challenges of society. In this sense metaphors can provide a different way of seeing the world and its problems.

7. Metaphor and learning

It is interesting, with respect to the challenge of collective learning, that the American Cybernetic Society award for the best paper of the year has recently gone to Kathleen Forsythe, for a paper entitled: Cathedrals in the Mind; the architecture of metaphor in understanding learning (1986). In it she notes: "The pervasiveness of metaphor in our conceptual system suggests a central and basic role in the underlying architecture of thought. Metaphor represents the ability to understand one thing in terms of another as we ascribe an understood pattern to unknown phenomena and perceive their structural integrity within the environment of our experience. We can then begin to perceive the environment of learning as one in which analogical thinking serves as architecture, analytical thinking serves as engineering and the imagination ensures that the interactions which create life and meaning are always being realized anew. The implications for this approach to applied epistemology provide insights into the design and development of learning systems that support the creative nature of learning."

Forsythe points out, citing David Bohm (Wholeness and the Implicate Order, 1980), that the issues of content and process are no longer the key issues in the new ways of thinking about learning. But content and process are now to be seen as two aspects of one whole movement.

For Forsythe: "The fundamental difference in this new view of learning is to see analogical thinking as the architecture and analytical thinking as the engineering of our mind's view of the world. Thinking and learning become a dynamic "open" geometry (Fuller, Synergetics 2, 1979) characterized by increasing complexity and transformation as a dissipative structure (Prigogine, Order Out of Chaos, 1984) based on a kinetic, relational calculus (Pask, Conservation, Cognition and Learning, 1975). The meta design is not built on inference and syllogism but on analogy and relation thus allowing form to develop from an underlying logic - the morphogenises of an idea. (Sheldrake, A New Science of Life, 1983). Knowledge is seen not as an absolute to be known but always in relation to agreement and disagreement, to coherence and distinction in terms of individual, cultural and social points of view. The language we use to communicate then takes on a heightened importance (Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books, 1972)) whether that be the language of words or the metaphor language of pattern (Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building, 1979)."

8. Transcendence through metaphor

There is therefore an emerging recognition that univocal language cannot satisfactorily express the degree of complexity or subtlety that has been found necessary to embody the relationships affecting human understanding of man's relation to the universe. There is recognition that not only is human experience metaphorical in nature, but also that metaphor is an essential constituent of the structure of human experience. That is, part of the meaning of any experience is elusive, and it is the use of metaphor that gives form to this elusive meaning and makes available an understandable figure of speech (Robert D Rmanyshyn, Metaphors of Experience and Experience as Metaphorical, 1981). Mutual interaction between the metaphor tenor and vehicle has been discovered to be the paragon of all coherent experience in which sensation is able to achieve a state of resonance with some residuum from the experiencer's heritage of remembrance (S G Perrin, Metaphor to Mythology, 1982).

It is interesting that the current explorations of the function of metaphor are clarifying its traditional use in conveying subtleties which are denatured by conventional categorization, namely the kind of modes of awareness described in Section HM. J P van Noppen (Metaphor and Religion, 1983, p.4) points out that "while it is becoming clear that metaphor is not a panacea providing the final answer to all questions raised by human attempts at framing a transcendent mode of being in man-centred language, the present evolution traces paths of thought and investigation which deserve to be pursued and which are...being trodden with a great deal of enthusiasm." This has been stimulated by explorations of the mechanism whereby man's words could be "stretched" beyond the usual limits of this worldly reference.

For Gibson Winter (1981): "...if the present age faces a crisis of root metaphors, a shift in metaphors may open new vistas of human possibilities. Metaphor is, in this sense, a vehicle for transcendence and freedom." And again: "Metaphoric insights in science, philosophy, religion, and morality open vistas of humanization which had not been imagined.. Here transcendence means and inner, historical distancing from the determining forces that encompass human dwelling." And: "the deeper reality of human dwelling is that it thrives upon creative, metaphoric disclosures and decays when such powers degenerate into mechanical repetition."

Van Noppen stresses however that exponents of metaphor have not been blinded to the limitations of the medium. The contributors to the reader edited by him repeatedly emphasize that the metaphor "should not be taken beyond its point, ie should remain subordinate to the insight it was coined to express, and perhaps even be adapted when the actual insight is blurred or swamped by secondary associations." (p.4)

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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