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Union of Intelligible Associations

Projects Overview (Explanations)
Metaphor Project (Explanations)

Challenge: distinguishing extended metaphors

Metaphor Project


It is neither possible nor appropriate to review here the literature on the many dimensions of metaphor relevant to this section. Figure 1 distinguishes different concerns.

  Figure 1. Ephemeral use Extended use

Creative functions





Communicative functions





1. Functions (rows in Figure 1)

(a) Initiatory functions: The importance of metaphor in relationship to creativity, whether in the arts or the sciences, has been frequently noted. Through exploration of "lateral thinking", for example, this has been extended to management (E de Bono, Lateral Thinking). In such cases metaphor is the vehicle of insight and provides the first ordering of a previously inchoate set of possibilities and constraints. It is thus a vital tool for concept design.

Through a metaphor the earlier confusion is seen in a new way. Once this is possible, other tools may build on this foundation. In the case of governance, this may mean the formulation of a strategy, a slogan, a model, etc. Any such formulation may well make no reference to the triggering metaphor. It can be argued that exposure to the rigours of team sport and military training (or combat) ensures an unconscious formative influence on the categories people use to act and to comprehend social dynamics.

(b) Communicative functions: Once a concept has been formulated, it usually has to be communicated to people and groups who are unfamiliar with the specialized jargon in which it is embodied -- and are quite possibly completely disinclined to learn it (even if they have the background to do so). In such a situation, metaphor can be called upon to convey the essentials of the concept. In the case of governance, this may mean the presentation of a model or a strategy. Such presentation may, or may not, use the same metaphor as that through which such a strategy was conceived.

Despite such extensive use in creativity and communication, ironically metaphor has a very "bad press". The fact that metaphor may be used with great elegance in literature in no way compensates for the fact that in the "real world" of governance, technology and social problems, metaphors are usually perceived as a nuisance and a sign of sloppy thinking. A goal in computerized information is to ensure metaphor-free communication to avoid ambiguity and confusion. But at the same time, those concerned with such real world issues find themselves obliged to make use of metaphors to explain their concerns in seeking resources for them. They therefore tend to associate their use with methods of public relations that may be necessary but cannot be taken seriously. The best examples of this are the extensive use of metaphors by politicians, whether speaking to their constituencies or in parliamentary debate. But no policy document would be taken seriously if its language were based on metaphor.

2. Duration and intensity of use (columns in Figure 1)

This section aims to distinguish two approaches to metaphor as indicated by the columns of Figure 1.

(a) Ephemeral uses: Metaphor is most frequently used as a literary device to illustrate some ideas for rhetorical purposes. The charm and beauty of much literature is based on this effect. For communication and education purposes, metaphors may be briefly used to help people to understand an idea. The aim being that people should discard the metaphor once they have got the idea. The cognitive value of the metaphor is as a temporary piece of conceptual scaffolding. Similarly in any creative endeavour, insight may come through use of metaphor to help give form to an idea. The metaphor may then be discarded -- many ideas in fundamental physics are reported to arise in this way, for example.

(b) Extended use: A metaphoric framework may be used over an extended period of time as a vehicle for communication in practical situations. A clear example of this is the ball-and-stick models of complex chemical molecules, although this is known to be an unrealistic representation. Another is in business management where military metaphor is extensively used when describing the dynamics of relations with the competition and the markets "targeted", and sporting metaphors are used to describe the dynamics of teamwork within the corporation. It can be argued that the metaphor here performs an important cognitive function in giving form to the complex action oriented dynamics in a manner which is useful to the pursuit of business and is significant in maintaining a viable pattern of communications within a group (often of very diverse backgrounds).

3. Conscious vs Unconscious uses (diagonals of Figure 1).

(a) Unconscious uses: Despite all that may be taught about metaphor in any literary education, people tend not to be conscious of using such devices or of their cognitive implications -- just as people tend not to be conscious of using particular jargons or grammatical constructions. People tend to be trapped in root metaphors of which they are unconscious. The use of military and sporting metaphor in management tends to be unconscious and its cognitive consequences are implicit, as in the use of any language.

(b) Conscious uses: Metaphors may of course be deliberately and consciously selected in order to present phenomena in a particular light. An author or poet may do so quite intentionally, as may a politician, an educator, a psychotherapist, a salesman -- or any skilled negotiator.

This section is primarily concerned with the use of metaphor in an extended manner, whether for creative or communication purposes, but especially by design, when used consciously. The focus is thus on the use of metaphor for "reframing" understanding of the social environment as a basic for a conceptually sustainable basis for sustainable development in the future.

4. Illustrative metaphors (cells of the Figure 1)

(a) Ephemeral use for communication functions (cell A): In this case metaphors are selected and used in passing for purely rhetorical purposes. Using a clothing metaphor, it is rather like making a point by flashing a handkerchief.

(b) Ephemeral use for creative functions (cell B): Here metaphors are used as part of a brainstorming, creative process in which briefly the metaphor forms and carries the integrative insight. Using a clothing metaphor, it is rather like briefly trying on an outlandish garb as an expression of an unexplored aspect of one's personality.

(c) Extended use for creative functions (cell C): In this case a metaphor is selected for extended use, rather in the management use of military and sporting metaphors to provide a language through which to discuss teamwork. Using a clothing metaphor, it is like wearing a favourite jacket to make a statement.

(d) Extended use for communication functions (cell D): Here a metaphor is used as a way of articulating (all) relationships with the external environment. The metaphor provides a complete language. Using a clothing metaphor, it is rather like wearing a diving suit in order to work underwater, or a spacesuit to work in space. 

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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