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Metaphor Project (Explanations)

Challenge: Designing metaphors and sets of metaphors

Metaphor Project

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1. Construction of metaphor

It is strange that of the 4193 items recorded in the post-1970 bibliography of metaphor (J P van Noppen, 1985), only one is concerned with the construction of metaphors - and that only secondarily. The bibliography has a special "Index of tenors, vehicles, and semantic fields" which indicates 500 items covering all the substrates reviewed by studies of metaphor. They include everything from automobile through birth, building, dance, oven, spaceship, theatre to zoological.

It would appear that no deliberate attempts have been made to design metaphors which could provide new insight into man's relation to the global problematique. Nor has there been any attempt to collect together metaphors relevant to understanding of the global problematique.

There seems to have been little systematic search for root metaphors by which social organization is dominated. The challenge would seem to move beyond such domination to discover how it is possible to move creatively between such metaphors. Clues are required to the projection of such fundamental metaphors into decision-making contexts of organizations and governance. According to Doctorow (1977), as cited earlier: "The development of civilization is essentially a progression of metaphors." This descriptive approach needs to be converted into the operational challenge of governance: How is the progression of metaphors to be designed in order to develop civilization?.

It is of course poets who are most sensitive and skilled in the design of metaphors. Poetry might be called the art of giving form to the invisible through metaphor. This is however no reason for other disciplines to avoid the challenge of clarifying the processes involved as an aid to more appropriate forms of social action.

2. Metaphors in education

Surprisingly there are a number of studies (see Van Noppen, 1985, 1990) of the metaphors governing theories of education, learning, growth, curriculum design and the use of metaphor by teachers. It is even argued that some forms of education oblige students to learn an imposed metaphor. The use of particular metaphors tends to create a symbolic meta-language that conditions research and the kinds of theories that emerge. The metaphor implicit in the curriculum may perpetuate a culture or ideology. But except in the case of younger children, educators have not chosen to incorporate metaphor into the process of formal education as a means of offering short- cuts to the acquisition of learning. Given the choice between educating the few to mastery of formal skills for well-defined jobs (which increasingly do not exist) and educating the many to enable them to use metaphors by which they may be empowered conceptually to act in unforeseen ways, education systems favour the former.

3. Editorial experiment on metaphors of alternation

This was therefore the context for the editorial experiment in Section MM in which 88 metaphors have been deliberately constructed. The origin of this exercise was the recognition emerging from the many authors reviewed in Section KD that each development policy may be considered as a particular "answer" to the social problematique.

No such answer appears to be free from weaknesses. A shift to an alternative policy becomes progressively more necessary as the effects of these weaknesses accumulate. Since each such policy is a "language" or mindset whereby a world-view is organized, no adequate "logical" framework can exist to facilitate comprehension of the nature of such a shift or the transition between alternatives. Many familiar metaphors of alternation exist through which the characteristics of such a shift may however be understood. A wide range of metaphors were therefore adapted or constructed using a standard format. In considering them it is appropriate to reflect on those which have a developmental feature and on the distinctions between alternation, oscillation, vacillation or variation.

A further group of metaphors were subsequently elaborated to illustrate other possibilities of understanding the development problematique. In choosing the substrates for all the metaphors part of the intention was to demonstrate the variety of natural and technological phenomena which are available as a rich source of insight.

4. Resonance between partial models

Lakoff and Johnson (1980), refer to the need to reject "the possibility of any objective or absolute truth". Lakoff again, as quoted above, calls for acceptance of "the use of many partial models, some of which are inconsistent with each other".

The authors reviewed in Section KD tend to confirm these positions, but with the implication that a more fundamental truth can be embodied in a set of complementary partial models or languages, in which each model reflects one or more aspects of that truth. The truth is then embodied in the resonance between the various partial models, none of which is capable of encoding that truth in isolation (especially since some of the models may be essentially incommensurable or basically opposed to one another). The set of models thus constitutes a resonance hybrid, namely the minimum set required to communicate the various dimensions of the theory, paradigm, policy or insight which cannot be adequately embodied in any one of the models.

5. Embedding complementary metaphors in a set

The challenge is therefore not simply one of developing a "library" of individual metaphors - although this would be an extremely valuable communication tool in its own right - but rather of identifying complementary metaphors which can be usefully grouped as a set, but especially within a pattern. And presumably the richer the pattern, the more subtle or fundamental the insight which it is then able to carry.

6. Patterns which connect

Gregory Bateson's central thesis is: "The pattern which connects is a metapattern. It is a pattern of patterns. It is that metapattern which defines the vast generalization that, indeed, it is patterns which connect." (Mind and Nature, 1979, p.11)

It is for this reason that conservation of the natural environment can usefully be seen in a new light. It is after all one of the richest integrated patterns to which man has access, even in resource-poor developing countries. As such it is a storehouse of metaphors, interrelated into patterns of whatever degree of complexity is required (A J N Judge, The Territory Construed as a Map, 1984). Destruction of that environment sets up a vicious circle that progressively endangers man's ability to acquire the necessary familiarity with patterns of a degree of complexity appropriate to his stewardship role. Such pattern erosion limits his ability to the simplistic requirements of a "hydroponic planet", whether or not this is viable in the longer term. As a biologist, Bateson asks: "The pattern which connects: why do schools teach almost nothing of the pattern which connects? .... What is the pattern which connects all living creatures?" (Mind and Nature, 1979, p.8).

The identification of patterns of concepts in Section MP may be seen in this light. From the manner of their construction, they are sets of metaphors using a "pattern language" as a substrate.


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential


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