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Union of Intelligible Associations

Projects Overview (Explanations)
Metaphor Project (Explanations)

Comments: Future possibilities and dangers

Metaphor Project


Despite the number of studies of metaphor and the extent of its use, especially in some non-western languages, it can be considered a largely unexplored resource with its attendant dangers.

1. Complement to models

Part of the alienating nature of modern society derives from the extent to which everything perceptible is governed by packaged "explanations" provided by authority figures, experts and the media. Such "models" are essentially non-participative and elitist, whereas metaphors facilitate individual interpretation, each according to his ability. An excess of explanations is experienced as disempowering. Metaphor offers a possibility of empowering the individual in that he has greater control over what metaphor is to be used when. He is not obliged to communicate with acquaintances using an explanatory language effectively imposed by distant third parties.

There is in fact some merit in perceiving conventional "explanations", whether scientific, political, religious, legal or administrative, as needing to be complemented by appropriate metaphors to enhance the quality of communication. Although some already argue that theories may themselves be usefully considered as metaphors. Mary Hesse argues, for example, that the deductive model of scientific explanation should be modified and supplemented by a view of theoretical explanation as metaphoric redescription of the domain of the explanandum. Can any degree of complexity be comprehended and communicated without complementary metaphors? Is this another example of biased hemispheric thinking?

2. Metaphoric aids to development

In development terms, the question might well be asked as to how many metaphors people need for psychological survival? Is there a problem of metaphor deprivation associated with alienation? Is it possible that a metaphoric measure is necessary as a complement to counterbalance the questionable educational role played by the IQ measure of intelligence?

To the extent that we are ourselves metaphors, do we need to develop richer metaphors through which to experience and express our self-image? If individual learning is governed by metaphors (as some studies indicate), how is it that the metaphors governing societal learning and development have not been studied?

In the light of Andreas Fuglesang's (1982) severe criticism of western assumptions concerning communication in developing countries, would it not be more useful to conceive of different cultures as operating with different root metaphors? Is it possible that social transformation is essentially a question of offering people richer and more meaningful root metaphors through which to live, act and empower themselves?

Are people enriched by having at their disposal a pattern of metaphors within which they can select and move in response to pressures from the social environment, especially information overload?

Metaphors may even be seen as opening the gates to a new conceptual frontier, a set of parallel universes, possibly richer or more challenging, in which people can have a different relationship to the available resources (as is implied by Fuglesang's comments on African cultures). And to the extent that the drug problem is the consequence of a search for new ways of perceiving the world, development of metaphoric skills may offer a more meaningful alternative than unrealistic medical attempts to simply "get people off drugs" and legalistic attempts to "stamp out drug-taking".

3. Reframing problems

If indeed use of metaphors allows people to perceive problems in new ways in order to develop a new relationship to them, this leads to the question as to when a particular social phenomena should be interpreted by any particular metaphor. Authors of science fiction have explored highly complex situations in which those involved had to deliberately choose a metaphor convenient to them personally as the only means of ordering a chaotic range of information input through which the situation could be controlled. Are more appropriate metaphors required with which groups can navigate through the global problematique and by which society can contain its expansion?

4. Skills in the use of metaphors

What are the beneficial ways to shift metaphors? Are there useful pathways to be discovered between complementary metaphors in a set? For what period of time is it useful to perceive a particular phenomenon through a particular metaphor?

When should particular metaphors, or any metaphor, not be used? How can people or groups using different metaphors interrelate their insights in the control of some collective enterprise such as a research project or a community development programme. Would it be helpful to perceive the international community of organizations (and especially the United Nations system) through new metaphors?

In this light perhaps the most basic question is to what extent is some particular phenomena not a metaphor of some other phenomena? Does there always exist some level of comprehension at which a given substrate is significant for understanding some aspect of social, conceptual or intra-personal dynamics? Of what characteristic of modern society is a particular historical event, natural phenomenon, or man-made artefact an appropriate metaphor?

5. Reservations and dangers

It is possible to elaborate a vision of desirable form of governance based on the meaningful movement of metaphor-models as discussed earlier. It was emphasized that the radicalness lay essentially in the approach to information rather than in institutional change. The apparent similarity to the prevailing system, with all its defects, was also stressed.

This suggests the possibility of the emergence, or the existence already in some form, of highly undesirable forms of governance based on the deliberate design and manipulation of metaphor-models and the control of their movement through the international community. At the time of writing, the Gulf War could usefully be reframed as a conflict at the metaphoric level -- and it as at that level that peace might usefully have been sought.

Because of the prevailing focus on conceptual models, whether for academic or ideological reasons, little attention is paid to the manner in which they lend themselves to manipulation as metaphor. If, as has been argued here, metaphors can exert a more powerful influence than paradigms, then the international community is highly vulnerable to manipulation at the metaphoric level.

These dangers are vaguely perceived in disguised form in concerns with "cultural imperialism" and various forms of "disinformation". But current processes of governance are more or less impotent in responding to them because the metaphoric level cannot be taken seriously at this time. It could be argued that "Dallas" and "Coca Cola" have a more powerful impact on the collective imagination than all the programmes of the international agencies combined.

This suggests the value of exploring the vulnerability of the world community to a modern equivalent of the metaphoric manipulation so successfully carried out in Nazi Germany. The dividing line between "manipulation" and "challenging approach to human development" is difficult to establish using conceptual tools alone. "Dallas" and "Coca Cola" are perceived by many as desirable symbols of the American Way of Life.

As the many analyses of the cult phenomenon in the West have shown, people are powerfully attracted by the metaphors embodied in such cults, more so than by sterile establishment concepts. Presumably the way is wide open for groups, with somewhat greater skills in manipulating metaphors, to mobilize society in totally unforeseeable ways and to ends quite in contrast with those currently conceived as desirable.

The problem is that any positive shift in the approach to governance will create awareness of the manipulative opportunities. So whether such a shift is initiated to counteract such manipulation or not, such manipulation will become increasingly evident. Many would argue that in current approaches to government, considerable attention is devoted to such covert manipulation, whatever the concepts or models overtly debated and implemented. 

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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