|“Science is all metaphor”, said Timothy Leary, philosopher and guru of psychedelics, in an interview in 1980. In the last few years we have been bombarded with metaphors, analogies, similes and personifications such as:
For now, let’s not quibble over the subtle differences between these four rhetorical devices. Metaphors, analogies, similes and personifications are all comparative devices used to assert substantive equivalence or similarity between something that is somewhat complex and abstract, and something that is much simpler or more concrete.
Use of these devices is a very human tendency: They make things easier to understand. When used properly they can bring clarity the way no amount of detailed explanation or information can, and do so very quickly. They can also trigger the imagination, and produce brilliant creative insight.
But these devices are often also misused and overused: Much of the subtlety can get lost in the translation, as elements of the comparison that are not particularly analogous are simply omitted from mention. Opinion polls do this by limiting respondents’ choices and then claiming the results represent public opinion. And they can be dangerous, when used to manipulate and deceive, by distorting or exaggerating comparability. Editorialists, politicians, advertisers and spin doctors do this all the time, equating dictators with Hitler or dissenters with terrorists.
In a recent interview in Edge Magazine that I mentioned a few weeks ago, George Lakoff explained the tendency to use metaphor this way:
When Mark Johnson and I [studied] the cognitive sciences in detail, we realized that there were three major results that were inconsistent with almost all of Western philosophy (except for Merleau-Ponty and Dewey), namely: The mind is inherently embodied. Most thought is unconscious. Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical.
The differences [when you approach philosophy from a cognitive science perspective] are differences that matter in your life. Starting with results from cognitive semantics, we discovered a lot that is new about the nature of moral systems, about the ways that we conceptualize the internal structure of the Self, even about the nature of truth… We are neural beings. Our brains take their input from the rest of out bodies. What our bodies are like and how they function in the world thus structures the very concepts we can use to think. We cannot think just anything – only what our embodied brains permit. Metaphor appears to be a neural mechanism that allows us to adapt the neural systems used in sensory-motor activity to create forms of abstract reason. If this is correct, as it seems to be, our sensory-motor systems thus limit the abstract reasoning that we can perform. Anything we can think or understand is shaped by, made possible by, and limited by our bodies, brains, and our embodied interactions in the world.
So if business and politics are complicated and abstract, let’s make them simpler and more concrete, more physical, by describing them as ‘games’ or ‘wars’. Games have simple rules and short time limits (wars once did as well, when what was at stake was more defined and realizable). Business and politics do not. Games and sports have a clear winner, so when you’re describing what ‘winning’ is like in business or politics, you can use a sports analogy (“We wil defeat the competitors on their home turf” or “Nature always bats last”.) Wars no longer have winners, but they are more serious matters than sports, so when you’re describing something that requires sobriety, you can switch to a war analogy. Everything today that its proponent believes requires serious effort or entails serious risk is described as a ‘war’. And if you’re a dim-witted, drug-addled American president, you can even build a whole, simple artificial world around that analogy, seeing and portraying your whole existence as a ‘crusade’, taking orders and advice directly from that ultimate personification — the one that is so powerful its name is spelled with a capital letter. Psychopaths love analogies and metaphors, and get very good at using them for manipulative purposes, which is one reason they often succeed so well in politics and business.
The oversimplification and deception that result from misuse of comparative rhetorical devices are, in my opinion, essential elements in the ‘dumbing down’ of all of us, as citizens and consumers, especially over the past century. We want things to be simple, because it makes decisions easier and gives us more time to devote to other things. We want reassurance that what we believe is valid, morally and/or intellectually, so we can turn our attention as voters and buyers to issues where we are less sure. But we don’t want issues to be oversimplified (even if that makes a decision easier), and we don’t want to be lied to (even if that deception is reassuring).
Even the brightest and most critical minds can be seduced by the comforting and stimulating allure of these devices. Consultants and employees making presentations to executives (in both public and private spheres) are encouraged to simplify the alternatives to just two in order to get broad approval quickly. They build metaphors and analogies into the presentations that make difficult, complex concepts appear absurdly simple, and to use the first and second person plural form of verbs describing the organization to flatter the executives to see themselves as the personification of the whole company. And, of course, they use stories with protagonists the executives can relate to, and antagonists that personify what they loathe, so that the story metaphorically surfaces and engages their personal struggles as powerful, self-aggrandized decision-makers. It’s revolting to watch, and epidemic (if you’ll forgive the metaphor) in large organizations and government bodies. But as organizational complexity increases exponentially with size, and available information is less and less adequate for competent decisions, and the organization becomes increasingly unmanageable, it’s irresistible. It’s also one of the reasons why large organizations, both public and private, are so horrifically bloated, top-heavy and inherently inefficient: Misinformed, underinformed, overconfident executives and self-proclaimed ‘experts’ remote from the front lines (sorry, another metaphor) inevitably make mostly bad decisions.
Models are a form of analogy, simple representations of (perhaps) infinitely complex and unknowable realities. As Timothy Leary’s quote suggests, that’s really all science is. Scientific models are fascinating, they appeal to our instinctive search for pattern, and they are occasionally useful. But scientists, too, get overly enamoured of what are essentially fabrications, inherently imprecise representations of reality. There is an insatiable desire to find the ultimate indivisible particle that completes the model of matter, makes it ‘perfect’, or the grand unifying theory of everything. The concept of a universe that is infinitely complex, undefinable, endless, and infinitely varied is deeply unsettling and unsatisfying to many scientists, who will go to almost any length to argue (by analogy, of course) that this could not be possible.
We have been so seduced by the power of analogy and metaphor to enrich our ability to understand and conceive, that we have promoted conception to a higher plane of credibility and value in our lives than perception, and our denigration of the latter (and of instinct, that form of knowledge that is intuitive and not consciously conceived) has led to a permanent ‘detachment’ from the sensory, physical world, to our great impoverishment and peril. As philosopher Merleau-Ponty put it:
Synaesthetic [involving all the senses together] perception is the rule [among all life on Earth], and we are unaware of it only because scientific knowledge shifts the centre of gravity of experience, so that we have unlearned how to see, hear, and generally speaking, feel, in order to deduce, from our bodily organization and the world as the physicist sees it, what we are to see, hear and feel.
Writers of novels and screenplays, likewise, are advised, if they want to be successful, to ‘get real’, to physically describe their characters and environments, to use realistic dialogue, and never just say what a character is thinking. A good novel transports you metaphorically to another place (and sometimes another time). And bad novels and screenplays push the analogy too far, oversimplifying the characters to grotesque caricatures of good and evil, oversimplifying and distorting their artificially-constructed reality to emotionally manipulate and ‘dumb down’ their audience.
So today, the information (both fictional and non-fictional) with we are bombarded is replete with analogies, metaphors, similes and personifications, each intended honesty or dishonestly to help us ‘make sense’ (yes, this time I’m being ironic, not metaphorical) of that information.
What are we to do? If these devices are double-edge swords (oops), or like a car (oops again), powerful and useful if employed cautiously and competently but very dangerous in the hands of the inexperienced or the deranged, should we play it safe and minimize use of them, and require warning labels when they’re used? That’s pretty impractical, and there are lots of other techniques available to manipulate people with language, some of which have no redeeming value whatever.
The only practical answer is to learn (and to teach young people) to recognize them, and to recognize them for what they are: Useful, incomplete, imprecise shorthand representations of reality. We could use some help in this, from teachers, from the media, from novelists and scientists and politicians and surveyors of public awareness and opinion. They are (sorry, can’t resist) the most potent weapons in the fearsome and wonderful arsenal of language.
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Preparing for Civilization's End:
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A Culture of Fear
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A Future Without Us
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Complexity and Collapse
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Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
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The Language of Our Eyes
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
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Why I Don't Want to Hear Your Story
A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
The Trouble With Stories
A Model of Identity & Community
Not Ready to Do What's Needed
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No Use to the World Broken
Living in Another World
Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
The Value of Conversation Manifesto Nobody Knows Anything
If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
A Long Way Down
No Noble Savages
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If You Wanted to Sabotage the Elections
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Learning from Indigenous Cultures
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The Job of the Media
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Did Early Humans Have Selves?
Nothing On Offer Here
Even Simpler and More Hopeless Than That
What Happens in Vagus
We Have No Choice
Never Comfortable in the Skin of Self
Letting Go of the Story of Me
All There Is, Is This
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