Friday Flashback — The Power and Danger of Metaphor

dragonFrom an article I wrote in September 2004:

Metaphor is a comparative device used to assert substantive equivalence or similarity between something that is somewhat complex and abstract, and something that is much simpler or more concrete. Examples:

  • Business is war or sport; business is ‘organic’, information has an ‘ecology’
  • A leader is a country or a company (“Russia says…”, “The White House responded…”, “ExxonMobil believes…”)
  • Collectively, the documents of an organization are its ‘corporate memory’.
  • The change needed in human culture and behaviour is a metamorphosis from today’s larval stage to the future butterfly adult stage.
  • America under Bush is like a family that has been repeatedly brutalized by a drunk father.
  • Ideas and beliefs and behaviours can spread like viruses, ‘infect’ others and even lead to ‘epidemic’ change.

We use metaphors to make difficult concepts easier to understand. We misuse metaphors to oversimplify and to distort.

George Lakoff describes how the inability of our brains to conceive things that are not manifested, directly or metaphorically, in the ‘real’ world, explains the attraction and necessity of metaphor:

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.

Read the whole article.

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1 Response to Friday Flashback — The Power and Danger of Metaphor

  1. Hi DaveBeing next door doesn’t mean v have proximity. I saw you at: connected, MT, TorontoA Multifaith Librarian and KM Blogger

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