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METAPHOR - outline
My horse with mane of short rainbows: the phrase gives me not only the horse, but also the weather - bright sun - and a position - on horseback and leaning forward so I can see each hair iridescent against the light. I get it by seeing it and I get it instantly. The line from the Navajo touches something off. But how does it do that? How is it that we can talk about one thing by naming something completely different - how we can talk about the horse's mane by naming an optical effect of sky and light? This classical puzzle of rhetoric gives us a back door into large questions about language, thought, and the nature of mind. Metaphor theory is a subfield of linguistics, which is a subfield of the theory of representation, which is a subfield of theory of mind, which is, in turn, a subfield of biology. When we know how our minds work, we will know how names and pictures work, both directly and indirectly, as seems the case with metaphor. It will be more obvious, then, than it is now, that language and perception, knowledge and pleasure, art, science, love, therapy and theory are functions of the same organ. We don't yet have the neuroscience to do it right, but we can begin by imagining the physical ground of our cognitive selves. This workshop will introduce new work in philosophy of mind, cognitive linguistics, cognitive rhetoric and cognitive poetics.
I'm always after students to watch their metaphors, and in this workshop I'm hoping to radiate some glow of a notion of why that is important -
Studying metaphor has recently carried us from an interesting but fairly trivial study of literary effects into a core realization about the nature of human thought and culture. It's a realization that has radical implications, and that can make any of you instantly more discerning as critical thinkers and creative feelers.
Like all of my workshops this session is also meant to be a demonstration of interdisciplinary research.
I. What is metaphor? Some examples
Metaphor is something complex and interesting humans do, in language and not only in language.
Here is one of the oldest recorded metaphors from the Epic of Gilgamesh:
Here are two highly visual metaphors from the journal of a Romantic poet of the early 1800s:
- From the modernist writer Virginia Woolf, here writing about an earlier novelist, Charlotte Bronte, who, she says,
Felt acidity, suffering smouldering, rancour contracting books with a spasm of pain.
- From the early 20th century clairvoyant Eileen Garrett:
- From a Goddard student:
What's the effect of these constructions?
II. Discourse communities that have thought about metaphor
Metaphor is a good example of how a topic can be inherently interdisciplinary. These are some of the ways it has been considered by scholars:
1. Classical rhetoric
Rhetoric as the study of stylistic devices seems to have begun in Classical Greece. There it is linked to the emergence of democracy, because a democratic government has to rely on persuasion rather than force. Metaphor was one of the tropes or figures of speech studied by rhetoriticians.
In Greek (metaphora) is derived from (metaphero) "to carry over or to transfer," which in turn is from (meta), "between" + (phero), "to bear, to carry".
Aristotle (b. 384 BCE) in the Poetics defined metaphor as use of a word that belongs to another kind of thing, in other words the transference of a word from its usual context into an unusual one.
Here's a more contemporary thought on Aristotle's definition:
Aristotle also seems to have thought metaphor the most important of the tropes:
Some other rhetorical figures studied by rhetoriticians were
Summary by Howard Gardner and Ellen Winner of some metaphor questions that have interested psychologists:
Analytic philosophy, which has been the main 20th century British and American school of academic philosophy, examines metaphor within the philosophy of language.
This school of philosophy, which has been disembodied in the extreme, has tried to think of sentences being like lines of code in symbolic logic, which are thought of as necessarily either true or false. A metaphoric sentence can be both true and false: literally false but in some sense also true, and so it demonstrates the unworkability of analytic philosophy of language as a project.
The fact that metaphoric sentences are not nonsensical though they are unliteral suggests that language does not have 'meaning' apart from its effect on speaker and hearer.
The effects it has - the effects that make language work at all - have to take place in the bodies of speaker and hearer, and so metaphor's effectiveness ends up highlighting the necessary presence of the body in language.
A contemporary European philosopher of metaphor worth looking at is Ricoeur in La métaphore vive, translated as The rule of metaphor. A gorgeous cataloguer of poetic metaphor has been Gaston Bachelard in for instance The poetics of space and The poetics of reverie.
In literary studies metaphor has been part of the study of 'imagery,' by which has been meant the sort of enlivenment and complexity that comes into writing in the ways we saw working in our introductory examples. Metaphoric themes are for instance be traced through whole poems, novels, or essays.
Linguistics is the technical study of language function; its two main classifications are lexicon, or vocabulary, the total collection of terms for things and events, and grammar, or the systematic arrangement of terms in sentences.
Classical linguistics, like philosophy of language, has thought of itself as studying language as if it were separate from the bodies of speaker and hearer. It has left the concrete, embodied, contextualized effects of language to what it calls pragmatics.
As in classical rhetoric, historical linguistics has thought of metaphor as a transfer of names based on "similarity in form or function" between things in two different conceptual domains.
Example: mouse 'small, gray rodent' > 'small, gray, mouse-shaped computer device'.
Linguists designate metaphor structure - source domain IS target domain - by the typographical convention "TARGET IS SOURCE", ie, for instance, COMPUTER NAVIGATION GADGET IS (RODENT) MOUSE.
III. The contemporary turn: metaphor suggests something essential about language
Like analytic philosophy of language, classical linguistics has thought of languages the way we think of algebra or symbolic logic, as abstract systems of rules applied to combinations of elements: as codes.
Cognitive linguistics - which thinks of itself as part of cognitive science, an interdisciplinary study that also includes aspects of neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, and computer science - has instead wanted to investigate language as one of the ways human bodies influence each other while in the midst of dealing with the surrounding world.
I wrote a paper on the cognitive linguistics of metaphor, called Brain and metaphor. It's a rather poetic take on the cognitive science of language in general and metaphor in particular. In it I describe metaphor as just one of many ways to direct attention in a perceived or imagined scene by heightening activity in some particular part of a language network in the cortex:
And explain how metaphors are invented this way:
IV. Furthermore, metaphor is a window onto something central to any kind of abstract thinking
George Lakoff is a UC Berkeley linguist and cognitive scientist who has been developing the notion of conceptual metaphor. His central claim is that metaphor goes much deeper than literary effect - he demonstrates persuasively that most of our abstract thinking and speaking is actually a tissue of systematic metaphor that originates in concrete experience. [Selection from his Metaphors we live by]
The principle of unidirectionality states that the metaphorical process typically goes from the more concrete to the more abstract, and not the other way around. Accordingly, abstract concepts are understood in terms of prototype concrete processes.
The term "concrete," in this theory, has been further specified by Lakoff and Johnson as more closely related to the developmental, physical neural, and interactive body.
Some of his examples of conceptual metaphor are these:
Conceptual metaphor is useful, unavoidable and often dangerous.
The danger of metaphor is that it ignores differences. When we are unaware that we're using metaphor we don't notice inherent limitations in how we are thinking.
I've included one of the papers in which he explains conceptual metaphor in the appendix of this workshop. (It's also available online.)
Two categories of conceptual metaphors I've been watching are these:
Example: pre-birth and birth metaphors
In these constructions our language implies that 'I' is a separate entity that can be out of its container. Does this language come from pre-birth memory of being inside and then exiting from our mother's body?
Birth itself has often been thought of in metaphorical terms. For instance, as part of the LIFE IS A JOURNEY metaphor birth has been understood as arrival: the baby has been right there for nine months but we talk as if it arrives when it is born. Is the arrival metaphor one of the reasons there has been such disregard of the wellbeing of the fetus?
Example: mind-body conceptual metaphors
This is a huge topic, very radical if understood - how we use object-handling metaphors in mind-body topics, and how they mislead.
We have spoken about the difficulty of talking about mind and body so they are not dichotomized, and how to manage terms such as emotional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual so that separated entities - or faculties, or 'levels' - or whatever - are not implied.
Detailed revision of language in these domains builds a tool we can think more effectively with.
Here are some examples of misleading mind-body metaphor:
There is no one inside us who can make or handle or examine images. Imagining happens when we are structured as if we were perceiving something we aren't actually perceiving.
This metaphor sets us up to imagine that the perceiving I is somewhere inside the body, receiving messages from the perceptual surfaces of the body, whereas really a whole body is immersed in the world and perceives.
Structurally, memory isn't a stored entity, it is a structuring of neural elements so that certain patterns can be re-evoked.
Body and mind are here being thought of as two objects that are spatially separated and can be brought to the same place, whereas mind is actually a natural function of a body, and so cannot be separated from it.
Similar constructions I've seen are "We are all so far from our bodies" or "bridges between mind and body."
Or a student talks about: "a strange and different way to write that brings me great joy and satisfaction it is from my body and not my mind." A statement like this is sincerely felt, but it perpetuates the division it decries. What is actually meant? Maybe that the writing comes from felt sensation in the moment, rather than academic training?
Speaking of these four separate 'levels' implies first, that physical bodies are not themselves emotional, intellectual and spiritual; and second, that emotion is not part of intellect, or intellect part of spirit, etc. These implications are manifestly false and have historically been quite harmful.
This is another construction that suggests I is a separated entity. For instance this sentence, "For most of my life, I've focused on my mind rather than my body." Whole bodies easily choose to focus in one place rather than the other, but where is the I that can choose to focus on mind rather than body?
V. Deep framing: metaphor politics
Along with structuring abstract realms like metaphysics and psychology, conceptual metaphor is strongly visible in the daily discourse of power struggle.
Deep framing theory is the adaptation of conceptual metaphor theory to politics. There are now a number of blogs and wikis that watch and report on the metaphoric deep frames of American political process.
Another example has been:
Lakoff has been working to understand the deep differences between liberal and conservative values in terms of the root metaphors he finds in their political rhetoric. He wrote a book called Moral politics outlining his findings, and he has been coaching Democrats on how to reframe their conceptual metaphors so they are not so scary to Conservative voters.
His thesis is that both liberals and conservatives base their sense of moral values and government qualities on family metaphors, but that their family metaphors are different. [Link to his essay Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or,Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust]
The conservative family metaphor is based on what he calls a strict father family, where the family unit has to fight for its survival in a harsh world, and the father protects the family against outside dangers by ruling his wife and children. In this model wives and children are controlled by the father 'for their own good.' Similarly a strict father government thinks of itself as protecting its citizens from outside threats and rigidly controls citizen's vital energies 'for their own good'.
The liberal or progressive family model is based instead on what he calls an egalitarian family, which emphasizes happiness and self-realization over protection from outer dangers. An egalitarian family government tries to help everyone, even criminals, attain their best potential.
Before the last election Lakoff said the weakness of the strict father model of political organization is that a strict father is often an unjust and punitive father, and resentment of that harshness is what sends people to another model. The implication was that the left should be exposing the callousness and hypocrisy in Bush's patriarchal stance, not toward outsiders - 100,000 dead Iraqis dead wouldn't do it - but within the American family. And then what happened was the financial collapse, which did indeed expose the strict father's disregard.
Obama presents his own family as an egalitarian family, and his metaphoric style overall is on the egalitarian family side. Presenting himself as a caring father worked when voters were disillusioned with the neglectfulness of their strict father president, but Lakoff's analysis may tell us why conservatives are not responding as well as we'd expect to offers of collaboration and consultation. Within the strict father family metaphor a collaborative community-organizing president looks more like a mother than a father, and that evokes contempt and fear.
Thus David Frum, a political commentator who wrote speeches for Bush, demonstrates in his blog how Obama is viewed in a strict father frame:
Another blogger writes this:
The worst conservative commentators also play on the strict father metaphor by framing Obama as an outsider, for instance by insisting that he is actually a Muslim.
If you are interested in the question of political deep framing there are two more Lakoff papers in the appendix to this workshop. One is a summary of his Moral politics book, and the other is an interview with a Sierra Club spokesperson about how environmentalists should talk to conservatives.
Here's a sample from that interview:
V. Act metaphor
An act metaphor is when we use our established competency with one sort of concrete, physical task to do, or to understand, something completely different.
An obvious example of an act metaphor is the Mac's desktop metaphor, for the way the graphic interface lets us move the mouse in actual physical space to as-if file folders or place them into recycle bins. The interface is designed to let us use our understanding of how to move around on a physical desktop to accomplish tasks that the computer actually handles in an untransparently different way.
Another example is conceptual sorting and ordering.
We have strong concrete experience of sorting physical objects into containers or heaps - knives and spoons into slots in a drawer. When we're organizing a research paper we might write notes on file cards and stack them into categories or write them on post-its and stick them up onto a wall in groups. Or we might use the cut and paste metaphor to sort them virtually onto different files.
We also have concrete experience of putting things into series according to some practical logic. The series might be a row, or it might be a pile. For instance we might lay out clothes in the order we will be putting them on in the morning. - So then when we're organizing ideas for a paper we also order physical objects into a series. We might put pages of notes into a sequence on a tabletop, or we might order virtual files in a desktop folder. This comes first, then this, then this, and then this gets understood in terms of a spatial ordering usually from left to right or top to bottom.
These are obvious and examples of act metaphor but there is also a much deeper, more subtle and pervasive form of act metaphor that can be tracked in speaker's gestures. What these gestures suggest is that even the most basic operations of abstract thinking are metaphorical - act metaphorical. Being able to recognize these operations as metaphoric takes us into the intimate roots of thinking.
Consider someone contrasting alternative points of view. She might say "On the one hand " reaching forward with her left arm, and then "On the other hand ," reaching forward with the right. If she then wants to say there are ways to reconcile these points of view we will see her bringing her two hands together in front of her. If she wants to say they diverge, we will see her hands pushed further apart. If she wants to say one of the viewpoints wins, she will drop the hand that has accompanied the losing point of view. So it looks like the very basic intellectual operation of comparing is based on a physical competence with objects, that is, on our ability to look back and forth from one object to another, and to arrange them so they are closer or farther apart.
Understanding comparing as based on a two-hand act metaphoric cognitive template also suggests how it limits understanding as well as facilitating it. If we automatically conceptualize our abstract domains into contrasting duals, we can miss overlaps or situations where there are more than two options.
For instance if we contrast mind and body as if we were looking from one object to another object spatially separated from it, we miss the fact that mind is actually a nested part of body.
VII. Metaphor in good writing
In theoretical writing, be constantly aware of conceptual metaphors used. Try for deep framing that helps you and your reader think well.
In lyrical writing, mostly avoid metaphor
There has been a movement in some 20th century poetics, for instance in the Black Mountain poets, to stay out of all the conventional charms of metaphor, paradox, irony, etc, altogether, in favour of Buddhist-influenced writing that stays closer to the here and now of the present moment.
- I once suggested to a student that she should take a semester break from metaphor to see whether she could get to stronger cleaner writing.
An example of a writer I think is a horrendous user of metaphor is Diane Ackerman, who wrote A natural history of the senses. I keep picking up that book, because it has a good title, and then putting it down again in a sort of nausea at the miscellaneous torrent of metaphors she pours into the reader. Where Virginia Woolf's use of metaphor always seems to me to be exquisitely motivated, Ackerman's metaphors seem junky, arbitrary, and incoherent with their subject. They seem to me to evoke a cognitive jumble that destroys the possibility of understanding.
And discover other means to get sensory richness
One way is to use interestingly exact verbs and verb phrases.
Example: nature writer Barry Lopez describes herons landing on a pond as "descending slowly against the braking of their wings." Descending against. Descending against the braking of their wings is many birds, but descending slowly against is so exactly heron.
Another way is to use word resonance magic.
Here's another example from Lopez, who says birds "began to mill in the gently fallen snow and pale light." What a lot is going on there: he has a subtle matrix of words working upon one another in ways that are more subtle and complex than metaphor. The subtlety and complexity happens in meanings, in sounds, and across meaning and sound. Words applied to one thing end up also modifying other things they aren't literally applied to. Birds mill. Light snow mills as it falls. Light snow. Pale light. Light falling on pale snow.
And sound relations helping to create this wholeness of effect: milling and falling and pale and light.
What's happening here can be understood cortically as for instance raindrops falling on a pond, each word setting up ripples that create a complex thoroughly integrated interaction of all the words' effects.
Then here's an example from the student I said should stop writing metaphors, written near the end of her semester:
In this paragraph we see her learning the more subtle resources of simplicity. She has facts and observational precision, and then she also gets a little touch of imagistic magic going by linking the motion of the moose with the motion of meteors, simply by mentioning them in the same paragraph. The loveliness of the paragraph is not external to the moment described: it is found and felt within that moment.
These sorts of effects can vastly expand what we understand by 'embodied writing.' They can be understood as embodied in three related ways:
But then again, delicious metaphor:
Here's an example from the contemporary South African novelist Nadine Gordimer. In this passage her character, a middle-aged Africaans businessman, is resting in a piece of countryside he has fallen in love with and bought, though he's not a farmer.
Grasses gently feeling at a body. Cloud laying "a cool palm of shadow" that "rested a moment on cheeks warm from sleep." Here's infant intimacy between body and land.
This is metaphor integral to what is being written, brilliant at interfusing embodied emotional tone. Brilliantly economical in evoking what she then does not have to explain.
A more technical presentation of this material:
Epp E 2002 Chapter 7 Representational effects, in Being about: perceiving, imagining, representing, thinking
The rhetorical tradition
Aristotle 1984 Poetics, in The complete works of Aristotle: the revised Oxford translation, ed. Jonathan Barnes, Princeton University Press
Richards IA 1991 Richards on rhetoric: selected essays 1929-1974, A Berthoff ed Oxford
The philosophical tradition
Cazeaux C 2007 Metaphor and continental philosophy: from Kant to Derrida Routledge
Ortony A ed 1993 Metaphor and thought, 2nd ed Cambridge
Ricoeur P 1975 The rule of metaphor: multi-disciplinary studies in the creation of meaning in language University Of Toronto
The cognitive science of metaphor
Arbib M 1995 Schema theory, in Handbook of brain theory and neural networks, ed M Arbib, pp 830-834 MIT
Johnson Mark 1987 The body in the mind: the bodily basis of meaning, imagination and reason University of Chicago Press
Lakoff George 1987 Women, fire and dangerous things: what categories reveal about the mind University Of Chicago
Lakoff George & Mark Turner 1989 More than cool reason: a field guide to poetic metaphor University of Chicago Press
Lakoff George 1993 The contemporary theory of metaphor, in Metaphor and thought, A Ortony ed, 2d ed, 202-251 Cambridge
Sweetser Eva 1990 From etymology to pragmatics: metaphorical and cultural aspects of semantic experience Cambridge
Gardner Howard and Ellen Winner "The development of metaphoric competence: implications for humanistic disciplines"
Turner Mark 1987 Death is the mother of beauty: mind, metaphor, and criticism University of Chicago Press
Turner Mark 1991 Reading minds: the study of English in the age of cognitive science Princeton University Press
Politics of metaphor
Lakoff George 2002 Moral politics: how liberals and conservatives think
- Hour-long lecture in which George Lakoff discusses issues elaborated in great detail in this book.