If the problem is literal, the solution is metaphor

construct“Metaphor is a way of thought long before it is a way with words.” -James Geary

In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakeoff & Mark Johnson, make a case for the notion that metaphors are not merely a matter of language, but also a matter of thought.

That is, we do not merely speak in metaphor; we think in metaphor.

According to Lakeoff & Johnson:

“Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish–a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. For this reason, most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found,on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” 

The authors go even further by arguing that our actual experiences are structured by our metaphorically grounded understandings.

One example of this is the argument as war metaphor.

When we talk about arguments, we tend to use the language of warfare (ie. he attacked my position, she defeated his argument, I stood my ground, he was very defensive, her premises were vulnerable, etc.).

These linguistic patterns are not the primary source of metaphor. Instead, they are secondary expressions of the underlying conceptual frames that govern our thinking.

We speak of arguments as war because we understand, or mentally represent, arguments in that particular way.

Consequently, our experience of arguments tend to feel as if they actually are battles.

There are hundreds of examples like this.

In everyday life, we speak and think in metaphors all the time.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this.

But, our experiences can easily become unnecessarily restrictive when we mistake our metaphors for literal descriptions and objective truths.

In The Hermeneutics of Postmodernity, G.B. Madison wrote:

“Metaphor performs an existential function in that it provokes a change in the way we view things, it brings about a transformation in our thinking.” 

Conceptual frames, when overlooked, show up as fixed unalterable realities. Those same frames, when recognized and understood, begin to function as props that we can pick up or put down depending on how we wish to play (notice my use of the life as a game metaphor).

By becoming conscious of our metaphors, we gain the ability to deliberately create pattern interrupts in our own thinking.

What happens to your “problem” when you cease to think of it as “the way it is” and you begin to explore the possibility that you are the victim not of reality, but of the metaphors you’ve learned to live by?

Fired up by metaphors? Here’s a great article by Maria Popova, founder of Brain Pickings, on The Magic of Metaphor: What Children’s Minds Teach Us about the Evolution of the Imagination

One thought on “If the problem is literal, the solution is metaphor

  1. “But, our experiences can easily become unnecessarily
    restrictive when we mistake our metaphors for literal
    descriptions and objective truths.”

    Using your “argument as war” metaphor: I’ve observed
    many people who have a great difficulty with arguments.
    Perhaps their mental metaphor is persistent in seeing
    conflicts as confrontational rather than learning how to
    communicate to resolve conflicts. They will retreat or
    take a battle stance—to continue the metaphor— and
    set off depth charges. Have seen this at work places, in
    marriages, etc.

    Per haps this creates obstacles to developing the verbal
    skills and reasonable negotiations to clarify and resolve.
    “The unexpressed life…?”

    Wonder how much this metaphor informs world politics?

    Recalling your back and forth with AmazingSusan when
    you adeptly explained why you don’t take suggestions
    on your blog. (To include more quotes from women and
    some thoughts from women philosophers. #JustSayin)
    Very impressed with your skillful explanation. Perhaps
    you should consider being a mediator as well as a
    motivational speaker/writer. 🙂

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