The Power of Metaphor

Written on November 20, 2007 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Philosophy

Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui

When mankind bumps into some new field, be it through painful discovery or out of pure chance, the first task is to label it with a name which most often comes from past experiences. It happens in geography as in politics, in literature as in technology. I thought of it when Arantza called blogs the new enlightened salons. Modern phenomenons as aircrafts, space-explorers and even the internet borrow their terminology and concepts from the ancient art of navigation. The imagination of other possible worlds, be it in science-fiction, phantastic literature or religion, are more or less fortunate projections of this all-too-human world (with the glorious exception of the inimitable H. P. Lovecraft, who purposefully tries to depict extreme “otherness”). When Europeans began to describe the people and discoveries in America, Herodotus’ descriptions of barbarian lands was their direct model. The Federalist Papers are full of references to the beginning of the Roman Republic as direct antecedent to their fight against tyrannical monarchy. And so on.

Etymology gives many clues on how abstract concepts have been built from concrete notions which reflect a previous experience. Take, for example, “method”, which comes from the Greek hodos, “road”. The road to knowledge, firstly an expressive metaphor to reflect the pursuit of truth, became an abstract concept which we have now integrated as part of our inherited cultural background. George Lakoff in his 1980 book Metaphors we live by (trad. esp. Metáforas de la vida cotidiana) studied how abstractions are created through metaphors which shape our concepts. A famous example is the conceptual metaphor “life is a journey” which makes us talk, when thinking about life, of beginning, end, direction, progress, deviation, etc. Yet this framing is by no means natural but purely conventional. Bruce Lee’s success with the Zen sentence “be water, my friend” was based precisely on opposing the extended metaphor of the journey which has practically monopolized till today our vision of human life.

Of course choosing water or a road as conceptual metaphors for life will have serious consequences on our thoughts, actions, and all our perceptions of reality. The discussion started by Lakoff on metaphor, which from the field of linguistics has derived into deep neuro-science studies, goes far beyond the theoretical debates which renew the classical realism vs. idealism. It has deeply influenced marketing, journalism, and the making of public opinion. After all, many of the issues which are the centre of political and social discussions (e. g. “nation”) are abstract concepts shaped with metaphors (e. g. “mother”) which impose their unavoidable consequences (e. g. “only one”). Just have a look at Rolf’s posts The War or Bilingualism to see two typical instances.

Realizing this should not lead to mere skeptical de-constructing nihilism, but to active re-constructing. Demagogy of all kinds profits from the power of metaphors to frame reality in order to shape a public perception of new phenomenons against which no thoughtful reasoning can stand: immigration as “invasion”, investment as “colonialism”, negotiating as “surrendering”, government as “oppression”. These are images which can only be efficiently opposed with equivalent ones, equally simplistic and powerful: “friendship”, “peace”, “justice”. A past and direct experience which will orientate the mind is needed to understand new phenomenons within our conceptual baggage. That is why ideological confrontation seems to end up in a terminological struggle, in which each word implies a whole cluster of associations which follows it automatically: “resistence” or “terrorists” in Irak, “murder” or “freedom for choice” in abortion, etc. Lakoff has insisted that the electoral success of Republicans in the US is due to their mastering a coherent set of conceptual metaphors, while the Democrats had not found their own –what in journalistic terms is called “imposing one’s own agenda”. But as the Irak experience shows, a successful metaphor (e. g. “the end of history”) can perhaps shape the perception of reality, but cannot change reality into something it is not, and therefore it can easily lead to disappointment –to put it mildly.

Climatic change, progress in technology or genetics, mass migrations: all these new phenomenons will be categorized with metaphors deriving from past events. Successful labels have much more to do with the artist’s genius to find the right image than with the rigourous analysis of past and present experiences. Yet the study of the past may turn out to be not just an entertaining curiosity for antiquities, but the tool to realize how some metaphors shape (and distort) our perception of reality, and perhaps to propose other, better ones.


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