Piero Scaruffi(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
Metaphor: How We Speak
(These are excerpts from, or extensions to, the material published in my book "The Nature of Consciousness")
Standing for Something Else
Metaphor is not just a poet's tool to express touching feelings. Metaphor is pervasive in our language. "Her marriage is a nightmare", "My room is a jungle", "She is a snake", "This job is a piece of cake", etc.: we communicate all the time metaphorically.
The reason metaphor is so convenient is that it allows us to express a lot starting with very little: metaphor is a linguistic device to transfer properties from one concept to another.
Metaphor is so pervasive that every single word of our language may have originated from a metaphor. All language may be metaphorical. Given the importance of language among our mental faculties, metaphor is likely a key element of reasoning and thinking in general. In other words, being able to construct and understand metaphors (to transfer properties from a "source" to a "destination", from "nightmare" to "marriage", from "jungle" to "room", etc.) may be an essential part of being a mind.
Founding his theory on archeology, i.e. on evidence from prehistory, the British archeologist Steven became convinced that metaphor was pivotal for the development of the human mind.
A special case of metaphor is metonymy, which occurs when a term is used to indicate something else, e.g. "the White House" to mean "the president of the United States" rather than the building itself (as in "the White House pledged not to increase taxes"). Metonymy differs from metaphor in that metaphor is a way to conceive something in terms of another thing, whereas metonymy is a way to use something to stand for something else (i.e., it also has a "referential" function).
The study of metaphor presents a number of obvious problems: how to determine its truth value (taken literally, metaphors are almost always false) and how to recognize an expression as a metaphor (metaphors have no consistent syntactic form).
It is also intriguing that metaphor seems to violate so blatantly Paul Grice's conversational rules: if the speaker tries to make communication as "rational" as possible, why would she construct a metaphor instead of just being literal? The answer lies in the true nature of metaphor.
The Dynamics of Language
Early studies on metaphor focused on the analogical reasoning that any metaphor implies.
The British mathematician Max Black was influential in moving metaphor from the level of words to the level of concepts. His "interactionist" theory of metaphor (dating from the 1960s, and inspired by the pioneering work of the British literary critic Ivor Richards in the 1930s) views metaphor not as a game of words, but as a cognitive phenomenon that involves concepts. In literal language, two concepts can be combined to obtain another concept without changing the original concepts (e.g., "good" and "marriage" form "good marriage"). In metaphorical language, two concepts are combined so that they form a new concept (e.g., marriage as a nightmare), and additionally they change each other (both "marriage" and "nightmare" acquire a different meaning, one reflecting the nightmarish aspects of marriage and the other one reflecting the marriage-like quality of a nightmare). They trade meaning. Predications that are normally applied to one are now also possible on the other, and vice versa. A metaphor consists in a transaction between two concepts. The interpretation of both concepts is altered.
Black viewed metaphor as a means to reorganize the properties of the destination. First of all, a metaphor is not an isolated term, but a sentence. A metaphorical sentence (e.g., "marriage is a nightmare") involves two subjects. The secondary subject (e.g., "nightmare") comes with a system of associated stereotyped information (or "predication"). That stereotyped information is used as a filter on the principal subject (e.g., "marriage"). There arises a "tension" between the two subjects of the metaphor. That tension is also reflected back to the secondary subject.
Black emphasized that metaphorizing is related to categorizing (the choice of a category in which to place an object is a choice of perspective), but is distinguished from it by an incongruity which causes a reordering and a new perspective.
A crucial point is that metaphor does not express similarities: it creates similarity.
Metaphors act on the organization of the lexicon and the model of the world.
Finally, Black argued that language is dynamic: over time, what is literal may become metaphoric and viceversa.
The Australian mathematician Michael Arbib, one of the many who have argued that all language is metaphorical, based his theory of language on Black's interactionist model.
At the other extreme, the USA computer scientist James Martin does not believe that the process of comprehending a metaphor is a process of reasoning by analogy. A metaphor is simply a linguistic convention within a linguistic community, an "abbreviation" for a concept that would otherwise require too many words. There is no need for transfer of properties from one concept to another. In his theory, a number of primitive classes of metaphors (metaphors that are part of the knowledge of language) are used to build all the others. A metaphor is therefore built and comprehended just like any other lexical entity. Martin's is a purely "syntactic" model of metaphor.
As the French philologist Michel Breal had already pointed out at the end of the 19th century, metaphor is often indispensable to express a concept for which words just do not exist in the language. Entire domains are mapped in other domains for lack of appropriate words. For example, the domain of character is mapped into the domain of temperature: a hot temper, a cold behavior, a warm person, etc. Breal realized that metaphors literally shape language.
A cognitive analysis of metaphor was carried out during the 1970s and 1980s by the USA linguist George Lakoff. He reached two fundamental conclusions: (1) all language is metaphorical and (2) all metaphors are ultimately based on our bodily experience.
Metaphor shapes our language as well as our thought, and it does so by grounding concepts in our body. It provides an experiential framework in which we can accommodate abstract concepts. Thanks to metaphor, we can reduce (and therefore understand) abstract concepts to our physical experiences and to our relationship with the external world. Metaphor is therefore an intermediary between our conceptual representation of the world and our sensory experience of the world (an approach reminiscent of Immanuel Kant's schema).
Metaphor is not only ubiquitous in our language, it is also organized in conceptual systems: concepts of love are related to concepts of voyage, concepts of argument are related to concepts of war, and so forth. It is not only one word that relates to another word: it is an entire conceptual system that is related to another conceptual system.
This organization of conceptual systems forms a "cognitive map". Metaphor projects the cognitive map of a domain (the "vehicle") onto another domain (the "tenor") for the purpose of grounding the latter to sensory experience via the cognitive map of the former.
The entire conceptual castle of our mind relies on this creation of abstractions by metaphor from the foundations of our bodily experience in the world.
Lakoff grew up at a time when there was solid agreement about what metaphors are. Metaphor was merely considered a linguistic expression favored by poets that is not used in the literal sense and expresses a similarity. But he quickly started realizing that we use metaphors all the time, and that we use them in a far more encompassing manner. For example, we express love in terms of a journey (as in "our marriage isn't going anywhere"), or time in terms of money (as in "a waste of time"). Love is not similar to a journey, and time is not similar to money. Furthermore, abstract concepts (such as "love") are defined by metaphors. If we take the metaphors away all is left is the roles (e.g., the lovers and the type of relationship). The system of metaphors built around an abstraction (e.g., all the metaphors that we use about love) tells us how to reason about that abstraction.
This led Lakoff to reason that: metaphor is not in the words, it is in the ideas; it is part of ordinary language, not only of poetry; it is used for reasoning.
Once metaphor is defined as the process of experiencing something in terms of something else, metaphor turns out to be pervasive, and not only in language but also in action and thought. The human conceptual system is fundamentally metaphorical in nature, as most concepts are understood in terms of other concepts. Language comprehension always consists in comprehending something in terms of something else. All our concepts are of metaphorical nature and are based on our physical experience.
Lakoff analyzed numerous domains of human knowledge and invariably detected the underlying metaphors. Theories, for example, are treated as buildings (a theory has "foundations" and is "supported" by data, theories are "fragile" or "solid"). Mathematics itself is a metaphor (Trigonometry is a metaphor for talking about angles)
We understand the world through metaphors, and we do so without any effort, automatically and unconsciously. It doesn't require us to think, it just happens and it happens all the time. Most of the time we are thinking metaphorically without even knowing it.
Our mind shares with the other minds a conventional system of metaphor. This is a system of "mappings", of referring one domain of experience to another domain, so that one domain can be understood through another domain which is somehow more basic. Normally, a more abstract domain is explained in terms of a more concrete domain. The more concrete the domain, the more "natural" it is for our minds to operate in it.
Metaphors are used to partially structure daily concepts. They are not random, but rather form a coherent system that allows humans to conceptualize their experience. Again, metaphors create similarities.
Lakoff defined three types of metaphor: "orientational" (in which we use our experience with spatial orientation), "ontological" (in which we use our experience with physical objects), "structural" (in which natural types are used to define other concepts). Every metaphor can be reduced to a more primitive metaphor.
Language was probably created to deal only with physical objects, and later extended to non-physical objects by means of metaphors. Conceptual metaphors transport properties from structures of the physical world to non-physical structures.
Reason, in general, is not disembodied, it is shaped by the body.
Our conceptual system is shaped by positive feedback from the environment. As Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf had already argued before him, language reflects the conceptual system of the speaker.
Lakoff emphasized that metaphor is not only a matter of words, but a matter of thought, that metaphor is central to our understanding of the world and the self.
Lakoff showed how a small number of metaphors can define a whole system of thought.
Even ritual was viewed by Lakoff as a crucial process in preserving and propagating cultural metaphors.
The reason that metaphor is so pervasive is that it is biological: our brains are built for metaphorical thought. Our brains evolved with "high-level" cortical areas taking input from "lower level" perceptual and motor areas. As a consequence, spatial and motor concepts are the natural basis for abstract reason. It turns out that "metaphor" refers to a physiological mechanism, to the ability of our brain to employ perceptual and motor inferential processes in creating abstract inferential processes. Metaphorical language is nothing but one aspect of our metaphorical brain.
In 1997, a student of Lakoff, Joe Grady, showed how complex metaphors are made of atomic metaphorical parts (or "primary metaphors") and these are, in turn, the product of cross-domain associations both at individual level and at social level (that typically occur during the early stages of life). Atomic metaphorical parts are then "blended" in complex metaphors (as in Gilles Fauconnier's "conventional blending"). A metaphor results in the simultaneous activation of the constituent parts.
Thus we acquire metaphors all the time automatically and unconsciously during our daily life (children often do not separate two elements of an experience that always occur together until later in life). We then employ these metaphors in our daily life.
Primary metaphors include "affection is warm" (as in "a warm smile"), "important is big" ("a big opportunity"), "more is up" (high prices), "time is motion" ("time flies").
Metaphors are Fuzzy
The USA philosopher Earl MacCormac advanced a unified theory of metaphor with broad implications for meaning and truth.
MacCormac rejected both the "tension" theory (which locates the difference between metaphor and analogy in the emotional tension generated by the juxtaposition of anomalous referents) and "controversion" theory pioneered by the USA philosopher Monroe Beardsley (which locates that difference in the falsity produced by a literal reading of the identification of the two referents) and the "deviance" theory (which locates that difference in the ungrammaticality of the juxtaposition of two referents). MacCormac thinks that a metaphor is recognized as a metaphor on the basis of the semantic anomaly produced by the juxtaposition of referents. And this also means that metaphor must be distinct from ordinary language (as opposed to the view that all language is metaphorical).
MacCormac was influenced by the USA philosopher Philip Wheelwright, who had classified metaphors into "epiphors" (metaphors that express the existence of something) and "diaphors" (metaphors that imply the possibility of something). Diaphor and epiphor measure the likeness and the dissimilarity of the attributes of the referents. A diaphor can become an epiphor (when the object is found to really exist) and an epiphor can become a literal expression (when the term has been used for so long that people have forgotten its origin).
Metaphor is a process that exists at three levels: a language process (from ordinary language to diaphor to epiphor back to ordinary language); a semantic and syntactic process (its linguistic explanation); and a cognitive process (to acquire new knowledge). Therefore a theory of metaphor requires three levels: a surface (or literal) level, a semantic level and a cognitive level.
The semantics of metaphor can then be formalized using the mathematical tool of fuzzy logic. Literal truth, figurality and falsity can be viewed as forming a continuum of possibilities rather than a discrete set of possibilities. The figurality of the metaphorical language, in particular, can be viewed as a continuum of "partial" truths that extends from absolute falsehood to absolute truth. These partial truths can be represented by fuzzy values.
This is expressed by a real number on a scale from zero to one: zero is absolute falsehood; the interval from zero to a certain value represents falsehood; the interval from that value to another value represents diaphor; the interval from that value to another value represents epiphor; and the last interval to one represents truth (with one representing absolute truth). Metaphors are born as diaphors and, as they become more and more familiar through commonplace use, slowly mutate into diaphors, thereby losing their "emotive tension".
Language can then be represented mathematically as a hierarchical network in n-dimensional space with each of the nodes of the network a fuzzy set (defining a semantic marker). When unlikely markers are juxtaposed, the degrees of membership of one semantic marker in the fuzzy set representing the other semantic marker can be expressed in a four-valued logic (so that a metaphor is not only true or false).
MacCormac argued that, as cognitive processes, metaphors mediate between culture and mind, influencing both cultural and biological evolution.
Metaphor as Meaning
Drawing from Black's interactionist theory, and its vision of metaphor's dual content (literal and metaphorical, "vehicle" and "topic"), and from Ferdinand de Saussure's theory of signs, the USA philosopher Eva Kittay developed a "relational" theory of meaning for metaphor. Her principle was that the meaning of a word is determined by other words that are related to it by the lexicon. Meaning is not an item: it is a field. A semantic field is a group of words that are semantically related to each other. Metaphor is a process that transfers semantic structures between two semantic fields: some structures of the first field create or reorganize a structure in the second field.
The meaning of a word consists of all the literal senses of that word. A literal sense consists of a conceptual content, a set of conditions, or semantic combination rules (permissible semantic combinations of the word, analogous to Fodor's selection-restriction rules), and a semantic field indicator (relation of the conceptual content to other concepts in a content domain). An interpretation of an utterance is any of the senses of that utterance. Projection rules combine lower-level units into higher-level units according to their semantic combination rules. A first-order interpretation of an utterance is derived from a valid combination of the first-order meanings of its constituents. Second-order interpretation is a function of first-order interpretation and expresses the intuitive fact that what has to be communicated is not what is indicated by the utterance's literal meaning.
Semantic fields help to recognize an utterance as a metaphor. For example, an explicit cue to the metaphorical nature of an utterance is when the first-order and the second-order interpretation point to two distinct semantic fields.
The cognitive force of metaphor comes from a re-conceptualization of information about the world that has already been acquired but possibly not conceptualized.
Ultimately, Kittay thinks that metaphorical meaning is not reducible to literal meaning. Metaphor is, de facto, second-order meaning.
Metaphor as physiological organization
Borrowing from the work of the Hungarian linguist Stevan Harnad, who thinks that sensory experience is recorded as a continuous engram whereas a concept derived from sensory experience is recorded by discrete engrams ("Metaphor and Mental Duality", 1982), the Indian mathematician Bipin Indurkhya thinks that metaphor originated from the interaction between sensory-based and concept-based representations in the brain, which are structurally different.
He focuses on how metaphor creates similarity. This is, in itself, a paradox. By definition, a metaphor implies that there are at least two different ways to represent a situation. At the same time, we assume that these different representations are not arbitrary but they somehow "interact" (are coherent). Indurkhya points out three level of reality. The "God's eye view" of the world is independent of any cognitive being perceiving it. Cognitive beings interact with it via their sensorimotor system. This system creates the second level of reality, whose "ontology" depends on the sensorimotor system (different beings perceive a different reality because they are equipped with different sensorimotor systems) but whose pattern of stimuli depends on the structure of the world.
The third level is the network of concepts created and used by the cognitive agent. This is the place where different representations of the same reality can be created, yielding different cognitive models. As the cognitive being "grows", there are two ways that this can occur while maintaining coherence with the environment: restructuring the network of concepts to better accommodate new data (typically, creating new concepts), or changing the mappings from the network of concepts to the environment in order to account for new sensorimotor data.
The latter process is the one that originates metaphors. A metaphor is the projection of one conceptual network (the source) into the environment of another conceptual network (the target). Some concepts of the source maintain their conventional interpretation (the way the cognitive system usually interprets them) but others will require an unconventional ("metaphorical") interpretation.
Metaphor as conceptual blending
Gilles Fauconnier's theory of mental spaces constitutes a natural generalization of metaphor, in which the number of conceptual spaces that blend is only two: the one described by the metaphor (the "tenor") and the one which provides the description (the "vehicle").
Fauconnier adds two more spaces to deal with metaphors: the "generic" space, which represents all the shared concepts that are required by tenor and vehicle, which are necessary not only to understand the metaphor but to mediate between the tenor and the vehicle; and the "blend" space, which contains the solution, the concept generated by the metaphor. The tenor and the vehicle are reconciled thanks to the generic space and this reconciliation produces the blend space.
Lying helps communication
We cheat children. Every time we tell children a fairy tale, we are lying to them. Those characters do not exist. Santa Claus does not exist. The cartoons on tv do not exist. We tell them lies all the time. And, still, children "learn". What they learn is not the literal meaning of those stories. In fact, they themselves frequently doubt those stories. But children understand that what they are supposed to learn is not the literal meaning. Children somehow understand that their parents are trying to teach them something else. Children somehow understand that parents use fairy tales because it is a more efficient and painless way to teach them what really matters. What matters is not that Little Red Riding Hood met a wolf, but that there are good and bad people. Children's brain are programmed to somehow discard the fairy tale and grasp the "meaning" of the story.
Long after they forgot what Little Red Riding Hood was doing in the woods they will still remember that there are good and bad people.
As we grow up, we assume that we stop lying to each other. As adults, we try to tell it as it is. That might be true for scientists, but it is hardly visible in ordinary lives. Every argument between two people usually involves some kind of exaggeration. Most political discussions start with unreasonable statements (a popular one like "depleted uranium killed one million Iraqi children" is obviously false if one checks the population of Iraq but it was widespread all over the world). And most people routinely exaggerate the details that most matter within a story. The listener, on the other hand, routinely "decodes" those exaggerations. Language lends itself to a level of ambiguity that we use to deliver more than the literal meaning. Thus adult tell each other "fairy tales". It never truly ends. Even scientists, to some extent, exaggerate the implications of their theories when they try to explain them to ordinary people. A distortion of reality seems to be useful, if not essential, to human communication.
There is one weakness in the experimental praxis of linguists: they only study people who are fluent in a language. If you want to study chaxipean, you go to Chaxipe and talk to chaxipeans. They are the world experts in chaxipean. Most of our ideas on language, categorization and metaphors come from studying people who are fluent in a language.
But the brain of a person who is not fluent in that language should be working the same way. My "use" of the German language, though, is not the same as a native German's. I stay away from metaphors in a language like German that I barely understand. Using a metaphor in German sounds scary to me. If I am speaking in a foreign language, i stick to simple sentences whose meaning is transparent. I do not say "their marriage is going nowhere": I say "their marriage is not good". I reduce all concepts to elementary concepts of good and bad, ugly and beautiful, etc. My mastery of the foreign language is not such that I can afford to use metaphorical expressions.
This goes against the claim that metaphor is useful to express meaning in a more efficient way. People who do not master a language should use metaphor precisely to compensate that deficiency. Instead, we tend to do the opposite: if we do not master a language, we avoid metaphors. Metaphorical language requires mastering the language skills first, and is proportional to those skills. This is what the traditional theory predicted (metaphor is for poets, language specialists). There was a grain of truth in it.
Arbib Michael: CONSTRUCTION OF REALITY (Cambridge University Press, 1986)
Black Max: MODELS AND METAPHORS (Cornell Univ Press, 1962)
Fauconnier Gilles: MENTAL SPACES (MIT Press, 1994)
Breal Michel: ESSAY DE SEMANTIQUE (1897)
Hintikka Jaakko: ASPECTS OF METAPHOR (Kluwer Academics, 1994)
Kittay Eva: METAPHOR (Clarendon Press, 1987)
Indurkhya Bipin: METAPHOR AND COGNITION (Kluwer Academic, 1992)
Lakoff George: METAPHORS WE LIVE BY (Chicago Univ Press, 1980)
Lakoff George: MORE THAN COOL REASON (University of Chicago Press, 1989)
Lakoff George: WOMEN, FIRE AND DANGEROUS THINGS (Univ of Chicago Press, 1987)
Lakoff George: PHILOSOPHY IN THE FLESH (Basic, 1998)
MacCormac Earl: A COGNITIVE THEORY OF METAPHOR (MIT Press, 1985)
Martin James: A COMPUTATIONAL MODEL OF METAPHOR INTERPRETATION (Academic Press, 1990)
Mithen Steven: THE PREHISTORY OF THE MIND (Thames and Hudson, 1996)
Ortony, Andrew: METAPHOR AND THOUGHT (Cambridge Univ Press, 1979)
Richards, Ivor: THE PHILOSOPHY OF RHETORIC (Oxford Univ. Press, 1936)
Wheelwright, Philip: METAPHOR AND REALITY (1962)