Metaphorically thinking

We experience life directly through our five senses and indirectly through conversations with others as well as the cultural stories we hear. Unless you are a recluse, an increasing percentage of ‘our’ experience is from our conversations with others.

A quick thought experiment

Describe out loud, or better yet, write down for yourself, a common everyday event. Here’s mine:

As I made an incision the skin parted like butter, revealing a rat’s nest of adhesions creating a minefield in my search for the artery, a corroded pipe, the cause of my invasion of the abdomen.

Could you see, feel, and to some degree understand what I saw and felt? That is through the magic of metaphor. Today’s topic and the third time I have wandered into linguistics (a strange event for a person who can’t diagram a sentence). Oh yes, from here forward each metaphor will be in bold.

 Down the rabbit hole

Metaphor is one of the four “master tropes” (figures of speech) according to literary theorist Kenneth Burke. It is a substitute for perspective. He said that ‘reality” is

"clutter of symbols about the past combined with whatever things we know mainly through maps, magazines, newspapers, and the like about the present . . . a construct of our symbol systems" … Each belief system has its own vocabulary to describe how the world works and what things mean, thus presenting its adherents with a specific reality”

Our choice of narration values certain qualities over others and provides a window about how we see the world.

So where is metaphor’s magic?

George Lakoff, another linguist, in a classic linguistic text stated that

 “… our experiences with physical objects (especially our own bodies) provide the basis for an extraordinarily wide variety of … ways of viewing events, activities, emotions, ideas, etc., as entities and substances” … "Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature."

Metaphor facilitates our understanding of abstractions, indirect experience, by substituting our direct experiences. This is achieved by substituting or mapping a “source” cognitive domain onto a “target cognitive domain. For example, the texture of butter is the source, the incision is the target and “As I made an incision the skin parted like butter,” is the result.

Metaphor is how we share our experience. It is so ubiquitous that it is only the new or unusual metaphor that catches our eye. Those that are so common that we lose sight of them are called “dead” metaphors. Bridging the familiar to the abstract may result in nonsensical mapping, “the flu spread like a frightened flock of birds” or reveal innovative thoughts “the video went viral.” Metaphor can hide thoughts, “One of the main characteristics of metaphor [is] the matching between domains is partial; therefore it highlights a certain aspect of the source domain and hides those which are not of the author’s interest.

So why contemplate metaphors?

“For Lakoff, the development of thought has been the process of developing better metaphors… [that] offers new perceptions and understandings.” Metaphors revisited the interplay of our thought’s structure and its expression.

Adam Gopnik is more eloquent in his description

“Metaphor is social and shares the table with the objects it intertwines and the attitudes it reconciles.”

There is a profound relationship in Halstead’s strategy of radical mastectomy and strategy of war in his era. Metaphor is the carrier to seeing that relationship. The war on cancer gave us radical surgery and systemic controlled poisons. But it was a product of the era of both World Wars I and II. It hides from us local insurgency, a modern warfare. And the local insurgency against cancer, genome as metabolic blueprint created personalized medicine and opened the door to connecting metabolic error and immunotherapies; reflecting the new equipoise of remissions and chronicity. The role of metaphor is one of the great revelations of The Emperor of All Maladies. Language and metaphors, in particular, shape our thoughts, which in turn shape our structures and actions which in turn reshape our metaphors.

We need to be mindful of their artifice and actions. So much of our common sense is our inherited cultural metaphors. Innovation, the adjacent possibility, lies in remapping.

“This is a truth that both clear-sighted artists and scientists—that is, those not blinded by hubris, or a cramped imagination, or both—have always acknowledged: …while the artist acknowledges that in art there is nothing new to be said, only new ways of saying the old things, new combinations of old materials—a process, paradoxically, that makes a new thing, namely, the work of art—science seems always to be pressing on into hitherto uncharted territory. Yet the fact is, science is not making this new landscape, but discovering it. … More than one philosopher has conjectured that our thought extends only as far as our capacity to express it. So too it is possible that what we consider reality is only that stratum of the world that we have the faculties to comprehend.”

If I have successfully planted an earworm about metaphors, then listen for them as you read or talk.

A last nerd thought “The gall bladder in 203” is not a metaphor. It is a metonym (Another trope) – using a part to represent the whole. It is a cognitive shorthand that we employ every day, but like metaphor it silently shapes thought and can easily depersonalize the patient in 203 (a container) to a set of symptoms or a procedure.

Want to continue wandering in this particular neighborhood?

Emperor of All Maladies

            Brilliant, a compelling narrative history that is a time machine stopping to ground us sequentially in the period from 1910 to the present. I was a bit put off by the length of the book, but it is a quick read


George Lakoff and Mark Johnsen (2003) Metaphors we live by           

An early linguist article that helped inform me about the role of metaphor. Evidently it is a linguistic classic


Wikipedia on metaphor, metonym, Kenneth Burke and George Lakoff


Infectious diseases are sleeping monsters: Conventional and culturally adapted new metaphors in a corpus of abstracts on immunology Laura Hidalgo Downing and Blanca Kraljevic Mujic

            A look at the role of metaphor in sixty articles taken from Scientific American where experts are explaining and educating a less sophisticated audience about their work.