Saturday, 26 July 2008

Metaphors We Live By

This book is ace. It's one of those books that manages to crystallize half-thought-out ideas and insights that you have but never really manage to develop. And once you get your head around the central ideas you can see how applicable these are in many different bits of the world.

Obviously, it all about metaphors, and the early chapters of the book look at the types of metaphors we use and how prevalent they are. This stuff alone is really worth a read just to make yourself aware of just how often we use metaphors, but also how we use many different expressions of the same underlying metaphor. Take the example I posted previously:

Theories (and arguments) are buildings:

Is that the foundation for your theory? The theory needs more support. We need some more facts or the argument will fall apart. We need to construct a strong argument for that. I haven't figured out yet what the form of the argument will be. Here are some more facts to shore up the theory. We need to buttress the theory with solid arguments. The theory will stand or fall on the strength of that argument. The argument collapsed. They exploded his latest theory. We will show his theory to be without foundation. So far we have put together only the framework of the theory.

Surprising isn't it that we use loads of different expressions based around one metaphor? That leads on to one of the fundamental arguments in the book - that metaphors are not merely linguistic devices, they are conceptual. We don't just use the 'theories are buildings' metaphor to get across our message, we actually think and act in those terms too.

Off on a bit of a tangent I think this may in part explain why something can sound both logical and false at the same time - the communicator has metaphorical coherence, but the metaphor doesn't seem to capture what is being described. To my uncultured mind this also seems to fit together (like a construction...) pretty well with my other favourite view of the world, the narrative paradigm. Fisher suggests that we decide the validity of an argument based on narrative coherence. This obviously has some pretty major implications for our understanding of 'truth', and indeed the latter part of the book covers this in some detail. (I'm not going to go into this now as it goes much more into philosophy).

They also argue that our metaphors are grounded in experience, hence a lot of them are about space, orientation and travel. Think how often you use 'journey' metaphors to describe things, for example. This might be in terms of relationships - we're going our separate ways, the worst is behind us etc - or in terms of work - I personally use the phrase "I'm getting there" a lot in reference to work projects. So really we are perceiving first and describing second in terms of more direct/basic experiences.

The book's afterword is also well worth a read as it describes briefly how metaphor analysis has been applied is various fields from psychology to political science. The latter obviously interests me, and leads me on (it's a journey you see) to try and use this stuff politically. If we buy (and I think I do) the argument that metaphors are conceptual, not merely linguistic, then a) we ought to be able to indentify the metaphors that people are using to understand the current situation and b) we may be able to establish alternatives.

Obviously I have a political bias, but I can't quite reconcile the strength of the rejection of Labour by the punters with what is actually going on in the UK. We have had a decade and a bit of uninterrupted prosperity (alright partially debt-fuelled), with no major worries about inflation or unemployment or all the other big issues of the past. So why does it seem that the voters want to wipe us out at the next election? There must be a way of understanding the world they have developed that we ought to be able to engage with - but what is it and how do we do it?


Nicolas Zap said...

I very much agree that we make sense of things through narratives and these kind of conceptual metaphors. I think it's pretty much impossible to do otherwise.

The work that persuaded me of that conclusion was Alasdair MacIntyre's 'After Virtue'. I don't share his deep cynicism about modern society but I think he's spot on in highlighting the fundamental importance of narrative and 'virtue ethics' in making sense of the human mindset.

Nick Drew said...

I can't quite reconcile the strength of the rejection of Labour by the punters with what is actually going on in the UK

can't quite ... ? LMAO, Tom: don't spend too much time philosophising about this one because it's really simple & if you don't get it now, you never ever will

(remember the Letter to the Editor which read: only a Guardian leader-writer could state: "crime is down yet, paradoxically, the prison population is rising" - ?)

- - -
There must be a way of understanding the world they have developed that we ought to be able to engage with - but what is it...?

This is what you need to engage with, Tom: the people - who aren't fooled for long - have opened their eyes, looked around, and seen the utter disaster that is the UK in 2008: they are very frightened, and with good reason

so why aren't they clinging to nurse ? because they've rumbled the utterly useless 'leader' who is fit only to run a small economics department in a polytechnic that can't find anyone with better social skills

As Churchill said:

An accepted leader has only to be sure of what it is best to do. If he trips, he must be sustained. If he makes mistakes, they must be covered. If he sleeps, he must not be wantonly disturbed. If he is no good, he must be poleaxed.

Tom Powdrill said...

I accept that the public doesn't like us at the moment, but it's the scale of the rejection that surprises me. The economic environment is bleak but it hasn't reached any of the kind of depths under the Tories. They were allowed two full-on recessions before getting booted out. We've not even technically entered one yet!

Nick Drew said...

hasn't reached any of the kind of depths

you are an optimist, sir

Tom Powdrill said...

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will!