Fruit loops and metaphors: Metaphors are not about explaining the abstract through concrete but about the dynamic process of negotiated sensemaking

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Note: This is a slightly edited version of a post that first appeared on Medium. It elaborates and exemplifies examples I gave in the more recent posts on metaphor and explanation and understanding.

One of the less fortunate consequences of the popularity of the conceptual metaphor paradigm (which is also the one I by and large work with on this blog) is the highlighting of the embodied metaphor at the expenses of others. This gives the impression that metaphors are there to explain more abstract concepts in terms of more concrete ones.

Wikipedia: “Conceptual metaphors typically employ a more abstract concept as target and a more concrete or physical concept as their source. For instance, metaphors such as ‘the days [the more abstract or target concept] ahead’ or ‘giving my time’ rely on more concrete concepts, thus expressing time as a path into physical space, or as a substance that can be handled and offered as a gift.“

And it is true that many of the more interesting conceptual metaphors that help us frame the fundamentals of language are projections from a concrete domain to one that we think of as more abstract. We talk about time in terms of space, emotions in terms of heat, thoughts in terms of objects, conversations as physical interactions, etc. We can even deploy this aspect of metaphor in a generative way, for instance when we think of electrons as a crowd of little particles.

But I have come to view this as a very unhelpful perspective on what metaphor is and how it works. Instead, going back to Lakoff’s formulation in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, I’d like to propose we think of a metaphor as a principle that helps us give structure to our mental models (or frames). But unlike Lakoff, I like to think of these as an incredibly dynamic and negotiated process rather than as a static part of our mental inventory. And I like to use conceptual intergation or blending as way of thinking about the underlying cogntivive processes.

Metaphor does two things: 1. It helps us (re)structure one conceptual domain by projecting another conceptual domain onto it and 2. In the process of 1, it creates a new conceptual domain that is a blend of the two source domains.

We do not really understand one domain in terms of another through metaphor. We ‘understand’ both domains in different ways. And this helps us create new perspectives which are themselves conceptual domains that can be projected or projected into. (As described by Fauconnier and Turner in The Way We Think).

This makes sense when we look at some of the conventional examples used to illustrate metaphors. “The man is a lion” does not help us understand lesser known or more abstract ‘man’ by using the better known or more concrete ‘lion’. No, we actually know a lot more about men and the specific man we’re thus describing than we do about lions. We are just projecting the domain of ‘lions’ including the conventionalised schemas of bravery and fierceness onto a particular man.

This perspective depends on our conventionalised way of projecting these 2 domains. Comparison between languages illustrates this further. The Czech framing of lions is essentially the same as English but the projection into people also maps lion’s vigour into work to mean ‘hard working’. So you can say “she works as a lion”, meaning she works hard. But in the age of documentaries about lions, a joke subverting the conventionalised mapping also appeared and people sometimes say “I work like a lion. I roar and go take a nap.” This is something that could only emerge as more became conventionally known about lions.

But even more embodied metaphors do not always go in a predictable direction. We often structure affective states in terms of the physical world or bodily states. We talk about ‘being in love’ or ‘love hitting a rocky patch’ or ‘breaking hearts’ (where metonymy also plays a role). But does that really mean that we somehow know less about love than we know about travelling on roads? Love is conventionally seen as less concrete than roads or hearts but here we allow ourselves to be mislead by traditional terminology. The domain of ‘love’ is richly structured and does not ‘feel’ all that abstract to the participants. (I’d prefer to think of ‘love’ as a non-prototypical noun; more prototypical than ‘rationalisation’ but less prototypical than ‘cat’).

Which is why ‘love’ can also be used as the source domain. We can say things like “The camera loves him.” and it is clear what we mean by it. We can talk about physical things “being in harmony” with each other and thus helping us understand them in different ways despite harmony being supposedly more abstract than the things being in harmony.

The conceptual domains that enter into metaphoric relationships are incredibly rich and multifaceted (nothing like the dictionaries or encyclopedias we often model linguistic meaning after). And the most important point of unlikeness is their dynamic nature. They are constantly adapting to the context of the listeners and speakers, never exactly the same from use to use. We have a rich inventory of them at our disposal but by reaching into it, we are also constantly remaking it.

We assume that the words we use have some meanings but it is us who has the meanings. The words and other structures just carry the triggers we use to create meanings in the process of negotiation with the world and our interlocutors.

But this sounds much more mysterious and ineffable than it actually is. These things are completely mundane and they are happening every time we open our mouths or our minds. Here’s a very simple but nevertheless illuminating illustration of the process.

Not too long ago, there were two TV shows that had some premise similarities (Psych and The Mentalist). One of them came out a year earlier and its creators were feeling like their premise was copied by the other one. And they used the following analogy:

“When you go to the cereal aisle in a grocery store, and you see Fruit Loops there. If you look down on the bottom, there’s something that looks just like Fruit Loops, and it’s in a different bag, and it’s called Fruity Loop-Os.” 

I was watching both shows at the time but their similarity did not jump out at me. But as soon as I read that comparison it was immediately clear to me what the speaker was trying to say. I could automatically see the projection between the two domains. But even though it seemed the cereal domain was more specific, it actually brought a lot more with it than the specificity of cereal boxes and their placement on store shelves. What it brought over was the abstract relationship between them in quality and value but also many cultural scripts and bits of propositional knowledge associated with cereal brands and their copycats.

But there was even more to it than that. The metaphor does not stop at its first outing (it’s kind of like mushrooms and their  in this way). Whenever, I see a powerful analogy or generative metaphor on the internet, I always look for the comments where people try to reframe it and create new meanings. Something I have been calling ‘frame negotiation’. Take almost any salient metaphoric domain projection and you will find that it is only a part in a process of negotiated sense making. This goes beyond people simply disagreeing with each other’s metaphors. It includes the marshalling of complex structuring conceptual phenomena from schemas, rich images, scenarios, scripts, to propositions, definitions, taxonomies and conventionalised collocations.

This blog post and its comments contain almost all of them: . First, the post author spends three paragraphs (from third on), comparing the two shows and finding similarities and differences. This may not seem like anything interesting but it reveals that the conceptual blends compressed in the cereal analogy are completely available and can be discussed as if it was a literal statement of fact.

Next, the commenters, who have much less space, return to debating the proposition by recompressing it into more metaphors. These are the first four comments in full:

  1. Anonymous said… They’re not totally different. It’s more like comparing Fruit Loops to Fruit Squares which happen to taste like beef.
  2.  said… I think a better comparison would Corn Flakes and Frosted Flakes. Both are made with the same cereal, but one’s sweeter (Psych).
  3.  said… Sweeter as in more comedy oriented? They are vastly different shows that are different on so many levels.
  4. Anonymous said… nikki could not be more right with the corn flakes and frosties analogy

Here we see the process of sense making in action. The metaphoric projection is used as one of several structuring devices around which frames are made. Comment 1 opens the the process by bringing in the idea of reframing through other analogs in the cereal domain. 2. continues that process by offering an alternative. 3. challenges the very idea of using these two domains and 4. agrees with 2 as if this were a literal statement but also referring to the metalinguistic tool being used.

The subsequent comments return to comparing the two shows . Some by offering propositions and scenarios, others by marshalling a new analogy.

 said… The reason the Mentalist feels like House is because house is a modern day medical version of Homes as in Holmes Sherlock. Also both Psych and The Mentalist are both Holmsian in creation. That being said I love the wit and humor of psych

Again, there is no evidence of the concrete/abstract duality or even one between less and better known domains. It is all about making sense of the domains in both cognitive and affective ways. Some domains have very shallow projections (partial mappings) such as cornflakes and frosty flakes, others have very deep mappings such as Sherlock Holmes. They are not providing new information or insight in the way we traditionally think of them. Nor are they providing an explanation to the uninitiated. They are giving new structure to the existing knowledge and thus recreating what is known.

The reason I picked such a seemingly mundane example is because all of this is mundane and it’s all part of the same process. One of my disagreements with much of metaphor application is the overlooking of the ‘boring’ bits surrounding the first time a metaphor is used. But metaphors are always a part of a complex textual and discursive patterns and while they are not parasitic on the literal as was the traditional slight against them, they are also not the only thing that goes on when people make sense.