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What is not a metaphor: Modelling the world through language, thought, science, or action

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The role of metaphor in science debate (Background)

Recently, the LSE podcast an interesting panel on the subject of “Metaphors and Science”. It featured three speakers talking about the interface between metaphor and various ‘scientific’ disciplines (economics, physics and surgery). Unlike many such occasions, all speakers were actually very knowledgeable and thoughtful on the subject.

In particular, I liked Felicity Mellor and Richard Bronk who adopted the same perspective that underlies this blog and which I most recently articulated in writing about obliging metaphors. Felicity Mellor put it especially eloquently when she said:

“Metaphor allows us to speak the truth by saying something that is wrong. That means it can be creatively liberating but it can also be surreptitiously coercive.”

This dual nature of coerciveness and liberation was echoed throughout the discussion by all three speakers. But they also shared the view of ubiquity of metaphor which is what this post is about.

What is not a metaphor? The question!

The moderator of the discussion was much more stereotypically ambivalent about such expansive attitude toward metaphor and challenged the speakers with the question of ‘what is the opposite of metaphor’ or ‘what is not a metaphor’. He elicited suggestions from the audience, who came up with this list:

model, diagram, definition, truths, math, experience, facts, logic, the object, denotation

The interesting thing is that most of the items on this list are in fact metaphorical in nature. Most certainly models, diagrams and definitions (more on these in future posts). But mathematics and logic are also deeply metaphorical (both in their application but also internally; e.g. the whole logico mathematical concept of proof is profoundly metaphorical).

Things get a bit more problematic with things like truth, fact, denotation and the object. All of those seem to be pointing at something that is intuitively unmetaphorical. But it doesn’t take a lot of effort to see that ‘something metaphorical’ is going on there as well. When we assign a label (denotation), for instance, ‘chair’ or ‘coast’ or ‘truth’ we automatically trigger an entire cognitive armoury for dealing with things that exist and these things have certain properties. But it is clear that ‘chair’, ‘coast’ and ‘metaphor’ are not the same kind of thing at all. Yet, we can start treating them the same way because they are both labels. So we start asking for the location, shape or definition of metaphor, just because we assigned it a label in the same way we can ask for the same thing about a chair or a coast. We want to take a measure of it, but this is much easier with a chair than with a coast (thus the famous fractal puzzle about the length of the coast of Britain). But chairs are not particularly easy to nail down (metaphorically, of course) either, as I discussed in my post on clichés and metaphors.

Brute facts of tiny ontology

So what is the thing that is not a metaphor? Both Bronk and Mellor suggested the “brute fact”. A position George Lakoff called basic realism and I’ve recently come to think of as tiny ontology. The idea, as expressed by Mellor and Bronk in this discussion, is that there’s a real world out there which impinges upon our bodily existence but with which we can only interact through the lens of our cognition which is profoundly metaphorical.

But ultimately, this does not give us a very useful answer. Either everything is a metaphor, so we might as well stop talking about it, or there is something that is not a metaphor. In which case, let’s have a look. Tiny ontology does not give us the solution because we can only access it through the filter of our cognition (which does not mean consciously or through some wilful interpretation). So the real question is, are there some aspects of our cognition that are not metaphorical?

Metaphor as model (or What is metaphor)

The solution lies in the revelation hinted at above that labels are in themselves metaphors. The act of labelling is metaphorical, or rather, it triggers the domain of objects. What do I mean by that? Well, first let’s have a look at how metaphor actually works. I find it interesting that nobody during the entire discussion tried to raise that question other than the usual ‘using something to talk about something else’. Here’s my potted summary of how metaphor works (see more details in the About section).

Metaphor is a process of projecting one conceptual domain onto another. All of our cognition involves this process of conceptual integration (or blending). This integration is fluid, fuzzy and partial. In language, this domain mapping is revealed through the process of deixis, attribution, predication, definition, comparison, etc. Sometimes it is made explicit by figurative language. Figurative language spans the scale of overt to covert. Figurative language has a conceptual, communicative and textual dimension (see my classification of metaphor use). In cognition, this process of conceptual integration is involved in identification, discrimination, manipulation. All of these can be more or less overtly analogical.

So all of this is just a long way of saying, that metaphor is a metaphor for a complicated process which is largely unconscious but not uncommonly conscious. In fact, in my research, I no longer use the term ‘metaphor’ because it misleads more than it helps. There’s simply too much baggage from what is just overt textual manifestation of metaphor – the sort of ‘common sense’ understanding of metaphor. However, this common sense ordinary understanding of ‘metaphor’ makes using the word a useful shortcut in communication with people who don’t have much of a background in this thought. But when we think about the issue more deeply, it becomes a hindrance because of all the different types of uses of metaphor I described here (a replay of the dual liberating and coercive nature of metaphor mentioned above – we don’t get escape our cognition just because we’re talking about metaphors).

In my work, I use the term frame, which is just a label for a sort of conceptual model (originally suggested by Lakoff as Idealized Cognitive Model). But I think in this context the term ‘model’ is a bit more revealing about what is going on.

So we can say that every time, we engage conceptually with our experience, we are engaging in an act of modelling (or framing). Even when I call something ‘true’, I am applying a certain model (frame) that will engage certain heuristics (e.g. asking for confirmation, evidence). Equally, if I say something like ‘education is business’, I am applying a certain model that will allow me to talk about things like achieving economies of scale or meeting consumer demand but will make it much harder to talk about ethics and personal growth. That doesn’t mean that I cannot apply more than one model, a combination of models or build new models from old ones. (Computer virus is a famous example, but natural law is another one. Again more on this in later posts.)

Action as an example of modelling

The question was asked during the discussion by an audience member, whether I can experience the world directly (not mediated by metaphoric cognition). The answer is yes, but even this kind of experience involves modelling. When I walk along a path, I automatically turn to avoid objects – therefore I’m modelling their solid and interactive nature. Even when I’m lying still, free of all thought and just letting the warmth of the shining sun wash over me, I’m still applying a model of my position in the world in a particular way. That is, my body is not activating my ears to hear the sun rays, nor is it perceiving the bacteria going about their business in my stomach. A snake, polar bear or a fish would all model that situation in a different way.

This may seem like unnecessary extension of the notion of a model. (But it echos the position of the third speaker Roger Kneebone who was talking about metaphor as part of the practice of surgery.) It is not particularly crucial to our understanding of metaphor, but I think it’s important to divert us from a certain kind of perceptual mysticism in which many people unhappy with the limitations of their cognitive models engage. The point is that not all of our existence is necessarily conceptual but all of it models our interaction with the world and switches between different models as appropriate. E.g. my body applies different models of the world when I’m stepping down from a step on solid ground or stepping into a pool of water.

The languages of metaphor: Or how a metaphor do

I am aware that this is all very dense and requires a lot more elaboration (well, that’s why I’m writing a blog, after all). But I’d like to conclude with a warning that the language used for talking about metaphor brings with it certain models of thinking about the world which can be very confusing if we don’t let go of them in time. Just the fact that we’re using words is a problem. When words are isolated (for instance, in a dictionary or at the end of the phrase ‘What is a…’) it only seems natural that they should have a definition. We have a word “metaphor” and it would seem that it needs to have some clear meaning. The kind of thing we’re used to seeing on the right-hand side of dictionaries. But insisting that dictionary-like definition is what must be at the end of the journey is to misunderstand what we’ve seen along the way.

There are many contexts in which the construction “metaphor is…” is not only helpful but also necessary. For example when clarifying one’s use: “In this blog, what I mean by metaphor is much broader than what traditional students of figurative language meant by it.” But in the context of trying to get at what’s going on in the space that we intuitively describe as metaphorical, we should almost be looking for something along to the lines of “metaphor does” or “metaphors feels like”. Or perhaps refrain from the construction “metaphor verb” altogether and just admit that we’re operating in a kind of metaphor-tasting soup. We can get at the meaning/definition by disciplined exploration and conversation.

In conclusion, metaphor is a very useful model when thinking about cognition, but it soon fails us, so we can replace it with more complex models, like that of a model. We are then left with the rather unsatisfactory notion of a metaphor of metaphor or a model of model. The sort of dissatisfaction that lead Derrida and his like to the heights of obscurity. I think we can probably just about avoid deconstructionist obscurantism but only if we adopt one of its most powerful tools, the fleeting sidelong glance (itself a metaphor/model). Just like the Necker cube, this life on the edge of metaphor is constantly shifting before our eyes. Never quite available to us perceptually all at once but readily apprehended by us in its totality. At once opaque and so so crystal clear. Rejoice all you parents of freshly screaming thoughts. It’s a metaphor!
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Three books of the year 2013 and some books of the century 1900-2013

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I have been asked (as every year) to nominate three books of the year for Lidové Noviny (a Czech paper I contribute to occasionally). This is always a tough choice for me and some years I don’t even bother responding. This is because I don’t tend to read books ‘of the moment’ and range widely in my reading across time periods. But I think I have some good ones this time. Additionally, Lidové Noviny are celebrating 120 years of being a major Czech newspaper so they also asked me for a book of the century (since 1900 till now). It makes no sense to even try to pick ‘the one’, so I picked three categories that are of interest to me (language, society and fiction) and chose three books in each.

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Three books of 2013

Thanks to the New Books Network, I tend to be more clued in on the most recent publications, so 2 of my recommendations are based on interviews heard there.

A Cultural History of the Atlantic World, 1250-1820 by John K. Thornton is without question a must read for anyone interested in, well, history. Even though he is not the first, Thornton shows most persuasively how the non-Europeans on both sides of the Atlantic (Africa and the Americas) were full-fledged political partners of the Europeans who are traditionally seen simply as conquerors with their dun powder, horses and steel weapons. Bowerman shows how these were just a small part of the mix, having almost no impact in Africa and playing a relatively small role in the Americas. In both cases, Europeans succeeded through alliances with local political elites and for centuries simply had no access to vast swathes of both continents.

Raising Germans in the Age of Empire: Youth and Colonial Culture, 1871-1914 by Jeff Bowersox. This book perhaps covers an exceedingly specific topic (compared to the vast sweep of my first pick) but it struck a chord with me. It shows the complex interplay between education, propaganda and their place in the lives of youth and adults alike.

Writing on the Wall: Social Media – the First 2,000 Years by Tom Standage. Standage’s eye opening book on the telegraph (The Victorian Internet) now has a companion dealing with social communication networks going back to the Romans. Essential corrective to all the gushing paradigm shifters. He doesn’t say there’s nothing new about the Internet but he does say that there’s nothing new abou humans. Much lighter reading but still highly recommended.

Books of the Century

This really caught my fancy. I was asked for books that affected me, but I thought more about those that had an impact going beyond the review cycle of a typical book.


Course in General Linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure published in 1916. The Course (or Le Cours) Published posthumously by Saussure’s students from lecture notes is the cornerstone of modern linguistics. I think many of the assumptions have been undermined in the past 30-40 years and we are ripe for a paradigm change. But if you talk to a modern linguist, you will still hear much of what Saussure was saying to his students in the early 1900s in Geneva. (Time to rethink the Geneva Convention in language?)

Syntactic Structures by Noam Chomsky published in 1957. Unlike The Course, which is still worth reading by anyone who wants to learn about language, Syntactic Structures is now mostly irrelevant and pretty much incomprehensible to non-experts. However, it launched the Natural Language Processing revolution and its seeds are still growing (although not in the Chomskean camp). Its impact may not survive the stochastic turn in NLP but the computational view of language is still with us for good and for ill.

Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson published in 1980 while not completely original, kickstarted a metaphor revival of sorts. While, personally, I think Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things is by far the most important book of the second half of the 20th century, Metaphors We Live By is a good start (please, read the 2003 edition and pay special attention to the Afterword).


The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir published in 1949 marked a turning point in discourse about women. Although the individual insights had been available prior to Beauvoir’s work, her synthesis was more than just a rehashing of gender issues.

Language and Woman’s Place by Robin Tolmach Lakoff published in 1973 stands at the foundation of how we speak today about women and how we think about gender being reflected in language. I would now quible with some of the linguistics but not with the main points. Despite the progress, it can still open eyes of readers today.

The Savage Mind by Claude Levi-Strauss published in 1962 was one of the turning points in thinking about modernity, complexity and backwardness. Strauss’s quip that philosophers like Sartre were more of a subject of study for him than valuable interlocutors is still with me when I sit in on a philosophy seminar. I read this book without any preparation and it had a profound impact on me that is still with me today.


None of the below are my personal favourites but all have had an impact on the zeit geist that transcended just the moment.

1984 by George Orwell published in 1949. Frankly I can’t stand this book. All of its insight is skin deep and its dystopian vision (while not in all aspects without merit) lacks the depth it’s often attributed. There are many sci-fi and fantasy writers who have given the issue of societal control and freedom much more subtle consideration. However, it’s certainly had a more profound impact on general discourse than possibly any piece of fiction of the 20th century.

The Joke by Milan Kundera published in 1967 is the only book by Kundera with literary merit (I otherwise find his writing quite flat). Unlike Orwell, Kundera has the capacity to show the personal and social dimensions of totalitarian states. In The Joke he shows both the randomness of dissent and the heterogeniety of totalitarian environments.

The Castle by Franz Kafka published in 1912 (or just the collected works of Kafka) have provided a metaphor for alienation for the literati of the next hundred years. I read The Castle first so it for me more than others illustrates the sense of helplessness and alienation that a human being can experience when faced with the black box of anonymous bureaucracy. Again, I rate this for impact, rather than putting it on a ‘good read’ scale.

My personal favorites would be authors rather than individual works: Kurt Vonnegut, Robertson Davies, James Clavell would make the list for me. I also read reams of genre fiction and fan fiction that can easily stand up next to any of “the greats”. I have no shame and no guilty pleasures. I’ve read most of Terry Pratchett and regularly reread childhood favorites by the likes of Arthur Ransome or Karl May. I’ve quoted from Lee Child and Tom Clancy in academic papers and I’ve published an extensive review of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan fiction novel.

Finally, for me, the pinnacle of recent literary achievement is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’ve used this as an example of how TV shows have taken over from the Novel, as the narrative format addressing weighty issues of the day, and Buffy is one of the first examples. Veronica Mars is right up there, as well, and there are countless others I’d recommend ‘reading’.

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Are we the masters of our morality? Yes!

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Best Friends Forever #BFF #Friends #WinnetouMorality and the freedom of the human spirit

We spend a lot of time worrying about the content to which we expose the young generation both individually and collectively. However, I am exceedingly coming to the conclusion that it makes absolutely no difference (at least as far as morality and lawfulness is concerned). Well sure, we know things like that children of Christians are likely to be Christians as adults and adults who are abusive are likely to have been brought up in abusive environments. But this is about as illuminating as saying that children growing up in German homes are likely to speak German as adults.

We are limited by our upbringing in as much as it imposes constraints on certain parameters of our behavior in language and culture. However, the “what of our children’s ethics” moral outrage debates are held strictly within these parameters. And here the predictability of both individual and collective impact of content to which children (and adults) are exposed, seems to me, is pretty minimal.

First, one would hope that given all the bullshit supposedly great thinkers have put forth about the state of the youth of their day, it is amazing that we haven’t learned that such statements are just never right. They weren’t right about pulp fiction, comic books, and they are not even right about violent video games whose rise in the US coincided with halving the crime rate. No, the kids were not getting it out of their system! There is simply no reliable or predictable connection between what people read or watch and what they do. Sure we can always point at some whacko who did something horrible because he read it in a book or saw it on TV but there is no way to predict who will be influenced by what when and how. The Bible contains all sorts of violence and depravity (and not just in a way that says don’t do it) and yet we don’t see a lot more violence in devout Christians. But neither do we see less. In fact, if we look at the range of behaviors the Bible, or any other religious text for that matter, inspired over the millennia, the only thing we can say about them is that they are typical of human beings. They happened in parallel not as a consequence of the text.

By the same token, we can no more expect virtue coming out of exposure to virtuous content than we can expect depravity coming out of depraved content. A good example is Karl May who popped up on a comment thread on the Language Log recently. Entire generations of Central European boys (and at least more recently girls) grew up reading May’s voluminous output detailing the exploits of the sagacious explorer Old Shatterhand aka Kara ben Nemsi. Old Shatterhand, a pacifist with a gun and a fist – both used only as last resort and in self-defense, embodies very much a New Testament kind of ethics, focusing on love, equality and turning the other cheek. But also on health, vigour and the German indomitable spirit.

It is inconceivable that anyone reading these books by the dozen (as I did in my youth) could ever think less of another race or do anything bad to man or beast. Yet, as we know, Central Europe was anything but calm in the last century which saw sales of May’s books in the tens of millions. I wonder how many death camp guards or Wermacht soldiers did not read Karl May as boys. And as one of the Language Log commenters points out, Hitler himself was a May fan and supposedly tried to write Mein Kampf in the same style as his favorite author. How is this possible? Should we ban May’s books lest such horrors happen again?

Of course not. People seem to have a remarkable ability to read around the bits that don’t concern their interests. We can background or foreground pretty much anything. It is possible to read Kipling’s Maugli as a cute children’s story or as a justification for colonialism. When I first read it, I saw it as a manifesto of environmentalism and ecosystem preservation (I was about 8 so I did nor perhaps formulate it that way). But it can just as easily be read as an apology for man’s mastery over nature.

Karl May wasn’t quite banned in my native Czechoslovakia but his books weren’t always easy to come by due, I was told, to a strong Christian bias. I could never understand that until I reread Winnetou recently and discovered long philosophical expositions on sin and violence that were just out there. No coy hints, straight up quotations from the Bible! When I was reading these books, I simply did not see that. Equally incomprehensibly, there are people who’ve read The Chronicles of Narnia and did not notice that Aslan was Jesus. It’s an adventure story for them and that’s pretty much it.

When I look at my own political morality, I can see clear foundations laid by May and my reading of Kipling, Defoe and others – including a watered down New Testament. But I also see people around me who clearly grew up on the same literature and are rabid Old Testament tooth-for-toothers. Such is the freedom of the human spirit that it can overcome the influence of any content – good or bad. (Again within the parameters of our linguistic and social environments.)

UPDATE: Here’s an interesting summary of how Karl May’s impact cut both ways (Hitler and Einstein) via the Wikipedia entry on May. Jeff Bowersox also has a lot of relevant things to say to explain this seeming paradox of children both appropriating ‘moral’ messages for their own play and being shaped by them through the prism of their socio-discursive embeddedness.
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