Thought as Metaphor

Lakoff and Johnson make an incredibly convincing argument that the majority of human “understanding”, including most of conscious analytical thought, is achieved by a highly innate and irrevocably ingrained mechanism of metaphor. We understand one thing by treating it as if it were another thing that we understand better. We then use the calculus (i.e. facts, laws, conventional wisdom, etc.) from the well-understood realm to gain an analogous understanding of the new realm. An example of such metaphorical thinking can be seen in the Time as Money metaphor. In this metaphor, time can be spent, borrowed, wasted; and we can run out of time, gain more time, and save time. Not only do we use the terminology of monetary accounting, but we use their processes in a very real sense. To appreciate this, simply note the imagery that comes to mind as you read the Time as Money terminology above. It is important to note that we do not just employ a single metaphor for each area of understanding. Rather, we each individually employ a whole host of different metaphors for the same realm, some of which are complementary, some contradictory and some completely orthogonal. For instance, we often employ the Time as Arrow, Time as Wheel, and Time as an Infinite Line metaphors, to name only a few.

While the range of metaphors we can and do employ may be vast, seemingly arbitrary, and potentially limitless, we are in fact extremely limited by our embodied nature. Meaning our brain is embedded in our bodies, which have a very particular form, and (critically) a very specific sensory nervous system. And it is our basic sensory perceptions that are the building blocks of metaphorical thought. It should not be surprising that the richest and most widely used metaphors have to do with vision, hearing and feel: “I see the future”, “I hear you”, “Her story was very touching”. One need only to carefully read a single page of a book, or take special note of a conversation to uncover how central is our use of metaphor in language. And while many have proposed that language is the cornerstone of higher thinking, it would be more precise to say that metaphor is the cornerstone of both language and analytical thought.

It is noted that much controversy exists as to what constitutes and distinguishes thought, language, consciousness, intelligence and a host of related terms. One of the main truths about complex adaptive systems is that universal truths and grand unified models do not exist. Therefore to say that all thought/intelligence/language/etc. is based on metaphor is foolish. We know of many cognitive processes (even those attributed to “higher thinking”) which are, for instance, based on stimulus-response mechanisms in the brain and nervous system. Many human thought processes can be explained best via stimulus-response mechanisms, often to the delight of salespeople and other “compliance professionals” (as Robert Cialdini calls people whose job it is to convince others to do their bidding). Why do we automatically think something is more valuable and desire it more upon learning that it is more scarce than we originally thought? It is doubtful that metaphor (or logic) has much to say on this. Speaking of logic, it is a very common but false conception that most (or even a fraction) of our daily lives are governed by logical or analytical thinking. The use of the metaphor, Brain as Computer, is somewhat unfortunate as being the principle Western analytical method for understanding human thought processes themselves. Some future posts on cognitive psychology will discuss this more thoroughly, including the notions recently put forth in the literature that without emotions, humans cannot think logically.

Notwithstanding the impossibility of claiming metaphor as the only important mechanism for human analytical thought, Lakoff and Johnson’s contribution to our understanding of not only cognition, but of the nature of the universe cannot be underestimated. By painstakingly unraveling the metaphorical process with specific, in depth analyses and examples, the authors lead us to the inevitable conclusion that even our most seemingly fundamental understandings of the world around us, including galaxies, atoms and even time itself are founded principally on metaphor. We can’t really “see” electrons orbiting an atom’s nucleus, but based on experimental results and measurements, we infer an image (read: metaphor) of an “electron cloud” (i.e. Electron as Cloud metaphor) to describe the probabilistic nature of an electron’s location at any given point in time. This metaphor has logical consequences based on our understanding of what a cloud is and does, but these consequences may or may not hold true when applied to electrons. Some of the most puzzling mysteries in all of science have only been solved once we let go of the limitations of the entrenched metaphors we hardly ever notice we are using. To wit, the famous example of light behaving sometimes like particles and sometimes like waves. We can’t help but think that “deep down” light must “really” be one or the other since particles and waves are very different beasts. But our current best understanding is that it is a little like both. We need the Light as Particle and the Light as Wave metaphors in order to understand best what is going on. What we once thought was reality turned out to be false. In reality, our metaphors née models (Particles and Waves) are simply insufficient by themselves to explain the “underlying reality”.