September 7, 2013, by Brigitte Nerlich

Science as a cultural institution: The role of metaphors

I have recently discovered some (old) books written by Jacob Bronowski, scientist and science communicator, which are a real joy to read. I wrote a blog post based on them where I explored issues around science and values; I also promised to write something about his views of metaphor.

Finding likenesses

For Bronowski science and art, in fact, human life in general, are based on finding likenesses, by comparing and connecting experiences (of things) and by comparing and connecting concepts. Both art and science are based on a search for unity in hidden likenesses (Science and Human Values, 1956). Both are ‘languages’. A poem as well as a scientific law are defined “by the way [its parts] make up a meaning. Every word in the sentence has some uncertainty of definition, and yet the sentence defines its own meaning and that of its words conclusively. It is the internal unity and coherence of science which gives it truth, and which make it better system of prediction than any less orderly language”. (The Common Sense of Science, 1951, p. 136). Finding likenesses is a first (and for ever repeated) step to finding truth (order, coherence, unity) in art, science and life.

Bronowski provides an example of this process in Science and Human Values (1956, p. 41): “All science is the search for unity in hidden likenesses. The search may be on a grand scale, as in the modern theories which try to link the fields of gravitation and electromagnetism. But we do not need to be browbeaten by the scale of science. There are discoveries to be made by snatching a small likeness from the air too, if it is bold enough. In 1935 the Japanese physicist Hideki Yukawa wrote a paper which can still give heart to a young scientist. He took as his starting point the known fact that waves of light can sometimes behave as if they were separate pellets. From this he reasoned that the forces which hold the nucleus of an atom together might sometimes also be observed as if they were solid pellets. A schoolboy can see how thin Yukawa’s analogy is, and his teacher would be severe with it. Yet Yukawa without a blush calculated the mass of the pellet he expected to see, and waited. He was right; his meson was found, and a range of other mesons, neither the existence nor the nature of which had been suspected before. The likeness had borne fruit.”

Creation, appreciation and communication

This finding and using of likenesses in human life is an act of what one may call co-creation. Poets and scientists may create new ways of seeing the world through finding hidden likenesses and through the creation of new analogies and metaphors, but these acts of creation are for nothing if they are not complemented by the act of appreciation and understanding. The creation of science and art is, one might say, based on social acts. Creation cannot exist without appreciation and both are based on imagination. For Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the famous 19th-century English poet, imagination was the link between man and the world. This link is established every time we (scientists, artists, ordinary members of the public) find a likeness or recreate a likeness and think about it – between us. This process of co-creation of meaning can be fostered by good science communication, of which Bronowski’s books, interviews and his famous TV series The Ascent of Man are prototypes.

Metaphor, mapping and making sense of the world

Science does not ‘copy’ facts and art does not ‘copy’ nature. Both are based on seeing likenesses in what’s unlike and making judgements about these likenesses. Through art, science and common sense, we as human beings make sense of the world. In the process we create concepts and categories. Once we have concepts and categories, we can use these as stepping-stones to go further and build new knowledge through the use of metaphors, that is, through ‘seeing’ likenesses between concepts themselves, over and above seeing likenesses between things. Metaphors map concepts onto concepts. As I said in another blog post, metaphors are the mind’s eyes. Bronowski wrote a book entitled The Visionary Eye in which he distinguished between three levels of metaphor: “universal metaphor, which all humans share; the metaphorical world of a particular artist; and the metaphor as used in a specific work of art” – and of course the same applies to science. These levels of metaphor work together to build up the world we know and understand (and this has ethical implications; more below).

Metaphors as experiments in science and society

For me, creative metaphors are mental experiments. We bring two concepts together and see what happens when we map one onto the other. Sometimes metaphors work and bring about a new fusion of concepts that makes us see the world in different ways; sometimes they don’t work and we have to start afresh; it’s trial and error combined with lots of imagination. Sometimes we have to work hard to find a good metaphor; sometimes they come to us in a flash; sometimes we just stumble into them. As Bronowski said about Kepler: “Kepler wanted to relate the speeds of planets to the musical intervals. He tried to fit the five regular solids into their orbits. None of these likenesses worked, and they have been forgotten; they have been and they remain the stepping stones of every creative mind. Kepler felt for his laws by ways of metaphors, he searched mystically for likenesses…” (Science and Human Values, p. 22).

Metaphors as mental experiments are important to both science and society – they help us in our search for ‘truth’ and order and for better ways of living in this world. As Bronowski points out: “The symbol and the metaphor are as necessary to science as to poetry. […] In forming a concept [of mass], in speaking the word, we begin a process of experiment and correction which is the creative search for truth.” (Science and Human Values, pp. 48-49; italics mine) “The progress of science is the discovery at each step of a new order which gives unity to what had long seemed unlike. […] When Coleridge tried to define beauty, he returned always to one deep thought: beauty he said, is “unity in variety.” Science is nothing else than the search to discover unity in the wild variety of nature — or more exactly, in the variety of our experience.”  (Science and Human Values, pp. 26-27)

Metaphors, politics and ethics

Finding an apt metaphor that brings together hidden likenesses and creates unity in diversity is an event that has repercussions for science and art, but also for human life and how we live it (think about the genome as the ‘book of life’). Bronowski did not write about the ethical implications of creating and using metaphors, but I think he might have approved of us thinking about them. Metaphors are, after all, quite explosive in nature: “The discoveries of science, the works of art are explorations — more, are explosions, of a hidden likeness. The discoverer or the artist presents in them two aspects of nature and fuses them into one. This is the act of creation, in which an original thought is born, and it is the same act in original science and original art.” (Science and Human Values, 1956, pp. 30-31)

Some years ago I wrote an introduction to a book that explored some aspects of the politics and ethics of metaphor use in science communication and quoted a psychologist who said that “metaphor is the cognitive fire that ignites when the brain rubs two different thoughts together” (States 2001: 105; italics added). I went on to say that this can create an instant glow of cognitive and creative satisfaction, but it can also lead to serious arguments (see for example Warren’s blog post about the Hiroshima bomb comparison in climate change communication). (There are, of course, different ethical issues attached to theory-constitutive metaphors such as the code metaphor in genetics, communicative or explanatory metaphors, metaphors taken from one domain or age and [mis]used or misunderstood in another, taken-for-granted metaphors, and so on – material for another blog post)

The use of fire and the use of metaphor have ethical implications. Both are ‘technologies’ that can change the world as we know it and the way we know the world. They can give pleasure or pain and be used for good or for evil; but human civilisation, culture and society cannot do without them. Bronowski understood this very well.

PS Thanks to Peter Broks I have only just come across this great article in The Guardian on the power and politics of metaphor by Sarah Bakewell. It’s well worth reading!

Posted in LanguageMetaphorsScienceScience Communication