October 13, 2017, by Brigitte Nerlich

Science and metaphor: Some historical perspectives

Over the last thirty years or so I have written about metaphor and its importance to language, thought and social interaction. In the last fifteen years, I have focused in on the relation between metaphor and science, especially science communication. However, only recently has it dawned on me how little I actually understand about metaphor in science and science communication (see my last post).

Thinking about this, I asked myself yet again: What are metaphors and what are they for? Do they help or hinder ‘science’? One thing is for sure, they are slippery costumers. In his book on the role of metaphor in psychological thinking, David Leary said in 1990: “Metaphor has been likened to a filter, a fusion, a lens, a pretence, a screen, a tension, a displacement, a stereoscopic image, a form of linguistic play, a false identity, a semantic fiction, a contextual shift, a translation of meaning, a twinned vision, and an incongruous perspective, to mention only a few of its common metaphors.” (Leary 1990, 4)

So, we even need metaphors to talk about metaphors! There seems to be no escape. Human language, thinking and knowledge are built on layers and layers of metaphors. Some are totally fossilized, some are still fresh as daisies; some are unnoticeable, some want to be noticed (and all this is different for different people, be they native speakers of a language or language learners, be they specialists in a field or lay people coming to it from the outside….).

In this post I don’t want to dig into the layers of metaphor that enable us to think and speak; instead I want to dig a bit into the deeper historical layers of thinking about metaphors and science, as that is, I think, quite fascinating.

Science, metaphors and ordinary language

At the end of the 18th and at the beginning of the 19th century a lot happened in philosophy and science (and everything in between). The geologist Charles Lyell and the biologist Charles Darwin, for example, tried to unravel the mysteries and mechanisms of the evolution of the earth and of species. They were influenced in part by comparative linguists interested in the origins and evolution of language (see van Wyhe, 2005).

All this led to some fruitful reflections on metaphor as an essential feature of ordinary as well as scientific language. Building on earlier work, scholars gradually let go of the view that language, especially scientific language, should avoid metaphors, which John Locke had called ‘perfect cheats‘, and ‘just’ represent thought and things clearly and distinctly. (However, I should stress that things were a bit more complicated than this, see here and here)

Some of these new thinkers on the relation between science and rhetoric where influenced by Scottish common-sense philosophy. One member of this school of thought was Dugald Steward and one disciple was Benjamin Humphrey Smart, to whom I’ll come in a minute.

Steward’s views on metaphor are, for example, quoted in an 1805 letter published in the Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts: “Now, it is pretty obvious, that the terms power, force, &c. when used in mechanical science are purely metaphorical; for, as Professor Dugald Steward remarks, (Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind [1792], p. 202) ‘All the languages which have hitherto existed in the world, have derived their origin from popular use; and their application to philosophical [and that includes scientific, BN] purposes was altogether out of the view of those men who first employed them.’ Language commenced amongst simple men, who had little, if any acquaintance with what is now called science….”. Now to Smart.

Metaphor, truth and knowledge

In the 1830s, the English elocution teacher, rhetorician and philosopher Smart pointed out that metaphors are “essential parts of the original structure of language; and however they may sometimes serve the purpose of falsehood, they are on most occasions, indispensable to the effective communication of truth. It is only by [these] expedients that mind can unfold itself to mind” (Smart, 1831: 210).

For Smart, as for many after him, figures of speech “are … that from which whatever is now plain at first arose. All words are originally tropes; that is expressions turned … from their first purpose, and extended to others” (Smart, 1831: 214).

What does this mean for human knowledge? Smart discussed this topic and pointed out that “we come at all our knowledge by the use of media, which media are, chiefly, words; and that, as the words procure the notions, the notions exist not antecedently to language… In short, we can have neither knowledge nor notions without language, and rhetoric is the original texture of language, incapable of being detached from it” (Smart, 1839: 67)

This means that scientists should be interested in rhetoric; and Darwin and Michael Faraday, for example, were just that. “For Faraday the science of effective speech was essential for effective speech about science.” While Faraday took elocution lessons from Smart to breathe life into his Royal Institution lectures, that is to the imparting of scientific knowledge, Darwin was more interested in the role of language and, in particular, analogy in the creation of scientific knowledge itself and therefore read Smart’s work amongst others.

Language as art and design

Many other thinkers before and after Smart talked about language, metaphor and knowledge in similar terms. I want to mention only one more: Gustav Gerber. Gerber studied in Berlin and Leipzig and had attended lectures in mathematics, astronomy, the natural sciences, geography, philology and linguistics, philosophy (Hegel) and history. However, for most of his life he worked as a school teacher, away from the hub of scientific life at that time. He wrote three major works, of which two are important here: Die Sprache als Kunst [Language as Art] in 1871 (read by Nietzsche in 1872) and Die Sprache und das Erkennen [Language and knowledge/understanding] in 1884.

Gerber compared the linguistic work done by sounds, words and sentences to works of art. To communicate something (new) through language, we use any given lexicon and grammar as paint-brushes and we also use the context in which we speak as a ‘frame’ or background onto which to paint what we mean. The hearer then uses cues provided both by the language and the background situation to make sense of the novel thing they hear. This is how knowledge is created and transmitted.

Words do not so much designate things in the world or thoughts in the head; they design meaning and understanding against a background or frame in interaction with a hearer. This means, we never understand each other completely based on discourse alone; we only understand each other as far as we share each other’s mood, Weltanschauung, experience; only insofar as we are able to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes (he actually says Seele or soul). When we use metaphors we create or design words as well as worlds.

This has implications for understanding, for example, what scientists say and do. To understand them, we need to share their frame of thinking and working. We also need access to their ‘knowledge’ base.

Language and consensible knowledge

According to Gerber, the linguistic images or pictures created by the individual can become ‘language’ only if they are acknowledged/ratified (anerkannt) and used by a wide circle of people and regarded by them as apt symbols of mental representations. This is true at the beginning of language as well as in its continuous existence and use. Created, recreated, reinterpreted by the individual, a word  only has a value as a linguistic symbol when it has become a common, social, possession.

This has implications for knowledge. The ‘treasure trove’ of what one might call certified knowledge, which is common and accessible to all, is transmitted through language from generation to generation, and nevertheless each and every individual has a limited freedom and power to contribute to the improvement of language and knowledge. In fact, when speaking and interacting we change language and knowledge imperceptibly all the time.

Language as art and metaphorical design is constitutive of human thought, including science, mythology, politics and religion. Scientific language (and knowledge) detaches itself gradually from ordinary language and brings forth abstract symbols and concepts, such as perception, cognition, reason, faith and science itself. Such thoughts and symbols can be used for good or evil.

Science and metaphor, past and future

When I was writing this blog post I stumbled upon a 2016 dissertation by Jeffrey Thomas Wright, which is worth reading. On p. 117 he says the following: “Science did not only recently become a relevant topic for rhetoricians. It was of interest to them back in the Victorian era and before. Moreover, the rhetoricians’ views of science were of interest to the scientists, themselves. In this respect, the rhetoric of science was more powerful than it is today—even though the field did not exist as a separate discipline.” And it was more than ‘science communication’…

I think it is worth reinvigorating exchanges between experts in science and experts in rhetoric which led, for example, to Faraday going to lectures by Smart and to Darwin reading quite a few works on rhetoric, including Smart’s.

There are still a lot of questions though. If metaphors are constitutive of language and by implication to knowledge and science, what does this mean for ‘truth’? Is there a case to be made for saying: ‘Metaphors are only important to science as heuristic devices and explanatory tools, but they have “no place in a finished scientific theory” (whatever that may be)?’ Or, indeed, not!? Discuss….

Image: Faraday lecturing at Royal Institution, Wellcome Collection

Posted in Charles DarwinLanguageMetaphorsScienceScience Communication