drawing of a light bulb with a ladder beside it and a man on top who is drawing it

October 13, 2023, by Brigitte Nerlich

What are metaphors (for)?

I have been thinking about metaphor for a long time. But I have never brought my core thoughts together in one place. Here we go… and of, of course, they are not just my thoughts…they are inspired by a myriad of thinkers from the 19th century onwards, including, of course, George Lakoff and all those that followed….

Metaphors are tools for seeing and understanding the world

Metaphors are based on the (mental) perception of one thing through another, of seeing something as something (else).

Metaphors enable us to see the unfamiliar through the familiar, the abstract through the concrete, the unknown through the known and the new through the old; we think about life through what we know about journeys; we see the brain through what we know about computers; we try to understand DNA through what we know about codes, for better or for worse.

Metaphors enable us to see the world and think the world, even those parts of the world that we cannot see. As James Gleick pointed out in his 1987 book Chaos: Making a New Science, echoing others before him: “You don’t see something until you have the right metaphor to let you perceive it.” Metaphors are therefore vital tools in the construction of scientific knowledge and explanation.

As Andrew Reynolds has argued in his seminal book on the history of cell theory, metaphors are ’the third lens’, as important to science as microscopes and other scientific instruments. But, warns the late Evelyn Fox Keller: “There is no magic lens that will enable us to look at, to see nature unclouded … uncolored by any values, hopes, fears, anxieties, desires, goals that we bring to it” (in an interview with journalist Bill Moyers in 1990 for his “World of Ideas” show on PBS; cited on Mastodon by Anne Fausto Sterling after the death of EFK on 22 September 2023).

Metaphors are social and political tools

Metaphors have not only perceptual and cognitive, but also performative and political functions.

Metaphors commit those who create and use them to accepting systems of standard beliefs or commonplaces associated with them, as Max Black pointed out in 1962. If you see migrants as vermin, this view is embedded in a whole system of beliefs about society and politics. The visions of the world that we create through metaphors make us act on the world in the way we see it or want to see it or, indeed, may also prevent us from acting in or on the world – see climate change. What is perceived as real or not real is real in its consequences.

Milan Kundera said in his 1984 book The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “Metaphors are dangerous, metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.” But metaphors can also give birth to hate. They can be used to stigmatise groups of people and they can be used to attribute blame and deflect responsibility – see Covid. Metaphors are double-edged social, political and cognitive tools. They need to be kept under constant surveillance, especially in times of political or pandemic turbulence. As the 18th-century philosopher and wit Georg C. Lichtenberg remarked, ”We do not think good metaphors are anything very important, but I think that a good metaphor is something even the police should keep an eye on”.

Metaphors are individual and social experiments

Metaphors and witticisms of any kind are tiny linguistic and interactive experiments that keep language, science and communities alive and evolving.

Metaphors are “the cognitive fire that ignites when the brain rubs two different thoughts together” (States 2001: 105). They can illuminate but also inflame. Metaphors can spark an aha-Erlebnis or Eureka moment in the individual (scientist). This can be shared between individuals, spread through communities and lead to social bonding as well as scientific advances. They are individual creations with social ramifications.

Metaphors make mind, language, society and science what they are, individually and collectively. They connect fact and fiction, they connect people, they connect discourses, they connect the past, the present, and the future.

Metaphors are hypotheses

Metaphors are always unstable, partial and provisional and need to be kept under constant scrutiny and revised when new evidence emerges.

As Andrew Reynolds noted in his book Understanding Metaphors in the Life Sciences, metaphors in science are similar to hypotheses that can be proved or disproved as research in science progresses. They are also, I think, similar to models in being mostly wrong but sometimes useful.

When mapping knowledge from a familiar source domain onto an unfamiliar target domain, the match is never perfect. There is always a crack. That’s where the light gets in, as Leonard Cohen would say; that’s where science happens.

Metaphors are ladders

Metaphors are ladders leading into new conceptual spaces “hitherto unseen”, as Gertrude Buck, an early metaphor scholar, wrote in 1899.

Some ladders are good ladders and some are faulty ladders. One has to test out which ones work and which ones don’t. Sometimes we may be afraid to test new metaphors or abandon old ones, as we may be inhibited by social norms, scientific conventions or political circumstances. Sometimes there is just cognitive laziness involved.

Some ladders can become so popular (conventional) and stable (such as describing the genome as the ‘book of life’) that nobody even sees them anymore, and that can be dangerous too. Some ladders may rot over time and break. And finally, some ladders may intentionally be placed to mis-lead. Being aware of and alert to the power of metaphor and how it shapes perception, cognition and action is therefore as important in science as it is in politics.

And, of course, you  can, and perhaps should, throw away the ladder after you have climbed up it (see Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus 6.54).

Metaphors are embodied and embedded

Metaphors are linked to bodily experiences and they are linked to whatever surrounds our bodies in terms of knowledge, culture and technology.

We get hot under the collar – here the metaphor is linked to physiology. We have steam coming out of our ears – here the metaphor is linked to technology. Metaphors are dependent on culture and technology in many ways and this is important for science.

Metaphors are cognitive and communicational tools that allow us to confront the unknown with the known and to generate the better known. But what is known at any one time is to a large extent determined by culture and technology, amongst other things. This means that metaphors are shaped by the technologies used in the cultures in which scientists operate, as well as the experimental methods they use.

Newton’s clockwork universe would never have existed without the clockwork (mechanism); the brain’s workings would not have been understood as they are today without the computer; genes and genomes might not have been understood in the way they are without advances in cryptography and communication technologies.

Metaphor as a mechanism through which we see the world often needs a nudge from the mechanisms and machines we invent to deal with the world. As metaphors are dependent on cultural and technological knowledge, creating and understanding metaphor will therefore differ substantially between people who have different types of knowledge or different depths of knowledge. When I say “This is pop-tart philosophy”, my interlocutor will only understand this utterance if they know what a pop-tart is.

Metaphors and knowledge are intimately linked. They are two sides of the same coin. To misquote Kant. Knowledge without metaphors is blind and metaphors without knowledge are empty.

But warning: “Metaphors can give an illusion of understanding something unless accompanied by actual knowledge of how something works.”

Image by Mohamed Hassan, Pixabay

Posted in Metaphors