Today's Sunday Guardian column
First, some random headlines from today’s papers: Slide in job generation. Smartphone war hots up. Pressure makes Davis Cup team go limp.
Metaphors. Keep an eye out and you’ll find them everywhere, including in this sentence. Leaving aside semantic differences between metaphors, analogies and similes, the practice of describing a thing by comparing it with another dominates not just our language but our outlook.
They are, of course, the lifeblood of poets (to employ an overused metaphor). From Carl Sandberg’s fog that comes on little cat feet to Emily Dickinson’s death-ridden carriage to Robert Frost’s road not taken, examples abound. Sylvia Plath even wrote a poem during her pregnancy titled ‘Metaphors’ in which every striking line was a metaphor. And Shakespeare’s metaphors have been quoted for ages: Juliet is a sun; the world’s a stage; a loved one is a summer’s day.
It’s not just in the realms of literature and news headlines that metaphors abide. Investors keep tabs on bulls and bears; IT geeks compare cloud storage and bandwidth speeds; diplomats argue over yesterday’s Iron Curtain and today’s Arab Spring; physicists dream about strings and the Big Bang; and marketers, when not spouting clichés about pushing envelopes and thinking outside boxes, look at business as battle, with targets to be hit, campaigns planned and competitors fought. Military metaphors are rife in sports, too, with TV commercials and commentators breathlesslyreferring to world cups as though they’re world wars.
In his recent, fascinating book, I is an Other, James Geary makes a convincing case for metaphors shaping the way we view the world. As he says: “Metaphor is a way of thought long before it is a way with words”. He delves deep into the use of metaphor by groups and subgroups, and goes on to discuss findings from neuroscience that buttress his argument of metaphor being fundamental to perception. Mirror neurons, for example, which fire when we perform an action as well as when we see others performing a similar action, suggest that we’re hardwired to seek resonance.
Geary mentions the work of cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, whose pioneering 1980 book, Metaphors We Live By, did much to make clear the conceptual role of metaphors. In that work, they unpacked a few examples, most famously the way we look at an argument as a war: we defend positions, we attack points of view, we dig in our heels. Other conceptual metaphors, too, were scrutinised: “time is money”, for instance, or “the mind is a machine”.
Lakoff and Johnson throw light on how we process such metaphors: we reframe the non-physical in terms of the physical. Abstract concepts that we hold to be important -- such as emotions, ideas and time -- are cast in terms of more tangible concepts such as objects, sensory cues and spatial dimensions. Whether you’re feeling upbeat or downcast, or you find someone hot or cool, you’re speaking metaphorically.
For them, then, metaphorical thinking is supreme, uniting subjective imagination and objective reason. Lakoff has since gone on to work with the US Democrats, trying to promote a vision of society as a “nurturing parent”. His later work has been critiqued by Steven Pinker – who has written eloquently about metaphorical thinking himself, though with a note of caution: “the mind, at some level, must reason very concretely in order that these metaphors be understood and become contagious".
It’s evident, however, that people who seek to influence others, from politicians to advertisers, make use of metaphors to control and shape attitudes. Take nationalism: to call a country a “motherland”, to see residents as “sons of the soil” and to refer to the past as “our heritage” are all designed to elicit a certain response. Thoreau wrote that “all perception of truth is the perception of an analogy” and though we may be unable to live without thinking metaphorically, we can yet be mindful of the ones we choose to live by.