Thursday, November 15, 2007

Metaphors We Live By

I still haven't got the time or mental space to post any of my own thoughts or experiences, so I'm going to rip off other people's. I'm going to post something interesting I read yesterday; better than nothing, right? I'm reading Metaphors We Live By, a 1980 book by Lakoff & Johnson positing that metaphor is a much deeper principle than the literary device it is sometimes assumed to be; rather, they reckon, it helps structure our conceptualisation of the world, & is crucial to our comprehension of all abstract concepts. It's kind of slow in places but every 5 pages or so there's a "hey wow" moment. Anyhow, yesterday I got to this bit on pp 143--144 which I like enough to type out in full:

Another example of how a metaphor can create new meaning for us came about by accident. An Iranian student, shortly after his arrival in Berkeley, took a seminar on metaphor from one of us. Among the wondrous things that he found in Berkeley was an expression that he heard over and over and understood as a beautifully sane metaphor. The expression was "the solution of my problems"---which he took to be a large volume of liquid, bubbling and smoking, containing all of your problems, either dissolved or in the form of precipitates, with catalysts constantly dissolving some problems (for the time being) and precipitating out others. He was terribly disillusioned to find that the residents of Berkeley had no such chemical metaphor in mind. And well he might be, for the chemical metaphor is both beautiful and insightful. It gives us a view of problems as things that never disappear utterly and that cannot be solved once and for all. All of your problems are always present, only they may be dissolved and in solution, or they may be in solid form. The best you can hope for is to find a catalyst that will make one problem dissolve without making another one precipitate out. And since you do not have complete control over what goes into the solution, you are constantly finding old and new problems precipitating out and present problems dissolving, partly because of your efforts and partly despite anything you do.

The CHEMICAL metaphor gives us a new view of human problems. It is appropriate to the experience of finding that problems which we once thought were "solved" turn up again and again. The CHEMICAL metaphor says that problems are not the kind of things that can be made to disappear forever. To treat them as things that can be "solved" once and for all is pointless. To live by the CHEMICAL metaphor would be to accept it as a fact the no problem ever disappears forever. Rather than direct your energies toward solving your problems once and for all, you would direct your energies toward finding out what catalysts will dissolve your most pressing problems for the longest time without precipitating worse ones. The reappearance of a problem is viewed as a natural occurance rather than a failure on your part to find "the right way to solve it."

To live by the CHEMICAL metaphor would mean that your problems have a different kind of reality for you. A temporary solution would be an accomplishment rather than a failure. Problems would be part of the natural order of things rather than disorders to be "cured." The way you would understand your everyday life and the way you would act in it would be different if you lived by the CHEMICAL metaphor.

(By the way, Mishee, if you're reading this, I don't think that's what they mean by "living by the CHEMICAL metaphor.")


Mishee! said...

"A temporary solution would be an accomplishment rather than a failure."

There you go... 'nuff said!


Wade said...

Very nice, Troy. I look forward to reading your blog.

One of the most interesting explorations of metaphor in recent popular culture was a Star Trek:TNG episode called Darmok. It involved trying to communicate with an alien race that only spoke in metaphor. If you can find it to watch, you might enjoy it.

Homeland Security said...

I got a call to examine your Deeply Carved Writings...?

morpho aurora said...


Troy McClure said...

Thanks y'all! I finally feel real. Wade, I read the plot summary---sounds good.

Wade said...

the critical scene

SkiTheStars said...

Thanks for the compliment on my run-on version of Little Boxes, which I was inspired to do by your variation on Where Have All the Flowers Gone ?

The metaphor in the StarTrek episode is very worth watching.

Troy McClure said...

No problemski! I did eventually get round to watching that Star Trek clip; it was pretty good. Haven't seen the whole episode yet!

I have looked briefly at your profile. I'm guessing you don't listen to radio much?? That's some unusual taste in music! Mose Allison's fantastic, from what little I've heard. And the Clancy Brothers; wow. I saw them recently in that Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home. Probably wouldn't know who they were otherwise.