Reflection 71: Metaphorical Brain

March 2, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

In grad school I got into consciousness through the portal of metaphor. I’d been studying phenomenology, hermeneutics, and meaning, noticing that in everyday speech words and phrases seemed to spring fully formed out of nowhere—the rote or unconscious mind—but that metaphors emerged often in novel situations requiring conscious attention to details.

 

Since I.A. Richards’ treatment in The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936), metaphor had been seen to consist of two terms, the first anchoring the figure to a word or phrase in conventional usage (the tenor or target), the second to concrete details implied by a second term (the vehicle or source) directly transferred to the first without resorting to an overt framework of comparison.

 

By way of example, NPR host Robert Siegel spoke of the idea of creating a federally-funded bank to buy up bad debts as “this Yucca Mountain of securities,” where the “bad” bank was the tenor of the metaphor informed by the vehicle Yucca Mountain of securities (All Things Considered, Jan. 28, 2009, 5:00 p.m. segment). The implied comparison is between repositories for bad debts and radioactive waste, respectively.

 

In another example, Ted Solotaroff wrote of having to deal with his sense of the editor’s intimidating “presence” in getting started on a piece for Partisan Review:

 

There followed a week of writing the first paragraph or two over and over again, hoping for a pass through the mountains to suddenly open” (“Adventures in Editing,” The Nation, Feb. 9, 2009, p. 31).

 

A pass through the mountains is the vehicle he uses to depict the hoped-for resolution to the sense of futility blocking his way, the phrase a week of writing the first paragraph or two over and over again serving as the tenor of this particular metaphor.

 

As a grad student, my insight was that the tenor tended to be abstract and conceptual in nature while the vehicle was relatively more concrete or sensory. Metaphor, then, conveys sensory qualities of the vehicle to the more conceptual tenor, bringing out specific features pertaining to the occasion that might be missed in everyday usage. The vehicle, that is, is meant to enliven or flesh-out the tenor. As always, the intended meaning must be appropriate to the speech occasion or the metaphor might break the flow by drawing attention to itself as strained or overly-theatrical.

 

Years after grad school, I find I am still the same person, concerned as ever with the workings of the mind. But now I don’t read articles on research into mind and brain so much as consult the turnings of my own consciousness, ever on the lookout for surprising twists that might reveal something about the only mind I can know from the inside and how it works.

 

That method is called introspection—looking within. Because there is no way to verify claims based upon it, most scientists warn against it. At best it is taken as anecdotal evidence, which places it on a par with hearsay. One voice in the wilderness announces its truth, to which the wilderness replies, So what? Well, there are two kinds of truth: Big-T Truth is based on statistical evidence gathered from all quarters in all times; little-t truth is more humble in pertaining to a specific instance in one place at one time. But there is nothing to say that little-t truth might not crack a door to Truth on a larger scale.

 

I haven’t heard anyone else claim that metaphor balances an abstract conceptual part (tenor) with a concrete sensory part (vehicle), the two together providing a more compelling experience than either taken by itself—yet that is my claim as based on personal observation. Twenty-five years later, it still rings little-t true to me. And it is that hooking-up of two different aspects of mind that led me to look more carefully into the one sample of consciousness available to me. Wilderness, this is Steve calling. You know, Steve from planet Earth. One tiny blog in a great big Blogosphere.

 

When spontaneous language loses its novel, figurative quality, it becomes “literal” and appears to mean what it says. But we have simply forgotten the metaphorical base of many everyday terms, assuming they blossomed thus in the Garden of Eden, the same then as now. But meanings evolve over time, words and their usage evolve, languages evolve. Give Beowulf a look if you don’t believe, or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

 

Neuroscience now treats the brain literally as a computer, where earlier researchers might have regarded it as a hydraulic system, clockwork, switchboard, or hologram. In the brain-as-computer metaphor, the brain is the tenor receiving the vehicle’s thrust, which in this case causes it to be seen as a kind of programmable machine, a hardware network with a software mind.

 

There is humor in this formulation when we think how recently it was that the metaphor went the other way round and computers were billed as “electronic brains.” There is no approach to the unknown other than through the known. When computers were novel, we saw them as brains; now that we know all about computers, we generalize that term to the vastly more complex and mysterious lump of protoplasm, the brain itself.

 

Before Richards, it was common to refer to the vehicle alone as the figure or metaphor, thereby masking the mutual interaction between vehicle and tenor. Modern understanding of metaphor frees us from that error. Or should, if we truly appreciate the myriad ever-changing feedback and feed-forward—that is, interactive—electro-chemical networks we think of collectively as the human brain.

 

If metaphor can be said to have a moral, in this case it is that there is more than one way to picture a brain, or, brains are seldom what they seem.

 

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2 Responses to “Reflection 71: Metaphorical Brain”

  1. tp said

    There’s a strange middle ground where a metaphor is used so often that we see vehicle as tenor not as vehicle any longer. When Obama says “the bottom line” (and he does say it often) we don’t recognize it as a metaphor, due to its staleness.

    News commentators, the good ones anyway, all seem very skilled at metaphor. Is that part of journalism training? If so, good for them.

  2. Steve Perrin said

    Two familiar, that is of the family, commentators to one post! Welcome. Yes live metaphors fade to dead ones through overexposure. Creative folks keep inventing language to compensate, for without figurative language there’d be no language at all. Glad to hear from you both.

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