(Copyright © 2009)


How were you brought up? Did you have to go tinkle, pee-pee, wee-wee, take a pee or a piss, urinate, make water, or go number 1? In my family we spoke of breasts as huddies, younger members often having a giggle fit of self-consciousness when we tried to utter the word. Each of us is born into a language community or, more likely, a set of nested or overlapping language communities (family, friends, school, town, polite society, etc.). It was the conventional terms and ways of speaking in these communities we dutifully mimicked in acquiring the natural language we took as our native tongue.


The way we spoke at home was our family brand of literal language, which always said what we meant it to say because that’s how we were brought up. Other families were weird in speaking somewhat differently. Ours was normal language, theirs a twisted variation that seemed foreign. My friend Billy I. always said brefuk when he meant breakfast. Bob S. turned the sound of -ing into -een, as in goeen skeen for going skiing. Families used a variety of terms in referring to brothers and sisters, parents, and grandparents.


But all in all, we learned how normal people spoke in our neck of the woods. That was the neighborhood code governing literal language—as if by rule—but actually more by the flow of custom and convention in what people actually said. Out of the give and take of everyday life, we formed a language-using community in which meanings were mutually understood. We usually didn’t have to think about it, it just happened.


Literal language conforms to the abstract ideal that speakers use in recognizing certain phrases as being meaningful in their community. This ideal is independent of time and place, user or occasion. It is not a matter of rules but of anticipating the range of things that might be said in different situations. Literal language is predictable or probable language. The language we are likely to meet in daily life.


Figurative or metaphorical language is something else again. It defies the linguistic expectancies we so painstakingly piece together in experience. Literal language conforms to the code; metaphorical language jumps over the code to create a new way of speaking—of making meaning. “You’re a turkey,” “a skunk,” “a snake in the grass.” Literal language conforms to what we expect people say on a given occasion. Metaphors play against those expectations in surprising us with something new. Suddenly consciousness bursts on the scene, for speaker and listener both.


As an example, I offer two sentences by Alexandra Vacroux from her article, How to warm US-Russia relations (Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 26, 2009). “At the moment, the Russian bear is wounded.” She goes on to cite Russian anxiety and insecurity in the global commodity crisis, dealings with Ukraine, a fearsome new treason law. Then sums up her position, “Injured animals are dangerous, and need to be approached carefully.” Russia/Russian bear/Injured animal—this is a three-tiered metaphor that picks up powerful meaning as it develops.


Metaphorical language involves improbable or unexpected utterances which jolt us out of our meaning-making habits. It stretches our conventions of understanding by violating the expected match between expression and occasion. This creates a tension between what was expected and what was delivered. Shazam! We are fully awake and paying attention. Metaphor is not only a new way of saying but a new way of meaning. Without warning, it gets to the core of language.


Metaphor rocks not only our expectations of usage but the way we size-up the situations to which we apply language in the first place. It arises from (and invokes) a novel perspective as an alternative to the conventional point of view. Metaphor forces us to expand ourselves and become different people than convention would have us be. It forces us to outgrow our customary limitations.


If the conventional point of view is based upon unwitting acceptance of words meaning what they say, then metaphor is based upon a rival accounting for the world and its language. Words in that new world mean what speakers intend them to say, and it is the hearer’s job to figure out what that might be. Whoa! This is a new game entirely. We can’t just nod “Uh-uh,” but have to consciously wrestle with what we are hearing. As if we were inventing language all over again.


Which is one of the primary roles of figurative language. To rock us back on our heels so we pay deliberate attention to what is being said. And to what we want to say, but aren’t sure how. Metaphors represent alternate ways of accounting for the facts of daily life. Or more accurately, for the phenomena we encounter in consciousness, which are more than once removed from daily life. Metaphor does nothing less than force the sleepy language community to wake up and reinvent itself.


A metaphor is a little theory offered in opposition to the “natural” way of finding meaning in the world because, in truth, the meanings we find are often the very meanings we planted (or assumed were) there in the first place. Convention salts the mine of phenomena with meaning, while metaphor insists on uncovering the true gem itself.


By what phenomenologists call “the natural attitude,” we generally take it as given that the world our minds present to us is the one and only world that is out there within reach of our senses. Metaphor raises the possibility of an unnatural attitude by which we have to discover that outside world through probing exploration. Metaphor requires deliberate attention to such exploration by disrupting conventional ways of understanding the world. The point of metaphor is to not get caught napping. Don’t take meaning for granted. Question it. Check it out. Which requires active pursuit of meaning as a wild and elusive quarry rather than the passive acceptance of familiar (domestic) conventions.


Metaphor is exceptional language requiring deliberate and self-conscious attempts to establish meaning. That is why discussions of semantics and much of philosophy are set in metaphorical terms. To confront the mysterious outer world requires us to go beyond words that mean what they say to a new language that can venture beyond convention into the unknown. The intent is to transcend everyday, literal efforts at meaning-making. That effort requires nothing less than transcendent language itself. The language of metaphor.


(See Reflection 70: Metaphorical Brain for two other examples of metaphor.)







(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.