Metaphor, from Lakoff and Johnson

I’ve been reading Metaphors we live by, written by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in order to get a better handle on a process I consider crucial to the action of the imaginaire: metaphorization. I’ll deal more with metaphorization in another post, but I was surprised and gratified that they also noted the deep relationship between metaphor and imagination.

The reason we have focused so much on metaphor is that it unites reason and imagination. Reason, at the very least, involves categorization, entailment, and inference. Imagination, in one of its many aspects, involves seeing one kind of thing in terms of another kind of thing–what we have called metaphorical thought. Metaphor is thus imaginative rationality. (193)

From the experientialist perspective, metaphor is a matter of imaginative rationality. It permits an understanding of one kind of experience in terms of another, creating coherences by virtue of imposing gestalts that are structured by natural dimension of experience. New metaphors are capable of creating new understandings and, therefore, new realities. This should be obvious in the case of poetic metaphor, where language is the medium through which new conceptual metaphors are created. (235)

My belief that metaphorization – the process of representing and interacting with something via indirect symbolization – comes largely from my reading of Bateson (and through him the perhaps even more freakily brilliant Korzybski). In Steps toward an ecology of mind, a collection of his essays, Bateson noted that maps (which are metaphors for territory, leading to Korzybski’s famous epigram, “The Map is Not The Territory“) are structurally analogous to territory only in terms of the usefulness to which they are put. That is, I can draw the most rough map imaginable for my son, as long as he already recognizes the major maps.

Let’s say I want my son to go get me a screwdriver, which is in a basket in a closet upstairs. I can draw him a map of the closet, and put an ‘x’ in roughly the location of the basket. A number of things go into making this map successful in approximating the territory. First and perhaps foremost is our mutual ability to symbolize and understand the process of symbolization (or, metaphorization). Second is our mutual familiarity with the area not represented in the map (the house we live in, the location of the closet). Third is the shared mission of retrieving the screwdriver. (there are undoubtedly others, but the point is made, I think).

Without all of those requirements met, the map I draw for Arun (my son) is useless, and there is no approximation between map and territory. But our shared ability to metaphorize (basic to the human species), and our shared sets of knowledge and symbols (‘x’ marks the spot, not ‘y’, for instance) make the process possible.

The points I want to make here, and into which I want to incorporate Lakoff and Johnson’s insights, are that

  1. the imaginaire, as an established and broadly (but not universally) shared set of symbols and implied processes, is constantly recreated and changed through the action of metaphor. After all, if symbols are metaphors, then they are created through metaphorization.
  2. Insofar as we continue to be able to use metaphors (regardless of our detailed knowledge of the symbol’s history, ‘real’ meaning, etc., I’m talking merely about our abililty to use it) to communicate with each, we do so by bringing our experience into connection with our shared stock of metaphors – the imaginaire.
  3. This means that the imaginaire is not something eternal and permanent (pace Corbin and others), but is constantly reproduced.
  4. This, in turn, means that those with more access to the tools of symbolic production have a correspondingly greater power to stabilize and expand the symbols through which people apprehend the world. Educators, media companies, religious institutions, are all likely candidates. We can note as a corrollary that of those, only religious institutions are invested in rendering the contents of the imaginaire stable and unchanging.
  5. But, it is possible to change people’s minds by changing the way they apprehend and use the elements of the imaginaire. Rendering aspects of the imaginaire ridiculous, oppossitional, etc., can in turn lead to a questioning of the elements themselves, or even to an abandonment of a specific set of symbols.

Yesterday, I met a woman who talked about her own process of radicalization in terms I think are somewhat analogous to these. She said, and I’m paraphrasing, that she turned off her television two years ago, and ever since then her mind has been flooded with questions about how to change and improve our world. I understood her to be saying that prior to turning off her television, these question intruded less frequently. This is likely because the purpose of the vast bulk of commercial television appears to be to encourage consumption, and therefore encourages a type of symbolization of the world whcih acknowledges only those problems which are solvable through consumption.

One of the characteristics of the imagination, or the imaginaire, frequently noted by those who study it, is the fact that although individuals have imaginations, they can only converse with each other by imaginatively sharing and communicating through a shared set of symbols, a shared imaginaire. Lakoff and Johnson note this as well (though perhaps Lacan, Althusser, Heidegger, and of course, Cornelius Castoriadis are better sources here). We can synopsize the foregoing by saying that:

  1. The individual faculty of imagination is the basis for the process of metaphorization;
  2. metaphorization, shared as a means of communication between people and institutions, can be instituted or evolve a series of shared metaphors/symbols, which we then call the imaginaire (Castoriadis calls this the instituted imaginary)

Imagination and metaphor are then not only the basis of empathy, but also what make human communication and culture possible. Lakoff and Johnson:

Metaphorical imagination is a crucial skill in creating rapport and in communicating the nature of unshared experience. (231)

Lakoff and Johnson get to the issue of stabilization of the imaginaire in chapter 30, where they assign this function to the role of ritual:

We suggest that

The metaphors we live by, whether cultural or personal, are partially preserved in ritual.
Cultural metaphors, and the values entailed in them, are propagated by ritual.

Ritual forms an indispensable part of the experiential basis for our cultural metaphorical systems. There can be no culture without ritual. (234)

I still have a few problems with reading Lakoff and Johnson. First, the idea that ritual is necessary for cultural metaphor may be true, but is not supported at all. Second, their reading of the workings of mind seem to be overly reliant on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that our language forms the limit of our experience, a theory I find inherently wrong-headed and demonstrable untrue. Third, their political liberalism seems to confuse their approach to their material. I only note this last objection, and won’t support it here. I would rather the liberals than the conservatives, but Lakoff’s enthusiastic support of liberal ideology is muddle-headed and reactionary in my view, (see also Charles Taylor) and in their later work Lakoff claims that the analytical view of metaphor entails their liberal political outlook.
but metaphor’s transformative action is noted by Lakoff and Johnson themselves, in a quote that goes back to Aristotle:


One thought on “Metaphor, from Lakoff and Johnson

  1. Pingback: “Ways of knowing are a check on our instinctive judgments.” | ToK Trump

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s