Tag Archives: metaphor

A Tale of Two Metaphors

All our thinking depends on metaphors. The work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson explains the way in which we build our cognitive models on a particular metaphor, which is mapped onto a physical experience schematised into our neural connections. For example, the picture here illustrates an old Platonic cognitive model for the mind or soul in relation to the body: the body as a cage in which the otherwise free mind is constrained. It never seemed to occur to anyone using this metaphor that our experience of being imprisoned is a physical one, and we’d need a body to even experience what it meant to be released from a cage. Nevertheless, a good deal of Plato’s philosophy depends on this metaphor.Byzantine_Metaphor_For_The_Soul_and_Death

Plato’s basic mistake here is one that we are all prone to: of adopting just one basic metaphor and assuming that it is the final word. A ‘stuck’ metaphor is what one might otherwise refer to as a metaphysical belief. As long as we take them provisionally, however, metaphors are also the only way in which we can build up an understanding of anything. Very often, if you’re trying to explain something abstract, people only ‘get it’ when you use a metaphor. That means they’ve found a way of making it meaningful in relation to their wider bodily experience. Metaphors tend to come in connected groups, too (Plato didn’t just use the one about the soul in a cage, but also the soul as a charioteer, and many others). We can reinforce one metaphor with others, or challenge one metaphor with a different one. Perhaps the major difference between creative philosophy and mere analysis is that creative philosophy works with metaphors, pulling them together, testing out compatibility and incompatibility, whilst mere analysis just works away doggedly within one cognitive model on the assumption that it is right.

One crucial point in Middle Way Philosophy is that a belief is not ‘merely relative’ because it’s dependent on a metaphor, any more than it’s absolutely true because it’s hit the right metaphor. Some metaphors provide more adequate models for interpreting conditions than others do. The better ones can link together a great many other metaphors, as well as explaining a wide range of experiences. We can stretch metaphors to make them bigger by linking them with others, and the more provisionally we are holding the metaphor, the easier it is to do this.

So, here is a challenge to Middle Way Philosophy that I’ve been reflecting on. There is one key metaphor of the Middle Way, which relates to our experiences of following a path and of balancing: but is this metaphor being relied on too much? How can this metaphor be provisional when it is also so all-encompassing?

I have two linked responses to these linked questions. One is that Middle Way Philosophy doesn’t just depend on the metaphor of the Middle Way, but also that of integration. Another is that the bigger and stretchier a metaphor is, the more provisional it is. Middle Way Philosophy is not an ultimate explanation, but at the same time it is the kind of explanation that becomes more adequate the more it encompasses.

Firstly, then, the metaphor of the Middle Way and that of integration. These two models offer rather different models of thinking, but they are still linked. Integration is basically the Middle Way inside out. Whilst the Middle Way is a negative model that takes our motivation for granted and just tells us that there are metaphysical traps to avoid on either side, integration takes the things on each side more positively, suggests that they do themselves have motivating power, and that both the energy and the metaphors on either side can be positively incorporated into a whole The two metaphors complement each other enormously and yet remain compatible. Without the rigour of the Middle Way, integration models can get rather naïve and new-agey; but without integration, the Middle Way can get rather dry and negative.

Would it be possible to combine the two metaphors? Well, here’s an attempt. Suppose you’re captain of a ship heading through a dangerous strait between two rocks. Some of your passengers want to go straight on, but others want to pick up friends from the rocks on either side. So, you do head straight on, but not before you have picked up further passengers and rescued them from the rocks on either side. This requires both courage and skill. Once you’ve picked up all the passengers from both sides, everyone can be united in urging you onwards through the rest of the strait.

This combination of metaphors illustrates the way that even metaphors that at first seem separate can be combined and stretched. That’s one reason why I’m interested in studying even religions that seem to have a heavy metaphysical emphasis, like Islam, and, metaphorically speaking, picking up the passengers from that rock too. I want to argue that the more a given metaphor can explain the strengths of others in that way, without getting sucked into the assumption that any one metaphor is final, the more justified confidence we can have in that metaphor. If a given approach can offer responses that account for the successes other metaphorical approaches, rather than simply rejecting them as wholly wrong, it provides the basis of a bigger and more adequate metaphor.

I think Middle Way Philosophy is like this. That’s one of the reasons why it is so all-encompassing: it needs to be able to account for the insights available from different traditions and from different specialisms. However broad it is, though, to remain provisional it must be fallible. If someone else can come up with a better theory that explains all the things Middle Way Philosophy explains and does all the things it does: explaining the nature of objectivity, providing a justifiable ethics, resolving the absolutism/ relativism split, combining theory with practice, facts with values, the religious and the secular, art and science, whilst taking into account the scientific evidence for things like embodied meaning, the splits in the brain and our cognitive biases, then I will drop this theory and come and help them on theirs. Theories based on particular metaphors can be superseded – but they have to be superseded in doing the job that they set out to do, explaining both the successes and failures of the theory to be superseded.

This blog was originally posted on my ‘Middle Way Philosophy’ site in Sept 2013

Picture: Byzantine metaphor for the soul by Ken & Nyetta CCSA

Critical Thinking 12: Analogies

Analogies are comparisons made in an argument to help prove a point. You’re arguing about one thing and you put it in the terms of another, to help people to see it in a different light. For example:

Getting into your car to drive a few hundred metres to the corner shop is as ridiculous as hopping that distance: both are clumsy, grossly inefficient, and enough to make you a laughing stock.

The analogy here is between driving a car and hopping. Obviously, the two are not the same, but the argument tries to make a point about the inefficiency of driving short distances by getting us to imagine it in terms of hopping. Driving does not have to be entirely the same as hopping for this to be convincing: just similar in the relevant way. In this case, the relevant way would be in terms of the clumsiness, inefficiency, and ridiculousness of both.Nude_man_hopping_on_right_foot_Edward Muybridge

There are obviously some parallels here, but that doesn’t mean that the analogy is particularly successful. One reason for its lack of success may be that we tend to view inefficiency in using fuel rather differently from inefficiency in using our own bodily energy. Hopping a few hundred metres might just be seen as a good, though rather bizarre, form of useful exercise, whereas driving that distance wastes fuel – which we can more easily measure. The ridiculousness of hopping might also be exactly what makes it positive fun for some, whereas driving a car a few hundred metres would only be ‘ridiculous’ in the sense of drawing condemnation from the ecologically-minded. What looked like similarities at first turn out to be rather stretched and thin.

A well-judged analogy can be really helpful. It can help people to ‘think outside the box’ of the cognitive models they’re in the habit of using, and bring in the imagination to allow them to consider their experience in a more open way. However, it’s also very easy to dismiss a poorly-applied analogy. The problem is that there will always be dissimilarities as well as similarities between the two things being compared, so it is very easy just to latch onto the dissimilarities and use them as an excuse to dismiss the argument, if you’re a bit resistant to it in the first place. But a Middle Way approach involves trying to reach a balanced appreciation both of the similarities and the dissimilarities.

So, when you come across an analogy, it helps to think clearly about what the analogy is being used to support, and what sorts of relevant similarities and dissimilarities there are. The analogy may also need to be seen in a wider context, as there may be counter-arguments based on strong dissimilarities that just aren’t being considered. Here’s what I hope is a useful checklist:

  • What is the analogy trying to show?
  • Is the analogy relevant to what it is trying to show?
  • What are the relevant similarities?
  • What are the relevant dissimilarities?
  • Are the assumptions being made about the things being compared correct?
  • Are there other important dissimilarities that are not being taken into account?

Here are a couple more examples to illustrate the application of some of these questions:

Politicians in Britain today are just like African dictators, only out to get what they can from the country and squirrel it away in their offshore bank accounts. We will never get straight politicians.

This analogy is weak because the assumptions being made about British politicians are factually dubious. There may be a few cases of corruption, but these are nowhere near the scale of certain well-known corrupt African dictators (such as Mobutu in Congo). Of course, African dictators themselves are also rather varied, and some may not be particularly corrupt.

Jess has red hair and likes reading like her sister. She’ll probably become an English teacher like her sister.

Here the analogy is between Jess and her sister, but the fact of her having red hair is of no relevance to the probability of her becoming an English teacher. The fact that she likes reading is relevant, but is not strong enough by itself to support the conclusion, as lots of people who like reading do not become English teachers.


Assess the strength of these analogical arguments:

1. Cars should be restricted just as guns are, because they are lethal weapons just like guns. Cars kill and injure people just as much as guns do.

2. Motorists who kill people through reckless driving should be given a life sentence just like a murderer. The outcome is the same: a dead person.

3. More people are killed by horse-riding each year than by taking ecstasy. Ecstasy is thus less dangerous than horse-riding, and it is inconsistent to maintain horse-riding as a legal activity whilst banning ecstasy.

4. The practice of arranged marriage (as practised, for example, in Asian and Islamic cultures) is necessary to take into account young people’s lack of experience when they choose a partner. We need someone else to make this choice for us when we are inexperienced. This has been effectively admitted in Western culture when people use dating agencies and dating websites to select a partner for them, so it is hypocritical for people who use these services to criticise arranged marriage.

 Index of previous blogs in the Critical Thinking course

Picture: Nude man hopping on right foot (Edward Muybridge studies in locomotion)


Quotes and thoughts on the embodied mind, with painters in mind!

Over recent decades, a great deal of new research has been done on the brain and how it functions. ‘The embodied mind emphasises that the body helps to shape the way we think, feel and behave, it is an embodied and relational process, that regulates energy and information flow.’ With the Cartesian paradigm -body and mind – ‘we have logical, linear, sequential meaning,’ but this leaves out ’emotions, intuition, creativity and a capacity to dare to try different solutions.’ In the Cartesin paradigm, ‘Taking advantage of the benefits brought about by the right hemisphere of the brain, such as creative imagination, serenity, a global view and a capacity of synthesis are not considered. In Antonio Damasio’s book,’Descarte’s Mistake’ he writes ‘the vision of the human being as a whole, is the key to the global development of the being.’

Meaning comes out of experience.

The writer, James Joyce wrote, ‘Our creativity has propelled human evolution.’
Classical styles of Chinese landscapes developed from the desire to leave the problems of society behind and look towards Nature, ‘men sought permanence within the natural world, it showed the inner landscape of the artist’s heart and mind.’
Impressionist painters, such as Claude Monet, worked outdoors and rapidly, in order to catch the fleeting sun light on the scenes they painted. Art critics at the time, scorned their work, but these painters were ‘in the moment’ when they painted.
Paul Cezanne (1839 – 1906) wrote, ‘The landscape thinks itself in me and I am in its (the landscape). He also had a great respect for Nature, he would look at a mountain, for example, seeing the changing light as he worked, building up the scene in geometric shapes. In his still life paintings of apples, he used soft colours, with certain areas highlighted by stronger colour in small patches. ‘An artist builds up an internal tension of some kind, then comes a need to start work.’ Cezanne called it his ‘petit sensation’ he saw it as a secret key to art, an intimate and private experience. ‘It is like an internal energy or ’emotion’ that needs to be used, ‘it brings about an emotional relationship with the art when it is completed.’ I have painted canvases which result in the same experience, I look at the painting and can relive the feeling I had when I painted it, always remembering of course, that memories are constantly revised.
Some aesthetic quality, such as balance and harmony is required, otherwise it is ‘an expression of mess’ another quote I picked up on!
Howard Hodgkin, whose works are not among my favourites, but I know someone who finds them meaningful,
writes, ‘art has the capacity to recreate a strong effective charge within certain colours and shapes, a way in which his, the artist’s memories, are recovered. Colour, texture and line are ways the painter makes his/her marks. I like to work with colour most of all. He also said ‘we come to a place when we get back something from the painting’ and then the painting may give back a similar experience to the viewer.
Paul Klee took a line for a walk, a wonderful way to express creativity, not a doodle, because his line drawings are simple yet beautiful.
I would recommend that it’s better to look at a painting for a while, before reading about the painter’s life or the message he or she is hoping to convey, study can follow later.

Adreinne Degerick Chaplin, in her book Art and Embodiment…. Biological and Phenomenological Contributions to Understanding Beauty and Aesthetic writes, ‘Art, both as a practice and as an experience, belongs as it were, to the hardware of human nature.’ In her book she refers to the work of three philosophers, Ellen Dissanayake, Susanne K Lnger and Merleau-Ponty.
E. Dissanayake ‘draws on anthropological research to develop an evolutionary based philosophy, based on the notion of ‘making special’.
S K Langer and Merleau-Ponty draw on empirical science, in order to develop a theory of art and embodiment, that takes the body seriously, they each reach conclusions in their own way.
S Langer draws on ‘geology, physics and biology, she has developed a biologically based cognitive philosophy of art and mind, rooted in the notion of ‘symbolism’.
Merleau-Ponty ‘drew on medical science and empirical psychology in order to develop a theory of art.’
I am grateful to the internet for providing so much information, only a tiny fraction of which I have used. I am in awe of the work that goes into research, to help us understand more.

The MWS Podcast: Episode 2, Norma Smith

Norma SmithIn the first of a series of member profiles, retired art teacher Norma Smith talks to Barry Daniel about her life, why she became a member of the society, the middle way, the importance of art in her life, agnosticism, and the power of metaphor. With regard to the latter, she was especially enthusiastic about the work of George Lakoff. Please see link to a youtube talk he gave on metaphors as embodied meaning below.

George Lakoff: Frameworks, Empathy and sustainability

There is also a slide show version of the podcast available on Youtube.