Metaphors we do everything by?
May 26th 2011, 13:33 by R.L.G. | NEW YORK
THE past 24 hours have been a goldmine for those interested in metaphor. Did you see what I just did there? I planted an image in your mind of a rich seam of shiny valuable yellow metal in the otherwise useless rock of a ho-hum news cycle. Two stories have appeared on the importance of metaphor.
At the individual level, metaphors affect our thinking. This has been known at least since George Lakoff published the book "Metaphors We Live By" with Mark Johnson in 1980. Mr Lakoff is, of course, now known as a consultant trying to get Democrats to re-frame political issues in America. Specifically, he wants voters internalising a Democratic metaphor of society-as-family with a "nurturing parent" model of leadership. Republicans, he says, think society needs a "strict father".
Now, Psychology Today is spreading the word of a paper by Lera Boroditsky and Paul Thibodeau, "Metaphors we think by", published back in February, putting more meat on the bones of this idea. (Did you catch that, with the meat and the bones?) If a report of crime in a city is presented as a "beast" ravaging the place, 75% of students recommend harsh law-and-order solutions. But if it is described as a "virus" or a "plague", only 56% recommend such policies, while 44% suggest social reforms. Mr Lakoff thinks that using the right metaphor will make people see the need for systemic solutions to social ills, supporting spending on schools, job-creation, infrastructure and so forth. Steven Pinker and Mr Lakoff had a spiky exchange of articles over this several years ago. Mr Pinker also finds fascinating the "metaphor metaphor", which is to say that "to think is to use metaphor". But he thinks Mr Lakoff vastly over-eggs the power of metaphor in support of his liberal agenda. Pinker's salvo and Lakoff's return of fire (don't worry, I'm not going to say it again) can be found here.
Apparently the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency is convinced of the importance of metaphor, too, but at a completely different level of analysis. IARPA wants to collect a massive database of metaphors from different societies, in order to understand them better. Alex Madrigal at the Atlantic has a round-up here. According to the open solicitation by IARPA, "The Metaphor Program will exploit the fact that metaphors are pervasive in everyday talk and reveal the underlying beliefs and worldviews of members of a culture." With the obvious caveat that the mad scientists at IARPA haven't told me anything about what they're actually planning, I must raise a sceptical eyebrow. I'm not entirely certain how much the societal level of analysis will yield. One problem is that, as Mr Lakoff has argued, multiple competing metaphors can characterise the same society (the nurturing versus the strict parent). Second is that Mr Pinker has shown that individuals can rapidly bounce around metaphors as they find one briefly useful for one purpose, and then discard it when another is more suitable. Third is that many metaphors "pervasive in everyday talk" are in fact quite dead, and barely processed as metaphors by the speakers.
Just to offer a silly example, what if IARPA studied Britain or America? They might find that English-speakers constantly use metaphors like
- sailing against the wind
- taking a different tack
being hoist by one's own petard
- walking the plank
- liking the cut of someone's jib
- seeking any port in a storm
- battening down the hatches
and conclude that these are people are obsessed by sailing, and who translate this to thinking of life as a rough voyage at sea. They'd be rather off-base. Raise your hand if you know what a petard is? (My hands are still on my keyboard.) I wish IARPA well, and wish I could get my hands on their research when this is all said and done. But if wishes were horses, the beggars would ride. They're not.Correction: It took commenters no time at all to inform me that being hoist by one's petard is not a nautical metaphor. My ignorance of this just goes to show how dead a metaphor can be; I have heard, understood and probably used this metaphor many times without having the foggiest idea that a " petard" was an explosive used to breach fortifications.