“Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally: our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness. These endeavors of the imagination are not devoid of rationality; since they use metaphor, they employ an imaginative rationality” (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980/2003, p. 193).
In their book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980/2003) observe that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical in nature. Simply put, the way we view the world is shaped (both consciously and unconsciously) by metaphor.
What does this mean?
As Lakoff and Johnson note, it means that we often understand one thing in terms of another. Popular examples include the way we discuss time (e.g., time is money) or arguments (e.g., argument is war).
Lakoff and Johnson describe how the conceptual metaphors we use both enhance our understanding of the world and limit it. When we make sense of one thing using the concept of something else, there are always elements of difference that are hidden by the comparison. Not all people view time the same way, partially because not all people have the same experiences that link time to labour and labour to money. The way we view the world is grounded in our experience of it. And our experience of it cannot be separated from the imagination that frames it.
I really like this point.
Instead of opting for an objectivist view of the world or a subjectivist view, Lakoff and Johnson propose a middle ground–what they describe as the “experientialist approach” (p. 192). The experientialist approach recognizes how our experiences of the world are neither completely objective or subjective; the conceptual metaphors that shape our thoughts and behavior are influenced by the societies we inhabit and the cultures to which we belong.
I think what I like about this approach is the way that it collapses some of the walls we build between each other. In it, scientists and artists are shown to use the same kind of reasoning to describe different facets of the same phenomena. While scientists are drawing on metaphors to interpret their empirical observations and construct models to explain what knowledge of the world is available to them, novelists are employing metaphors to reflect on the human condition–on world events, politics, and social ideologies.
Behind all the perceived differences, they share the same purpose.
What is that purpose?
Lakoff and Johnson (1980/2003) observe that: “It is by means of conceptualizing our experiences in this manner that we pick out the ‘important’ aspects of an experience. And by picking out what is ‘important’ in the experience, we can categorize the experience, understand it, and remember it” (p. 83).
Right now, it seems like a lot of “cultural battles” are being “fought” using metaphors. The argument is war metaphor is running rampant, and it is shaping our thinking in ways that hide the fact that arguments are not wars, but actually conversations. To borrow another metaphor, they hide the potential “fruitfulness” of disagreements.
I wonder what would happen if we exchanged the argument is war metaphor for an argument is growth metaphor. What kind of positive entailments might arise from it? Could we imagine a world where we are nurtured by different opinions? Where turning over new soil, planting new seeds, and cross-fertilization might actually lead to a positive harvest of respect, kindness, and compassion?
I think so. In fact, I think that much of that harvest is currently hidden behind popular angry metaphors. As a result, the good is often overshadowed by the bad.
So, the next time you find yourself on any side of a debate, I encourage you to try using your imaginative reason to see beyond the argument is war metaphor. See what happens when you exchange it for the argument is growth metaphor and adopt an experientialist approach to the situation. Ask yourself what you can learn from the other person’s view, and then use that insight to better understand your own thoughts. Don’t just talk to win–talk to learn. You might still disagree, but chances are that you will have grown.
At least, that is my challenge to myself. After all, if I have the gift of imaginative rationality, I intend to use it to better my own experiences and those of the people I come in contact with.
Wishing you a wonderful week of imaginative fun!
Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. (First published in 1980).