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THE QURAN CYCLE: Illuminating Metaphors – II

In cognition, language and communication, Literature|Religion, The Method on October 18, 2011 at 6:21 pm

 

Continued from Part I

The significance of Metaphor

The word metaphor consists of two Latin roots: ‘meta’ which means over, and ‘pherein’ meaning ‘to carry, to bear’; thus literally meaning ‘to carry over’. Thus the essence of a metaphor lies in the carry over of meaning, and as we consider the true purport of this ‘transfer of meaning’ concept we realize that the significance of metaphor underlies much broader areas of life than mere literary effectiveness.

Indeed, historically, metaphor was considered only a rhetorical device: a way of embelleshing (or adorning) the language to make the presentation of an idea more beautiful, effective, and vivid. However, scholars have come to acknowledge the almost universal presence of metaphor in all our speech and even thought, coming to much broader conclusions about the nature, function, and power of metaphor in human culture. Detailed analysis of the current theory of metaphor reveales that metaphor is a part and parcel of our thought processes. It’s neither unique nor restricted to any ‘special usages’ in literature.

As Lakoff and Turner claimed in their seminal paper titled Metaphors We Live By (1980) studying metaphors may be “one of the more fruitful ways of approaching fundamental logic, epistemological and ontological issues central to any philosophical understanding of human experience.”

We, unfamiliar readers, cannot fully appreciate the significance of metaphor unless we first consider the theoretical underpinnings of the concept and what current scholars in philosophy, psychology, and cognitive scientists have to say about it. Apart from that, and as a pretext, overviewing the omnipresence of metaphors in our life will help us realize just how broad the topic is, rather than being restricted, as traditionally thought, to the area of effective language skills.

 

The ubiquity of metaphors

We don’t realize when we speak but we are using metaphors all the time. Most of our speech is made of idiomatic expressions of some sort or another. A majority of those involve metaphor. To fall in love, to burn in anger, apple of the eye, hand in hand with, flying colors, sunny smiles, radiant beauty, snail mail, black death, dove as a symbol for peace, heart as a symbol for love, color red as a symbol for danger, all of these are specific examples of metaphor in various means of communication.

Apart from idiomatic expression, the very roots of words are pictorial, transfering meaning from something concrete and picturable to some other situation which may or may not go on to become so abstract that the combination loses it’s metaphoric significance (see dead metaphor in the last post). Examples of such words in which metaphorical origins are still obvious are: coinage, leggings, leap-frog, to moonlight, yardstick, heading, etc. For examples in which the meaning has become more abstract and conceptual we have to look into their etymology to reach their pictorial origins. For instance the word diverge comes from the latin di for two and vergere for ‘to incline’. Thus the literal meaning of ‘diverge‘ is to incline in two different directions. Similarly, the word delineate, meaning to outline and to portray, consists of de: completely, and lineare: to draw lines. The word confront consists of com-: together, and frontem: forehead; leading to the originally prevalent meaning of ‘to stand in front of’. Further metaphorical application lead to the current meaning of: to present with, to oppose, to find in one’s way, etc.

Traditionally, metaphor has been associated with literature. However, in his book, I is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How it Shapes the Way we See the World, James Geary presents examples of use of metaphor in common cultural enterprises such as advertising, finance, politics, entertainment, science and innovation. Stock exchange, the great depression, dead cat bounce, ‘fringe’ benefits, are some examples of metaphorical description of things related to finance, economics, and business. In advertising, personification of products is metaphorical since the intention is to imbue the product with some valued or desirable characteristics of humans/animals. Thus Explorer, Warrior, Mustang, Cougar, Jaguar are all metaphorical names of cars. In politics, slogans in times of war and conflicts, floursihing desrcriptors used to describe world or national affairs, and the metaphors used in politicians’ addresses all exude and cast certain meaning on the subject situation through the associations and implications of the metaphor.

Fields of science and innovation are again rife with metaphors. Talk of “first line of defense”, engulfing microphages, cells, transportation and carriage in the blood, assimilation, genetic transmission, inheritance, transcriptions, genetic code, neuronal triggers and wiring, killer T-cells, imprinting, the food web, lock-and-key position, chemistry, half life, (chemical) affinity, catalysts, electric current and flow of heat, black holes, dark energy, the big bang, space-time curve, dwarf and supergiant stars, spectrum, and many more↓1.

 

Metaphors enhance understanding and organize knowledge

We need the metaphor in just the cases when there can be no question as yet of the precision of scientific statement.

__ Black, (1962)↓2

In summarizing tenets of a cognitive theory of metaphor, Jakel Olaf (2002) wrote that metaphors commonly form “coherent cognitive models: complex gestalt structures of organized knowledge” that serve as “pragmatic simplifications of an even more complex reality.”  An example is the concept of ‘commucination’ whose metaphorical nature was illustrated by Reddy (1979)↓3. We conceive of communication as sending of ideas from one person to another through the use of language. This conceptualization entails equalizing ‘idea’ with an object, with ‘language’ as their container.

In Metaphors We Live By↓4, Lakoff and Johnson (1980) explain: “Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally: our feelings, aesthetics, moral practices, and spiritual awareness.”

This fact holds not just for ordinary experience but also for the scientific endeavor to understand the world. According to one scientist, Eugene Garfield: “metaphor enters into the communication of scientific ideas and at times influences the formulation of scientific problems and the ways in which problems are conceptualized and approached.” For instance Frued’s ‘topography of the mind’ uses a submerged iceberg as a metaphor for the levels of consciousness in human thought. Current cognitive science deploys a model of human mind as a computer to understand it’s working. The heart has long been viewed as a pump and blood as a transportation mechanism. The interiors of an atom have long been conceptualized as a ‘planetary system’ with electrons floating and revolving in orbits around a nucleus. Patterns of food consumption across animal species have been conceptualized as a web. Immunse system has been conceptualized as an army lined for defense of the body and deploying attack when foreign agents infiltrate the body.

The reason for this dependence on metaphor is that a majority of the concepts we utilize in scientific endeavor and in philosophy are abstract, not concrete. As such they are not directly observable or accessible by the human senses. Their presence must be inferred through their discernable characteristics which serve as ‘indications’ pointing to the underlying ‘hypothetical construct’. Thus in defining an emotion such as an anger we refer to the visible effects of anger and describe them metaphorically: a red face, a warm skin, etc. In referring to something as anxiety we rely on the metaphorical expression of butterflies in the stomach.

Furthermore, applying metaphor to scientific theory guides further quest for knowledge; an example of how  is the theory of light waves. Scientists applied to light the metaphor of water waves and wondered about the medium in which light waves propogate, given the fact that water waves do not exist outside of its medium. Thus scientific models, essentially metaphorical in nature, not only help us think about abstract phenomenon beyond our sensorial grasp, they also help us organize our understandings into a visualizable and manipulable form, ultimately becoming vehicles of further generation of knowledge. I will explore this power of metaphorical constructions further in the next post, InshaAllah, as this current part is devoted to understanding the nature of metaphor.

 

Metaphors and the human conceptual system

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) in The Metaphorical Structure of the Human Conceptual System, have classified human concepts into metaphorical and non-metaphorical. Examples of the latter include spatial orientations (down, near, etc), ontological concepts (person, substance, etc), and structured experiences and activities (eating, moving, etc.). In contrast, the three type of metaphorical concepts described by the authors are:

i) Orientational metaphors: “These structure concepts linearly, orienting them with respect to nonmetaphorical linear orientations.” (p. 196). For instance in statements ‘higher no. of mistakes’, ‘at the height of power’, ‘feeling down’, ‘high intellectuality’, etc have the metaphorical structuring of ‘more’ in terms of the spatial orientation of up (and vice versa for ‘less’ and ‘down’).

ii) Ontological metaphors: “These involve the projection of entity or substance status on something that does not have that status inherently.” (p. 196). Examples include Reddy’s example of language as container of ideas which themselves are conceptualized as objects to be contained. Expressions such as ‘getting something out of one’s head’, ’empty-headedness’, ‘clear one’s head’, etc imply the metaphorical view of ‘mind’ as a container.

iii) Structural metaphors: “These involve structuring of one kind of experience or activity in terms of another kind of experience or activity.” (p. 196) Examples include understanding as seeing in ‘I see what you mean’, and life as gamble in “taking one’s chances’.

As such these metaphors have rationally derived entailments just like non-metaphorical ones. Thus given the metaphor of time as a resource, some of its entailments show in the following expressions: ‘spend time wisely’, ‘it will cost me too much time’, ‘investing one’s time’, ‘profitable use of time’, etc.

Thus some of our very basic semantic concepts are metaphorical. Thus categories are viewed as containers: we place items in and out of them. Linear scales are viewed as paths with quantites measured along the path.

 

Metaphors, symbols, isomorphisms, and structural mapping

Lakoff further elaborated the process underlying the metaphorical representation of concepts. They call this process structural mapping. Before I come to that, however, I would like to relate the nature of metaphor with concepts I have learned from Hofstadter’s iconic Godel, Escher, Bach regarding the construction of meaning in the human mind.

According to Hofstadter, patterns of neuronal activation (one neuron activating and leading to the activation of another and so on and so forth) become associated with chains of bits of information in the real world giving rise to symbols in our mind. Thus when we associate certain sounds with certain shapes (letters of alphabets) connected in our brains through neurons linking up one bit of inforation in the brain area for sounds, with the pertinent paired information in the brain area for shapes, these are ‘signals’. It is when these signals are chained to for a pattern of sound which refers to some object in the real world (such as the sound pattern ‘table’ referring to the actual table), that a symbol is formed. Meaning, Hofstadter stresses, is not contained in the symbol (call it the sound pattern or the underlying neuronal pattern); rather, it lies in the association with the real-life object.

The concept of metaphor is similar to this symbolization process. Indeed, Lakoff, in his 2008 article on the neural basis of metaphor↓5, relies on the same phenomenon of neural circuitry that Hofstadter relies (as explained in laymen terms above) for his own concepts. Again, the value of metaphor lies not in the target or source stimulus alone, it lies in the comparison (a kind of association) between the two. More importantly, it is the reading of one thing onto another that redefines metaphor as type of symbol, hence a central vehicle of thought. When we read ‘cat’ we recall the real life cat we are familiar with. When we read ‘the poem is a diamond’ we read features of diamonds__’pricelessness’, ‘value’, ‘brilliance’, ‘an object of beauty and admiration’__onto the poem. This phenomenon of carrying meaning from one level of data onto another was referred to as isomorphism by Hofstadter. Again the meaning lies in the ‘carriage’ or ‘transfer’ of attributes from one level onto another, an assertion that clearly reminds one of the definition of metaphor.

Now the kind of isomorphism that exists between the target and source stimuli of a metaphor was elaborated as ‘structural mapping’ by Lakoff (1993)↓6. According to Lakoff there is one ot one correspondence between features of the target and source domains. This idea is excellently elaborated by the example presented by Lakoff himself (p. 217):

 

Times are things.

The passing of time is motion.

Future times are in front of the observer; past times are behind the observer.

Along with his students, Lakoff identified a general mapping scheme which underlies our metaphorical understanding of several “states, changes, processes, actions, causes, purposes and means” (p. 220), which he called as ‘event structure’:

States are locations (bounded regions in space).

Changes are movements (into or out of bounded regions).

Causes are forces.

Actions are self-propelled movements.

Purposes are destinations.

Means are paths (to destinations).

Difficulties are impediments to motion.

Expected progress is a travel schedule….

Long-term purposeful activities are journeys.

 

Different parts of this mapping schemes are evident in expressions such as ‘leaving life’, ‘achieving milestones’, ‘overcoming obstacles in one’s way’, ‘reaching maturity’, ‘stagnant career’, ‘moving ahead in life’, etc.

 

More on metaphor and meaning

 

 I want a naturalized theory of meaning: a theory that articulates in nonsemantic and nonintentional terms, sufficient conditions for one bit of the world to be about (to express, represent, or be true of) another bit.

Fodor (1987)↓7

… every single sentence may give rise to an open array of interpretations which go well beyond the encoded senses. Some of the best examples of this are … creative metaphors.

Sperber and Wilson (2008)↓8

People are simply unwilling to be silent about what they cannot talk about — they use metaphor instead. [And] while [metaphor and literal comprehension] clearly differ in linguistic analysis, in terms of psychological processes their underlying continuity should be emphasized.

Kintsch (2008)↓9

The discussion using Hofstadter’s concepts and the quotes above make it clear that as far as cognition is concerned, the case of metaphor is neither special nor limited. Human thought can never be direct: we can never access reality directly in a pure sense__ a much discussed topic on this blog. What cognition does is approximately represent some part of the outer world internally, supported by the underlying physical base: the brain. Metaphor is one way how that happens. When metaphor is used explicitly in communication (as apart from it’s implicit presence in our conceptual system), it may be viewed as an endeavor to create the same cognitive scenario in the audience’ mind as in the communicator’s.

In the words of Sperber and Wilson (2008, p. 87): “[Paul] Grice characterized a speaker’s meaning as an overt intention to cause a certain cognitive effect in an audience … A speaker’s meaning is … [thus] a mental state. The mental states of others cannot be simply perceived or decoded, but must be inferred from their behaviour, together with background information. … speakers intend their audience to discover their meaning, and provide evidence to that effect, in the form of communicative behavior.”

 Thus what matters in communication is not the nature of the input, but it’s relevance in guaging the speaker’s intention or it’s relevance to the context of communication such that it succeeds in eliciting a cognitive effect in the audience’s mind. “The input may answer a question the individual had in mind, it may raise or settle a doubt, suggest a hypothesis or a course of action, confirm or disconfirm a suspicion, correct a mistake. … The greater the cognitive effects produced by processing an input, the greater its relevance… [Also] the smaller the processing effort required to achieve these effects, the greater the relevance. (p. 88)”

 Therefore, as Sperber and Wilson (2008) clarify, as far as construction of meaning in the audience’s mind is concerned, literal meanings go through the same process as non-literal ones. It is by referrence to the context and to non-verbal and non-literal cues in the communicating situation that the reader’s mind arrives on the right interpretation back and forth between literal and non-literal connotations. Indeed these two authors propose a continuum of verbal communications ranging from ‘literal’, as in ‘I have a diamond’, through ‘loose’, as in ‘I have some carbon’ (with ‘carbon’ applied to the same literal ‘diamond’), to metaphorical, as in ‘This poem is a diamond’ applications of the same verbal inputs.

 

Summary and Post-Script

In summary, metaphor is not merely a linguistic device for creating pretty images in literature. Merely considering the omnipresence of metaphor across human media and culture is enough to persuade us of this point. Metaphor is part and parcel of the human conceptual system. It is a necessary fall-back mechanism for understanding the world and for communicating that understanding to others, for the simple reason that we can neither access the outside world directly nor communicate our internal states to others directly. Indeed, the research on how parts and cells of the brain represent the world, and theories on meaning construction support this point. Moreover, metaphor is not even unique or special when compared with more literal ways of expressing throught: the same context- and association-based processes underly comprehension of both literal and nonliteral expressions.

There is much more on the nature and significance of metaphor. How it generates emotion, it’s relationship with beauty, it’s link with imagination and it’s powerful hold on human culture. Contrasting and comparing metaphor to similar devices such as similitude and analogies also sheds further light on the nature of metaphor and how it works. However, this post was devoted to a basic understanding of it and for reinforcing it’s deep and irrefutable link with human cognition, given the fact that Quran relies primarily on metaphor for its beautiful and heart-rending messages.

So, fare well until Part III. 

 

Notes

1. Those unfamiliar with any of these terms and wishing to know more, please find them on wikipedia. Two links other than that have been inserted in place.

2. Quoted in the online Chapter 2 of the PhD dissertation by Bob Stallman.

3. From Lakoff and Johnson (1980), Conceptual metaphor in everyday language. The Journal of Philosophy, 77 (8), pp. 453-486. Available online: http://www.cse.buffalo.edu/~rapaport/575/F01/lakoff.johnson80.pdf

4. Available for online study: http://www.pineforge.com/upm-data/6031_Chapter_10_O’Brien_I_Proof_5.pdf

5. Lakoff, G., (2008), The neural theory of metaphor, in The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought, 3rd ed., edited by Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr., Cambridge University Press. The book is available online at: ftp://ftp.turingbirds.com/ai/The%20Cambridge%20Handbook%20of%20Metaphor%20and%20Thought.pdf#page=100

6. George Lakoff (1993), The contemporary theory of metaphor, in Metaphor and Thought, 2nd ed., edited by Andrew Ortony, printed by Cambridge University Press. Available online at: http://www.cogsci.ucsd.edu/~coulson/203/lakoff_ps.pdf

7. in Mark Johnson, 2008, Philosophy’s Debt to Metaphor, The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought, p. 49

8. A deflationary account of metaphors, in The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought, p. 87

9. How the mind computes the meaning of metaphor, in The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought, p. 141

  1. […] THE QURAN CYCLE: Illuminating Metaphors – II […]

  2. i stumbled upon your blog quite by accident, & found this to be a very interesting, well structured & well supported exploration of the nature of metaphor & its place in human culture & experience. i look forward to reading more.

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