OnWords: Metaphorical Language

Mar 31, 2020

Metaphorical language is powerful.

We use it to make the unfamiliar familiar and to make us see the familiar in a different light.

A reporter may speak of the “race” to an upcoming election, or a poet may liken separated lovers to two legs of a compass, physically distant but spiritually connected.

But metaphors can also lead us astray.

A common metaphor compares the brain to a computer, as the body’s “central processing unit,” with thoughts compared to software.

At first, this seems to work: after all, our brains can do real computations, and thoughts seem to “run” through our heads.

Yet this metaphor breaks down when we consider that even everyday thoughts and feelings can be chaotic in ways that would make a computer crash, that our experience of the those feelings and thoughts cannot explain a computer’s experience, if it has any, of the software it runs.

And how odd a race would it be if, like an election, it was stopped at the finish line and the spectators were allowed to vote on who crossed first?

Metaphors work through the imagination: they call to mind the thing described by means of the things compared. And so we can imagine how our lover is like a summer’s day, how joy flows like a river.

But misperceptions and misunderstandings and conspiracies are imagined too.

For all their beauty and power, then, even metaphors need our metaphorical questioning gaze.

Tags: