Metaphor and Imagination
As we have seen, an important part of being hermeneutical is being
able to make
connections. One way of exploring the process of making connections
is to take
some of Gadamer’s ideas and talk about them in different ways. For
he tells us that understanding is like a conversation, he is not
only giving us a tool to
help us understand, he is also creating a metaphor for understanding.
In fact, most of
Gadamer’s ideas work on two levels- they are explanations for how
we understand or
ways we can understand better as well as metaphors for understanding.
But there is a
very good reason for his doing this.
Research in the cognitive sciences over the last twenty years has
shown us that metaphor is more than a fancy language device used
by poets; it is, in fact, the main way in which our mind works.
That is, when we interpret things, when we make comparisons, we do it
with metaphors. (The following examples and material are taken from
the work on metaphorical cognition done by the three leading researchers
in this field- George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, and Mark Turner.)
These are all fairly common metaphors which we use to make meaning out
of life, love, ideas, or time. And because we understand through
these metaphors, we also talk about these things within the metaphor.
Life is a Journey
Love is War
Ideas are Food
Time is Money
Life is a Journey
“He has been absolutely lost since his dog died.”
“Going to school helped her find herself.”
“Her goal (destination) in life is to get her Ph.D..”
“As we go through life, I hope we’ll always be friends.”
“He just doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in life.”
“You’re on the right path now.”
Love is War
“She is just another one of his conquests.”
“They fought over her for months, but
in the end her old boyfriend won out.”
“She fled from his advances.”
“He won her hand in marriage.”
“He made an ally of her mother.”
Ideas are Food
“His remarks left a bad taste in my mouth.”
“I can't digest all these ideas at once.”
“Now there’s an idea you can sink your teeth into.”
“He expected us to swallow his claims about the new product.”
“Well, now, there’s food for thought.”
Time is Money
“He is obviously wasting his time on that.”
“I make $4.35 an hour at my new job.”
“His crackpot schemes aren’t worth my time.”
"Let’s spend a little time together this weekend.”
“When we cash in at the end of our lives.....”
The examples we have just read through were a combination of general
structural metaphors (Life is a Journey, Time is Money, etc.) and everyday
language versions of those metaphors (Her goal in life, Let’s spend
time together, etc.). The general structural metaphors are those
metaphorical concepts which help us to make sense out of the world
around us. Because they are necessary to help us understand things,
it is only natural that our language would reflect those understandings
through what are known as speech formulas. But neither of these
levels of metaphor really help to explain either how or why we need
and use metaphors, or what all this has to do with how we think. To understand
that, we need to go down two more levels to that of the ontological
metaphor and the directly experienced concept.
Ontological Metaphors and Non-Metaphorical Concepts
What I have been saying and trying to demonstrate up to this point is
that we make sense out of what goes on around us by thinking metaphorically.
We understand what time is, at least in our culture, by thinking
of it in terms of a thing, a commodity, say like money. By thinking
of it this way, we can quantify it (count it), give it a value, make it
serve a purpose, and keep track of how much is needed to accomplish
the purpose. In other words, even if we used a different metaphor,
we would still need a metaphor in order to have some kind of structure
with which to think about time. And this is true of all aspects of life.
We understand one thing by comparing it to something else we already
know. Here are two more examples-
Theories are Buildings- Is that
the foundation of your theory? That theory is pretty shaky.
He constructed his theory out of the same old
But at some point, we must have concepts which are not metaphors so
that we have something to build our metaphors upon. In other words,
we need concepts which are experienced directly, without metaphor,
for without them, how could we understand anything at all?
Creativity is Birth- Our nation was
born out of the desire for freedom. Her writings are the
products of her fertile imagination. His ideas
will only breed discontent. She conceived a brilliant
theory of molecular motion. Edward Teller is the father of the hydrogen
bomb. Rachel Carson is the mother
of the ecology movement.
We experience UP because of gravity. Gravity causes us to orient ourselves
in space by exerting certain kinds of efforts in order to keep ourselves
upright. And because we experience UP through these efforts, we
also have a the direct experience of BALANCE.
The Bodily Experience of Balance as an Activity
The prime candidates for concepts which are understood directly
are the simple spatial concepts, such as UP. Our spatial concept UP arises
out of our spatial experience. We have bodies and we stand erect
(Lakoff and Johnson 56).
“The experience of balance is so pervasive and so absolutely basic for
our coherent experience of our world, and for our survival in it,
that we are seldom ever aware of its presence” (Johnson 1987 74).
This is because balancing is an activity which we physically learn by doing,
not by studying a set of rules. Although how we balance can be explained
by physicists and can be written out as a mathematical formula,
babies obviously have no understanding of these scientific and mathematical
concepts. They only come to be able to balance themselves through repeated
So, to make a long story short, the concepts which are directly experienced,
without metaphor, are those which we experience with our bodies.
Besides BALANCE, UP, and its opposite DOWN, some of the other central
directly-experienced concepts in terms of which our bodies function
are- IN/OUT, FRONT/BACK, LIGHT/DARK, NEAR/FAR, WARM/COLD, MALE/FEMALE.
These are all concepts from which we can make general metaphors.
The baby stands, wobbles, and drops to the
floor. It tries again, and again, and again, until
a new world opens up- the world of the balanced erect posture. There are
those few days when the synapse connections
are being established and then, fairly suddenly, the
baby becomes a little homo erectus........ The first major point, then,
is that the meaning of balance begins
to emerge through our acts of balancing and through our
experience of systemic processes and states
within our bodies (74).
For example, one of the first things we like to make sense out of
is our emotions, which are not as sharply defined or felt as are
our spatial and perceptual concepts. And since there are connections
between our emotions, such as happiness, and our sensory-motor experiences,
like erect posture, we can get the general metaphorical structure
of Happy is Up-
Happy is UP (Sad is DOWN)
“I feel so up today.”
“My spirits are soaring.”
“I wish there was some way we could raise his spirits.”
“She’s down in the dumps again.”
“That A in chemistry has her flying high.”
(Here’s a little experiment you can perform. The next time you are feeling
low, notice your posture. Chances are you are slumping. Consciously
make an effort to sit or stand erect, take a few good breathes,
and see if in a litle while you don’t feel a little less depressed.)
Here is a way of visualizing the structure created by direct concepts,
ontological metaphors, general structuring metaphors, and the speech
formulas that express the metaphor-
“Always eat a well-balanced
“Healthy mind, healthy body”
(equals-they balance each other).
“I went a little overboard
on the tennis yesterday.”
“We should all try to lead
a well-rounded life.”
“His mind was unbalanced
by the war.”
“I always try to balance
my work with relaxing activity.”
We can create these same four levels with the concept of BALANCE-
Directly Experienced Concept- UP
Ontological Metaphor- Emotions are
General Structural Metaphors- Happy
Speech Formula- “I am HIGH on life.”
Body Concept- Direct, non-metaphorical
Ontological- All body systems need
General Structural- Health is Balance
In other words, it is possible to take any of the concepts which we
experience through our bodies and extend them all the way out into
speech formulas. However, it is also possible to look at speech
formulas and discover the direct, non-metaphorical concepts which ground
them. And what better language examples to use for this process than
those which gave us the concept of metaphor to begin with-
Three Poems By Richard Wilbur
(For a more graphically interesting version
of this poem, click
As if a cast of grain leapt back to the hand,
A landscapeful of small black birds, intent
On the far south, convene at some command
At once in the middle of the air, at once
With headlong and unanimous consent
From the pale trees and fields they settled
What is an individual thing? They roll
Like a drunken fingerprint across the sky!
Or so I give their image to my soul
Until, as if refusing to be caught
In any singular vision of my eye
Or in the nets and cages of my thought,
They tower up, shatter, and madden space
With their divergences, are each alone
Swallowed from sight, and leave me in this
Shaping these images to make them stay:
Meanwhile, in some formation of their own,
They fly me still, and steal my thoughts away.
Delighted with myself and with the birds,
I set them down and give them leave to be.
It is by words and the defeat of words,
Down sudden vistas of the vain attempt,
That for a flying moment one may see
By what cross-purposes the world is dreamt.
The good gray guardians of art
Patrol the halls on spongy shoes,
Impartially protective, though
Perhaps suspicious of Toulouse.
Here dozes one against the wall,
Disposed upon a funeral chair.
A Degas dancer pirouettes
Upon the parting of his hair.
See how she spins! There is grace there,
But strain as well is plain to see.
Degas loved the two together:
Beauty joined to energy.
Edgar Degas purchased once
A fine El Greco, which he kept
Against the wall beside his bed
To hang his pants on while he slept.
What wholly blameless fun
To stand and look at pictures, Ah, they are
Immune to us. This courtyard may appear
To be consummed with sun,
Most mortally to burn,
Yet it is quite beyond the reach of eyes
Or thoughts, this place and moment oxidize;
This girl will never turn,
Cry what you dare, but smiles
Tirelessly toward the seated cavalier,
Who will not proffer you his pot of beer;
And your most lavish wiles
Can never turn this chair
To proper uses, nor your guile evict
Those tenants. What surprising strict
Propriety! In despair,
Consumed with greedy ire,
Old Andrew Mellon glowered at this Dutch
Courtyard, until it bothered him so much
He bought the thing entire.