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 example, when 
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.) 

    Let's start with-
            • Life is a Journey
            • Love is War
            • Ideas are Food
            • Time is Money

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
“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 framework. 

    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. 

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? 
      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).

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 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 doing- 

      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).

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. 

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- 

      • Directly Experienced Concept- UP /DOWN

      • ---leads to-- 
        • Ontological Metaphor- Emotions are Orientational

        • --leads to-- 
          • General Structural Metaphors- Happy is UP

          • --leads to-- 
            • Speech Formula- “I am HIGH on life.”

    We can create these same four levels with the concept of BALANCE- 
      • Body Concept- Direct, non-metaphorical experience- BALANCE

      • --leads to-- 
        • Ontological- All body systems need balance

        • --leads to-- 
          • General Structural- Health is Balance

          • --leads to-
Speech Formula-
“Always eat a well-balanced diet.”
“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.”

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

An Event
(For a more graphically interesting version of this poem, click here.)
          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 are gone 
          With headlong and unanimous consent 
          From the pale trees and fields they settled on. 

          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 place 
          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. 

Museum Piece

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. 

              A Dutch Courtyard 

            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.

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