Metaphors as Verbal Models

ImageBy the way, looking back at my last post I thought I might say a bit more about the use of metaphors as a way to clarify complex or abstract ideas. (Brooks’s model of the plot is, really, an extended Freudian metaphor.) Even if they’re not accurate in a mathematical or predictive sense, these models are extremely useful–and not just in the arts. To give just two examples from the sciences: (1) natural selection is a metaphor with a lot of explanatory power: it isn’t “true” in the sense that there is nothing or no one selecting, but it is a useful model for understanding how populations evolve. (2) in Einsteinian physics, it is common to describe space as a tablecloth and stars and planets as bowling balls (or the like) weighing down certain areas of the tablecloth, so that the trajectory of a light particle deviates towards the heavy object. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this is “just” an elaborate, heuristic metaphor. Anyway, such metaphors are a tremendously useful way to help understand the unknown in terms of the known. It can sometimes be misleading (in quantum mechanics, we can easily be misled if we take the metaphor of an electron’s “spin” too literally), but it is unavoidable and often very illuminating. A few famous examples, right there in the titles of influential books: The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins), The Anatomy of Criticism (Northrop Frye), The Genealogy of Morals (Friedrich Nietzsche), Archaeology of Knowledge (Michel Foucault), and, no doubt, countless others…

To clarify: I’m not saying that because we need metaphors to describe, say, space-time or Darwinian evolution, these phenomena are therefore fictions. What I’m saying is that the language Darwin and others have had to use to describe their models is an inherited language, with old associations inevitably attached. Language is so entwined with the notion of agency that it’s very hard to describe something like natural selection without implying an agent–even if there isn’t one; think of expressions like “gravitational attraction” or “stock market behaviour” and you’ll see what I mean. (for more on this, see Gillian Beer’s excellent book Darwin’s Plots). This, I think, is what Nietzsche meant when he said that “we are not yet rid of God because we still believe in Grammar” (from Twilight of the Idols).


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