Metaphor and Knowledge

Metaphor and Knowledge

Understanding any poem requires knowledge. The following poem is from the Sanskrit tradition:

Neighbor please/ keep an eye on my house/ my husband says the water from the well/ is tasteless/ so even when I’m alone/ I have to go into the forest/ where the Tamala trees/ shade the river bank/ and maybe the thick reeds/ will leave marks on my body.

Comprehending this poem requires the reader to know such things as—passionate sexual activity can leave marks on the body—in India at the time of the poem illicit sexual rendezvous often took place in the tall reeds of the river bank.

Such knowledge would be required to understand a similar poem:

There where the reeds are tall/ is the best place to cross the river/ she told the traveler/ with her eye on him.

Take your average metaphor; it too requires knowledge to comprehend. Your average metaphor has a source domain containing knowledge and a target domain to which that knowledge is mapped.

LIFE AS A JOURNEY is a metaphor describing our knowledge of journeys, which is used to help us comprehend the problem of living in our society. This metaphor helps us comprehend both consciously and primarily unconsciously that there is a correspondence between a traveler and a person engaged in the mundane and also important aspects of living, i.e. the road traveled, the directions taken, the starting point, the destination, etc.

The reason that this form of knowledge is so powerful is because a whole lifetime of learning about journeys can be at our beck and call as we navigate life’s hazards. All of this need not be relearned at each of life’s crossroads. Purposes in life can be understood as destinations.

Similar metaphors that come to our aid:

We can see that the power to reason about living very largely comes through metaphor and basic schemas. Once we learn a schema we need not relearn it each time we need it. “It becomes conventionalized and as such is used automatically, effortlessly, and even unconsciously…Similarly, once we learn a conceptual metaphor, it too is just there, conventionalized, a ready and powerful conceptual tool…The things most alive in our conceptual system are those things that we use constantly, unconsciously, and automatically.”

Quotes from “More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor” by Lakoff and Turner.

I was recently thinking about Pan’s Labyrinth and it occurred to me that metaphor and fantasy/imagination are innate tools that we use in understanding the world around us (even without traumatic events). Children often use fantasy/imagination to understand the phenomena/real world around them. They may observe random events in the real world but might not be able to explain what the relationship between them is. Why does this have to be like this? Why does this or that happen? They only see things happen but they don’t know how they come to happen, or why they happen (they cannot yet connect the dots). They might feel powerless or lost, and in an attempt to make sense of it all, they use imagination/fantasy to construct their own explanation as to what is happening (they might use everyday objects like sticks, stones, flowers, toys, or whatever is at hand and construct their own world of make believe in which the actions mirror the real world, but the explanations or the setting that is given is created by the child himself to fill in the gaps. The fantasy may allow the child to have some control/distance or at least, his own understanding of the situation). Fairy tales and fantasy world can be seen as metaphors that are used by/for children (and, yes, some adults, too) to help them to explain the events in real world.


The novice tennis player develops the same success that the infant achieves as it begins the process of learning how to walk. This process is commonly thought of as muscle memory. New born humans and novice tennis players must start with fundamental movements that are repeated many times until such movements can be carried out without conscious effort.

The artist learns the same kind of lesson. The painter develops inference patterns that allow the accomplished painter to use that developed craft for creating images in which much of the activity is carried forward without conscious effort thereby leaving the conscious mind completely available for the creative activity of true artistry.

SGCS (Second Generation Cognitive Science) has discovered what might be metaphorically styled as MMM ‘Metaphor is Muscle Memory’. This linguistic metaphor is not to be comprehended to mean that linguistic metaphor is exactly like muscle memory but that conceptual metaphor carries the same kind of similarity.

We might imagine a string of MMMs interconnected with perceptions to form a complete set of inference patterns that guide muscle movement when the tennis player carries out a serve and volley point. A similar set might be imagined that leads an artist through the construction of a landscape painting.

SGCS has discovered that this interconnection of real time perceptions coupled with metaphors of passed experiences leads us through all of our thinking actions. One might comprehend much of our thinking as being an interconnection of conceptual metaphors developed through past experiences.

SGCS, as delineated in “Philosophy in the Flesh” by Lakoff and Johnson, presents a new paradigm for cognitive science. This new paradigm might be called the “conceptual metaphor” paradigm. The theory is that experiences form into concepts and some of these concepts are called “primary metaphors”. These ‘primary metaphors’ are often unconsciously mapped from the originating mental space onto another mental space that is a subjective concept, i.e. abstract concept.

Physical experiences of all kinds lead to conceptual metaphors from which perhaps hundreds of ‘primary metaphors’, which are neural structures resulting from sensorimotor experiences, are created. These primary metaphors provide the ‘seed bed’ for the judgments and subjective experiences in life. “Conceptual metaphor is pervasive in both thought and language.” It is hard to think of a common subjective experience that is not conventionally conceptualized in terms of metaphor.

Metaphors can kill and metaphors can heal. Metaphor can be a neural structure that provides a conscious means for comprehending an unknown and metaphor can be a neural structure that is unconsciously mapped (to be located) from one mental space onto another mental space. There is empirical evidence to justify the hypothesis that the brain will, in many circumstances, copy the neural structure from one mental space onto another mental space.

Linguistic metaphors are learning aids. We constantly communicate our meaning by using linguistic metaphors; we use something already known to communicate the meaning of something unknown. Many metaphors, labeled as primary metaphors by cognitive science, are widespread throughout many languages. These widespread metaphors are not innate; they are learned. “There appear to be at least several hundred such widespread, and perhaps universal, metaphors.”

Primary metaphors have this widespread characteristic because they are products of our common biology. Primary metaphors are embodied; they result from human experience, they “are part of the cognitive unconscious.”

[b]Metaphor is a standard means we have of understanding an unknown by association with a known. When we analyze the metaphor ‘bad is stinky’ we will find that we are making a subjective judgment wherein the olfactory sensation becomes the source of the judgment. ‘This movie stinks’ is a subjective judgment and it is made in this manner because a sensorimotor experience is the structure for making this judgment.

CS is claiming that the neural structure of sensorimotor experience is mapped onto the mental space for another experience that is not sensorimotor but subjective and that this neural mapping becomes part of the subjective concept. The sensorimotor experience serves the role of an axiom for the subjective experience.[/b]

Physical experiences of all kinds lead to conceptual metaphors from which perhaps hundreds of ‘primary metaphors’, which are neural structures resulting from sensorimotor experiences, are created. These primary metaphors provide the ‘seed bed’ for the judgments and subjective experiences in life. “Conceptual metaphor is pervasive in both thought and language. It is hard to think of a common subjective experience that is not conventionally conceptualized in terms of metaphor.”

The neural network created by the sensorimotor function when an infant is embraced becomes a segment of the neural network when that infant creates the subjective experience of affection. Thus—affection is warmth.

An infant is born and when embraced for the first time by its mother the infant experiences the sensation of warmth. In succeeding experiences the warmth is felt along with other sensations.

Empirical data verifies that there often happens a conflation of this sensation experience together with the development of a subjective (abstract) concept we can call affection. With each similar experience the infant fortifies both the sensation experience and the affection experience and a little later this conflation aspect ends and the child has these two concepts in different mental spaces.

This conflation leads us to readily recognize the metaphor ‘affection is warmth’.

Cognitive science hypothesizes that conceptual metaphors resulting from conflation emerges in two stages: during the conflation stage two distinct but coactive domains are established that remain separate for only a short while at which time they lose their coactive characteristic and become differentiated into metaphorical source and target.

I find that this ‘conceptual metaphor’ paradigm is a great means for comprehending the human condition. But, like me, you will have to study the matter for a long time before you will be able to make a judgment as to its value. This book “Philosophy in the Flesh” by Lakoff and Johnson, from which I derived these ideas and quotes, is filled with ideas that are new to the reader and thus studying it will require a good bit of perseverance.

Have you ever, before reading this post, thought that the brain unconsciously copies the neural structure from one mental space onto another mental space? Those who find this idea compelling will discover, in this new cognitive science paradigm, a completely new way of thinking about philosophy and human nature.

So, prototypes and neuroplasticity. I thought most metaphors were intuitive, rather than knowledge-based, isn’t that the point of them…?

He who needs a guide to metaphors will never get it. Does it not strike you that politicians, for example, are so interested in the use of language to injure that they forget how to use it to communicate? I mean, we have a governor of Alaska running as a vice president, and she obviously intends to hide behind her panties to launch attacks against the democrats. So she says something stupid like the difference between a Hockey Mom and a pit bull was lipstick. I didn’t say it. She said it. So she is a pit bull with lipstick. For real? I mean Charlemange asked his Scot what separates a wise man from a fool, and the Scot answered: A table. So give all the fools a table. Then they might crack a book on it. So what would be the difference between a cowboy and a republican? Well, the cowboy has crap outside of his shoes.

Anyway, my speech is over. I would just tell you that metaphor is an exacting type of symbol. But we all use symbols, and we all think using symbols, and they are not created, but discovered. So if I say that the Wizard of Oz is a very metaphorical story, you can understand that there is a certain one to one relationship between story and reality. On the other hand, I I say Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower is not metaphorical, except in one instance, but rather a direct relation of stock characters, then you can understand that as well. A song in the same light is Jethro Tull’s Locomotive Breath, where the stock characters are presented as usual, but the situation is metaphorical. And that is also true in a sense, of Dylan’s Watchtowers which are not at all watchtowers. You would probably like Anthropology, as in Levi Strous, and his work on myth.

I would say true. It is the relation of 1 to the unit. Fire is why red means stop. Blood is why red means danger. There is no special skill required to see symbols, which are all like metapors. A metaphorical story where all the symbols are metaphors and all work together is a rare achievement. And I think it is strange that many do not see it unless it is pointed out to them. Everyone knows Animal Farm has a metaphorical relation with Russia of the revolution. How many people can say what the Wizard of Oz means? If you have to tell people what it means then the point is lost, kind of. Without knowledge it still can work subconsciously, as a quest of some sort with a kind of ideal presented at the end. How does it make you feel? Because it is not a rational argument, but a communication with emotions.

I always think of metaphors like playing chords on a piano - the combined sound differs, but each still contains the essence of the individual notes struck.

Hey look !!! A metaphor for metaphors - a meta-metaphor. :laughing:

So what is a chord with a few flat notes? A mixed metaphor?

:laughing: Conflict of interpersonal experience symbols. AKA. “Well it looked like a fish to me…”

Taste it with your nose.