The statement that one thing is another when it clearly is not literally true. For instance, "my dog is an animal" is not a metaphor, while "my dog is a refrigerator" is. I don't know what that latter one would mean, but it's a metaphor. Metaphor is a subset of analogy. It is different from simile, in which one says one thing is like another.

According to George Lakoff, Mark Turner, Mark Johnson, and a bunch of other folks, metaphor is actually a basic cognitive function. They point to great deals of systematicity in our use of language which argue that we not only say that, for example, life is a journey, but reason about it in the same way. For instance, we say I'm at a dead end or I'm just getting started or I've hit a rough patch of road. All of these are metaphorical in a sense, but they don't fit the 'A is B' pattern.

However, while linguistic analysis is sufficient to show that we talk about life and journeys using the same language, it doesn't actually prove that we think about them in the same way. Sam Glucksberg argues that when we say "my job is a jail" we aren't saying that we reason about them the same way, but simply that "job" is a member of a category of which jail is a prototypical instance. How exactly he would extend this to "I feel trapped at work" isn't something he disclosed before I stopped reading about this stuff, but given how many odd machinations we have to imagine to get words out of our mouths in the first place, I don't think this one more is gonna hurt anyone.

There is some actually psychological work to support Lakoff et al's claims. The first such piece was by Dedre Gentner and her partner whose name escapes me right now, and showed that teaching people to understand electricity in terms of different metaphors led to different mistakes in their understanding of it. More recently, one Lera Boroditsky presented a cool poster at the CogSci conference a few years back that showed that people gave different answers to questions about time depending on which metaphor you used to talk to them about it. (Those metaphors would be the future is approaching us and the future is receding from us, or something like that.)

It's probably worth noting that Lakoff et al base their ideas on another idea, that of image schema, for cognitive reasoning. But I never liked image schema that much.

This is the reflection on a realization that a thought is just a metaphor which is itself a metaphor, and so on. A thought about an object is not the same as the object that the thought is about.

It's recursive and maddening, a strange loop that provokes acceleration of thought.

Care in choosing metaphors can create a new mental structure that can upswing creativity, insight, or peaceful inner conflict resolution. This is made easier by the fact that the metaphor chosen doesn't have to be apt. In fact, sometimes choosing randomly is best. Then create a fit. The results may be bizarre.

It is a chest of drawers and each drawer holds many things, but if you open a drawer looking for a button there will be a button inside, and if there never was a button before it will be a button different from any other button. Perhaps pressing that button will make something interesting happen. And if looking in a drawer we find ouselves inside an artist making a sketch, and each drawer looks at each subject differently.

And so, with a vivid example of a randomly chosen metaphor being so modified, we turn to the effect of the process on the mind of the person performing the mental gymnastics. We will find that around several of the ideas that we ran across in the example a shortening of mental distance, an ability newly awakened to skip more quickly through frames of reference. The more this is practiced, the more speed and flexibility is gained, until a speed limit is introduced, usually by a fear of insanity.

The mind has now sped past the ability of the conscious mind to monitor and report on the coherence of its own thought.

Attempts at regulation at this point are considered largely futile, although the effects produced by the mind's attempts at control can vary over many degrees of instructiveness, and indeed cause many fairly spectacular instances of bizarre ideation, cognitive dissonance, etc.

Crucial to keep in mind at this point is that fear is the fuel of insanity, and it is fear that motivates the attempts to impose an illusion of control. Profound acceptance of lack of mental control may prove to be the wisest course here.

The slippage (again a metaphor, and one having to do with direct sensation) that occurs at the point of surrender to the sense that trying to impose control is worse than futile can be a very relaxing experience. This is akin to the relaxation a drowning victim feels in the last stages before death.

This last statement is a simile, which is similar to a metaphor, but is a comparison rather then an attempt to directly map ideas. Similes are fuzzy teddy bears. Metaphors are like rabid grizzly bears. One is nice to have to comfort you when you are young. The other can get out of hand and terrorize small indian villages before dropping dead in a pool of it's own saliva. On that point you will ponder.

Met"a*phor (?), n. [F. m'etaphore, L. metaphora, fr. Gr. , fr. to carry over, transfer; meta` beyond, over + fe`rein to bring, bear.] Rhet.

The transference of the relation between one set of objects to another set for the purpose of brief explanation; a compressed simile; e. g., the ship plows the sea.

Abbott & Seeley. "All the world's a stage."


⇒ The statement, "that man is a fox," is a metaphor; but "that man is like a fox," is a simile, similitude, or comparison.


© Webster 1913.

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