Good Metaphors are Truth


Metaphors are a figure of speech that aims to conveying one idea in terms of another. As an old teacher once told me, “it is like comparing two things, but doing it in a way that the other person doesn’t notice.”

One of the classic references is “Metaphors we Live by” (George Lakoff/Mark Johnsson).

Why are metaphors so attractive and powerful?

Looking for common patterns and trying to reduce the Universe to a basic set of unifying rules is our way of dealing with complexity. Metaphors are tools for applying knowledge in one field transposing them into another.

Is that really true? Are metaphors passive tools? Or are they patterns embedded in our physical brain, driving the way we perceive and (mis-)understand things around us? If the “The Medium is the Message”, then maybe metaphors are our brain (trying to do as the old teacher said).

I was in Twitter this morning discussing an interesting business metaphor (could we create a “Company health index”) with @NurtureGirl and @KRCraft.

@HarryLyme interjected with: “as attractive as such abstractions tend to be: all metaphors are ultimately false.”

That thought made me think and conclude just the opposite.

Our brains work through patterns. That is why metaphors are so useful and powerful. They can take over our thoughts, shape our understand and lead us to conclusions disconnected from the original issue. Caution is advised.

But the world around us also follows patterns (or so does it appear to me). If that is true, our brain workings just mimic those patterns, then some metaphors might just be true.

Our brain follows patterns. So does the Universe.

Good metaphors are Truth.

Ok, time to go look for something to eat.

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7 thoughts on “Good Metaphors are Truth

  1. I use metaphors to enhance my creativity. The duality that metaphors are both useful because they are both true and false make them beautiful tools. They may be true for a couple of reasons and then when you stretch the metaphor a bit it appears to be false for your situation. In the dissonance is a possible creative answer.

    Love is a rose, you better not pick it, it only grows when it’s on the vine, handful of thorns and you know you’ve missed it, You’ll lose your love when you say the word mine.

    Cool – nice fit. But the rose flower also dies many times throughout the year and then re-blooms in the spring. Huh? It also is susceptible to root rot and has to be pruned back every year. Huh? It also has to grow in specific places – can’t just grow anywhere – probably not a lot of roses in Antarctica. Huh? What do those have to do with love?

    If one finds a way to force the metaphor the dissonance may yield new insights into love.

    1. Joe, thanks for the thoughtful and insightful comment. Great point about the creative possibilities of stretching metaphors beyond its original scope, until they become dissonant.

  2. Perhaps @HarryLyme errs in the belief that we actually effectively communicate with words to begin with. The bottom line is that language, as with numbers are all symbols — they only approximate reality. In many cases the picture we conjure up in our minds is far more relevant. This was the beauty of the old movies when they conveniently cut away from a scene — we completed the scene quite successfully in our minds — no need to provide the gruesome or titillating details. Indeed, I might suggest (no conclusive evidence of same) that the most healing emotions are the deeper ones that we ‘grow’ ourselves. Why? Because when we have to work at the meaning, it’s like shaping the clay — we become part of it — we grow in our understanding of it.

    That’s why Christ taught in parables. It was a classic metaphor of the gospel itself — it’s not just enough to believe, you have to become the message in order to truly understand it.

    1. Harry has clarified:
      “metaphors are so useful and powerful. They can take over our thoughts, shape our understand and lead us to conclusions..Caution Advised” 🙂
      metaphors R useful & powerful. They shape our perception& lull us into an ‘understanding’ — that may or not be true. ie Value neutral tool.

      On this I agree…or not. Perhaps I don’t agree with either position. It is not the metaphor itself that is true or false, it is only the context to which it is applied that it can prove enlightening or diminish clarity.

      Perhaps the title just needs a bit of tweaking (although philosophically it’s still sound): Good Metaphors Can Reveal Truth

  3. Just quoting comments received through Twitter.

    EmergentCulture Oct 23, 11:40pm via TweetDeck
    @Marcio_Saito i agree with yor article

    HarryLyme 9:12am via Web
    .@Marcio_Saito should’ve written: patterns are tantalizing to 3lb brain’s ntellectual/moral vanity to understand ‘like a god’ Judge a god..
    (to which I replied: perceiving patterns not the same as creating patterns)

  4. It will be interesting when @HarryLyme swoops in with talons extended to offer his counter-point that all metaphors are indeed false, as I agree with Marcio.

    While metaphors can be misused, and some create false connections in patterning, they’re a very useful teaching tool. As an instructor, in finding a way to adequately express an idea to students, it brings the subject into sharper focus through the action of finding a description to identify a feature of the matter at hand.

    It is the dialogue you have surrounded the metaphor that further shape the understanding and patterning of the origional metaphor that help define the contours and planes of the student’s understanding. Response to reaction, elaboration and reflection can push the audience to new levels of sophistcated thought and reasoning.

    Oddly, I used the metaphor for singing in the choir in relation to social messaging and community management in a blog post just last week, but I shan’t post the link until after we hear back from Harry. ;>

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