Metaphors everywhere; where is “pure reason”?

April 8, 2006 | By | Reply More

Many professionals (including many lawyers) believe that the careful use of “reason” cannot involve the use of one’s imagination. This is absolutely untrue.  The belief in “pure reason” has always and everywhere proven to be the source of great confusion among those who strive to use langage precisely.

Responding to the Enlightenment claim that Reason itself is “rigorous, linear, cool, and unemotional” Steven L. Winter points out that such a claim actually proclaims the metaphorical quality of reason:  “reason is cold; it is rigorous; it is linear; it is clear; it is felt.  Indeed, in its dependence on embodied experiences like temperature and rigor, the metaphorical quality of reason is anything but detached and impersonal.”  Steven L. Winter, “Death is the Mother of Metaphor,” 105 HARV. L. REV., 745, 749 (1991).

Winter gives numerous examples of metaphors connecting our immediate experience even high-level legal concepts. One of these metaphors is of law as a “person.”  For instance, we speak of the body of law, we ask what laws say “on their face.” We refer to “seminal” cases, as well as their “progeny.”  We “strike down” statutes, and sometimes recall “dead” legal concepts.    Winter, Mark Johnson and George Lakoff each argue that these uses of metaphors constitute far more than poetry. Their use is essential to bridging the gap between the high level principles of every profession and the real world. 

Meaningful thought is not ever detached from these gurgling ferments we call our bodies.  Thought is “embodied,” that is, “the structures used to put together our conceptual systems grow out of bodily experience and make sense in terms of it;  moreover, the core of our conceptual systems is directly grounded in perception, body movement, and experience of a physical and social character,”  Further, “thought is imaginative, in that those concepts which are not directly grounded in experience employ metaphor, metonymy, and mental imagery–all of which go beyond the literal mirroring, or representation, of external reality.   It is this imaginative capacity that allows for “abstract” thought and takes the mind beyond what we can see and feel.”  George Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1990).

In The Body in the Mind (1990), Mark Johnson explains that a metaphor is not merely a linguistic expression “used for artistic or rhetorical purposes; it is a process of human understanding by which we achieve meaningful experience that we can make sense of.  A metaphor, in this ‘experiential’ sense, is a process by which we understand and structure one domain of experience in terms of another domain of a different kind.” According to Johnson, “There is a growing body of evidence that metaphor is a pervasive, irreducible, imaginative structure of human understanding that influences the nature of meaning and constrains our rational inferences.”

Aristotle also wrote of the importance and irreducibility of metaphors  “[T]he greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor.  It is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others.”  Poetics, Aristotle, §22 (McKeon trans.) 1941.  Nietzsche famously referred to Truth as a “mobile army of metaphors.”

Etymologies constitute another historical and compelling record of the power of metaphor.  Through the study of etymologies, we can see that a relatively small number of simple and earthy (mostly Latin and Greek) roots substantiate, often metaphorically, our vast and nuanced language.  Note, for instance, the etymologies of substantiate (to “stand under”) and metaphor (to “bear over”).  See, generally, Eve E. Sweetser, From Etymology to Pragmatics: Metaphorical and Cultural Aspects of Semantic Structure (1990).

The bottom line is this:  Beware any claim that any speaker is being “absolutely clear” in a “logical and precisely reasoned way.”  To the extent that such a statement is a claim that the speaker is about to use only detached Platonic concepts hovering about over his head in order to keep emotions and other human frailties from contaminating the message, the claim is utter nonsense.  The words we speak do not gain their strength swimming in the ether above us. The words we create are always us. The things we utter are meaningful only to the extent that they are rooted in human sensory-motor experience. To the extent that high-level multi-syllabic discourse is not so rooted, it would be meaningless babble.

[I’ve been repeatedly inspired by the works cited above on the ubiquitousness and necessity of metaphor.  Supplemental reading on this topic would include Metaphors We Live By (2003) and Philosphy in the Flesh (1999), both by Mark Johnson and George Lakoff].


Category: Language, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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