Our understanding of our environment, the way we process data and turn it into knowledge, is eased by our creation and use of metaphors. James Geary’s (b. 1962) I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor helps us see metaphors in plain sight.
Look at and listen to the language around you and you will discover a moveable feast of metaphor. Let me run this idea by you; ideas do not have legs (neither do tables or chairs, by the way) but ‘run’ is used metaphorically to request a brisk consideration of a proposal. Similarly, combs do not have teeth; books do not have spines; and mountains do not have feet.
Is it our ego-centric nature that we perceive things as they relate to us, our body parts, and domestic world? Not so fast, argues Geary, it is more likely to have evolutionary undertones:
From an evolutionary perspective, it is far safer to automatically attribute agency to inanimate objects that behave like living things than it is to mistake a living thing for a seemingly inanimate object. The swaying in the trees may just be a breeze or it could be a wild beast, coiled and ready to strike. You can misperceive the breeze as a beast or the beast as a breeze. Which mistake would you rather make?
Of course, metaphor originates in the senses. “Metaphor is a way of thought long before it is a way with words,” states Geary clearly, but it would be nothing without embodiment in words.
Over centuries, metaphor has been seen as a kind of cognitive frill, a pleasant but essentially useless embellishment to ‘normal’ thought. Now, the frill is gone. New research in the social and cognitive sciences makes it increasingly plain that metaphorical thinking influences our attitudes, believes, and actions in surprising, hidden, and often oddball ways.
This communication of metaphors has led many to argue metaphor hinders communication. Although they differed on political philosophies, Age of Reason philosophers John Locke and Thomas Hobbes shared a great dislike of metaphor. Locke wrote in 1689:
If we would speak of things as they are, we must allow that all the art of rhetoric, besides order and clearness; all the artificial and figurative application of words eloquence hath invented, are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong ideas.
Metaphor as a tool of language rebounded in the 19th century with the Romantic poets and, argues Geary, in the imaginative poetics of Arthur Rimbaud, whose A Season in Hell contained sensual imagery, unseen connections, and tenuous but distinct comparisons. (Hell itself is a metaphor, a place we imagine in terms we know because rational knowledge of hell is impossible.)
Rimbaud used the phrase “I is an Other” to introduce his concept of poet as a visionary and himself as “Seer.” (Seeing as a way of understanding is itself a metaphor.)
‘I is an other’ is more than just the Seer Letters’ grandest dictum. It is metaphor defining maxim, its secret formula, and its principal equation. Metaphor systematically disorganizes the common sense of things—jumbling together the abstract with the concrete, the physical with the psychological, the like with the unlike—and it reorganizes it into uncommon combinations.
The limitations of our consciousness are that we can only really understand (even believe) that which we perceive. So, we align what we know to our perceptions (giving us spatial memory and meaning to rather simple things like walls). When the first-ever photo of a black hole became universally available in 2019, our consciousness expanded to include this visual. And yet, we people returned it to metaphor—a donut, Sauron’s eye, a flying Frisbee—when, in fact, it is as it is: a black hole. A singular thing we’ve never before beheld.
Geary doesn’t argue for more or less use of metaphor; he is more concerned that we see our propensity and fathom our habit.
How did fathom come to mean ‘to understand,’ as in ‘I can’t fathom that’ or ‘She’s unfathomable’? Metaphorically, of course. You master something—you learn to control or accept it—when you embrace it, when you get your arms around it, when you take it in hand. You comprehend something, you grasp it, take its measure, get to the bottom of it—fathom it.
Accompany this eye-widening study of language with this compendium of words The Greeks Had a Word For It, or Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder or my own Can Knowledge be Gained Through Feeling? which seeks the limits of knowledge and roots of understanding.