On the Metaphorical Nature of Communication and how it Can Liberate

(originally published on 20/04/2013)


metaphor
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 People often get asked if they are religious or not. In response to this question I sometimes say I’m a Taoist, sometimes an agnostic and sometimes I say ‘no’ or something else.

So which of those is the right answer?

In fact, before that, just what is my name? To you I’m Askelad. Among musical communities I am known as Archie Wah Wah. On Facebook I have a different name, which I have changed three times. When I first signed up for Facebook I used the name Whingey McFoostle, which isn’t a name at all. I’ve had several pseudonyms and nicknames since birth. Of course, what’s on my birth certificate, and what people call me in my daily life today are none of these.

So which one am I?

I reckon most people would side with the birth certificate. But if someone refers to me as Archie and a 3rd person knows who they’re talking about, am I any less Archie than my birth name? If I say ‘table’ to an Englishman and ‘mesa’ to a Mexican am I talking about a different thing?

To quote what may be a tired cliché (yet one worth re-evaluating) from Shakespeare,

“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?… What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot nor arm nor face, nor any other part belonging to man…. What is in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell so sweet.” Romeo And Juliet Act 2, scene 2, 33–49

Juliet’s problem was that she was coming to a realisation that those around her had failed to do. To her family and friends “Montague” was a dogma. It meant an enemy and murderer of Capulets. Yet she could smell how sweet Romeo was – he hadn’t (yet) murdered anyone, and in fact loved a “Capulet.” So in answer to Juliet’s question (yes, perhaps a little late but I wasn’t on the scene) why is he Romeo? He’s not. And why isn’t he?

Because all words – even proper names – are metaphors.

Okay, I a few of you are going to argue with me at this point. If you say to me, “put the keys upon the table,” and we know which keys and which table, it appears we are not talking in metaphor, we’re talking quite literally. Even “put” seems like a literal action, and “upon” a literal position within parameters.

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Were these the keys you were thinking of?

But I’d like to argue this. “Table” is far from a constant. The word “table” is an idea in your mind that is continuously being updated as you encounter new tables and new talk of or information on tables. The boundaries of the concept “table” in your mind is defined by the properties of behaviour of a “table” as you understand them. We can all imagine two tables that are extremely different, making “table,” in fact, a range. The very table that you have ordered me to put the keys upon is itself not a constant. The only thing that we can witness is change – action if you will. . Our table is actively holding itself together, resisting and giving in to certain forces as we speak, reflecting light and changing, albeit more slowly than we can detect, with its environment. In fact there is space between every molecule of the table, meaning it’s not one separate thing, and conversely there is no distinction aside from behaviour we attribute to it that it is separate from the floor upon which it stands. The table is part of the floor is part of the house is part of the land is part of the world is part of the universe.

Am I being facetious? Why even talk of a table or anything at all if we’re going to be like that. Well for the same reason we do anything: it’s useful to describe how the universe is acting differently at different events in space-time. But our own conception of “table” is unique, and as importantly it is not exactly the same as the thing that we are talking about at any given time. I am not Archie, nor Askelad nor my birth name and the only literal way you can explain me is to point at me and let the other person observe, at which they will only get a partial and different explanation to the one you had in mind.

Okay, let’s look at a metaphor we can all agree on. My brain has randomly generated:  “Sandra is a flighty bird.”

Fine – barring the possibility that we’ve named a literal flighty bird “Sandra” – we’re going to agree that we’re using metaphor here. Sandra is my mate from the pub, she has no plumage and has never been observed to take to the skies. What we’re doing is making comparisons in behaviour and bringing it back to reality to communicate a better understanding of Sandra. But isn’t that what we’re doing with “table”?

The difference, of course, is that in a traditionally metaphorical sentence we have to use our judgement and decide that the speaker is not speaking of a bird, but also with a “literal” sentence the speaker is speaking of an idea in her mind and another in your mind that are not the literal thing at all, meaning that it is still a metaphor, albeit on a deeper level.

So why go so far to make the distinction? Well for one, the more understanding we have of this the better we can begin to understand others, and have others understand us. Thousands have died, marriages have split and friends been lost upon the basis of not getting this basic concept. If I say “table” and expect you to have exactly the same concept in your head as me then I will be sadly mistaken. Yet we all do it. Some may think that I’m insulting Sandra by calling her a flighty bird, others may view it as a compliment, because metaphors are not exact: they are poetic, not scientific. The same goes for all use of language. When you told me to “put the keys upon the table” I picked up a piece of paper with data on it and started writing nicely colour-coded explanations in the corner, “Box A = this, Box X = that.

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The key is on the table

The problem becomes more pronounced when we start to talk about articles of faith, or matters of dogma. When we let go of words and let them be metaphors – i.e. useful poetic descriptions that communicate an experience of reality –  it actually empowers us. The word is a tool used to communicate, not a dogma to master us. I can communicate similar things to a dogmatic scientist and a fundamental Christian using different words. Therefore I’m happy to say to one, “God is all-encompassing” and to the other, “the universe is all one big cohesive object,” (and to which one depends upon whether I want to rattle them or not). I haven’t made myself a Christian by using one, nor a scientist by using the other. What I’ve actually done is I’ve used the metaphors suitable to the person I’m talking to. As I wouldn’t say to a Mexican, “could you put the keys on the table, please?”  –  instead ‹‹¿Puedes poner las llaves en la mesa, por favor?›› –  neither would I use concepts of which my listener had little, no or unhelpfully negative conceptions (assuming my motives were those of direct communication).

So, what religion am I? I can conceive of the universe as a big, white-bearded old man, I have no particular negative connotations with a father-metaphor. Equally I can split the world up into fantastic, large concepts and anthropomorphise them for better understanding. For example, love is a real thing that is bigger and older than I am, observable by the profound effects it has, has had and will have on animal life. A Goddess of Love? Sure. Cut up a few other concepts in a similar way and I’m a polytheist. Simultaneously I can recognise that there are no big people in the sky and that the universe works by itself without the need of an outside intelligence, so I’m a scientist who believes in the autonomous model.

The point is that no one is particularly wrong. They are all experiencing their existence by their own understanding, and I would not deny them that, nor humanity the diversity of understanding that they have. Some people have one clear understanding, and by sticking to it they experience a sharp profundity in that one area, be it through worshipping Allah or analysing data. Others, perhaps like me, experience wide rather than sharp profundity through recognising the breadth of understandings that are available to experience. Either way, even if you’re at the sharpest of ends, I would urge you to take a little leaf out of my book and accept it as an article of faith that other people are not fundamentally wrong.

To the faithful: a scientist’s data is his relationship with God, although it may not seem like it; to the scientific: a religious person is living according to the dictates of the qualitative data she receives. With this understanding we can learn to work together in this world, which at the end of the day is the best outcome for all of us. The Montagues and Capulets realise that they are the same when they both have to bury their children. Let’s not let it come to that in our personal lives.

By the way, when I said that all words were metaphors, I was speaking metaphorically.

 

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