- What's A Metaphor?
You have to distinguish (or at least I find that I have to) between
several different meanings of the word metaphor. To begin
with, there is the human cognitive capacity for metaphor itself, which is
what the lecture is all about. This phenomenon is real, but it's hard to
get at -- very abstract -- and can't really be investigated by itself.
To find out how it works, you have to look at more concrete phenomena. The
most concrete is another use of the word metaphor, in which a word
(say, spend) which is defined with respect to one kind of thing (in
this case, money) is used in context with a completely different
kind of thing (say, time, as in I spent two hours on that
report.) I call this an instantiation of a metaphor.
Note that it's linguistic in nature, and has to do with what words
The abstract phenomenon of metaphor and the instantiation of a metaphor
are the abstract and concrete poles of the uses of the word
metaphor. In between them is one other sense of the word, one
that's very important because it represents the cognitive mapping that we
use when we use metaphors, and because it controls or
licenses the actual instantiations. I call this inbetween
level the Metaphor Theme, and it is this that is frequently
meant when people talk about metaphor. In the case of the instantiation
above, the metaphor theme is TIME IS MONEY. This just means
that the cognitive/semantic area (frame) of TIME is treated
semantically as if it were the same as (there are actually
differences, but never mind that now) the area or frame of
MONEY. This is like a semantic equation (and there are
differences there, too).
Using a metaphor theme means that we can use words that are defined with
respect to one frame in talking about concepts and words defined with
respect to another. In effect, we enlarge the target frame. Thus (to
continue with the example), we can talk about saving, losing,
budgeting, wasting, and just plain having time, even though
time is not really (literally) the kind of thing for which
these predicates are defined.
- To summarize, the three levels are:
- Metaphor as a human cognitive phenomenon.
- Individual Metaphor Themes (e.g, TIME IS MONEY).
- Instantiations of metaphor themes (e.g, He spent an
hour on that)
What we are interested in here, then, is what metaphor themes exist that
start off COMPUTERS ARE ... (or COMPUTING IS,
etc.). We need to solve, in other words, a metaphoric equation; and, at
that, a Diophantine one -- one that has a number of possible solutions.
As is usually the case with such equations, not all of the solutions are
- Why Are Metaphors So Important?
- It's not difficult to see that much
of what we say about almost any topic is in fact metaphoric. That is,
once we get attuned to metaphors -- get used to noticing when the
language being used in some discourse is not literally defined with
respect to the topic under discussion -- we begin to find them
everywhere. This is one of those cognitive discoveries that can burst
on someone as a satori-like experience, and in fact most experiential
Buddhism or Taoism have some fairly pungent things to
say about metaphor, and its peculiar problems. I'll content myself here
with repeating something from
Chuang Tzu ...
- "Snares are used to catch game; once you have
- the rabbit, you can dispense with the snare.
- "Fish-traps are used to catch fish; once you have
- the fish, you don't need the fish-trap anymore.
- "Words are used to catch ideas; once you have
- the idea, you can throw the word away.
- "Oh, how I wish I knew someone who had thrown all
- his words away, so I could talk to him about ideas!"
- ... which sums up very neatly the problems of dealing with metaphor
while using language. Words and phrases have to be defined in terms of
some semantic frame, and the structure of that frame pretty much
delimits what we can say and how we can view any topic. That makes it
very, very difficult to talk about metaphor, and equally important to do
so. In particular, choosing the right metaphor can make a terrific
difference in how (or even whether) our attempts at communication are
- How Do You Find Out How They Work?
- There are many ways, but the one I
use is linguistic in nature, since I'm a linguist. As they say in
Linguistics, pick a language at random, say, English. And pick a topic,
say, computing. Collect samples of discourse in that language about that
topic. Then look at the words and phrases used, and seek out their
literal senses (i.e, discover the frames where they are defined). Then
posit metaphor themes that license such uses of the words and phrases.
Then test these themes to see if you're right. We'll be seeing a number
of themes today. I'm not going to try to categorize them; inventing
categories for metaphors is a fun game, but ultimately frustrating,
since they're always just more metaphors. We'll just stroll about and
see what we find.