On the Shoulders of Giants: When Metaphor Isn’t Metaphor
Metaphor is the concept of a word or phrase which stands for an abstract concept. Sort of like using words as iconography – this one thing is like this other thing, not because they are the same but because it makes sense to understand the one in the context of the other.
Most of us think of metaphor as this vague concept like using “is” and “has” statements to describe something.
- He is a walking encyclopedia
- She has the heart of a lion
- Time is money
The thing is, those concepts are often a lot deeper than some of us realize. Time is money, yes, but do you realize how much that metaphor affects English language use around “time”. You can spend your time, you can waste it, you can have time to spare, you can use time profitably, you can invest your time, you can budget your time, you can do something that is worth your time, you can live on borrowed time, you can save time, and you can even have time to give. And, most importantly, none of those uses of the English language around the word time would make any sense at all if you didn’t intrinsically understand the metaphor, ‘time is money’. You understand the abstract concept that time is some precious resource which you can spend profitably or not and that understanding goes on to influence how you interact with the word time in many other senses.
Metaphor infiltrates a considerable percentage of language, to the point where, without understanding the metaphor, much of language would be nonsensical. And to make that point, I’m going to convince you that your argument is a building and that does, in fact, make perfect sense.
Your Argument/Theory is a Building
First, let’s look at some common phrases you could say about an argument.
- A: “The foundation for your argument is a little shaky, I suggest you spend some more time building it up before you pitch it to the board, otherwise it will fall apart on inspection.
- B: “Anyone can construct a strong argument with a little attention to detail.
- C: “You need more facts to buttress that argument”
- D: “The framework of your argument is good, but you should really shore it up with more facts before it collapses”
These are all so common as part of discourse around an argument that you’d probably not even bat an eye if someone were to say these sorts of things to you. Yet, they suggest that an argument is in fact a building with a foundation, a frame, and a structure which can be buttressed and shored up.
Let’s try some more:
- He put together his argument, brick by brick
- The audience grew bored as he wandered down the long corridor of his argument
- Her theory has thousands of little rooms, a visitor could get lost with no real idea of why they came
- His argument is massive and covered with gargoyles – not quite a Gothic masterpiece, but certainly imposing
You’ll note, of course, that these uses of language move away from the standard usage to the uncommon as you go. The point is, you can easily understand what I mean, even when I verge fairly far into the fantastical. You still understand that your ideas are a structure, composed of some building material (like bricks), and yes, this is the mortar to my argument, and no you have not had a second of difficulty following me.
But Wait, Does Everyone Agree?
Well, no. There are a couple of different theories around this, only two of which carry any weight at all. The first and most ridiculous is “Strong homonymy”. To explain all three, let’s pick sentence C from my list above.
“You need more facts to buttress that argument”.
Buttress: an architectural structure build against or projecting from a wall to support or reinforce the wall.
A source of defense or support
In strong homonymy (see what I did there), these two words are completely unique from each other and mean different things. This sense of buttress in buttressing an argument is intrinsically different from that in buttressing a wall.
Of course, most of us, if we consider what the word means in each context would go “well that’s complete nonsense”. And that’s the general scientific consensus. There is no current work (to my knowledge) on strong homonymy which does not eventually conclude the theory is implausible.
Weak homonymy is the concept that buttress started out meaning the same thing as to buttress a wall. People probably started using it as a metaphor because most people know what buttressing a wall means – it’s a good way to imply putting up structural supports for your argument (providing you already have the metaphor of “your argument is a building” in place). But weak homonymy also says that eventually the metaphor dies and the new meaning of “buttress” becomes a standard usage, no longer a metaphor – despite the fact that it relies on the understanding of the abstract concepts of “an argument is a building” and “a buttress projects against or from a wall to support or reinforce the wall”. Of course, it’s plausible that you might learn “buttress” as “a source of defense or support”, but it’s unlikely that you would do so without learning the connotations.
The metaphor theory is the idea that the metaphor stays alive. That you cannot, in fact, refer to buttressing your argument without referring to the abstract concept of walls and buildings. You can’t build your argument brick by brick without referencing back to real bricks, you can’t have the brick and mortar of an argument without referencing those materials, and so on.
But how does that work in real life? How do we understand each other if everyone is just running around using abstract constructions to refer to the things they want to say instead of just saying the things they want to say? Well, people understand things in light of each other. We use other objects that we know people understand when introducing new things. That’s why business books and self-help books are so full of analogies and anecdotes – because the more ways you introduce a concept, the more likely it is that you will connect with the reader in one of those fashions.
I talk a lot about pragmatism and that’s because it’s a building block of language. If you don’t understand the context with which something is intended, any string of words is meaningless. That is, in no instance more meaningful as a concept than in the direct translation of idiom into another language.
It’s also noticeable in English, moving from one place to another. A cookie in American English is a biscuit in British/AU English and a biscuit in American English is a scone in AU and British English. Pragmatism says that if a Brit were to walk into an American diner and see biscuits and gravy, without prior experience they’d be expecting chocolate chip and beef fat with cornstarch, not the dish of scones and béchamel they’d actually be getting.
That plays absolute havoc with idioms like “Get your hand out of the cookie jar”, which is a set American idiom, referring to the phenomenon of catching someone red-handed. That’s spread overseas thanks to the homogenizing nature of the Internet and, of course, Hollywood.
Then, there’s another use of jars and food in the popular mythos; the parable of how you catch monkeys. E.g., you put out a jar with food in it, and make sure the opening at the top is too small for the monkey to get their hand out of with their hand closed. In the story, the monkey doesn’t have the prioritization skills to let go of the food in the jar – so a hunter can easily throw a net over him. Of course, in real life, monkeys are very much able to prioritize safety over a meal, so you probably don’t want to rely on this as being true. ‘The Monkey Trap’ is used to refer to the fact that it’s rarely a good strategy to blindly hold onto something without looking to see if it’s putting you in danger.
But, it’s also used by Nick Cave singing Kitchenette, in an example of, and pardon my decision to use profanity for this, blatant decision to not give a fuck when he goes “If you want to get your hand out of the cookie jar, you’re gonna have to let go of the biscuit”.
And this is an important thing, because without the context of everything that I just said in the last 300 words, you’d have no real idea what that particularly brilliant bit of lyrics had to say. (and I’m assuming you didn’t need my 300 words to understand this, most of us have the cultural background and knowledge to just get this, after all, it’s in a pop song, but that makes it a very good and easy example of why pragmatism is important). Okay, sorry, it’s 400 words now.
You have to understand the cultural background behind how words are used in order to make sense of them in any given order. Without that, there’s no such thing as meaning.
So, meaning is contextual based on the individual’s understanding of the world around them. New things are often communicated in reference to similar things, and we use concepts to make abstract ideas (like theories and arguments) understandable in discourse. Metaphor is so integrated into the everyday use of language you couldn’t separate the two if you tried.
Let’s try a few more that you might not have thought about as being metaphor:
- You walk out of the woods and into the clearing (topographical areas are containers)
- They have a healthy relationship (relationships are patients)
- Isaac Newton is the father of modern physics, but Leibniz birthed the conventional notational expression of calculus we actually use today (ideas are entities)
Of course, none of these metaphors is exclusive to others. Ideas can also be containers and structures. Arguments can be containers (your argument is so transparent I can see through it), and topographical areas can be entities (the cloud passed in front of the mountain), and so on. After all, language allows us to be expressive in many different ways, resulting in many different metaphors for the same things.
So, what do you think? Did I sufficiently build up my argument? Is it structurally sound? Have I laid the foundations well. Or correctly mortared the bricks of my base argument with fun facts? Does the layout make sense, or could you get lost in winding-corridors? Okay, fine, I’ll stop now.