Thursday, May 26, 2016

Metaphors as Instruments of Knowledge

 Taruna Goel Photos

Midway between the unintelligible and the commonplace, it is a metaphor which most produces knowledge. – Aristotle, Rhetoric III

Back in 2013, I completed the 'Elearning and Digital Cultures' MOOC course by Coursera (#edcmooc). Week 2 of the course was all about metaphors and their significance to learning and other areas of our life. At the end of the week, students used metaphors to describe the MOOC learning experience. A couple of weeks ago, in the weekly #lrnchat, I got another opportunity to discuss the use of metaphors in learning and it triggered some more reading. 

The Oxford dictionary defines a metaphor as "a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, especially something abstract." The origins of the word are from late 15th century, from French m√©taphore, via Latin from Greek metaphora, from metaphere in 'to transfer'.

In the book, Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson say: The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another. As a learning experience designer, I like this aspect of a metaphor as something that helps transfer and carry the meaning and connects what we know with what we don’t know. I find that metaphors are an important link between knowledge and cognition.

Metaphors are a part of our everyday language. 
In the last one hour, I read emails, blog posts, twitter feed and work documents and consciously identified metaphors I came across:

-          Warm welcome
-          Summer is around the corner
-          Hole in the theory
-          Drop in the ocean
-          Economy in motion
-          Scattered thoughts
-          Elephant in the room
-          Raining cats and dogs
-          In a nutshell
-          Deadline approaching
-          Working in the cloud
-          Brainstorming

Metaphors surround us yet they remain largely invisible. That’s how they add value. Good metaphors convey the meaning by staying transparent. In that sense, metaphors are not always poetic or extraordinary; they are plain and ordinary.

Metaphors are useful in many ways. 
They help make sense of the world and can simplify and make abstract more concrete. Icons on the web and within software applications are an example of metaphors for abstract concepts – a wrench for Tools, a star for Bookmark, a scissor for Cut, a thumps up for FB Like, etc. These icons have become the visual metaphors of our culture.

Metaphors are powerful.
They can quickly create common and shared understanding of complex concepts, systems and processes. They can help us imagine and visualize our thoughts and feel different emotions. But they can also create perceptions or alter existing meanings and structure the new understanding in different ways. Depending on the choice of words and existing meanings, metaphors can impact the imagery, thoughts and feelings and affect how we create new knowledge and meaning.

How can you describe ‘learning’ as a metaphor? Do these metaphors affect how you feel about learning?
Learning is:
-          A journey with plenty of milestones
-          A maze where one can easily get lost
-          An onion with layers upon layers
-          A walk in the dark
-          A spider web where everything is connected
-          A puzzle where some pieces fit perfectly and others don’t
-          A flowing river that never stops
-          A roller coaster ride with ups and downs

How about a metaphor for an ‘organization’? Is an organization like a machine, an organism, a brain, a prison, a family? Do different metaphors create different feelings? Changing our metaphors changes everything.

Metaphors change and evolve or... don't. 
The icon for a rotary dial telephone was quite common in many software applications. But slowly, the icon is changing to a handset. This evolution is continuous as the boundaries between a desk phone and a mobile phone continue to disappear. Sometimes, metaphors don’t evolve even though the meanings have evolved. The metaphor for Internet as an information superhighway does not offer the same meaning to us today as it offered 20 years ago. The Save button is MS Word uses an icon for a floppy drive. It was relevant at some point but not anymore. Such metaphors are ready to be replaced.

Metaphors also die.
When metaphors die, they are unable to generate the visual imagery or meaning they were created to do so perhaps because they have been overused. I didn’t catch your name or she grasped the concept are dead metaphors where we don’t visualize this physical action of catching something anymore. Or think of something like writing the body an essaywhich helped invoke the metaphorical image of human anatomy but now simply means the main part. Some metaphors die because we don’t quite know how they originated such as to understand meaning to stand underneath a concept. Such metaphors have become literalized into everyday language and have died as metaphors.

Metaphors can be confusing. 
Depending on the context and the culture, metaphors can be difficult to understand and can sometimes limit or block our understanding of the concept completely. Eastern cultures don’t fight the cold as much as the western cultures do. These metaphors that are embedded within a particular context can easily break communication and leave us confused. Phrases like rise to the bait, sell like hot cakes, wild goose chase, his eyes is on the sparrow, dead cat bounce, the camel's nose, turkeys voting for Christmas, being an albatross may not always ring a bell!

As Keith Basso (1976) said:  
For it is in metaphor, perhaps more dramatically than in any other form of symbolic expression, that language and culture come together and display their fundamental inseparability. A theory of one that excludes the other will inevitably do damage to both.

Metaphors are not universal even when they appear to be.
Metaphors may appear to have universal appeal but they are deeply embedded in our social constructs and are affected by our religion, beliefs and values.  'Life is a journey’, even though is a universal metaphor, conjures very different pictures in our mind depending on where we come from and what everyday life looks like. Do you see your life journey as a continuous cycle or do you see the journey as an arrow leading from one point to another?

What I have learned is that metaphors are not right or wrong but they can be good or bad depending on how they are used. Creating good metaphors is an art but there is some science behind it too.

“The metaphor is probably the most fertile power possessed by man” 
― Jos√© Ortega y Gasset

References:

  • Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (IL: University of Chicago Press, 1980)
  • The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes The Way We See the World, by James Cleary (NY: HarperCollins, 2011)
  • The art of the metaphor by Jane Hirshfield
  • Metaphor by Dr Rosamund Moon
  • Metaphor and Meaning by William Grey