Can metaphors advance understanding?

Lost cartography (from Stephen Eastaugh)
Lost cartography (from Stephen Eastaugh)

Self-contained cartography

DISCLAIMER:

This is not a transcript of an actual conversation. This dialogue is one of a series composed from conversations I have had with¬† people through the course of this research. It represents my reading of what was said, and also reflects questions I pose to myself, playing the devil’s advocate. Writing these dialogues has helped me think through some issues raised by skeptics of my work. This has been helpful to the progress of the project, and to those involved I am most grateful.

Me:

Do you identify as someone with a half-full or or half-empty cup? Or does that change for you?

She:

What do you mean?

Me:

I’m talking about the cup as a metaphor for feelings we have about things. For example, I can feel my cup is half empty when I consider all the work ahead of me, composing this PhD. Other times, when I have done something I am pleased with, no matter how small, I feel optimistic, and my cup feels half full (well, with something in there, at least).

She:

Why use metaphors? Why not just talk about things as they are?

She:

Metaphors can help us connect with complex things, like feelings, theories and systems.  For example, A circle has been used in Tibetan art to represent unity in the natural world. Freud used an iceberg as a metaphor for the human mind, with most of our conscious thoughts submerged.

She:

Metaphors are misleading. They dumb things down. They do not advance understanding towards a higher order of thinking about the world.

Me:

They do not try to in a scientific sense. Metaphors are poetic reflections. They can help some people feel connected with the world and its representations. Representations of the world can be scientific models, and other poetic reflections made by artists. I guess we have to distinguish between thinking and feeling. Both are important.

She:

I am not an artist.

Me:

And I am not a scientist. Metaphors can be bridges to connect how we know the world. Scientists are often the masters of metaphor. They need to be, to communicate to non-scientists. Metaphors are something like a visual language.

But here we get to troubled waters, and go round and round in circles!

She:

I do not understand metaphors.

Me:

I do not understand the higher order thinking that goes on in science. But we both understand what metaphors are and that they can help people understand complex things, albeit in a simplified way. Metaphors can advance our understanding of the world in different ways from traditional scientific thinking. They can help us feel. That’s important too. There are many ways humans advance knowledge of the world, through different kinds of intelligences. Howard Gardner (see ‘Frames of mind’, 1984) has identified multiple intelligences.The challenge is for humans to understand each other.

(to be continued…)

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Posted on Sunday, November 23rd, 2008