Metaphor, Meaning, and Mindfulness

A WORD is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day. – Emily Dickinson

“Metaphor allows the mind to use a few basic ideas – substance, location, force, goal- to understand more abstract domains. Combinatorics allow a finite set of simple ideas to give rise to an infinite set of complex ones.” – Steven Pinker

I’d like to bring Rorty into focus: We all (who have read CIS) know that Rorty thinks that the function of philosophy is not to edify old ways of speaking. Rather, the function of philosophy is to make it easier to speak in new, more useful ways.

According to the internet encyclopedia of philosophy, Rorty sees “philosophy as metaphor. Once one abandons the search for truth and for a reality that is concealed behind the everyday world, the role of a social practice in the vanguard of cultural change and innovation (philosophical or otherwise) is, or ought to be, to liberate humanity from old metaphors that are rooted in superstition, mystification, and a religion-inspired mindset. He suggests that this can be done by offering new metaphors and reshaping vocabularies that will accommodate new, “abnormal” insights.”‘

We must consciously fashion our own metaphors to cope with the world. If we can free ourselves from the tyranny of locating and adopting a transcendental vocabulary, human ingenuity and creativity will craft undreamt of possibilities as surely as Galileo reinvented our understanding of the “heavens” by jettisoning of the outmoded Aristotelian crystalline celestial metaphor.

Rorty’s argument has a fascinating psychological basis. (Zach: evolutionary basis too!)

Arnie Kozak, Ph. D and Clinicial Instructor in Psychiatry and Medicine at the University of Vermont College of Medicine explains that
“Robert Frost warned, “Unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere.” Metaphors are often thought of as colorful augmenting features of language. However, a large body of scholarship shows that ordinary “literal” language is infused with metaphors. It is impossible to think, feel, or act without the use of metaphors. In fact, the evolution of the human mind may have depended on the use of metaphors. The words we use are not “dead” and the concepts they point to can contribute to stress, mental suffering, psychopathology, and unhappiness.”

The metaphors we utilize determine how we live. They determine our actions, beliefs, desires, and faith.

As George Lakoff explains in Metaphors We Live By, “People think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.”


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