Sunday, May 22, 2011

metaphor and language

OCBBM | THUS HAVING CHISELED away some of the major misconceptions about consciousness, what then have we left? If con-sciousness is not all these things, if it is not so extensive as we think, not a copy of experience, or the necessary locus of learning, judgment, or even thought, what is it? And as we stare into the dust and rubble of the last chapter, hoping Pygmalion-like to see consciousness newly step forth pure and pristine out of the detritus, let us ramble out and around the subject a little way as the dust settles, talking of different things.

Metaphor and Language
Let us speak of metaphor. The most fascinating property of language is its capacity to make metaphors. But what an under-statement! For metaphor is not a mere extra trick of language, as it is so often slighted in the old schoolbooks on composition; it is the very constitutive ground of language. I am using metaphor here in its most general sense: the use of a term for one thing to describe another because of some kind of similarity between them or between their relations to other things. There are thus always two terms in a metaphor, the thing to be described, which I shall call the metaphrand, and the thing or relation used to elucidate it, which I shall call the metaphier. A metaphor is always a known metaphier operating on a less known meta-phrand. I have coined these hybrid terms simply to echo multiplication where a multiplier operates on a multiplicand.

It is by metaphor that language grows. The common reply to the question “what is it?” is, when the reply is difficult or. the experience unique, “well, it is like —.” In laboratory studies, both children and adults describing nonsense objects (or meta-phrands) to others who cannot see them use extended meta-phiers that with repetition become contracted into labels. This is the major way in which the vocabulary of language is formed. The grand and vigorous function of metaphor is the generation of new language as it is needed, as human culture becomes more and more complex.

A random glance at the etymologies of common words in a dictionary will demonstrate this assertion. Or take the naming of various fauna and flora in their Latin indicants, or even in their wonderful common English names, such as stag beetle, lady’s-slipper, darning needle, Queen Anne’s lace, or buttercup. The human body is a particularly generative metaphier, creating previously unspeakable distinctions in a throng of areas. The head of an army, table, page, bed, ship, household, or nail, or of steam or water; the face of a clock, cliff, card, or crystal; the eyes of needles, winds, storms, targets, flowers, or potatoes; the brow of a hill; the cheeks of a vise; the teeth of cogs or combs; the lips of pitchers, craters, augers; the tongues of shoes, board joints, or railway switches; the arm of a chair or the sea; the leg of a table, compass, sailor’s voyage, or cricket field; and so on and on. Or the foot of this page. Or the leaf you will soon turn. All of these concrete metaphors increase enormously our powers of perception of the world about us and our understanding of it, and literally create new objects. Indeed, language is an organ of perception, not simply a means of communication.

This is language moving out synchronically (or without reference to time) into the space of the world to describe it and perceive it more and more definitively. But language also moves in another and more important way, diachronically, or through time, and behind our experiences on the basis of aptic structures in our nervous systems to create abstract concepts whose referents are not observables except in a metaphorical sense. And these too are generated by metaphor. This is indeed the nub (knob), heart, pith, kernel, core, marrow, etc. of my argument, which itself is a metaphor and ‘seen’ only with the mind’s ‘eye’.

In the abstractions of human relations, the skin becomes a particularly important metaphier. We get or stay ‘in touch’ with others who may be ‘thick-’ or ‘thin-skinned’ or perhaps ‘touchy’ in which case they have to be ‘handled’ carefully lest we ‘rub’ them the wrong way; we may have a ‘feeling’ for another person with whom we may have a ‘touching’ experience.

The concepts of science are all of this kind, abstract concepts generated by concrete metaphors. In physics, we have force, acceleration (to increase one's steps), inertia (originally an indolent person), impedance, resistance, fields, and now charm. In physiology, the metaphier of a machine has been at the very center of discovery. We understand the brain by metaphors to everything from batteries and telegraphy to computers and holograms. Medical practice is sometimes dictated by metaphor. In the eighteenth century, the heart in fever was like a boiling pot, and so bloodletting was prescribed to reduce its fuel. And even today, a great deal of medicine is based upon the military metaphor of defense of the body against attacks of this or that. The very concept of law in Greek derives from nomos, the word for the foundations of a building. To be liable, or bound in law, comes from the Latin ligare, meaning to bind with cord.

In early times, language and its referents climbed up from the concrete to the abstract on the steps of metaphors, even, we may say, created the abstract on the bases of metaphors.

It is not always obvious that metaphor has played this all-important function. But this is because the concrete metaphiers become hidden in phonemic change, leaving the words to exist on their own. Even such an unmetaphorical-sounding word as the verb 'to be' was generated from a metaphor. It comes from the Sanskrit bhu, “to grow, or make grow,” while the English forms ‘am’ and ‘is’ have evolved from the same root as the Sanskrit asmi “to breathe.” It is something of a lovely surprise that the irregular conjugation of our most nondescript verb is thus a record of a time when man had no independent word for ‘exis-tence’ and could only say that something ‘grows’ or that it “breathes.” Of course we are not conscious that the concept of being is thus generated from a metaphor about growing and breathing. Abstract words are ancient coins whose concrete images in the busy give-and-take of talk have worn away with use.

Because in our brief lives we catch so little of the vastnesses of history, we tend too much to think of language as being solid as a dictionary, with a granite-like permanence, rather than as the rampant restless sea of metaphor which it is. Indeed, if we consider the changes in vocabulary that have occurred over the last few millennia, and project them several millennia hence, an interesting paradox arises. For if we ever achieve a language that has the power of expressing everything, then metaphor will no longer be possible. I would not say, in that case, my love is like a red, red rose, for love would have exploded into terms for its thousands of nuances, and applying the correct term would leave the rose metaphorically dead.
The lexicon of language, then, is a finite set of terms that by metaphor is able to stretch out over an infinite set of circumstances, even to creating new circumstances thereby.

(Could consciousness be such a new creation?)

3 comments:

umbrarchist said...

The Uplift War by David Brin is interesting with all of its use of language and aliens complaining about stupid human language.  LOL

umbrarchist said...

The Uplift War by David Brin is interesting with all of its use of
language and aliens complaining about stupid human language.  LOL 

CNu said...

I remember that book, a dolphin operated starship and Progenitors - vaguely reminiscent of Clark's First Born....,