Sunday, May 22, 2011

understanding as metaphor

OCBBM | We are trying to understand consciousness, but what are we really trying to do when we try to understand anything? Like children trying to describe nonsense objects, so in trying to understand a thing we are trying to find a metaphor for that thing. Not just any metaphor, but one with something more familiar and easy to our attention. Understanding a thing is to arrive at a metaphor for that thing by substituting something more familiar to us. And the feeling of familiarity is the feeling of understanding.

Generations ago we would understand thunderstorms perhaps as the roaring and rumbling about in battle of superhuman gods. We would have reduced the racket that follows the streak of lightning to familiar battle sounds, for example. Similarly today, we reduce the storm to various supposed experiences with friction, sparks, vacuums, and the imagination of bulgeous banks of burly air smashing together to make the noise. None of these really exist as we picture them. Our images of these events of physics are as far from the actuality as fighting gods. Yet they act as the metaphor and they feel familiar and so we say we understand the thunderstorm.

So, in other areas of science, we say we understand an aspect of nature when we can say it is similar to some familiar theoretical model. The terms theory and model, incidentally, are sometimes used interchangeably. But really they should not be. A theory is a relationship of the model to the things the model is supposed to represent. The Bohr model of the atom is that of a proton surrounded by orbiting electrons. It is something like the pattern of the solar system, and that is indeed one of its meta-phoric sources. Bohr’s theory was that all atoms were similar to his model. The theory, with the more recent discovery of new particles and complicated interatomic relationships, has turned out not to be true. But the model remains. A model is neither true nor false; only the theory of its similarity to what it represents.

A theory is thus a metaphor between a model and data. And understanding in science is the feeling of similarity between complicated data and a familiar model.

If understanding a thing is arriving at a familiarizing metaphor for it, then we can see that there always will be a difficulty in understanding consciousness. For it should be immediately apparent that there is not and cannot be anything in our immediate experience that is like immediate experience itself. There is therefore a sense in which we shall never be able to understand consciousness in the same way that we can understand things that we are conscious of.

Most of the errors about consciousness that we have been studying have been errors of attempted metaphors. We spoke of the notion of consciousness being a copy of experience coming out of the explicit metaphor of a schoolboy’s slate. But of course no one really meant consciousness copies experience; it was as if it did. And we found on analysis, of course, that it did no such thing.

And even the idea behind that last phrase, that consciousness does anything at all, even that is a metaphor. It is saying that consciousness is a person behaving in physical space who does things, and this is true only if ‘does’ is a metaphor as well. For to do things is some kind of behavior in a physical world by a living body. And also in what Space' is the metaphorical 'doing' being done? (Some of the dust is beginning to settle.) This 'space* too must be a metaphor of real space. All of which is reminiscent of our discussion of the location of consciousness, also a metaphor.

Consciousness is being thought of as a thing, and so like other things must have a location, which, as we saw earlier, it does not actually have in the physical sense.

I realize that my argument here is becoming fairly dense. But before coming out into the clearing, I wish to describe what I shall mean by the term analog. An analog is a model, but a model of a special kind. It is not like a scientific model, whose source may be anything at all and whose purpose is to act as an hypothesis of explanation or understanding. Instead, an analog is at every point generated by the thing it is an analog of. A map is a good example. It is not a model in the scientific sense, not a hypothetical model like the Bohr atom to explain something unknown. Instead, it is constructed from something well known, if not completely known. Each region of a district of land is allotted a corresponding region on the map, though the materials of land and map are absolutely different and a large proportion of the features of the land have to be left out. And the relation between an analog map and its land is a metaphor. If I point to a location on a map and say, "There is Mont Blanc and from Chamonix we can reach the east face this way," that is really a shorthand way of saying, "The relations between the point labeled 'Mont Blanc' and other points is similar to the actual Mont Blanc and its neighboring regions."

The Metaphor Language of Mind
I think it is apparent now, at least dimly, what is emerging from the debris of the previous chapter. I do not now feel myself proving my thesis to you step by step, so much as arranging in your mind certain notions so that, at the very least, you will not be immediately estranged from the point I am about to make. My procedure here in what I realize is a difficult and overtly diffuse part of this book is to simply state in general terms my conclusion and then clarify what it implies.

Subjective conscious mind is an analog of what is called the real world. It is built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world. Its reality is of the same order as mathematics. It allows us to shortcut behavioral processes and arrive at more adequate decisions. Like mathematics, it is an operator rather than a thing or repository. And it is intimately bound up with volition and decision.

Consider the language we use to describe conscious processes. The most prominent group of words used to describe mental events are visual. We ‘see’ solutions to problems, the best of which may be ‘brilliant’, and the person ‘brighter’ and ’clearheaded’ as opposed to 'dull', 'fuzzy-minded', or 'obscure' solutions. These words are all metaphors and the mind-space to which they apply is a metaphor of actual space. In it we can 'approach' a problem, perhaps from some 'viewpoint', and 'grapple' with its difficulties, or seize together or 'comprehend' parts of a problem, and so on, using metaphors of behavior to invent things to do in this metaphored mind-space.

And the adjectives to describe physical behavior in real space are analogically taken over to describe mental behavior in mind-space when we speak of our minds as being 'quick,' 'slow', 'agi-tated' (as when we cogitate or co-agitate), 'nimble-witted', 'strong-' or 'weak-minded.' The mind-space in which these metaphorical activities go on has its own group of adjectives; we can be 'broad-minded', 'deep', 'open', or 'narrow-minded'; we can be 'occupied'; we can 'get something off our minds', 'put something out of mind', or we can 'get it', let something 'penetrate', or 'bear', 'have', 'keep', or 'hold' it in mind.

As with a real space, something can be at the 'back' of our mind, in its 'inner recesses', or 'beyond' our mind, or 'out' of our mind. In argument we try to 'get things through' to someone, to 'reach' their 'understanding' or find a 'common ground', or 'point out', etc., all actions in real space taken over analogically into the space of the mind.

But what is it we are making a metaphor of? We have seen that the usual function of metaphor is a wish to designate a particular aspect of a thing or to describe something for which words are not available. That thing to be designated, described, expressed, or lexically widened is what we have called the metaphrand. We operate upon this by some similar, more familiar thing, called a metaphier. Originally, of course, the purpose was intensely practical, to designate an arm of the sea as a better place for shellfish, or to put a head on a nail that it might better hold a board to a stanchion. The metaphiers here were arm and head, and the metaphrands a particular part of the sea and particular end of the nail that already existed. Now when we say mind-space is a metaphor of real space, it is the real 'external' world that is the metaphier. But if metaphor generates consciousness rather than simply describes it, what is the metaphrand?

Paraphiers and Paraphrands
If we look more carefully at the nature of metaphor (noticing all the while the metaphorical nature of almost everything we are saying), we find (even the verb “find”!) that it is composed of more than a metaphier and a metaphrand. There are also at the bottom of most complex metaphors various associations or attributes of the metaphier which I am going to call paraphiers. And these paraphiers project back into the metaphrand as what I shall call the paraphrands of the metaphrand. Jargon, yes, but absolutely necessary if we are to be crystal clear about our referents.

Some examples will show that the unraveling of metaphor into these four parts is really quite simple, as well as clarifying what otherwise we could not speak about.

Consider the metaphor that the snow blankets the ground. The metaphrand is something about the completeness and even thickness with which the ground is covered by snow. The metaphier is a blanket on a bed. But the pleasing nuances of this metaphor are in the paraphiers of the metaphier, blanket. These are something about warmth, protection, and slumber until some period of awakening. These associations of blanket then auto-matically become the associations or paraphrands of the original metaphrand, the way the snow covers the ground. And we thus have created by this metaphor the idea of the earth sleeping and protected by the snow cover until its awakening in spring. All this is packed into the simple use of the word ‘blanket’ to pertain to the way snow covers the ground.

Not all metaphors, of course, have such generative potential. In that often-cited one that a ship plows the sea, the metaphrand is the particular action of the bow of the ship through the water, and the metaphier is plowing action. The correspondence is exact. And that is the end of it.

But if I say the brook sings through the woods, the similarity of the metaphrand of the brook's bubbling and gurgling and the metaphier of (presumably) a child singing is not at all exact. It is the paraphiers of joy and dancingness becoming the para-phrands of the brook that are of interest.

Or in the many-poemed comparison of love to a rose, it is not the tenuous correspondence of metaphrand and metaphier but the paraphrands that engage us, that love lives in the sun, smells sweet, has thorns when grasped, and blooms for a season only. Or suppose I say less visually and so more profoundly something quite opposite, that my love is like a tinsmith's scoop, sunk past its gleam in the meal-bin.5 The immediate correspondence here of metaphrand and metaphier, of being out of casual sight, is trivial. Instead, it is the paraphrands of this metaphor which create what could not possibly be there, the enduring careful shape and hidden shiningness and holdingness of a lasting love deep in the heavy manipulable softnesses of mounding time, the whole simulating (and so paraphranding) sexual intercourse from a male point of view. Love has not such properties except as we generate them by metaphor.

Of such poetry is consciousness made. This can be seen if we return to some of the metaphors of mind we have earlier looked at. Suppose we are trying to solve some simple problem such as the circle-triangle series in the previous chapter. And suppose we express the fact that we have obtained the solution by exclaiming that at last we 'see' what the answer is, namely, a triangle.

This metaphor may be analyzed just as the blanket of snow or the singing brook. The metaphrand is obtaining the solution, the metaphier is sight with the eyes, and the paraphiers are all those things associated with vision that then create paraphrands, such as the mind's 'eye', 'seeing the solution clearly’ etc., and, most important, the paraphrand of a 'space' in which the 'seeing' is going on, or what I am calling mind-space, and 'objects' to 'see.'

I do not mean this brief sketch to stand in for a real theory of how consciousness was generated in the first place. That problem we shall come to in Book II. Rather I intend only to suggest the possibility that I hope to make plausible later, that consciousness is the work of lexical metaphor. It is spun out of the concrete metaphiers of expression and their paraphiers, projecting paraphrands that exist only in the functional sense. Moreover, it goes on generating itself, each new paraphrand capable of being a metaphrand on its own, resulting in new metaphiers with their paraphiers, and so on.

Of course this process is not and cannot be as haphazard as I am making it sound. The world is organized, highly organized, and the concrete metaphiers that are generating consciousness thus generate consciousness in an organized way. Hence the similarity of consciousness and the physical-behavioral world we are conscious of. And hence the structure of that world is echoed — though with certain differences — in the structure of consciousness.

One last complication before going on. A cardinal property of an analog is that the way it is generated is not the way it is used — obviously. The map-maker and map-user are doing two different things. For the map-maker, the metaphrand is the blank piece of paper on which he operates with the metaphier of the land he knows and has surveyed. But for the map-user, it is just the other way around. The land is unknown; it is the land that is the metaphrand, while the metaphier is the map which he is using, by which he understands the land.

And so with consciousness. Consciousness is the metaphrand when it is being generated by the paraphrands of our verbal expressions. But the functioning of consciousness is, as it were, the return journey. Consciousness becomes the metaphier full of our past experience, constantly and selectively operating on such unknowns as future actions, decisions, and partly remembered pasts, on what we are and yet may be. And it is by the generated structure of consciousness that we then understand the world.