Using Metaphors to Reason

What is a metaphor good for?

http://www.metaphorology.com/good-metaphors.html

“Of course good metaphors can sound nice to the ears. But they do at least two other things as well. To begin with, they simply make is easier to think about something, especially something new. In addition, they make it possible to think about things in new ways.”

To summarize, a metaphor should

  1. Please the ear, i.e. sound good,
  2. make it easier to think about something new,
  3. enable new ways of thinking about things

New things or concepts can be obtuse. A metaphor can provide a model for thinking about it.  Concepts are abstracted, and immediately made concrete. Bohr modeled the quantum atom as a miniature planetary system. This worked to a point, but only roughly for a limited set of calculations. Then it broke down completely. Wave particle duality means that the electron is not really much like a planet and the orbits are nothing like those we might imagine. So a real atom isn’t much like a planetary system, but some aspects of the metaphor can be helpful to think about it for the first time.

Self help books often use the “journey” metaphor.  “Love is a journey”, the shared goal is a destination. You might then think of rest tops, maps, and planning. Then again, “war” is also a common metaphor, “love is war” with disagreements, battles, and negotiated peace.
Some metaphors enter the language and become a sort of short hand way of expressing a concept.  A medieval scam was to sell a baby pig in a sack (also called a “poke” at the time) Imagine the victim’s surprise when he opened the bag to reveal not a pig, but a cat. By “letting the cat out of the bag”, he discovered he’d bought a “pig in a poke”.
The metaphors are quite dead to the modern speaker, (dead as a door nail). Yet we continue to use these as figures of speech in proper context. The abstract meaning behind these phrases persists centuries after the concrete has left our collective memory.
Passing out of collective memory can have odd affects. “Balls to the wall” refers to the ball shaped grip on the airplane engine throttle full forward to the firewall during a takeoff. “Coming to a head” refers to the buildup of pus in a pimple. The metaphors persist, but the imagery is somewhat different than intended. This should give us some caution about assuming metaphors convey the meaning we expect.
A metaphor is a tool, is a metaphor. Most general purpose tools “the Swiss army knife”, don’t do anything particularly well. There is no “best” tool, but a tool for the purpose. The appropriate tool does something very well, but is replaced with another tool for a different task, even a very similar task. I have dozens of wrench sockets that replace adjustable wrench. Walk into a wood working shop and count the variants of each tool. So a single metaphor is unlikely to hold up well if you over use it.  If you accept a single metaphor as your Swiss army knife, then you’ve bought a pig in a poke.

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About Bill Nichols

PhD in Physics from Carnegie Mellon University I'm a software team coach and instructor with the TSP Team at the Software Engineering Institute
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