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Metaphors, Make-Believe & Mythology

glimpse Metaphors are interesting examples of games of make-believe, ones that we seldom notice we are playing. Yet our languages are saturated with metaphorical content – we can barely communicate at all without recourse to them. Why should this be?

Our usual make-believe games are concerned with the content of the fictional worlds, with what happens to the fictional things within those worlds. Walton calls these kinds of imaginary games content oriented. Novels, films, paintings and digital games are all by their nature content oriented. Against this, Walton recognizes an alternative kind of make-believe he calls prop oriented, and as an example he describes a way of learning to tie a particular knot:

A small fiction can help one learn how to tie a bowline. First, you make a loop. Then you say to yourself, "The rabbit comes out of the hole, goes under the log, and back into the hole," as you manipulate the rope accordingly. This is hardly a gripping story. I certainly wasn't caught up in it when I was taught how to tie the knot, as a child might be caught up in the story of Peter Rabbit... I wasn't interested in the fictional scamperings of a rabbit. I just wanted to know how to tie the knot correctly.

Here’s another way of getting at Walton’s distinction between content-oriented and prop-oriented make-believe. Consider a costume that a child wears to play in with an adult's fancy dress costume. If a child dresses as a member of The X-Men it is likely they imagine they are a mutant superhero – a content oriented game. However, if an adult goes to a fancy dress party dressed as a member of the X-men it’s rather less likely that they are going to play an imaginary game like the child’s. Their interest is in the way the costume functions as a prop prescribing that other guests imagine they are adopting an alternative identity – a prop oriented game. In this latter case, the costume itself is of greater importance than any game of make-believe being played: the fictional world the costume implies is not important in the fancy dress party, but it is central to the child’s imaginary game.

This distinction between content and prop-oriented make-believe helps explain how we use metaphors in language. Metaphors can be understood as props intended for use in prop oriented games of make-believe, ones in which the implied fictional world is not our principal interest. Walton notes that the use of metaphor allows for extensions to the associated game in quite natural ways that do not have to be explained or made explicit. Thus the make-believe implied by the remark that “we are all in the same boat” leads naturally to the suggestion that “since we are all in the same boat, it behooves us to row in the same direction.”

We often fail to notice just how deeply embedded into our language metaphor  is – in many instances, it is difficult or even impossible to communicate without recourse to metaphor. Stephen Yablo, drawing from Walton’s work amongst other things, has explored the philosophical implications of our use of metaphor, and has noted that “the boundaries of the literal are about as blurry as they could be…” Far from being clear cut where metaphor begins and literal utterance ends, we constantly make use of metaphorical language that cannot easily be resolved into literal alternatives.

Yablo notes that when we talk about average entities, it’s exceptionally difficult to understand what we are referring to literally. If we say “the average star has 2.4 planets” we are not really describing a rather weird object “the average star” which has – bizarrely – a fractional number of planets. Frankly, 0.4 planets is not something plausible to imagine in any context other than “an average star”. We can paraphrase to something like “the number of planets divided by the number of stars is 2.4” but this is still effectively a metaphor – and a clumsy one, too. The “average star” gets at the relevant idea more directly, and suggests natural extensions (e.g. “how many moons does the average planet have?”) Yablo suggests metaphors such as these are representatively essential; we can’t communicate the same idea effectively without a little make-believe.

Furthermore, metaphors such as these “pack a cognitive punch no literal paraphrase can match.” Yablo notes our dependence upon scientific metaphors like ‘feedback loop’, ‘underground economy’, and ‘unit of selection’ – there is almost no field of science which can operate comfortably without recourse to metaphors in order to communicate key concepts. Even our most literally-minded endeavours depend upon metaphor for their usual operation.

Oddly, metaphors seem to have a life cycle. They come into being with an artistic flair, and gradually, through repetition and use, they lose the explicit make-believe element and become dead metaphors. When we talk about the hand of a watch, or saving time, these are phrases that once had metaphorical force (the mechanical arrows on a clock face are not literally ‘hands’; time is not ‘saved’) but now lack any real imaginative element. Phrases such as ‘hopping mad’, ‘frozen with fear’, ‘dark secrets’ or ‘sour notes’ are similarly reduced to dead metaphors.

David Hill suggests that our overriding principle in respect of metaphors is “make the most of it” – that is, construe any metaphorical utterance in terms of the make-believe games that fit to it in the most plausible or instructive ways. The kind of games that offer the best fit in any given case may not be clear and unequivocal; they may be forever ambiguous. Even the literal meaning of the metaphor may be a legitimate interpretation of its meaning in some cases – despite our intuitions, some metaphors are literally true (‘no man is an island’, for instance). When we make a metaphorical utterance precisely what it means is always open to interpretation.

As a consequence, we can’t ferret out the literal aspects of language, because there are no end of cases that defy this kind of resolution. Yablo observes:

Is ‘calm’ literal in connection with people and metaphorical as applied to bodies of water, or the other way around – or literal in connection with these and metaphorical when applied to historical eras? What about the ‘backs’ and ‘fronts’ of animals, houses, pieces of paper, and parades? Questions like these seem unanswerable, and not because one doesn't understand ‘calm’ and ‘front’.

We communicate with metaphor in language, but why is this? While there are many possible answers to this question, one approach that is amenable to make-believe interpretations of metaphorical language use can be found in the German idealist philosophy of Ernst Cassirer. In Language and Myth, published in 1925, Cassirer observes that – despite the difference in content – myth and language use the same kinds of mental conception, namely metaphorical thinking. Verbal and mythical worlds have a strange kind of unity, despite their obvious differences.

Cassirer traces an anthropological history of the way words seem to have come into being by examining primitive languages and concludes (following Usener) that words originated as “momentary gods” – unique events that distinguish themselves as against the background of experience. The flash of lightning comes from nowhere and is interpreted as a spirit, a god,which comes to have a name. Spirits and words are one and the same in many tribal languages, and similar roots can be found in our modern languages.

On this account, language and myth are significantly coextensive, and since mythology is quintessentially metaphorical, this  makes it far less surprising that language is suffused with metaphor. If the origin of words is essentially rooted in a mythical perspective of nature, it is less surprising that modern language is suffused with metaphor – words themselves relate to experiences as prop oriented games of make-believe. Words are always already metaphorical.

Herder, Schelling and the Romantics saw in language “a faded mythology”, one which preserves in its abstract distinctions what mythology considers concrete, living distinctions. Conversely, the comparative mythology of the late nineteenth century, epitomized by Max Müller, took the opposite perspective, seeing mythology as a faded language. Either way, this connection between mythology and language is the relationship between Walton’s content and prop oriented make-believe: mythology is the content oriented game and language the prop oriented game.

Words are props that we use to communicate; sometimes our interest is in the props themselves and sometimes our interest is in the content of the fictional world they imply. But those fictional worlds are always there to be referred to, whether or not we play any imaginary game within them. There is no escaping the influence of metaphor – as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have observed, the very foundations of our thought is metaphorical in nature. No wonder metaphor is so central to language! Never mind Wittgenstein’s language games, where language-use is to be understand on the model of a game, language is itself fundamentally a game, a game of make-believe, where metaphors are the inescapable condition of play.

The opening image is Glimpse by Vitor, which can be found on his website, The Fractal Forest. It is used with implict permission of the author, who retains all rights to this image.


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Great piece, Chris, almost aphoristic given the huge ground you cover here ;-)

Anyway, what I really, really would like to get an answer to (not necessarily from you Chris, but you could throw in your penny, if you like to ;-) is if anybody anywhere in the world has ever picked up this type of insight from reading a piece such as yours (or from reading a hundred scholarly books, if you will) or rather out of thin air, by listening to the zeitgeist or whatever...? (Needless to say, I opt for the latter ;-)

Insight, that´s worthwhile, is in my opinion always a result of many different sources. "No man is an island" and everything we are and we think is a result of what we have learned from those around us and from those who came before us. That´s the way society works.

Interesting post - all words are make-believe, I don´t think I agree there
But all words are metaphor - yes, I can see that, since non-physical entities (words) are being used describe a physical reality.

But I disagree that "saving time" is a dead metaphor, which lacks metaphorical force.
You haven´t read the German book "Momo" by Michael Ende, a beautiful tale for children and grown-ups.
In the book those people who are persuaded to "save time" by mysterious grey men from the "time saving bank" (just about everybody in town except the children)are actually getting linked and the "saved time" is in reality stolen from their life-time by these grey men.
I think you would like the book and its deeply metaphoric story. For more details put in a "search" for "Momo (novel)" on Wikipedia.

@Notsylvia: I agree, yet at the same time I have to wonder: how can such a process of "being influenced by many" be ever possible? If we accept that " all language is metaphorical " how can then anybody be influenced by another person's words? Otter than maybe in the form of a game of make-believe?
Or take the example of the concept of "dead metaphor" - this seems to be yet another (meta) metaphor Chris pulled out of his hat to convey something he had in mind - something I am not sure what to make of ... :-)) anyway, your Momo example certainly demonstrates the effort sometimes needed ( by way of writing a complete novel) to convey your understanding of a non-trivial concept to other people. Best!

Wow - you covered everything from cognitive psychology to neokantians to expressivists - all in one post. I am obscenely jealous. You got me thinking, so excuse the thoughtbarf:

What I think the Romantic expressivists got right, and people like Gaston Bachelard and Charles Taylor picked up later and made good flour of, was that the 'literal' or designative language emerges from a primary experience of reality that is thoroughly metaphorical and symbolic (magical, manitou). It is much later in human development that words like 'metaphor' or 'image' take on very intellectualized or conceptual meanings.

Preserved in the idea of metaphor, from what I grasp in Cassirer's Language & Myth and from the expressivists, is that metaphors become dead when they simply designate formulaic differences/similarities between designata. The "automatism of language" that takes us over when things become repeated ad nausea, at least for people like Bachelard, conceal the mysterious and inherently inexhaustive meanings that rich metaphors (or poetic images) have for us. His whole project, from what I can see, is to free the poetic and imaginative from dead language, to re-inhabit it with new meanings. So the literal, at least for the expressivists, is a deadening of language and a retreat into the way of being where language-is-tool-or-instrument. Hence, the literal is always prop-oriented, and the imaginative is always world/content-oriented.

Just playing with the terms to get a sense for them. Fantastic post, and I'm elated to see you wrestling with some of the same ideas that I do.

take care,
- Chris

Thanks for the comments everyone! I enjoyed writing this, but I didn't have time to edit it quite as much as I'd hoped. There's a little backstory to this: apparently, Hans Sluga said in regard to Cassirer that "Attempts to revive his fortunes are, I am afraid, doomed to failure". Challenge accepted! :)

translucy: I rather suspect that the river of thought runs through us all, and almost no idea is born in isolation. Similarly, I feel for every innovative thinker who makes it to an audience there are a dozen more who kept their thoughts to themselves. I'm forever finding examples of matters I thought I was dealing with in an original fashion that turned out to have already covered by someone (often Mary Midgley!) :)

Notsylvia: "all words are make-believe, I don´t think I agree there But all words are metaphor - yes, I can see that, since non-physical entities (words) are being used describe a physical reality."

If all words are metaphor, all words are make-believe (in the sense I am using), since metaphors are all make-believe in Walton's prop theory. (See prop theory in a nutshell.

"But I disagree that 'saving time' is a dead metaphor, which lacks metaphorical force."

While your discussion of Momo is intriguing, it doesn't show for me that saving time isn't a dead metaphor. The test for me is whether people saying "saving time" recognise it as a metaphor, and my intuition is that we now think about 'saving' as a perfectly normal thing to do with 'time' (rather crazily!)

Hey Chris - great to hear from you!

I agree with you that in terms of the development of language the metaphorical experience was probably primary, and the literal secondary; metaphor is one of those cultured terms that emerges when people begin to examine their language, rather than just use it.

"[For the expressivists] the literal is always prop-oriented, and the imaginative is always world/content-oriented."

Neat observation!

"Fantastic post, and I'm elated to see you wrestling with some of the same ideas that I do."

Not so much wrestling as juggling, but this piece is about where my head is at the moment. :) Believe it or not, I wrote this as a filler to bridge between the gender discussions and an interview running next week! But that belies the extent to which thoughts such as these have occupied my mind since working on the manuscript for "Imaginary Games". I think you're going to enjoy that when it comes out, which should be November this year - just got a date from the publisher!

All the best everyone!

Featured in the Philosopher's Carnival #125.

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