An Essay Featured In The Map Is Indestructible by O.G. Rose

Meaningful and Metaphoric Tendencies

Prisms and Prisons of Thought

Photo by Zach Vessels

Humans have an impulse to create metaphor as humans have an impulse to create meaning and/or explanation. We want to see the tree as “a tall man” in the same way we want to see the tree as “Mom’s favorite” or “a creation of God’s,” for such “ways of seeing” can add to the world and to life a more beautiful, good, and meaningful feeling. This impulse is naturally in us, but that doesn’t mean the tree isn’t “Mom’s favorite” or that the world isn’t “a creation of God’s.” It means only that humans have an impulse to add metaphysical dimensions to physicality, not necessary because humans want to deceive themselves, but because it’s just what humans do. Most certainty, a tree might be “a creation of God’s,” so the fact we have an impulse to see a tree as such doesn’t mean the tree isn’t such (that’s a different question), for self-motivation isn’t the same as self-deception.

Metaphor and meaning seem to shape how we see the world more than what we see in the world shapes metaphor and meaning. Yes, the two inform one another, but it seems one has more influence than the other. Considering this, if we fail to learn properly what a metaphor is, we will not learn properly how to think about physical reality, and furthermore cut ourselves off from the ability to grasp the world well. Considering that metaphor and meaning may shape how we see reality more than reality shapes how we see it, if we are to actually see reality well, we must be aware of the influence of metaphor and meaning, and so learn to create and cultivate metaphors and meanings that truly and accurately describe and frame the world. In a way, this is paradoxical, for to create a metaphor is precisely to describe a thing by describing it “as it is not” (it is to define A by discussing B), which is to say that creating a meaning or explanation is to see a thing in light of what that thing does not “wear upon its face,” per see (as the word “cat” does not “wear upon its face” the definition of “cat”). Ironically, we must learn how to determine what is the best way for seeing a thing “as it is not” in order to avoid seeing a thing “as it is not.”

Audio Summary

If we are ill-equipped to create metaphor and meaning, we will be ill-equipped to handle creating that which is integral to, and dramatically shapes, thinking. Furthermore, failure to recognize our natural impulse to see metaphor and meaning, and the roll metaphor and meaning have on thinking, will impede discernment and intellectual development. Please note that I’m not saying meaning and metaphor are “bad” or that we actually live in a meaningless universe: my point is only that our brains gravitate toward metaphor and meaning and are profoundly shaped by them. If we fail to realize this, we may find ourselves allowing our minds (subconsciously) to create and be shaped by “bad metaphors” and “false meanings,” which will impede our capacity to identify and assent to good metaphors and valuable meanings.

Like tools, we create metaphors that create us, as we create meanings that influence the meaning of our lives. Not because metaphors and meanings are necessarily self-delusions, but because they are the “scaffolding” by which we hold together our world. Whether this scaffolding is true or not is another question that exceeds the scope of this paper: again, just because something is “metaphoric” or “meaningful” doesn’t mean it is false. In line with Gödel, perhaps we can never verify which metaphors and meanings are true, but that doesn’t mean they are wrong. Rather, it means we must learn how best to live with uncertainty, and it is doubtful a people who fail to understand the importance of metaphor and meaning will be equipped to best live with unknowns.

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Metaphor shapes thought more than thought shapes metaphor. ‘Language creates a worldview’ more than a worldview creates language.¹ This isn’t to say worldviews don’t have any effect on language, but that language has an incredibly powerful impact on how we think about and see the world. As highlighted by Neil Postman in his book The End of Education, I. A. Richards would divide his class into three groups and ask each to write about language, but he would also provide each group with an opening sentence: either ‘language is like a tree,’ ‘language is like a river,’ or ‘language is like a building.’² ‘The paragraphs were strikingly different, with one group writing of roots and branches and organic growth; another of tributaries, streams, and even floods, another of foundations, rooms, and sturdy structures.’³ As the exercise made clear, metaphor influences what we say, and to some extent, ‘what we say controls what we see.’⁴

‘A metaphor is not an ornament. It is an organ of perception.’⁵ All too often today, metaphor is taught in school as nothing more than a poetic device, and Neil Postman lamented this tendency. He noted how entire philosophies were shaped around metaphors, highlighting the educational philosophy of Rousseau, who claimed ‘plants are improved by cultivation, and man by education,’ and Postman noted that Rousseau’s ‘entire philosophy rest[ed] upon th[e] comparison of plants and children.’⁶ Postman also pointed out the relationship between how we described sickness and how we thought about who was responsible for it: if we thought of sickness as something people “did” versus “have,” then we might think of them as being responsible for being “sick” — and so empowered to take control of their health — versus a victim of unfortunate and uncontrollable forces.⁷

Metaphor is not simply a description; it anchors, shapes, and directs thought, whether it be regarding sickness (as explored by Susan Sontag in her Illness as Metaphor), or regarding child psychology. Those who have not been educated properly about metaphor and its power will likely be those who fail to be truly educated, and this is why it is so tragic to Postman that ‘most students come to believe metaphor has a decorative function and only a decorative function.’⁸ It is doubtful that any great understanding of greatly complex ideas can happen without a profound ability to create and grasp metaphor: without Einstein’s poetic gift to describe General Relativity using images of men falling from buildings and being carried through space in glass rooms, it’s doubtful any of us would grasp the magnitude of Einstein’s work. Let us imagine Einstein picked a different metaphor, a bad metaphor, or let’s pretend Einstein was incapable of metaphor, and for that matter, let’s pretend as if no human was capable of metaphor. How many of us would still be in the dark about General Relativity? Most of us, I think: only elite physicists would probably understand (if even them). Einstein’s ideas have been some of the most influential in human history, but if humans were incapable of metaphor, imagine all the breakthroughs that wouldn’t have transpired (especially across disciplines, for metaphor seems particularly important for “interdisciplinary studies”). The idea of relativity has impacted all the humanities and sciences, but likely only because there were metaphors by which non-physicists could grasp the complex theory. Without metaphor, Einstein (along with most greater thinkers) would have had a much smaller impact, and any impact he did have would have been mostly contained to the field of physics. Metaphor makes the specialized accessible to the general.

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Metaphor increases our capacity to comprehend and to share what we comprehend with others; thanks to them, we are not limited to grasp only what we specialize in (though this isn’t to say there is no place for specialization). For non-specialists, metaphor makes it possible to grasp “General Relativity,” a theory which would otherwise be like “nothing,” relatively speaking. Humans naturally desire meaning and/or explanation, and our capacity for metaphor makes possible the comprehension of what would otherwise always be “unexplainable.” At the same time, our capacity to access and even create meaning can tempt us to go too far.

To be is to be explainable. If I come upon a table and find a glass sitting upon it, I assume, whether consciously or unconsciously, that there is an explanation for why the glass is there. There must be: if not, the glass wouldn’t be there. Even if the explanation is “The glass was teleported there by magic,” we cannot view a phenomenon without viewing what necessitates an explanation. If the cup ended up there randomly “by chance” or “from out of nothing,” then the explanation would be “The cup is there by random forces” or “The cup emerged ex nihilo,” and though these might not be satisfactory or believable explanations to us, they would still be explanations. Nothing cannot be explained and only (uncaused) nothing, and yet perhaps it can be explained why “nothing cannot be explained” (“Because nothing is axiomatically ‘that-which-cannot-be-to-be-explainable,’ ” for example).

Unfortunately, the glass on the table doesn’t “wear upon its face” the explanation for how it ended up there or why. We know by seeing it there that there must be an explanation, but we don’t know, just by seeing it, what “particular explanation is proper (we are left to imagine, ignore, or investigate, however we so choose). Yet the very lack of the “particular explanation upon the face of a thing” can be the very reason we are motivated to investigate the cause and learn more. The mystery, if you will, can motivate us to become scientists, philosophers, and the like. Perhaps in Heaven things will “wear their meanings” upon their being, but not on earth. Here, phenomena lack “upon their face” their “particular explanation,” but that doesn’t keep us from assuming the presence of “explanation” itself. To think a thing cannot be explained is to think a thing isn’t real.

Consciously or subconsciously, to see is to assume explanation: I cannot sense something that is without explanation. If a thing “is,” there is a reason it “is”: nothing exists that lacks a process through time by which it came to exist (as such). That isn’t to say all explanations satisfy us; in fact, some strike us as the same as “non-explanation.” Most would agree with the statement, “I cannot sense something that is without explanation,” but many would find “coincidence” or “no reason” as arbitrary, an explanation that didn’t even qualify as an explanation. And yet these are in fact explanations: to say, “That cup is on the table for no reason; a person put it there without thinking about it,” is in fact to offer an explanation. It might be an explanation we don’t like, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an explanation at all; in fact, to disqualify it would arguably be to do so for no more reason than prejudice. Humans consider some valid explanations as “non-explanations” when the explanations are simply not good enough for them (by some arbitrary standard), and unfortunately this prejudice has consequences.

If there is a cup on a table and I ask, “Why is that cup there?”, someone may answer, “Because I wanted to move it there.” If I ask “Why?”, that person may answer, “Because I felt like it,” and off of this question, I can keep asking “Why?” until I get an answer to which no more questions can follow (such as “just because”). At the end of every line of explanation is eventually an axiomatic reason for why things are the way they are, but if I have a prejudice against “just because”-explanations, when I reach this axiomatic reason, I won’t accept it as a substantive and valid explanation. I’ll pass over it as a “non-explanation,” and considering that at the core of all phenomena is eventually a “non-explanation,” I’ll ultimately never be able to accept the reason for anything. Even if I believe God told me to do something because that action would cause certain outcomes, if I kept asking why God told me to do this action, eventually, the answer becomes “Because God said so,” which, if questioned, becomes “Because God Is God,” not because there is no explanation, but because at the end of every chain of reasons is eventually an axiomatic reason. It might not be one that satisfies us, but it is one with which we will have to learn to live.

Humans seem to have a longing for what could be called an “infinite explanation” — an explanation that transcends eternal regression — and if they don’t learn to accept “just because” as “good enough,” they’ll keep pushing when there’s nothing to which to push on. They’ll never get the “infinite explanation” they’re after, and their innate orientation to assume and see explanation will push them passed the actual explanation, all because their prejudice made them unwilling to accept it. This may result in individuals still investigating long after there is no longer a need for explanation, or lead to individuals creating false explanations instead of accepting the axioms that aren’t good enough for them (perhaps because the fabricated explanations are more satisfying). This isn’t to say explanations have no place, but simply that explanation without a willingness to accept the axioms grounding those explanations will result in even true explanations being abandoned.

Failure to recognize our tendency to hold prejudice against explanations considered “non-explanations,” or our longing for “infinite explanations,” can have negative consequences on discernment, wisdom, and thinking in general. Furthermore, our impulse for explanation can impede our ability to accept accidental and human error, as can our prejudice against certain explanations that are “too axiomatic for us.” But in a world that isn’t perfect, this impulse could have us critiquing people who did nothing more than commit the crime of being human, as it could have us spending a lifetime searching for an explanation to justify a monstrosity or accident that just isn’t there. As we must learn the art of metaphor, we must learn the art of explanation, and not demand of explanations the satisfaction they cannot grant.

III

Metaphor and meaning/explanation both influence us powerfully, and failure to identity their power over us threatens our minds. I’ve decided to combine the topic of “metaphor” and “meaning/explanation” in this one work because I believe both are neglected, are driven by natural impulses, and because the two have such a major influence on thought. Furthermore, I’ve combined them in this work because I have concerns about our modern approach to both.

We rarely recognize how much our thinking is bound by metaphor: when someone says, “Language is a river,” we typically don’t notice how much the metaphor shapes our thought. Metaphor can come to function as a prison, one in which thought is trapped and bound without our realizing it, all while thinking we think freely. Likewise, our longing for meaning/explanation can trap us, which can drive us to keep asking for explanation from that which there is no explanation (that satisfies us, at least), leaving us stuck slamming against an unmovable object, forever — imprisoned. When faced with coincidence, accident, etc. — that which the explanation is basically “no explanation” — because of our bias, we are tempted to create explanations that “don’t fit” (but perhaps gives us peace of mind), and furthermore carry out actions (based on those explanations) which are either unneeded or even dangerous. If there is an accident and we can’t learn to live with “axiomatic explanations,” the event may always lead to “meaning” and/or “proving” something that it doesn’t (which could lure us into depression, self-hatred, retaliation, hyper criticism, and the like). If there is a car wreck and the reason for it is simply “The driver made a mistake,” instead of accepting this answer, perhaps we’ll think that the roads weren’t paved enough and that we need to spend more money on road infrastructure, or perhaps we’ll accuse the driver of being a monster. But no matter the quality of the road, there will always be accidents: if whenever there are accidents we think we need to invest in the roads, lots of money will be spent on trying to make the world a perfect place, with no satisfaction ever coming of it. This isn’t to say roads should never be improved, but rather that even if the roads were perfect, humans would still be flawed.

In closing, if we want to think well, we must be aware of how much metaphor shapes us (for good or for bad), while simultaneously keeping in mind that we need metaphor to grasp and spread complex ideas. We must risk playing with fire to thrive. Likewise, to think well, we must be aware of our natural tendency to project and assume the presence of explanation and meaning onto phenomena in the world, yet also our unwillingness to accept “non-explanation/non-meaning” as valid. Explanation and meaning motivate us to make new discoveries about the world, and yet they can also keep us from seeing the world clearly, both because we can fail to accept “no explanation/meaning,” and because we can unconsciously outsource thinking to metaphors and let metaphors “do our thinking for us.” At the same time, developing a cynicism and disbelief toward all explanation and meaning isn’t appropriate, for there is indeed meaning and explanation in life. Humans are creatures of meaning and metaphor, and as individuals need to cultivate and refine these natural tendencies, so societies should help shed light on how we can do this well. If individuals cultivate their innate tendencies poorly, there will be consequences, consequences we might not even be able to grasp unless we master our meaningful and metaphoric tendencies.

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Notes

¹Postman, Neil. The End of Education. New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1996: 177.

²Postman, Neil. The End of Education. New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1996: 185–186.

³Postman, Neil. The End of Education. New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1996: 186.

⁴Postman, Neil. The End of Education. New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1996: 186.

⁵Postman, Neil. The End of Education. New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1996: 174.

⁶Postman, Neil. The End of Education. New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1996: 174.

⁷Postman, Neil. The End of Education. New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1996: 176.

⁸Postman, Neil. The End of Education. New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1996: 173.

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Additions

1. To allude to “A is A” by O.G. Rose, a given thing is an “A is A without B,” and considering what has been said about metaphor, we have to determine which “without B” is the best for us to grasp a given “A is A.” Since an “A is A” is always an “ ‘A isn’t A’ is ‘A isn’t A’ (without B),” it is perhaps because a thing is “paradoxical” that it needs a proper “paradoxical framing” by which to grasp it “most accurately.” Things entail “is not”-ness, per se, and so metaphor, a description of a thing via “what a thing isn’t,” ironically helps us grasp what a thing “is” (as an “is not”).

2. Where there is a failure to understand and cultivate good metaphor and meaning, there can be an urge to suppress the impulse for them, via either a redefinition of what they are (such as defining “metaphor” as “a poetic decoration,” “meaning” as “self-delusion”) or through direct disregard. This can lead to great unhappiness, as the suppression of “meaning” most certainty has, as written about by Viktor Frankl and others.

3. Not only can an unwillingness to accept “non-explanation” negatively impact us, but it can also impact those around us, for if an event occurs involving a person and we are (“practically”) unwilling to accept “coincidence,” “human error,” etc., we can end up imposing certain “solutions” upon others which only make the problems worse.

4. Is there a difference between “meaning” and “explanation?” Yes and no, in the same way that there is and isn’t a difference between “water” and “H20.” Though the two make up the same substance, they are different in how they are “seen.” “Water” “hits the mind” as more poetic and sensual than “H20,” which comes across as more scientific and factual. Yet, though the two expressions are different, they are indivisible: there can be no “H20” if there is no “water,” and vice-versa. Person we could say “H20” is an explanation, while “water” is what that explanation “means.”

If I say, “The universe was created by God,” it is an explanation for the origin of the universe that entails a meaning, for the origin claims both “God Exists” and (implies) “God thinks the universe was important enough to create (along with everything in it).” The explanation entails a meaning, and, in a sense, the meaning is the soul of the explanation; the explanation, the body of the meaning. Explanation seems relative to meaning, as meaning seems relative to explanation.

If a cup ends up on a table because “I put it there,” the meaning of (the sight of) “the cup on the table” implies “human action has consequences,” “causality leads to outcomes,” and so on, and at the same time, explanations for how the cup got on the table are that “causality works” and “someone wanted to put it there.” To offer another example: if a painter paints a painting, the explanation for how the painting came into existence is “a painter painted it,” and perhaps the painting symbolizes something about modern life. If this is the case, then another/the explanation of the work is that “a painter wanted to paint a symbol about modern life.”

Considering all this, “explanation” and “meaning” are two streams that seem to merge and run together, making them indivisible, even though they can be considered distinct (which I think suggests the term “meaning/explanation” is valid). What has meaning will have an explanation, and what has an explanation will have meaning. If this is true, since everything ultimately has an explanation (despite human prejudice), everything ultimately has meaning (not that we’ll always like it).

5. Metaphor is a means by which we can grasp complex ideas, and so a means by which we can grasp the meaning/explanation(s) of those complexities. In such cases, our metaphors shape our explanations/meanings, as our explanations/meanings shape our metaphors. If we don’t grasp this relationship, we won’t be careful about the metaphors we use or careful about how we create that which influences how we think (and so influences that which leads to more metaphors). Do our metaphors shape our explanations/meanings more than our explanations/meanings shape our metaphors? Both, it seems.

6. Impulse for meaning/explanation can be driven by sadness and grief: if something tragic happens, we can demand an explanation. If someone we care about dies in a car wreck, it is natural to want to know why it happened, but if we’re unwilling to accept an explanation such as “It was an accident” or “Bad things happen,” we will struggle to ever have peace of mind. Despite our natural bias, we must learn to accept explanations that we feel aren’t “good enough,” or what isn’t “good enough” may consume us.

7. To those who claim their thinking isn’t shaped by metaphor, I would start by asking them if they use words.

8. For a powerful example on how metaphor impacts how we think about reality, consider what Thomas Merton wrote about “falling in love,” as found in Love and Living. First Harvest/HBJ Edition, 1985: 25–26.

9. Keep in mind that whenever there is a large State and the option for the State to do something about problems, faced with an explanation for problems that humans have a prejudice against (and especially where the “better safe than sorry”-mentality prevails vs. “better wise than foolish”), whenever there is an accident, there will be a demand for State action (to make sure it doesn’t happen again, to compensate the victims, etc.), even if State action isn’t the best course. This isn’t to say all State action is bad, but that if we aren’t aware of our tendencies to resort to it even when we shouldn’t necessarily do so, our chances of using the State well will be much less likely. In other words, our inability to live with coincidence and non-explanation will work to grow the State and potentially impede freedom.

10. If we can’t live with coincidence, we’ll struggle to live with ourselves, for we are “coincidence beings.” That said, Nihilists can take it too far if they say, “There is only coincidence,” when reality is rather a mixture.

11. To allude to “Experiencing Thinking” by O.G. Rose, metaphor makes it possible to understand some “high order complexities” (which otherwise would be thought of “as nothing”) in “low order”-terms (perhaps a unique way that actually reverently preserves their “high order”-ness). At the same time, we cannot forget that the “high order” isn’t merely our “low order” understanding of it, nor try to think of what actually has “no explanation” as “high order complexity,” for this could be just another way of refusing to live with (what we consider) “non-explanation/meaning.”

12. As depicted in To Turn the World by O.G. Rose, we create and search for metaphors, purposes, ideas, and explanations like a man searching through a ring of keys to find the one that turns the lock, hoping it’s there.

13. “Air,” “fire” — do these run the risk of working too perfectly as metaphors? “Fire” and “air” are regularly used to make points, but while metaphors on one hand make thinking possible, they are also risk contributing to lazy thinking. Metaphors are tragic: they enable and disable thinking; simultaneously, they offer both life and death.

14. If we are in fact A/B ontologically (as discussed throughout O.G. Rose), then it would seem appropriate that we understand the world in terms of metaphors, in terms of “what things aren’t,” for that would be to see an “are not” wherever we see an “are” (“are (not),” A/B).

15. We create metaphors that then make us and motivate us to see meaning where we find meaning lacking. ‘We shape our [metaphors], and then our [metaphors] shape us.’¹

¹Allusion to the McLuhan-esq thought of John Culkin.

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