A Short Piece Inspired by Dr. Gregg Henriques

Transitional Metaphors Are Not Mixed Metaphors

Since metaphors shape thinking, if we conflate “mixed metaphors” with “transitional metaphors,” we will likely be one-dimensional in our thinking and “fence ourselves off” from thinking “emergently.”

I had the joy of speaking with Dr. Gregg Henriques, and I applaud his efforts, because humans don’t feel “addressed” without a theory that makes the universe feel coherent and like it somehow “goes together,” only “explained away.” No, we don’t need to know “how exactly everything goes together,” but if we don’t feel like everything at least “could” — if we don’t have at least a “sense” of a possible coherence — we tend to suffer incredible existential anxiety, overwhelmed by a feeling that everything is fragmented and meaningless. Destabilized as such, longing to feel normal again, we become uniquely susceptible to being exploited by totalitarianism (as discussed throughout “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose).

The modern choice of most academics to forsake “theories of address” is extremely consequential and contributes to the political upheaval that defines our world today. If intellectuals won’t offer “visions which address us,” then people will still long for them, and tragically they’ll likely turn to “totalizing visions” offered by totalitarians. A “vision of address” tries to harmonize numerous and different parts, whereas a “totalizing vision” tries to treat a part like it is the whole (we could say “visions of address” harmonize, whereas “totalizing visions” singularize, per se). And so we have our world today…

“What is a Paradox?” by O.G. Rose argued that we today tend to conflate “paradox” and “contradiction” as similes, and that this mistake has had practical consequences: if paradoxes efface, then we don’t have to worry about them (and they certainly can’t describe our ontology, as I argue throughout The True Isn’t the Rational they do). Thus, making sure “paradox” and “contradiction’ aren’t conflated is critical: similarly, I would argue that conflating the categories of “mixed metaphor” and “transitional metaphor” could devastate us.

Why? Because we must use multiple and evolving metaphors to describe certain facets and subjects of existence, and if we’re not allowed to use multiple metaphors (that “converse” with another, transition, etc.), we won’t understand these facets. Worse yet, as argued throughout O.G. Rose (notably “Meaningful and Metaphoric Tendencies”), if metaphors are fundamental to thinking, not just decorations of thinking, then the loss of the category of “transitional metaphors” will limit our minds and make us incapable of thinking about certain dimensions of existence. Because of a rule we learned in English class, we might handicap our minds and keep ourselves from understanding the universe (funny how things connect).


What is a “mixed metaphor?” According to Merriam-Webster, it is “a figure of speech combing inconsistent or incongruous metaphors.” For example, if I say, “the sun was an eye singing light,” I would be speaking as if an eye could sing. If I said, “I feel as happy as a lark and as certain as a builder about my day,” though I’m not claiming “larks build houses,” I am combining in the same sentence the activities of a bird with the crafts of a tradesman, which can be confusing and unclear. How can I be incredibly happy while at the same time stern and focused? Sure, perhaps craftsmen can feel happy inside as they engage in their work, but larks express their happiness by singing and flying around: whatever happiness a craftsman might feel inside doesn’t readily overlay with “a singing lark.” In this way, the description is mixed and unclear.

A mixed metaphor hinders understanding versus aid it, often overlaying elements which cancel out. There also seems to be a difference between “a mixed metaphor,” which is a single sentence or image that incorporates conflicting descriptions (“We’re in hot water and having a good time.”), and “mixing metaphors,” which is when we combine together multiple metaphoric phrases to describe the same phenomenon (“We’re in hot water that won’t blow over.”). Some mixed metaphors are easier to spot than others, but generally a good rule of thumb is that if a metaphor confuses us, it’s likely mixed. Similarly, alluding to Robert Olen Butler’s amazing From Where You Dream, a sentence that breaks up “the movie in our head” (that breaks up “the flow” of the moving image) is likely not designed well (a point which I’ll elaborate on elsewhere in “In Praise of Robert Olen Buter”). At the same time though, we have to be careful with this notion, because it can precisely be thanks to “confusion” and “uncertainty” that our minds can be shook out of their “dogmatic slumber.” We cannot be quick to conclude that just become something is hard to understand that it must be poorly expressed, for readers have responsibilities too.

I will not be arguing that “mixed metaphors” are good, for indeed it’s best to avoid them. However, I do want us to be slower to judge something as “a mixed metaphor,” for I think today we are prone to quickly make that judgment when it is not warranted. These are mistakes that lead us to deconstruct and throw out all “transition metaphors,” thinking they are “mixed metaphors.” This is a terrible error which makes us very likely to discard resources and mental tools that we need in order to grasp and appreciate “emergences.”

To start, we tend to assume that if someone uses “multiple metaphors,” they are therefore “mixing metaphors.” This is wrong. If someone starts off discussing how education is like climbing a mountain, and then thirty minutes into the discussion begin talking about how education is structured like a trivia show, we should not have a “knee-jerk reaction” and accuse the person of “mixing metaphors.” Perhaps in one way education is indeed like “climbing a mountain,” but in another way it could be more like a game show, and perhaps “the multiple metaphors” are needed to understand different aspects of education fully. In the same way it is not a contradiction to say, “A cup was in that spot and a vase,” if by that we mean “at different times,” so we don’t mix metaphors if we talk about different parts of education in different ways. Indeed, regarding any complex system, we should expect the parts to be significantly different, and so for it to be inappropriate to expect a metaphor of a garden to effectively describe the whole of education. This would be a kind of “monotheorism” (perhaps “monometaphorism”), which is discussed in O.G. Rose as problematic. Anyway, the point is that we cannot conclude from the mere use of different metaphors that someone is “mixing metaphors”; in fact, a lack of “multiple metaphors” could be a sign that someone is intellectually “overfitting” a description (it depends).

Though not all uses of “multiple metaphors” are the same as “transitional metaphors” — “multiple metaphors” tend to be used to describe different aspects of the same thing, while “transitional metaphors” describe a thing while and after it essentially changes — we can treat both as “mixing metaphors” and equally discard them. That said, even if we manage not to discard “multiple metaphors” automatically, we can still disregard “transitional metaphors,” for even if we avoid the mistake of disregarding something that describes different aspects of a thing with different metaphors, we can still treat something as a “mixed metaphor” that instead understands essential transformation (“an event”), and thus requires a “transitional metaphor.” It is against this mistake which we must guard ourselves and to which we will now turn.


Today, philosophers, economists, and physicists discuss “emergences,” which generally are transformations or entities brought about by collections of parts which generate a “whole” that cannot be reduced to any of the parts. A colony of ants, for example, will create an ant hill even though the “thought for an ant hill” cannot be located in any of the ants; the stock market will generate a “collective consciousness” that moves stocks up and down, yet no single investor can be said to “will” or “direct plan” the overall market. Thoughts require neurons, and yet thoughts cannot be found in neurons.

How could we describe an ant? Small, strong, diligent, red — do those descriptions do the trick? Great, how about an ant hill? Fine-grained, shaped like a cone, deep — will that do? Now, isn’t the strange? The descriptions for an ant and the descriptors for an “ant hill” are entirely different, and yet the “ant hill” cannot exist without the ant. Additionally, we cannot locate desires in ants to create something “fine-grained, shaped like a cone, and deep,” and yet this is nevertheless what ants end up creating. Strangely, it seems that ants have “nothing to do” with the ant hill which couldn’t exist without ants.

Is this really any different from me designing a cup or writing a story? Perhaps we don’t need the category of “emergence” at all. Well, when I make a cup, the idea in my head is “like” what I’m trying to make, and I don’t “imagine” a story about knights and end up writing about the moon. Writing a story isn’t “emergent” but linear: the thoughts in my head basically correspond with what ends up on the page. Yes, I can be hit by inspiration and arrive in places I didn’t plan, but the product I generate isn’t “radically difficult” from my ideas, and arguably it never is, because if I go to write about a knight and am hit with an idea regarding the moon, my idea changes from a knight to an astronaut, and thus the “linear correspondence” between idea and outcome is maintained: I never maintain “the idea of a knight” and think about the Medieval Ages while my pen inks out sentences regarding stars and plants. And yet this is practically what occurs when something “emerges.”

Today, we recognize numerous phenomena which are “emergent,” meaning they result from entities in which the “emergent phenomena” cannot be found and yet are necessary for the “emergent phenomena” to exist. To return to the topic of metaphors then, we cannot with a single metaphor that applies to ants “capture” everything the ant is capable of doing, for the ant is capable of helping make ant hills without anything being “in” the ant that arises linearly to an ant hill. Thus, if we call an ant a “mindless soldier,” in one sense this will be true, but in another way it will be completely false. “Mindless” suggests that ants can’t do anything intelligent, when really ants are capable of constructing intricate and extraordinary structures. To start getting at what ants are really like, we’ll need to talk about “mindless ants and brilliant platoons,” but out of what is a platoon made? Soldiers, which makes it hard to imagine a “brilliant platoon” without imagining “soldiers,” which makes it seem like I’m talking about “brilliant soldiers.” And so all the descriptions get mixed up, which isn’t inherently bad, but we’ve mostly been lead by English classes to believe this is a mistake. That being the case, we’ve been trained not to have in our heads a category for “mindless soldiers in brilliant platoons,” and that makes it hard to understand how ants operate. Because of what we’ve learned against “mixed metaphors,” our ability to grasp the universe seems hindered.

Now, to advance our inquiry to the next phase, imagine that an ant itself could emerge into an ant-hill. I know this is impossible, but if it could happen, the physical, biological, and ontological “principles” which apply to the ant would change and/or transition into new “principles” that only apply to ant-hills. Biological principles would apply to the ant, and yet those principles wouldn’t apply to the ant-hill. More critically, descriptions would have to change: what was small, strong, and multi-legged would suddenly become sandy, inanimate, and shaped like a cone. This kind of profound transformation in philosophy is generally called “an event.”

Philosophy today is full of “event”-language, and the language is being used to describe how the brain arose to the mind, how the universe came from nothing, how Physics arose to Biology, and so on. Though in my example a given ant “becomes” an ant-hill, this doesn’t mean other ants cease to exist, in the same way that Physics isn’t replaced by Biology once Biology manifests (to make an example inspired by the Vector Theory of Alexander Elung). Once “the event” of Biology occurs, it seems like it has “nothing to do” with Physics, for it follows different principles, concerns, and the like, and for this reason it has been easy for us to think of Physics and Biology as separate subjects. Ultimately, we all understand that everything must have started with the Big Bang, but this has proven difficult to explain without reference to “events.” Perhaps ultimately it will prove that there is nothing to “events” at all, but my point is that our restrictions against “mixed metaphors” will lessen the likelihood that we discern regarding this accurately. “Events” necessarily “mix metaphors,” but not due to contradiction; instead, it’s due to transitions.

If “events” are possible in reality, then we need to understand that though x can be described by y metaphor, after “an event,” x may need z metaphor. This might sound like “mixing metaphors,” but it’s actually an example of “transitioning metaphors,” and furthermore “transitional metaphors” are necessary to describe “events.” “An event” is when x becomes something “(that seems) totally other from x” — y — and so a metaphor which “fits” x will cease to “fit” x after “the event.” But if we are trying to describe what x is before “an event” and after it, the metaphoric schema we use to describe x will necessarily have to transition, even though the metaphoric effort is still being applied to the same subject.


As we cannot describe a worm the same way we describe a butterfly, we cannot describe how the human consciousness develops in the same way we describe how the physical universe came into being, even though human consciousness wouldn’t exist without the physical universe. If metaphors indeed structure thinking more than just decorate it, then the dichotomy of “metaphor versus mixed metaphor” will limit the space in our very minds to grasp and hold “events.” Precisely because of “the law against mixing metaphors,” we are perhaps led to believe metaphors are consistent — they shouldn’t change or “mix” — and since metaphors structure our thinking, we are thus indirectly led to think about the universe as consistent and devoid of “events.If metaphors can’t mix, we naturally think of the universe as unmixable, which though entails truth, once “mix” and “transition” become similes, suddenly our universe is one which cannot “transition” into new ontological stages. We’re stuck, perhaps precisely because our thinking is stuck in the limitations we place on “thought-structuring metaphors.”

To allude to the work of Dr. Gregg Henriques, we need to understand that it’s possible for the same universe to at one point in time be like a “two-dimension coin” only to later, after the birth of consciousness, become more like a “three-dimensional tree” (Dr. Henriques’s work brilliantly entails “transitional metaphors,” and I suggest all readers investigate his work more deeply). If it is the case that the universe has undergone multiple “events,” then the metaphor we need to describe the development of Physics will not be the same as the metaphor which describes Biology, and yet both metaphors will be applied to the same universe and same entities (with “transitions” along the way at “events”). Will this be mixing metaphors? No, and do note that we tend to realize that the universe is so large and varied that we can use different metaphors regarding different parts and yet not mix them. No one needs to explain that truth to us: it’s obvious that metaphorically describing laughter doesn’t “mix” with the metaphoric description of a mountain even though both are “toward” the same universe. The trick though is learning how to apply many descriptions to the same thing in the right way, a skill school may have indirectly taught us not to even consider needing.

Cats are made of atoms, and what atoms are “like” is different from what cats are “like,” and yet atoms give rise to cats. Thus, if we are describing the whole history of how a cat came into existence, we will have to transition between descriptions to communicate the point. No, we rarely discuss “the whole history” of anything, so the rules against “mixed metaphors” generally prove harmless, but it seems we are entering an age where those rules could be a problem. We are making new discovers which require “events” to grasp, and that being the case, we need to be more expansive in how we use our language. What worked in the 90s could prove a hindrance in 2020.

Problems and complexities arise when the radical variety of the universe is “concentrated into a point,” a point where mountains and butterflies are all “blurred into one another,” per se. This is precisely what in essence must have occurred though if the universe all came from a Big Bang: everything must have “emerged” out of everything else, and each “hard break” between the fields of Physics and Biology, Biology and Neuroscience, etc. must have been “an event.” Thus, understanding the universe must be impossible without the language of “events,” and this means our understanding of the universe must be hindered by failure to transcend the dichotomy of “metaphor versus mixed metaphor” (“good” vs “bad”) to include “transitional metaphors.”

We all know that we don’t “mix metaphors” when we use metaphors to describe mountains that are different from how we describe butterflies, but imagine that somehow a butterfly and a mountain were “concentrated into the same point” — what would we do? Relative to this point, would it even be possible to avoid “mixing metaphors?” Perhaps not, which might suggest why “this concentrated point” can only be understood mathematically: applying language is a mistake from the start. I don’t know, but the point is that, before the Big Bang, all possible ontologies were singular: it was a point where “basically” butterflies and mountains were equal. And even if we should only describe this point mathematically, how should we metaphorically describe the development from this point to who and what we are now (for along the way, metaphors would become relevant and necessary again, not just mathematics)? Well, as I hope is clear, it would require “transitional metaphors,” a category which we are generally discouraged from using, having been taught how erroneous “mixed metaphors” can be. And so our confusion about our origins and selves is only compounded.

It’s clear, I think, that “events” have happened since the Big Bang, but perhaps our lives are full of “event”-like occurrence which also justify “transitional metaphors?” Perhaps not “radical transitional metaphors,” but perhaps “small transitional metaphors” are needed more often than we realize? Perhaps not, but if the category of “transitional metaphors” isn’t even allowed, the likelihood we’ll even be able to tell is low.

“Explained and Addressed” by O.G. Rose argued that “The Meaning Crisis” is at least partially a result of humanity not being “duomined” (to use a term from Graham Harman) which means that we are not dialectically “explained/addressed,” only “pure explained” (today). Our lives are understood in terms of composition, physical processes, and the like, but our lives are ignored in terms of phenomenological experience, emotions, and so on. Today, to solve all our problems, materialist science is being “overfit,” and though in the past we were “underfit” by address, we have escaped one ditch only to fall into another.

We are “concentrated points” of countless processes which cannot be found in or explained by one another: we are “products of events,” and so understanding ourselves requires “transitional metaphors.” This might seem like “mixing metaphors,” but we must understand that it isn’t if we are to rightly understand ourselves. If ending “The Meaning Crisis” requires us to “duomine” ourselves, that very effort will need the category of “transitional metaphors,” for “events” can only be understand with “transitional metaphors,” and we require metaphors to structure our minds. A world where “transitional metaphors” are indistinguishable from “mixed metaphors” is a world where we cannot structure our thinking like we must in order to “duomine” — whatever we do, we’ll always either be “overmining” or “undermining” ourselves.

The short work, “Mental Health and the Metaphors We Choose,” argued that if we pick the wrong metaphors to understand our lives, our mental health would suffer, which basically means we need to pick metaphors that “duomine,” that balance “explanation” with “address.” But here’s the thing: if we are ultimately beings who result from events, that would suggest no single metaphor will do. Ultimately, we will require “transitional metaphors,” and yet we have been taught that “transitional metaphors” are erroneous “mixed metaphors,” and under this premise it becomes difficult and maybe even impossible for us to grant ourselves “metaphors which duomine.” If metaphors indeed shape mental health because metaphors are fundamental to the mind, then a world where “duomining metaphors” are impossible is a world in which we will suffer.

Metaphors matter, and because we matter (we’re made of it), “transitional metaphors” matter too. In today’s world, an understanding of “emergence” could help people regain a sense of purpose and vision, but achieving that will require helping people think in new ways and according to new categories that taboos against “mixing metaphors” only make harder to realize. We must choose between accepting “emergence,” and so “opening our minds” to be able to handle the category by evolving our understanding of metaphors — or we will continue to undergo a meaning “emergency” versus prove open to meaningful “emergences.”




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