The Aresan Clan is published four times a week (Tue, Wed, Fri, Sun). You can see what's been written so far collected here. All posts will be posted under the Aresan Clan label. For summaries of the events so far, visit here. See my previous serial Vampire Wares collected here.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Metaphorical Thinking

Julia Galef has a nice post on the perils of metaphorical thinking. This is something that's been a big issue in philosophy at least as far back as Nietzsche who wrote "On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense" that language is pure metaphor, in which he said "What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms . . . truths are illusion of which we have forgotten they are illusions, metaphors which have become worn by frequent use and have lost all sensuous vigour." And later, in the Genealogy of Morality he mentioned the "seduction of language"(I:13) as a threat even in the sciences.

But even this idea predates Nietzsche, since, for example we hear Hegel many times complaining of the dangers of "picture thinking," in his Phenomenology of Spirit, by which he means thinking in terms of imagery and not in terms of ideas. And there are probably earlier examples, which simply don't come to mind at the moment.

New research has confirmed the suspicions of these earlier philosophers. We don't just use the word "cold" impassively to describe someone who is emotionally cold, we in fact think of it in terms of its primary meaning, as a colder temperature. For example, in the study Galef mentioned said people having warmer emotions towards people when they were holding something warm, or another said people perceived the temperature as colder when someone was being cold to them.

This can sometimes have major implications, such as the disgust factors with things that we metaphorically perceive as impure. Galef only mentions the perceptions of conservative religious beliefs, but it also affects environmentalism and preference for organic foods and bottled water.

Research like this may even only scratch the surface. We like to think we might be able to avoid it, but if Nietzsche is right about the pervasiveness of metaphor in our language and language is the primary way we think, then it might be inevitable, at least for all thinking in terms of language (such arguments don't apply to math).

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