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The Triumph of Form Over Content When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

You Are Here: Home -> Glossary -> Metaphors


A metaphor (or a simile, or an analogy, or a model) is a way of explaining an unfamiliar concept by comparing it to a familiar concept, particularly when the unfamiliar concept is of an abstract rather than a concrete nature. When we speak in metaphors, we say of something that it is like something else in such and such a way. This can be a wonderful way of making difficult concepts easier to digest. More to the point, everyone in every field uses metaphors all the time. Every cliche in the world, for example, is a metaphor (albeit an overused one). Don't count your chickens before they're hatched. Don't put all your eggs in one basket. The ball is in your court. Every parable in the world is a kind of metaphor as well. The good Samaritan. The sliver in the eye. Science and social science are rich with metaphors, probably because so much of their purview is abstract and complex. The clockwork universe. The hidden hand. The computer brain.

Problems occur when we forget that a metaphor is just a way of explaining something. While metaphors are excellent tools for explaining ideas, they should never be used to prove anything. Most importantly, we should never forget where our metaphors come from and that they are only tools for explaining ideas.

I was reading a book called The Trouble With Canada by William Gairdner, in part of which he discussed the dangers of trying to combine elements of different political systems. He explained that capitalism and socialism are like Lego and Duplo. Each has its own internal logic, and if you try to combine the two, you must force them together against their own designs and constantly babysit them so that they don't collapse.

Now, if he had presented this metaphor and then presented a series of arguments to prove his thesis, I would have been satisfied. Unfortunately, after making the metaphor of the children's building blocks, he turned to his own metaphor as proof of the truth of his metaphor. This is like saying, The Bible is true because the Bible is the revealed word of God. We know this because it says so in the Bible.

The thing to remember about metaphors is that the two concepts are only similar in a certain way, not in every way, for if they were similar in every way, they would be the same concept, not two concepts. In the case of the Lego and Duplo, clearly political systems are much more complex and ambiguous than plastic building blocks, even if it does help us to think about them as having elements that fit together.

Ironically, Lego and Duplo

  1. are made by the same company, even though they have different designs and serve different markets, and
  2. do fit together, with special pieces from each set that are designed to fit with the other.

Perhaps this tells us something about the common roots of capitalism and socialism, and perhaps I'm just reading too much into this...

But logical sleight-of-hand aside, the most dangerous pitfall of metaphors is to forget that they are metaphors. Newton spoke about the universe as if it were an immense clockwork, each part moving in perfect synchronicity with its neighbour; and he spoke about God as the great Clockmaker, who built the clock and then wound it up. Newton wrote about these things as if he knew he was making a metaphor - that it was useful to think about the universe as if it were like a clock, even though he knew that it was not really so. After Newton's time, most people took his clockwork metaphor seriously, and attempted to interact with and manage the world in a very technical, rational way. Classical economics, for example, is extremely mechanical in its method and delivery; so much so that our common sense understanding about human behaviour was discarded to make room for homo economicus, whose behaviour is closer to what I'd expect from a robot than from a human.

Another serious case of mistaking the metaphor for reality concerns the human mind. Now here is a concept which defies concrete description. The human mind may well be merely an artifact of self-awareness, and it may be something discrete. Certainly we have brains, and our brains are very active, but how can we best think about the human mind when any knowledge we have must be inferred rather than observed? Clearly it makes sense to apply different kinds of metaphors to the human mind to see which ones are useful. Indeed, the only difference between the various schools of thought in psychology is that each school prefers a specific metaphor of the mind. Therefore, the mind is like a sponge, which soaks up all around it. Or it is like a sieve, which filters some things and saves others. Or it is like a computer, which processes data according to a program.

This last metaphor deserves more attention. In the 1950s, early computer scientists tried to find ways of thinking about computing in useful ways. Specifically, they wanted to make computers that worked. One metaphor that seemed promising was the idea that a computer is like a very slow, dim, poorly developed brain. It has "memory" and can "think" or perform simple functions. If we can understand the brain better, then maybe we can build a better computer. Unfortunately, after a few promising starts, the field of Artificial Intelligence has made little progress and now appears to be at a dead end (with regards to the folks at MIT Media Lab).

Still, the metaphor of computer as brain has stuck. What's more, most people, including most computer programmers and users, have forgotten that this was a metaphor to begin with. Now we have reversed things, and tend to think about the human brain as if it were like a computer. The school of thought in psychology which takes this view is called Cognitivism. This impacts our thinking on the mind in the sense that what we consider "mind," cast in the light of the brain as computer metaphor, is regarded as nothing more than the sum of all physical brain activities. The human brain has input devices (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, nerve endings on skin) just as a computer has input devices (keyboard, mouse) for gathering information. The human brain processes information, just as a computer processes information. And the human brain has output devices (mouth, facial expressions) just as a computer has output devices (screen, printer) for producing information. Even the word information, which used to mean something, now means something else - it now refers to data which a computer can process. And, of course, in true hammer tradition,

  1. We are trying to make computers process all kinds of information, whether or not they are well-suited to the task and whether or not there is already an adequate process for such kinds of information, and
  2. Anything that cannot be processed by a computer is probably not very valuable.

So we have come full circle, from thinking about computers as though they were like a brain to thinking about the brain as though it is like a computer.

Now that's progress.


Date: Thu, 21 Jun 2001
Name: theo malekin
Subject: Metaphor

Took a look at your website and found it very helpful. Particularly interested in the metaphors section, as this said things I'd been thinking for a long time. An English playwrite (Nigel Dennis - not well known these days) wrote a brilliant satire on the idea of the 'invisible' which included an astute attack on Freud. He noted the human tendency to take our inventions and stick them inside our heads - thus the mind before the industrial revolution was a field, but afterwards it started to resemble a machine or steam engine, it suffered 'stress' and came under 'pressure'. Dennis then draws a very precise analogy between Freud's theory of the mind and the internal combustion engine. The mind suffers gassy upthrusts into a conscious chamber from the unconcious sump, and so on (it's a while since I read it and I don't have it with me, so the details are a little hazy, but you can fill in the broad outline for yourself). He also points out the religious aspects of Freud, with an old and new testaments.

It has seems to me that we have now done exactly the same with information technology, so that when we lift the lid on our brains we find, as you point out, a computer. This may be a useful way to think about the mind for certain purposes and open up new avenues of thought, but it does not mean that the brain is a literal computer, with the mind as its software.

As you say, we can easily be fooled by our own metaphors.

best wishes

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