Screens, Research and Hypertext

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On Metaphors

Metaphors shape how we think about the world.

I’m a sucker for a good metaphor. They’re one of the key tools in philosophy. They’re a central feature in my favorite Sherlock Holmes adaptation. And I’ve used them All. Over. The. Place. in this project.

The study of metaphors goes back (at least) as far as Aristotle, who wrote in Poetics:

Metaphor is the movement of an alien name from either genus to species or from species to genus or from species to species or by analogy.

Most of the metaphors I’ve offered have been of that last sort: analogies.

Your content is a song.

Taxonomies are the signage in an art gallery.

Hypertext is space.

The homepage is a garden.

These are the traditional metaphors of analytic philosophy—the style that can be represented in the form of A is B.

But there’s another sort of metaphor, one that Lakoff and Johnson describe in Metaphors We Live By as conceptual metaphors. They argue that metaphors shape our pre-conscious conceptual framework—that we fundamentally understand most things through fairly basic (mostly spatial) metaphors.

For example, they argue (ha!) that we understand the very concept of argument as war. Consider:

Your claims are indefensible. He attacked every weak point in my argument. His criticisms were right on target. I demolished his argument. I've never won an argument with him.

Conceptual metaphors help us understand one conceptual domain in terms of another. For example, we often think of writing as containers. That’s why we put things into papers or take out irrelevant sections.

These kinds of conceptual metaphors are vital for understanding new or complex topics. It’s why philosophy is full of unconscious violinists, children drowning in ponds, evil deceivers and runaway trolleys.

While some of the conclusions of conceptual metaphor theory are wildly overstated, there’s enough experimental evidence to suggest that:

Metaphors can shape how we think about the world.

Some of that shaping happens unconsciously.

But we need to be careful about the metaphors we deploy.

For more context

What's the problem with print-based metaphors?

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