Metaphorically Speaking

I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World by James Geary

Grade: A-

I got off to a rocky start with this book. I think of metaphor as a literary device, which is hardly surprising given my background in literature. But, because I think of it in this relatively narrow way, I was turned off by the broad use to which Geary put the word in this book. He applied it not just to literary metaphors (and similes, which he elegantly defined as “metaphors with the scaffolding still up”), but to pretty much all cases of language and thought in which two things could be compared. I thought that was taking things too far.

I also questioned the validity of some of the psychological studies that he cited. Not only have many studies been called into question or debunked lately, which makes me wary, but I found the results to be difficult to believe. For example, one study supposedly showed that study participants who read a description of a fictitious person judged that person more positively when holding a hot coffee, and more negatively when holding an iced coffee (i.e., a metaphor in which physical warmth = emotional warmth). But how can you prove it’s the hot/cold metaphor driving the results? Couldn’t it just as easily have been low-level physical discomfort making the people grumpy, or dissatisfaction with the coffee itself, or any number of things? In another study, people were said to have more negative opinions of sports teams with dark-colored uniforms vs. those with light-colored uniforms (i.e., a metaphor in which dark = bad). As with the other study, I think it’s a stretch to say that the results were affected by metaphor. And, as my husband pointed out, is there any chance that the author cherry-picked from all available studies and only mentioned those that supported his theory? That’s a good question.

While I felt that some of the studies were questionable, and I wasn’t sure that they were directly related to metaphor, some were potentially useful. For example, it’s good to know how you might use particular images or words to prime people for a particular reaction, if only to be on your guard against others who would manipulate you that way. But I hope the results were overstated, because if people are really as manipulable as this book suggests, then there’s no hope for the human race.

At some point, the book won me over. I can’t say exactly when it happened, but I can tell you what ultimately interested me most. One of the coolest things about metaphor is that it’s both a foundation for our language and part of the way we think. For example, we often say “see” when we mean “understand.” That’s a metaphor. It’s such an old metaphor that we don’t even think of it as one, but you can still “see” the thread (or “ligamen”) that connects the physical act of seeing with the mental act of understanding. I hadn’t realized how pervasive metaphor is in our speech, but according to Geary,

We utter about one metaphor for every ten to twenty-five words, or about six metaphors a minutes.

That’s a lot of metaphors!

But metaphor doesn’t just hide out in our oldest words. It also shows up in everything that’s new to us, including scientific discoveries, because we can only understand within the framework of what we already know. That is, understanding a new thing means comparing it with an old thing. When we’re trying to explain new things to people, we almost always resort to metaphor. For example, I bought some quince this year. I have never eaten quince before. If someone were to try to describe quince to me, they’d inevitably fall back on comparison (“It looks sort of like . . . and it tastes similar to . . . and the texture is reminiscent of . . . “).

Geary also talked about how people tend to categorize items. He used a study as an example.

Tversky presented adults with the names of four different countries and asked them to sort the countries into pairs that were most similar. Given the set Austria, Sweden, Poland, and Hungary, for example, subjects tended to group Austria with Sweden (two Western European countries) and Poland with Hungary (two Eastern European countries).

But when Tversky substituted “Norway” for “Poland,” he got a different answer. Given the set Austria, Sweden, Norway and Hungary, subjects tended to group Sweden with Norway (two Nordic countries) and Austria with Hungary (two Central European countries). In psychology, this shift in context is known as framing . . .

So the way a question is framed—which alternatives are offered, which words are chosen to describe those alternatives, and which associated commonplaces those alternates evoke—-has a powerful effect on which answer people give.

What use this knowledge can be put to on a personal level, I’m not sure. I haven’t had a chance yet to apply my brain to it. One of the difficulties that I encounter in reading nonfiction is that my chosen reading time is late at night, right before bed. That’s not a good time for deep thought. But I feel certain that this idea of framing is important, and I will probably be chewing on it, metaphorically speaking, for some time to come.

Initially I gave I is an Other a B+ grade, but I’ve since raised it to an A-. Though I had my issues with certain aspects of the book, it contained enough food for thought that I deliberately kept it past its due date. A book that’s worth paying a fine for ought to get an A-level grade.

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