Friedrich Nietzsche

Bodies. Language. Expression. Metaphors. Meaning. That’s a list of issues that most people who make things think about. A lot.

A recent article from the Boston Globe written by Drake Bennett touches on a lot of these themes, particularly how metaphor both comes from and impacts the way we think.

Here’s a sampling:

Philosophers have long wondered about the connection between metaphor and thought, in ways that occasionally presaged current-day research. Friedrich Nietzsche scornfully described human understanding as nothing more than a web of expedient metaphors, stitched together from our shallow impressions of the world. In their ignorance, he charged, people mistake these familiar metaphors, deadened from overuse, for truths. “We believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers,” he wrote, “and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things–metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities.”

Like Nietzsche, George Lakoff…and Mark Johnson…see human thought as metaphor-driven. But, in the two greatly influential books they have co-written on the topic, “Metaphors We Live By” in 1980 and “Philosophy in the Flesh” in 1999, Lakoff and Johnson focus on the deadest of dead metaphors, the ones that don’t even rise to the level of cliche. They call them “primary metaphors,” and they group them into categories like “affection is warmth,” “important is big,” “difficulties are burdens,” “similarity is closeness,” “purposes are destinations,” and even “categories are containers.”

Rather than so much clutter standing in the way of true understanding, to Lakoff and Johnson these metaphors are markers of the roots of thought itself. Lakoff and Johnson’s larger argument is that abstract thought would be meaningless without bodily experience. And primary metaphors, in their ubiquity (in English and other languages) and their physicality, are some of their most powerful evidence for this.

I am left with a sense of the inescapable and blindingly transparent nature of these deep connections between language, thinking, concepts, perception. What is easier to trace in the realm of spoken language has its parallels in visual language as well. It’s just harder to track. But that is all part of the mystery and the endlessly provocative nature of making.