The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"


Standing for Something Else

Metaphor is not just a poet's tool to express touching feelings. Metaphor is pervasive in our language. “Her marriage is a nightmare”, “My room is a jungle”, “She is a snake”, “This job is a piece of cake”, etc.: we communicate all the time, metaphorically.

The reason metaphor is so convenient is that it allows us to express a lot starting with very little: metaphor is a linguistic device to transfer properties from one concept to another.

Metaphor is so pervasive that every single word of our language may have originated from a metaphor. All language may be metaphorical. Given the importance of language among our mental faculties, metaphor is likely a key element of reasoning and thinking in general. In other words, being able to construct and understand metaphors (to transfer properties from a “source” to a “destination”, from “nightmare” to “marriage”, from “jungle” to “room”, etc.) may be an essential part of being a mind.

Founding his theory on archeology, i.e. on evidence from prehistory, the British archeologist Steven Mithen became convinced that metaphor was pivotal for the development of the human mind.

A special case of metaphor is metonymy, which occurs when a term is used to indicate something else, e.g. "the White House" to mean "The President of the United States" rather than the building itself (as in “the White House pledged not to increase taxes”). Metonymy differs from metaphor in that metaphor is a way to conceive something in terms of another thing, whereas metonymy is a way to use something to stand for something else (i.e., it also has a “referential” function).

The study of metaphor presents a number of obvious problems: how to determine its truth value (taken literally, metaphors are almost always false) and how to recognize an expression as a metaphor (metaphors have no consistent syntactic form).

It is also intriguing that metaphor seems to violate so blatantly Paul Grice's conversational rules: if the speaker tries to make communication as "rational" as possible, why would she construct a metaphor instead of just being literal? The answer lies in the true nature of metaphor.


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