The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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

The Dynamics of Language

Early studies on metaphor focused on the analogical reasoning that metaphor implies.

The French philologist Michel Breal had already pointed out at the end of the 19th century, metaphor is often indispensable to express a concept for which words just do not exist in the language. Entire domains are mapped in other domains for lack of appropriate words. For example, the domain of character is mapped into the domain of temperature: a hot temper, a cold behavior, a warm person, etc. Breal realized that, eventually, metaphors shape language.

The British mathematician Max Black was influential in moving metaphor from the level of words to the level of concepts. His "interactionist" theory of metaphor (“Metaphor”, 1955), inspired by the pioneering work of the British literary critic Ivor Richards in the 1930s, views metaphor not as a game of words, but as a cognitive phenomenon that involves concepts. In literal language, two concepts can be combined to obtain another concept without changing the original concepts (e.g., "good" and "marriage" form "good marriage"). In metaphorical language, two concepts are combined so that they form a new concept (e.g., marriage as a nightmare), and additionally they change each other (both "marriage" and "nightmare" acquire a different meaning, one reflecting the nightmarish aspects of marriage and the other one reflecting the marriage-like quality of a nightmare). They trade meaning. Predications that are normally applied to one are now also possible on the other, and vice versa. A metaphor consists in a transaction between two concepts. The interpretation of both concepts is altered.

Black viewed metaphor as a means to reorganize the properties of the destination.  First of all, a metaphor is not an isolated term, but a sentence. A metaphorical sentence (e.g., "marriage is a nightmare") involves two subjects. The secondary subject (e.g., “nightmare”) comes with a system of associated stereotyped information (or "predication"). That stereotyped information is used as a filter on the principal subject (e.g., “marriage”). There arises a “tension” between the two subjects of the metaphor. That tension is also reflected back to the secondary subject.

Black emphasized that metaphorizing is related to categorizing (the choice of a category in which to place an object is a choice of perspective), but is distinguished from it by an incongruity which causes a reordering and a new perspective.

A crucial point is that metaphor does not express similarities: it creates similarity.

Metaphors act on the organization of the lexicon and the model of the world.

Finally, Black argued that language is dynamic: over time, what is literal may become metaphoric and viceversa.

The Australian mathematician Michael Arbib, one of the many who have argued that all language is metaphorical, based his theory of language on Black's interactionist model.

At the other extreme, the US computer scientist James Martin does not believe that the process of comprehending a metaphor is a process of reasoning by analogy. A metaphor is simply a linguistic convention within a linguistic community, an "abbreviation" for a concept that would otherwise require too many words. There is no need for transfer of properties from one concept to another. In his theory, a number of primitive classes of metaphors (metaphors that are part of the knowledge of language) are used to build all the others. A metaphor is therefore built and comprehended just like any other lexical entity. Martin's is a purely "syntactic" model of metaphor.


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