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Five Big Clusters of Metaphors (CONs)

This document brings together material on the Concrete Organizing Notions (CONs) contained in What We Need: An Essay mentioned in the list of Resources (28 pages). The material stands as a unit unto itself, despite a few references to the box-frame hanging in the room as a way to model the spatial metaphors involved.

Many of our conventional metaphors form clusters. I will consider five clusters. They center around our experiences of Vision/light, Balance, Locomotion, Structure, and Location, which can be seen as "concrete organizing notions" (CONs).

These notions are concrete in the sense that we can observe them, point to them and sometimes measure them. But they are also used in formal, abstract, metaphysical ways. Their dual concrete and metaphorical nature -- the fact that they are grounded in perceptual experience and conceptually versatile-- makes them very powerful parts of our conceptual system. In fact, if we were to stop using just these five crucial notions and the ways of talking based on them, we would cripple our whole language, including our discussions of human nature.

1. Vision and light.

Think of all the things we can talk about with this idea. Views (opinions) and viewpoints, outlooks and perspectives, reflective thought, introspection, insight, having foresight and hindsight, being nearsighted or farsighted ("seeing" ahead to make plans, etc.), having illusions (meaning delusions), blind spots, being blinkered, and winking at misdeeds. This cluster of metaphors serves us extremely well.

Vision and light frequently represents consciousness (light = awareness; darkness = ignorance), the "dawning" or "awakening" of consciousness, and even cosmological creation ("Let there be light"). We use terms like visionary, enlightened, reflective. Light is used as a metaphor for the Good by Plato (the sun we are drawn to outside the cave), shadow represents the unconscious for Carl Jung, clarity is a test of correct thinking for Descartes, and transparency stands for honest self-disclosure in the psychology of Carl Rogers. Without getting entangled in objections that have been raised against these thinkers' views over the years, we can extract their metaphors of vision and light and use them to refer to a lot of ideas about human nature.

In the particular model of the self that I am offering, where a box-frame and its three axes is a model of the self, light is like a ray that runs through all the important aspects of experience. This ray is marked by the screw in the wall on which each of the box-frames in the entire series hangs. Indeed, the first screw in the series is called light, and it corresponds to the front/back axis of the body. This axis, the z axis of geometry, connects three things: the viewer self in the room, the model of the self on the wall, and the invisible world "beyond" where, to some ways of thinking, we can locate a transcendent Self (big S) or the soul or other transcendent beings. Because this axis goes through all the various aspects of the self that we can tease into separate metaphorical spaces, it poses the question of how to re-unite them. For instance, how do we reclaim what we have repressed in the unconscious (the shadow behind the box-frame) so as to become more whole. And how do we regain any sense of unity with nature or any other system (represented by the wall) of which we are part? My thesis is that metaphor is at the very heart of both the way we tease out experience into spaces along the z axis and at the heart of the way we re-unite it. Since we figuratively break our selves up, we need a spatial image the puts us back together.

Those who see the self as primarily something tangible and visible may prefer to think of the space beyond the wall as merely metaphorical, placing primary emphasis on the end of the z axis that is in the room. Those who view the worldly self as just a manifestation of an invisible transcendent consciousness (often represented or experienced as light) may see the end beyond the wall as primary. The model does not settle this question, but situates the self just inside the wall that, on the largest scale, represents nature. In fact, the model shows a way to bridge these two views, with the axis of meaning running through the entire arrangement as a spatial element that helps us visualize and conceptualize our entire existence.

2. Balance

As far back as Aristotle, balance has metaphorically meant such things as equivalence, equilibrium, fairness (generally, as well as in specifically economic exchanges), a mean between extremes, and virtue. "Balanced" can mean mentally and emotionally steady, poised. The box-frame represents these qualities literally by not tilting down to the left or the right; it's like a balanced scale. Just as we ordinarily try to balance our bodies on our feet, we can also have a strong kinesthetic urge to straighten a tilted frame on the wall. Balance is a picture of comparison and of making good judgements between alternatives; we use figures of speech like "on balance" (all things considered) and "the weight of the evidence tilts my decision toward..." We learn physically to balance our head on our neck, then our upper body on the ground or floor, and finally our whole body on our feet. This very physical skill becomes incorporated in figures of speech like a balanced diet, a balanced artistic composition, balance of accounts, balance of trade, checks and balances, balance of powers, and the balanced decision of a judge or other leader who weighs various people's interests on the scales of justice. Thus a quality of pre-linguistic bodily structure and kinesthetic experience is extended to describe one of the highest of all virtues. Interestingly, balance signifies both equality and the need to make decisions between closely similar alternatives, suggesting that equality and justice are hard to harmonize.

3. Locomotion

This is the model's third organizing notion. In everyday metaphors, locomotion represents a number of things: action and intention in general ("Go for it!" and "I'm going to..."); psychological cause (such and such "moved" her to act); change ("Finally there's been some movement in the case."); progress (Latin. pro-gredi, stepping forward); development ("Has she arrived at the teething stage yet?"); and the passing (!) of time. In the overall model, locomotion is conveyed by the sequence of images and by the viewer's path walking left to right around the room. In talking about time, which can seem abstract, we use phrases like "the march of time," "this clock is running fast," "the minutes crept along," "time stood still." Locomotion (along with the idea of a location as a state of being or state of mind) can describe someone's psychological "drive" or spiritual development, as when we say "She has moved to a new place in her life." Thus we have spiritual "journeys," "the road less traveled," and the path to enlightenment. We also have the Shining Path of South American Marxism-Leninism and the war path. Other kinds of motion: "Sail on, O Ship of State!" "His career was a comet, bright but brief." "It's going swimmingly."

Locomotion is a very general notion that can be used many ways. In the mind of the speaker, it can suggest progress, but one may disagree about the absolute reality of that. (Consider also regress, digress.) A relationship can be spoken about as a "two-way street." The locomotion metaphors in our everyday speech are exceedingly numerous, but many of us have never had our attention called to them as a class; they seem merely miscellaneous to us. In fact, until relatively recent scholarship shifted our point of view, many people seem to have considered metaphor to be a mere rhetorical device, an unnecessary curlicue.

4. Structure

When a substance has enough solidity to have a persistent form or shape of its own, it can have distinct parts or can be a part of larger arrangements. Under this concrete organizing notion I put a number of diverse ideas: (a) form, shape and gestalt (I have chosen the form of a square, but others may want to choose another shape of course.); (b) parts and wholes; (c) fit (consider concepts of truth that speak of a "fit" between reality and a picture of reality, and the "fit" between someone's behavior and their private feelings or motivations); (d) connections or links; (e) the inside/outside contrast of containers, which are often an image of categories; (f) channels; and (g) the familiar three perpendicular axes. The metaphorical meaning of solid structure often pertains to the arrangement of the parts of an abstract entity. This rather elusive idea can best be grasped through an example: the fact that our bodies have a solid form and a usual orientation in gravity means that we can meaningfully describe our conscience or "higher self" as something "riding" us. "Higher" would be a problematic notion if we lived floating in the weightlessness of outer space, but the way our body is configured in gravity makes it meaningful to say that something is on top of us, in control and either spurring us to do something or reining us back.

Structure is embodied in the model most noticeably by the three axes of the box-frame (which are oriented to gravity) and by its being a container with an inside and an outside. Thus the box-frame is like our bodies and the room, which are obviously physical containers or limited spatial volumes. We can think about the human body's structure as being organized by a number of image-schemas, among them up/down, front/back, left/right (our bi-lateral symmetry), and inside/outside. The transparency of the box's front and the shadow at the back give dimension and subtlety to the sharp inside/outside distinction.

5. Location

This idea is commonly used figuratively to mean a stage of development, a psychological or spiritual state, a condition, a social position or role, or a period of time. In the overall model, location is represented first of all by one's being either in the room or out of it (to some ways of thinking, physically existing or not existing). More particularly, each of the locations occupied by an image on the walls represents a condition or a "stage" in a loose human developmental sequence from dependence to interdependence. Familiar uses of the idea of location are a "position" at the bank (job or function); a place in line for promotion; one's "social station" or "place" ("You forget your place, sir!"); being "in a good place"; taking a position in a debate; and being "in an awkward position," that is, an unpleasant but transient social situation of some kind. ("Situation" is in fact another locational term.)

A firm grasp of these five clusters should - given that explanations are often a matter of sorting many details into a recognizable pattern - afford anyone a greater sense of comfort with our shared conceptual system. Phrase after phrase of both ordinary speech and formal academic writing will gain a familiar ring, like notes heard as part of a tonality. The five notions are all represented in our model and can be recalled through it, making it a teaching tool for helping people realize how much of our thinking is organized in these ways. Wittgenstein said that to philosophize is to assemble reminders for a particular purpose. This model provides us with a culturally transmissible reminder. It can be deliberately taught instead of absorbed in tiny apparently unrelated fragments, and it can be represented visually so that everyone can understand it on an ordinary perceptual scale. Teilhard de Chardin used the whole sphere of the Earth, which I find difficult to relate to my psychological self and to my relationships in an immediate way. However, the room in the model I am presenting can imaginatively be scaled up to the Earth, the solar system or the entire universe. Right-angled boxes and solid perpendicular walls are not used in all cultures (think of round pots and woven baskets; yurts, teepees and igloos), but it is hard to think of other features of our surroundings that are so pervasive and so easily drawn with such clear structural meaning.