An interesting part of human behavior is the way we learn and share stories or lessons. Taking this observation and applying it to the history of any people, one will find that metaphors, symbols, and similes are everywhere – ingrained into our language and culture. To define these terms in my own words, metaphors and similes are what people use to compare something, an idea, an event, and so on to a commonly understood object to draw conclusions in the listener’s mind. What ties the three together is that metaphors, symbols, and similes all rest in the assumption that the listen knows what the speaker or writer is referring to and in what way the speaker or writer means it.
This problem has been discussed by many, but David Hume seems to have put it together nicely when he discusses beauty:
Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others (Sartwell, 2016).
Just like beauty, symbols and metaphors rest in what the listener is relating it to leading to misunderstandings because, “while capable of creating valuable insights [metaphors are] also incomplete, biased, and potentially misleading” (Morgan, 5). Metaphors, similes, and even symbols can all have the same weaknesses and strengths. It is all subjective. The literal meaning of metaphor comes from the Latin word metaphora which means carry over – a perfect metaphor for metaphor! But the problem occurs when the carrying over does not translate well or as intended. Another philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, when discussing limits of thought and logic, concluded that the limit, “will therefore only be in language that the limit can be set” (Wittgenstein, 27).
If we, as a people, become trapped in one set of interpretations of symbols we lose our ability to think freely. The symbol, or “word and thing become one and the same in our minds. We are unable to act as free and ethical persons” (Paul and Elder, 19). That is, if people allow their natural cognitive biases to define certain ideas, terms, metaphors, or symbols to incorporate the way we act and judge, then we have blocked off any new information and interpretations. Communication, the gift all humans possess, becomes a trap to ensnare us to react a certain way when presented with symbols or imagery we have been taught or conditioned to.
Metaphors, similes, and symbols can be a powerful tool of oracles, teachers, leaders, and speakers of all sorts. And, it must be said, for all it’s faults, the human mind accomplishes a lot through carefully crafted and articulated words to convey commonly understood meaning. The writers who know the benefits and flaws of symbols and metaphors use them carefully and to great success. A good example of a simile is “Dr. Franks is like a lion”. The “like” is the key difference between a metaphor and a simile and invites further explanation. A metaphor would be something like “the enemy is a beast”. No “like” included means nothing else is needed to understand what one is saying about the enemy. The listener is already creating similarities and differences in their mind. For symbolism, the American Flag. Many find see it as a symbol of freedom, opportunity, and a beacon of hope – as they should. But ask Vietnamese Veterans, and we will get a completely different interpretation.
However, let there be no mistake – metaphors and symbols are a beautiful tool in human communication and expression. From stories and literature Death, that hath suck’d the honey of thy breath, hath had no power yet upon thy beauty: Thou art not conquer’d; beauty’s ensign yet is crimson in thy lips and in thy cheeks, And death’s pale flag is not advancèd there. Why art thou yet so fair? Shall I believe that unsubstantial Death is amorous; and that the lean abhorrèd monster keeps thee here in dark to be his paramour? (Romeo and Juliet) to parables and stories Judah is a lion’s whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He couches, he lies down as a lion, And as a lion, who dares rouse him up? (Gen 49:9) – humans have to ability to bend the very meaning of words based on what we interpret or have been conditioned to interpret.
Therefore, freethinkers must remain weary to the use of flamboyant nationalism, revolutionary populism, or blatant pseudoscience and spiritualism – and, above all, when dealing with crafty metaphor and symbolism, “beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself” (Hitchens).
Morgan, G. (2006). Images of Organization. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications. Pg 5.
Sartwell, C. (2016). “Beauty” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed August 31, 2019 from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/beauty/.Wittgenstein, L. (1922). “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. pg 27. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Tractatus_Logico-Philosophicus/Preface.