The prospect of having to write a coursework essay that focusses on metaphor may seem daunting, in large part because the idea of metaphor is so familiar to you. But perhaps I should say, rather, “an idea of idea of metaphor is so familiar to you.” And, perhaps, by the end of this article and/or your writing process, you will have come to think of the familiar view of metaphor as a wrong or misleading view.
What are metaphors; what are they for; how do they work?
Q. What are metaphors for?
A1. They expand or extend meaning.
A2. They limit,specify, or illustrate meaning.
Which of these answers is correct?
Both. Or neither.
First, the possibility that both are correct, or at least plausible. This possibility lies not in what metaphors themselves or the word “metaphor” might mean (in a straightforward, dictionary-definition sense of “mean”). It lies in the ways in which metaphors are used. That is, the answer to the question “What are metaphors for?” depends on context; and, often, the issue of context is tightly bound up with the issue of genre (see here for an overview of genre).
Consider Richard Dawkins's famous – some might say infamous – metaphor, “the selfish gene.” What is it; what does this figure mean? When Dawkins first coined the metaphor, it was intended, broadly speaking, to do two things: 1) to make accessible, to a generalist or “lay” audience, some of the theoretical concepts and models informing genetics at that time (the late 1970s). In many ways, and by various measures, once can say that here Dawkins was successful: his book The Selfish Gene was a bestseller – no mean feet for a work of non-fiction, and science theory/philosophy at that – and it has not been out of print since first publication. 2) Dawkins also hoped that, by presenting more specialist readers with his metaphor/model of “the selfish gene,” he would encourage a new, reinvigorated way of thinking about genetic “behaviour” and the genetic sciences. He made no claims to be “inventing” a new theory; rather, he hoped he could reasonably claim to be “telling” a current theory in a new way (REF).
Why all this “back-story”? One function of popular science books – whether their slant be historical, biographical, theoretical, whatever – is pedagogical; that is, their job, at least in part, is to teach. So Dawkins, with these generic conventions and pressures in mind, Dawkins surely does not want a metaphor that expands and paves the way for ambiguity and polysemy (multiple meanings); rather , he surely needs a metaphor or model that will help clarify a rather complex theory of gene “behaviour.” This is certainly what Dawkins aims for; early in The Selfish Gene, he spends quite some time specifying just what he means, in the context of his book, by “gene selfishness.” A little further on, he offers his reader this reminder:
At times, gene language gets a bit tedious, and for brevity and vividness we shall lapse into metaphor. But we shall always keep a sceptical eye on our metaphors, to make sure they can be translated back into gene language if necessary. (Dawkins 2006, 45)
An interesting passage, this; rather unbalanced in its metaphorically expressed attitude towards metaphor. Metaphors, apparently, assist with “brevity and vividness”; that is, they illustrate and clarify. And in this context – popular science, which aims to educate – clarify means to specify, to narrow or limit the range of meaning or reference on offer. But to adopt metaphorical turns of phrase, Dawkins says, is a “lapse.” And if one thinks about the connotations of this word, all the analysis we need is done simply by asking, sceptically, why should the use of metaphor constitute a “lapse,” particular if the assumption is that they will aid understanding?
One last point remains to be made regarding the view of metaphor as a clarifying, limiting, or specifying meaning. For Dawkins, the test as to the functionality of a metaphor would appear to be whether or not the metaphor is easily “translated” back into the original terms of the concept it is supposed to be illustrating or clarifying. Please note that here, “translate” can be viewed as a metaphor; we are not talking about finding equivalent meaning between two natural languages (the “non-metaphorical” definition of “translation”). Rather, we are talking about finding equivalence between two discourses, both, in this case, in English. We are talking about finding equivalence between specialist, scientific discourse (more specifically, the “language” of genetics) and non-specialist, sometimes metaphorical, “everyday” talk. So for Dawkins, a “good” metaphor is easily “translatable.”
Perhaps this seems reasonable. But perhaps it is also possible that Dawkins is mistaking metaphor, proper, with simple shorthand. We could say that, in fact, “the selfish gene,” and “gene selfishness,” are not metaphors at all, but just “codes,” abbreviations, shorthands for a much larger theory or set of theories. For when we turn our attention to metaphor and poetry, we will realise that, for many, the richness of metaphor lies in the fact that it is expansive (not restrictive), ambiguous (not clarifying), and unstranslatable. That is, metaphors are unique; therefore, they cannot be re-phrased without some loss or alteration of meaning.
Next: Metaphor and Poetry