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Echoes and Mirrors» Blog Archive » Better living through science and philosophy

Better living through science and philosophy

Thinking literally

Philosophers have long wondered about the connection between metaphor and thought, in ways that occasionally presaged current-day research. Friedrich Nietzsche scornfully described human understanding as nothing more than a web of expedient metaphors, stitched together from our shallow impressions of the world. In their ignorance, he charged, people mistake these familiar metaphors, deadened from overuse, for truths. “We believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers,” he wrote, “and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things–metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities.”

Like Nietzsche, George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, and Mark Johnson, a philosophy professor at the University of Oregon, see human thought as metaphor-driven. But, in the two greatly influential books they have co-written on the topic, “Metaphors We Live By” in 1980 and “Philosophy in the Flesh” in 1999, Lakoff and Johnson focus on the deadest of dead metaphors, the ones that don’t even rise to the level of cliche. They call them “primary metaphors,” and they group them into categories like “affection is warmth,” “important is big,” “difficulties are burdens,” “similarity is closeness,” “purposes are destinations,” and even “categories are containers.”

Rather than so much clutter standing in the way of true understanding, to Lakoff and Johnson these metaphors are markers of the roots of thought itself. Lakoff and Johnson’s larger argument is that abstract thought would be meaningless without bodily experience. And primary metaphors, in their ubiquity (in English and other languages) and their physicality, are some of their most powerful evidence for this.

A posteriori knowledge is God. So many conflicts!

To the extent that metaphors reveal how we think, they also suggest ways that physical manipulation might be used to shape our thought. In essence, that is what much metaphor research entails. And while psychologists have thus far been primarily interested in using such manipulations simply to tease out an observable effect, there’s no reason that they couldn’t be put to other uses as well, by marketers, architects, teachers, parents, and litigators, among others.

A few psychologists have begun to ponder applications. Ackerman, for example, is looking at the impact of perceptions of hardness on our sense of difficulty. The study is ongoing, but he says he is finding that something as simple as sitting on a hard chair makes people think of a task as harder. If those results hold up, he suggests, it might make sense for future treaty negotiators to take a closer look at everything from the desks to the upholstery of the places where they meet. Nils Jostmann, the lead author of the weight study, suggests that pollsters might want to take his findings to heart: heavier clipboards and heavier pens for issues that they want considered answers for, lighter ones for questions that they want gut reactions on.

The applications for this in manipulating people are endless – figuring out what reaction you want to get is the tricky part.

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