October 9, 2010

The metaphoric threshold

Posted in Language and Myth tagged , at 8:19 pm by Jeremy

In my previous post, I proposed three stages of language evolution, with fully modern language emerging between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago.  Along with fully modern language, I suggest, came the first usage of metaphor.  This was far more significant than merely adding to the impact of language.  Rather, it involved humanity crossing what I call the “metaphoric threshold,” necessary for humans to achieve abstract thought of any kind, including the search for meaning and the construction of mythic and religious ideas.  In this final section of my chapter entitled “The Magical Weave of Language,” (from my book Towards A Democracy of Consciousness) I describe the importance of the metaphoric threshold in human thought.

[Click here for the pdf version of the chapter “The Magical Weave of Language.”]

[PREVIOUS SECTION]

The metaphoric threshold.

We generally think of metaphor as a technique used by poets and other creative writers, but not really something that’s an integral part of our everyday speech.  However, in a truly groundbreaking book published in 1980, cognitive philosophers Lakoff and Johnson have shown how virtually every aspect of our normal speech uses underlying metaphors to communicate abstract ideas and concepts.[1] We saw earlier how simple statements like “stocks falling” or “the Fed easing the money supply” utilize metaphors that work below our level of conscious awareness.  If you examine your regular speech, you will soon discover that it is in fact virtually impossible to say anything with any level of abstraction without using an underlying metaphor that usually relates to something more concrete.

Here are some simple examples of how these unconscious metaphors work:

“I gave you that idea” – Metaphor: AN IDEA IS AN OBJECT

“My spirits rose”; “I fell into a depression” – Metaphor: HAPPY IS UP; SAD IS DOWN

“He broke under cross-examination” – Metaphor: THE MIND IS A BRITTLE OBJECT

“His ideas have finally come to fruition” – Metaphor: IDEAS ARE PLANTS

“He’s a giant among writers” – Metaphor: SIGNIFICANT IS BIG

“I’ve had a full life” – Metaphor: LIFE IS A CONTAINER

“She gave me a warm smile” – Metaphors: FACIAL EXPRESSION IS A GIFT; INTIMACY IS WARMTH

“I don’t have much time to give you” – Metaphor: TIME IS A VALUABLE RESOURCE[2]

The examples are limitless, and I urge you to observe your own language and that of others around you, to discover the full extent of our reliance on metaphors.  In the Upper Paleolithic example, this new form of thought might have enabled our human ancestor to turn to his friend and say, “Since I lost my son, my heart has turned to stone.”

This dynamic has profound implications for how we humans structure our understanding of ourselves and the world around us, and in this book there will be many occasions to return to it.  Right now, there are two important observations to point out.  The first is that metaphors are the quintessential example of Fauconnier & Turner’s  “double scope conceptual blending” described above, whereby two different conceptual arrays of experience are blended together to create new, emergent meaning.  As such, the pfc, with its unique powers of connectivity, would be the logical part of the brain to mediate the creation of metaphoric thought.  The second observation is that, without metaphor, we are simply unable to conceptualize and communicate abstract thoughts about feelings or ideas.

Therefore, I believe that the first use of metaphor in language was not just  another milestone in the increased sophistication of human linguistic abilities.  It was the threshold necessary for human thought to cross in order to achieve abstract thought of any kind, including the search for meaning in life and in the universe and the creation of mythic and religious ideas.  In short, the crossing of the metaphoric threshold of thought led to the first stirrings of the pfc’s power in the human mind, opening the gateway to the Upper Paleolithic revolution of symbols.  This led to the emergence of a mythic consciousness in human thought, which imposed meaning and structure on the natural world based on a metaphoric transformation of the tangible qualities of everyday life, using them as a scaffolding for more abstract conceptions.  This new world of mythic consciousness which arose on the other side of the metaphoric threshold is what we’ll examine in the next chapter.


[1] Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. (1980/2003). Metaphors We Live By, Chicago: University of Chicago.

[2] Examples taken from Lakoff & Johnson, ibid.

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