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Meaningful and Metaphoric Tendencies

Prisms and Prisons of Thinking


O.G. Rose

Humans have an impulse to create metaphor as humans have an impulse to create


meaning and/or explanation. We want to see the tree as a tall man in the same way we want to
see the tree as Moms favorite or a creation of Gods, for such ways of seeing add to the
world and to life a more beautiful, good, and meaningful feeling. This impulse is in us, but that
doesnt mean the tree isnt Moms favorite or that the world isnt a creation of Gods. It
means only that humans have an impulse to add metaphysical dimensions to physicality, not
necessary because humans want to deceive themselves, but because its just what humans do.
Most certainty, a tree can be a creation of Gods: the fact we have an impulse to see a tree as
such doesnt mean the tree isnt as such (thats a different question). Self-motivation isnt the
same as self-deception.
Metaphor and meaning shapes how we see the world more than what we see in the world
shapes metaphor and meaning. Yes, the two inform one another, but one has more influence than
the other. Considering this, if we fail to learn properly what a metaphor is, we will not learn
properly how to think about physical reality, and furthermore cut ourselves off from the ability to
grasp the world well. Considering that metaphor and meaning shape how we see reality more
than reality shapes how we see it, if we are to actually see true reality, we must be aware of the
influence of metaphor and meaning, and so learn to create and cultivate metaphors and meanings
that truly and accurately describe and frame the world. In a way, this is paradoxical, for to create
a metaphor is precisely to describe a thing by describing it as it is not. To create a meaning or
explanation is to see a thing in light of what that thing does not wear upon its face, per see (as
the word cat does not wear upon its face the definition of cat). Ironically, we have to learn
how to determine what is the best way for seeing a thing as it is not in order to avoid seeing a
thing as it is not.
If we are ill-equipped to create metaphor and meaning, we will be ill-equipped to handle
creating that which is integral to, and dramatically shapes, thinking. Furthermore, failure to
recognize our natural impulse to see metaphor and meaning, and the roll metaphor and meaning
have on thinking, will impede discernment and thinking. Please note that Im not saying meaning
and metaphor are bad or that we actually live in a meaningless universe: my point is that our
brains gravitate toward metaphor and meaning creation and are profoundly shaped by metaphor
and senses of meaning. If we fail to realize this, we may find ourselves allowing our minds to
create and be shaped by bad metaphors and false meanings, which will impede our capacity
to identify and assent to good metaphors and valuable meanings.
We create metaphors that create us, as we create meanings that influence the meaning of
our lives. Not because metaphors and meanings are self-delusions, but because they are the
scaffolding by which we hold together the world (to ourselves). Whether or not this scaffolding
is true or not is another question that exceeds the scope of this paper, though I would like to
emphasis that just because something is metaphoric or meaningful doesnt mean it is false. In
a Gdel sense, perhaps we can never verify which metaphors and meanings are true, but that
doesnt mean they are false. Rather, it means we have to learn best how to live with uncertainty,
and it is doubtful a people who fail to understand the importance of metaphor and meaning will
be equipped to best live with unknowns.
I

Metaphor shapes thought more than thought shapes metaphor. Language creates a
worldview more than a worldview creates language.1 This isnt to say worldviews dont have
any effect on language, but that language has an incredibly powerful impact on how we think
about and see the world. To use an exercise of I.A. Richards, as highlighted by Neil Postman in
his book The End of Education, I. A. Richards would divide his class into three groups and ask
each to write about language, but provided each group with an opening sentence: either
language is like a tree, language is like a river, or language is like a building.2 The
paragraphs were strikingly different, with one group writing of roots and branches and organic
growth; another of tributaries, streams, and even floods, another of foundations, rooms, and
sturdy structures.3 As the exercise made clear, metaphor influences what we say, and to some
extent, what we say controls what we see.4
A metaphor is not an ornament. It is an organ of perception.5 All too often today,
metaphor is taught in school as nothing more than a poetic device, and Neil Postman laments this
tendency. He notes how entire philosophies were shaped around metaphors, highlighting the
educational philosophy of Rousseau, who claimed plants are improved by cultivation, and man
by education, and noted that Rousseaus entire philosophy rests upon th[e] comparison of
plants and children.6 Postman also points out the relationship between how we describe sickness
and how we think about who is responsible for it: if we think of sickness as something people
do versus have, then we can think of them as being responsible for being sick versus a
victim of unfortunate, uncontrollable forces.7
Metaphor is not simply a description; it anchors, shapes, and directs thought, rather it be
in regard to sickness, as mentioned and as explored by Susan Sontag in her Illness as Metaphor,
or in regard to child psychology. Those who have not been educated properly about metaphor
and its power will be those who fail to be truly educated, and this is why it is so tragic to
Postman that most students come to believe metaphor has a decorative function and only a
decorative function.8 It is doubtful that any great understanding of greatly complex ideas can
happen without a profound ability to create and grasp metaphor. Without Einsteins poetic gift to
describe general relativity using images of men falling from buildings and being carried
through space in glass rooms, its doubtful any of us would grasp the magnitude of Einsteins
work. In line with this thought, let us imagine Einstein picked a different metaphor, a bad
metaphor, or lets pretend Einstein was incapable of metaphor, and for that matter, lets pretend
as if no human was capable of metaphor. How many of us would still be in the dark about
general relativity? Most of us, and probably only elite physicists would understand it (if even
them). Einsteins ideas have been some of the most influential in human history, but if humans
were incapable of metaphor, imagine all the breakthroughs that wouldnt have transpired. The
idea of relativity has profoundly impacted all the humanities and sciences, but only because there
were metaphors by which non-physicists could grasp the complex theory. Without metaphor,
Einstein (along with most greater thinkers) would have had a much smaller impact, and any
impact he did have would have been mostly contained to the field of physics. Metaphor enables
Einstein to have a much wider impact, as it does the same for all of us; metaphor makes the
specialized accessible to the general.
II

Metaphor increases our capacity to comprehend and to share what we comprehend with
others; we are not limited to grasp only what we specialize in (though this isnt to say there is no
place for specialization). For non-specialists, metaphor makes it possible to grasp general
relativity, a theory which would otherwise be like nothing, relatively speaking. Humans
naturally desire meaning and/or explanation, and our capacity for metaphor makes possible the
comprehension of what would otherwise always be unexplainable to us. At the same time, our
capacity to access and even create meaning can tempt us to go too far.
To be is to be explainable. If I come upon a table and find a glass sitting upon it, I
assume, whether consciously or unconsciously, that there is an explanation for why the glass is
there. Of course there is: if not, it wouldnt be there. Even if the explanation is it was teleported
there by magic, we cannot view a phenomenon without viewing what necessitates an
explanation. If the cup ended up there randomly by chance or from out of nothing, then the
explanation is the cup is there by random forces or the cup emerged ex nihilo, and though this
might not be a satisfactory explanation to us, it is still an explanation. Nothing cannot be
explained and only (uncaused) nothing, and yet it can be explained why nothing cannot be
explained (because nothing is axiomatically that-which-cannot-be-to-be-explainable, for
example).
Unfortunately, the glass on the table doesnt wear upon its face the explanation for how
it ended up there or why. We know by seeing it there that there must be an explanation, but we
dont know, just by seeing it, what particular explanation is proper. We are left to imagine,
ignore, or investigate, however we so choose. Yet the very lack of the particular explanation
upon the face of that which we must assume explanation/meaning is behind can be the very
reason we are motivated to investigate the cause and learn more about the phenomenon. The
mystery, if you will, can motivate us to become scientists, philosophers, and more. Perhaps in
Heaven things will wear their meanings upon their being, but not on earth. Here, phenomena
lack upon their face a particular explanation, but that doesnt keep us from assuming the
presence of explanation itself. To think a thing cannot be explained is to think a thing isnt real.
Consciously or subconsciously, to see is to assume explanation: I cannot sense something
that is without explanation. If a thing is, there is a reason it is: nothing exists that lacks a
process through time by which it came to exist (as such). That isnt to say all explanations satisfy
us; in fact, some strike us as the same as non-explanation. Most would agree with the statement
I cannot sense something that is without explanation, but many would find coincidence or no
reason as arbitrary, an explanation that does not qualify as an explanation. And yet these are in
fact explanations: to say that cup is on the table for no reason; a person put it there without
thinking about it is in fact to offer an explanation. It might be an explanation we dont like, but
that doesnt mean it isnt an explanation; in fact, to disqualify it would be to do so for no more
reason than prejudice. Humans consider some valid explanations as non-explanations when the
explanations are simply not good enough for them (by some arbitrary standard), and
unfortunately this prejudice has consequences.
If there is a cup on a table and I ask why is that cup there?, someone may tell me
because I wanted to move it there. If I ask why?, that person may tell me because I felt like
it, and off of this question, I can keep asking why? until I get an answer to which no more can
follow (such as just because). At the end of every line of explanation is eventually an axiomatic
reason for why things are the way they are, but if I have a prejudice against just because
explanations, when I reach this axiomatic reason, I wont accept it as a substantive and valid
explanation. Ill pass over it as a non-explanation, and considering that at the core of all

phenomena is eventually a non-explanation, Ill ultimately never be able to accept the reason
for anything. Even if I believe God told me to do something because that action would cause
certain outcomes, if I kept asking why God told me to do this action, eventually, the answer
becomes because God said so which, if questioned, becomes because God Is God, not
because there is no explanation, but because at the end of every chain of reasons is eventually an
axiomatic reason. It might not be one that satisfies us, but it is one we will have to learn to live
with.
Humans seem to have a longing for what could be called an infinite explanation an
explanation that transcends eternal regression and if they dont learn to accept just because
as good enough for them, theyll keep pushing when theres nothing to push on to. Theyll never
get the infinite explanation theyre after, and their innate orientation to assume and see
explanation will push them passed the actual explanation, all because their prejudice made them
unwilling to accept it. This may result in individuals still investigating long after there is no
longer a need for explanation, or lead to individuals creating false explanations instead of
accepting the axioms that arent good enough for them, because the fabricated explanations are
more satisfying. This isnt to say explanations have no place, but simply that explanation without
a willingness to accept the axioms grounding those explanations will result in even true
explanations being left behind.
The failure to recognize our tendency to hold prejudice against explanations considered
non-explanations, and also our longing for infinite explanations, can have negative
consequences on discernment, wisdom, and thinking in general. Furthermore, our impulse for
explanation can impede our ability to accept accident and human error, as can our prejudice
against certain explanations that are too axiomatic for us. But in a world that isnt perfect, this
impulse will have us crucifying people who did nothing more than commit the crime of being
human, as it will have us spending a lifetime searching for an explanation to justify a monstrosity
or accident that just isnt there. As we must learn the art of metaphor, we must learn the art of
explanation, and not demand of explanation the satisfaction it cannot give us.
III
Metaphor and meaning/explanation both have a major influence, and failure to identity
their roll is a threat to our thinking. Ive decided to combine the topic of metaphor and
meaning/explanation in this one work because I believe both are neglected in modern
education, are driven by natural, human impulses, and because the two have such a major
influence over thought. Furthermore, Ive combined them in this work because I have concerns
about our modern approach to both.
What concerns me about metaphor is our failure to realize how much our thinking is
bound by metaphor: that when someone says language is a river, we dont realize how much
this metaphor shapes our thought. Metaphor can come to function as a prison, one in which
thought is trapped and bound without realizing it, all while thinking it is free. Likewise, so can
become our longing for meaning/explanation, which can drive us to keep asking for explanation
from that which there is no explanation (that satisfies our prejudices), leaving us stuck, hitting
against an unmovable objective, forever, as if imprisoned. Furthermore, when faced with
coincidence, accident, etc. that which the explanation is no explanation because of human
prejudice we are tempted to create explanation that doesnt fit (but perhaps gives us peace of
mind), and furthermore carry out actions, based on that explanation, which do not need to be

carried out. If there is an accident and humans cant learn to live with axiomatic explanation, the
event will always lead to meaning and/or proving something that it doesnt. If there is a car
wreck and the reason for it is simply the driver made a mistake, instead of accepting this
answer, perhaps well think that the roads werent paved enough and that we need to spend more
money on road infrastructure to solve the problem. But no matter the quality of the road, there
will always be accidents: if whenever there is an accident we think we need to invest in the
roads, lots of money will be spent on trying to make the world a perfect place, and no satisfaction
will ever be gained. This isnt to say roads should never be improved, but rather that even if the
roads were perfect, humans would still be flawed.
In closing, if we want to think well, we must be aware of how much metaphor shapes our
thinking (for good or for bad), while simultaneously keeping in mind that we need metaphor to
grasp and spread complex ideas. We must risk playing with fire to survive. Likewise, to think
well, we must be aware of our natural tendency to project and assume the presence of
explanation and meaning onto phenomena in the world, yet also our unwillingness to accept
non-explanation/non-meaning as a valid explanation and meaning. Explanation and meaning
motivate us to make new discoveries about the world, and yet they can also keep us from seeing
the world clearly, because we have an unwillingness to accept no explanation/no meaning,
even when it is appropriate. At the same time, developing a cynicism and disbelief in all
explanation/meaning isnt appropriate, for there is indeed meaning and explanation in life.
Humans are creatures of meaning and metaphor, and as individuals need to cultivate and refine
these natural tendencies, so societies should help shed light on how people can do this properly.
If individuals cultivate their meaningful and metaphoric tendencies poorly, there will be
consequences.

Notes
1

Postman, Neil. The End of Education. New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1996: 177.

Postman, Neil. The End of Education. New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1996: 185186.

Postman, Neil. The End of Education. New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1996: 186.

Postman, Neil. The End of Education. New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1996: 186.

Postman, Neil. The End of Education. New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1996: 174.

Postman, Neil. The End of Education. New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1996: 174.

Postman, Neil. The End of Education. New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1996: 176.

Postman, Neil. The End of Education. New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1996: 173.

Additions
1.

To allude to A is A by O.G. Rose, a thing is an A is A without B, and considering what has been said about
metaphor, we have to determine which without B is the best for us to grasp A is A. Since an A is A is always an
A isnt A is A isnt A (without B), it is perhaps because a thing already consists of a negative essence that it needs
a proper negative framing by which to grasp it as most true. A thing is an is not-ness, if you will, and so a
metaphor, which is a description via what a thing isnt, ironically, helps us grasp what a thing is (an is not).

2.

Where there is a failure to understand and cultivate good metaphor and meaning, there can be an urge to suppress the
impulse for them, via either a redefinition of what they are (such as defining metaphor as poetic decoration and
meaning as self-delusion), or a direct disregarding of their importance. This can lead to great unhappiness, as the
suppression of meaning most certainty has, as written about by Viktor Frankl and others.

3.

Not only can an unwilling to accept non-explanation negatively impact ourselves, but also those around us, for if an
event occurs involving a person and we are unwilling to accept coincidence, human error, etc., we can end up
imposing certain solutions upon the person which only make the problem worse (for the individual).

4.

Is there a difference between meaning and explanation? Yes and no, in the same way that there is and isnt a
difference between water and H20. Though the two make up the same substance, they are different in how they are
seen. Water hits the mind as more poetic and sensual than H20, which comes across as more scientific and factual.
Yet, though the two expressions are different, they are indivisible: there can be no H 20 if there is no water, and viceversa. Also, one could say H20 is an explanation, while water is what that explanation means.
If I say the universe was created by God, it is an explanation for the origin of the universe that entails a meaning, for
the origin claims God Exists and God thinks the universe important enough to create (along with everything in it).
The explanation entails a meaning, and in a sense, the meaning is the soul of the explanation; the explanation, the body
of the meaning. Explanation is relative to meaning, as meaning is relative to explanation.
If a cup ends up on a table because I put it there, the meaning of (the sight of) the cup on the table is human action
has consequences, causality leads to outcomes, and so on, and at the same time, the explanation for how the cup got
on the table is that causality works and someone wanted to put it there. To give another example: if a painter paints
a painting, the explanation for how the painting came into existence is a painter painted it, and perhaps the painting
symbolizes something about modern life. If this is the case, then another/the explanation of the work is that a painter
wanted to paint a symbol about modern life. Considering this, explanation and meaning are two streams that seem
to merge and run together, making them indivisible, even though they can be considered distinctly. Considering this, I
think the term meaning/explanation is a valid one.
What has meaning will have an explanation, and what has an explanation will have meaning. Since everything
ultimately has an explanation (despite human prejudice), everything ultimately has meaning.

5.

Metaphor is a means by which we can grasp complex ideas, and so a means by which we can grasp the
meaning/explanation(s) of those complexities. In such cases, our metaphors shape our explanations/meanings, as our
explanations/meanings shape our metaphors. If we dont grasp this relationship, we wont be careful about the
metaphors we use: we wont be careful about how we create that which influences how we think (and so influences that
which leads to more metaphors). Do our metaphors shape our explanations/meanings more than our
explanations/meanings shape our metaphors? Both, it seems.

6.

Impulse for meaning/explanation can be driven by sadness and grief: if something tragic happens, we can demand an
explanation. If someone we care about dies in a car wreck, it is natural to want to know why, but if were unwilling to
accept, out of a kind of prejudice, an explanation such as it was an accident or bad things happen, we will struggle
to ever have peace of mind. We have to learn to be able to accept explanations that we feel arent good enough, or what
isnt good enough for us may consume us.

7.

To those who claim their thinking isnt shaped by metaphor, I would start by asking them if they used words.

8.

For a powerful example on how metaphor impacts how we think about reality, consider what Thomas Merton has to
say about falling in love, as found in Love and Living. First Harvest/HBJ Edition, 1985: 2526.

9.

Keep in mind that whenever there is a large State and the option for the State to do something about problems, faced
with an explanation for problems that humans have a prejudice against (and especially where the mentality better safe
than sorry prevails vs. better wise than foolish), whenever there is an accident, there will be a demand for State
action (to make sure it doesnt happen again, to compensate the victims, etc.), even if State action isnt the best course.

This isnt to say all State action is bad, but that if we arent aware of our tendencies to resort to it even when we
shouldnt necessarily do so, our chances of using the State well will be much less likely. In other words, our inability to
live with coincidence and non-explanation will work to grow the State and potentially impede freedom.
10. If we cant live with coincidence, we cant live without ourselves, for we are coincidence beings. That said, Nihilists
can take it too far in saying there is only coincidence, when reality is rather a mixture.
11. To allude to the thought of Experiencing Thinking by O.G. Rose, metaphor makes it possible to understand some
high order complexities (which otherwise would be thought of as nothing) in low order terms (in a unique way
that actually reverently preserves their high order-ness). At the same time, we cannot forget that the high order isnt
merely our low order understanding of it, nor try to think of what actually has no explanation (that is good enough
for us) as high order complexity, for this is just another way of refusing to live with (what we consider) nonexplanation/meaning.
12. We create and search for metaphors, purposes, ideas, and explanations like a man searching through a ring of keys to
find the one that turns the lock, hoping its there.
13. We create metaphors that then make us and motivate us to see meaning where we find meaning lacking. We shape our
[metaphors], and then our [metaphors] shape us.A
A

Allusion to the McLuhan-esq thought of John Culkin.

O.G. Rose
5-18-15