Metaphor and thought

In ‘Kant and the Platypus’ Eco takes a black-box approach to cognition. He explicitly states that he does not know and does not want to know the details of neural functioning. Rather, he decided to try to understand cognition by looking at the external effects (comparing input with output). But it has struck me that some of his ideas do correlate well with some of the papers I’ve read lately.

When talking about object cognition, Eco discussed first and second moments of cognition. (I need to be careful here because it is clear that this is the source of a debate between himself and other thinkers.) Nonetheless, it is striking that this idea matches up very nicely with some of the neurological observations of perception. Notably that our brains work through functional modules which deal with separate aspects/qualities of an object, that these perceptions of aspects are then integrated so that we perceive a coherent whole (‘binding’ or the ‘inner sensation’) and that then the perceived object is placed within a framework of meaning.

Thinking about Eco might help extrapolate from the work of researchers who attempt to model cognition in infants. As discussed previously, the modelers have argued that learning in infants is unlikely to be based on simple associative learning (i.e. a gradual accretion of objects and associations) because this is too slow: instead, the learning of infants is better represented through a model of hypothesis over-formation and testing (i.e. wild extrapolation from the known to the unknown with subsequent testing. Note: it is not being suggested that this is being done in a conscious or deliberative fashion. How far can this model be extrapolated into the thinking of adults? Eco uses the story of the day that a Meso-American soldier / runner first saw a Spanish soldier riding a horse and imagines what did that runner think, moreover what did he go and say when he ran back and reported to his king? (Given that Meso-Americans had no knowledge of large, domesticable animals other than lamas and they couldn’t carry people.) Does the model of hypothesis over-formation and testing help? In some ways it begins to give computational form to the narrative that Eco imagines – that the runner will have started from known animals and experiences and then extrapolated from their in order to create a word-picture that would be meaningful and to his king.

But, to add to this, we must imagine that the process of hypothesis formation becomes richer and more nuanced as we enter into adulthood…? A paper by Thibodeau & Boroditsky (2011) on the role of metaphor in reasoning gives empirical evidence to indicate that a starting metaphor can shape a subsequent process of rationalisation. The authors tested 2 groups of people by giving them the same information about crime figures in an imaginary city but then set up a range of test to see whether the metaphors they used (crime as a beast or crime as a metaphor) to talk about crime shaped the people’s reasoning regarding how criminality should be dealt with. The results showed that the metaphor did shape they decisions people reached. Moreover when asked about their reasoning both groups validated their choices by appealing to the (identical) information set. So – metaphor shapes cognition but we may not be consciously aware that it does so.

To come back to the question or, rather, the speculation: if adults do indeed work through a process of hypothesis over-formation then that hypothesis is shaped by a wider set of factors. The hypothesis is naturally set within a much richer associative framework but that the selection of associations, upon which the hypothesis is based, is influenced by a variety of factors including emotional state and any metaphorical frame which inclines us to associate along certain lines rather than others. The problem is that the choices made amongst the associative framework are inaccessible to us and (the evidence suggests that) any rationalisation of our decisions are conscious justifications after the event rather than the real reasons. What is the value then of asking people stuff?

But the idea of metaphor also moves towards questions of how we think. Not simply in terms of the metaphor framing the decision making process but that the decision making process is inherently metaphorical. (This is going back to some of the behavioural economics work, which questions the traditional assumption in economics that we are purely rational decision-makers.)
In his lecture at the RSA, ‘The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World’, Iain McGilchrist (2011) repeatedly emphasised that the popular perception of our brains as left brain = logic + right brain = art was wrong. Rather the evidence pointed towards the conclusion that the different hemispheres are primarily involved in different ways of attending to the world (fine detail vs wider perspective) and that dominance of one hemisphere over the other shapes the way that we consider our environment and what ways of thinking that we believe to be acceptable. Towards the end of the discussion of metaphor on ‘In Our Time’ Bragg et al. (2010) began to talk about this issue: The feeling that scientific and metaphorical (analogical) thinking were inimical to each other and were seen as such in the past. One of the speakers referred to Shelley in this light and this was problematic; Holmes (2009) argued convincingly that Shelley (and other Romantic poets) were keenly interested in the science of their day and that thinkers in that period believed that scientific and metaphorical thinking could bring compatible and mutually supportive understandings of the world. On the other had Julienn (2004) endeavours to make a clear distinction between the direct, propositional thought of classical Greece with the more analogical and allusive forms of knowing favoured in ancient China. Finally, in their discussion for Homebrewed Christianity, Clayton and Tanner touched ideas about different forms of ‘knowing’ and contrasted the approach that Tanner was taking with the focus of contemporary evangelical traditions on propositional truth (Fuller, 2011).

I think the point I’m working towards is this: Thoughts, memories and ideas are interlinked. In academic work we prioritise certain forms of thought and argument but in practice, in our heads, we think in a much richer way. It seems reasonable to follow the behavioural economists in arguing for the idea that the brain contains a host of functional modules that deal with information in different ways. In doing so, we can allow for different forms of thought co-existing in one person. This feeds into practice when working with objects and people in that it gives us grounds for taking multiple approaches to people and objects. Also, when working with older people, it allows us to ask which forms of thinking are more damaged by processes of cognitive decline and dementias.

Bragg, M. et al. (2010) ‘The History of Metaphor’, In Our Time, Radio Programme broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 25/11/2010, Available at [Accessed 30/03/2011]

Eco, U. (2000) Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition, New York: Mariner Books

Holmes, R. (2009) The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, London: HarperPress

Julienn, F. (2004) Detour and Access: Strategies of Meaning in China and Greece, Cambridge, MA: Zone Books

Fuller, T. (2011) ‘Christ the Key with Kathryn Tanner: Homebrewed Christianity 92’, Homebrewed Christianity, Available at [Accessed 30/03/2011]

Thibodeau P.H. & Boroditsky, L. (2011) ‘Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning’, PLoS ONE, 6(2): e16782. doi:10.1371/journal.

McGilchrist, I. (2010) The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Lecture given at the RSA, 17/11/2010, Available at [Accessed 30/03/2011]


About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in Cognition, developmental psychology, metaphor. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Metaphor and thought

  1. Pingback: Objects as material primes | holding the moment of holding

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