Reconsidering Metaphor

It was the 18th-century thinker Lichtenberg who said, “A good metaphor is something even the police should keep an eye on.”  Metaphors can move us, and it was only a few years ago that the philosopher Jacques Derrida reminded us that modern Greek still uses metaphorikos as the word for transportation.  Researchers have now learned that metaphors can help scientists to reconsider their assumptions (translation: transport them to a new locus of thinking) when they are compelled to think out loud in front of other scientists who do not share their preconceptions.  Jonah Lehrer explains the importance of scientists working outside the comfort of a lab consisting of the like-minded:

The diverse lab, in contrast, mulled the problem at a group meeting. None of the scientists were [sic] protein experts, so they began a wide-ranging discussion of possible solutions. At first, the conversation seemed rather useless. But then, as the chemists traded ideas with the biologists and the biologists bounced ideas off the med students, potential answers began to emerge. “After another 10 minutes of talking, the protein problem was solved,” Dunbar says. “They made it look easy.”

When Dunbar reviewed the transcripts of the meeting, he found that the intellectual mix generated a distinct type of interaction in which the scientists were forced to rely on metaphors and analogies to express themselves [my emphasis].  These abstractions proved essential for problem-solving, as they encouraged the scientists to reconsider their assumptions.

This would seem to suggest, among other things, that scientists could benefit from learning about literature, though few institutions of higher education offer programs designed to take advantage of bringing the two disciplines together.


2 responses to “Reconsidering Metaphor

  1. You raise some excellent points, and it’s nice to see that I’m not alone in the promotion of this concept!

  2. It seems to me that this might help to open up a subjective space in the approach to scientific research. It exposes the process to different degrees of perception and even intuition—a phenomenological influence, maybe. It doesn’t negate the empirical proof required of the scientific process, it only opens up new avenues of reflection that can then be proved or disproved.

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