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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

“Metaphors we live by” written by Lakoff and Johnson. (ISBN 0-226-46801-1) ……..
I often muse about what makes a human being, human? Or what makes a human being fully human? Consciousness is clearly one of the characteristics. Language is another. And imagination is a third. Perhaps it’s because I’m interested in these phenomena that some time back I bought “Metaphors we live by”. Our ability to handle metaphors and symbols intrigues me, and I wanted to understand better how we use metaphors so the title caught my eye. However, when I flicked through it, it struck me as a bit technical and even dry. I thought it was a book about linguistics, an area of study which does interest me, but one which I find can be difficult to grasp. So I put the book aside in my giant collection of “interesting books to get round to reading one day”. I’m not quite sure I pulled it off the shelf recently. Oh, yes, actually I do remember why, but the explanation is going to have to wait till another post. (cryptic, huh?) I guess that old adage of there being a right time for everything must apply to books, because this time, I started into it and couldn’t stop. I’ve marked it up. I read and re-read chapters. I’ve skipped to the back, delved into the middle, read it from cover to cover. I find it compelling and convincing. And I can’t figure out why I didn’t take to it first time round.
It’s actually an incredibly difficult book to summarise. Usually when I write a review like this I paste in a few passages from the book to illustrate what it’s like. But I’ve collected so many passages I find it hard to pick only a few!
Here’s the gist of their argument. By studying human communication they claim to have discovered that metaphors are not simply a word or language game, but much more fundamentally, they are conceptual. By that they mean we think in metaphors, we understand using metaphors, and, indeed we understand the world and our place in it through metaphors. I didn’t need convinced about that. I already thought that metaphors were the basis of thought. However, they take the whole project to an entirely different level by studying the types of metaphors which are most prevalent in our thinking and communicating. With way too many examples to share here, they illustrate clearly and convincingly that the basic, fundamental metaphors we use haven’t appeared randomly, but are developed out of our interactions with the physical and the cultural worlds in which we exist. In other words, they are develop from our interactions with time and space, and our interactions with other people and creatures. This, I think, is the key. It allows them to develop an argument they call “the experientialist myth”, proposing it as a better way to understand life than the opposing myths of “objectivism” and “subjectivism”. (Time for a quote or two from the book)

The myth of objectivism reflects the human need to understand the external world in order to be able to function successfully in it. The myth of subjectivism is focused on internal aspects of understanding – what the individual finds meaningful and what makes his life worth living. The experientialist myth suggests that these are not opposing concerns.

Within the myth of objectivism, the concern for truth grows out of a concern for successful functioning. Given a view of man as separate from his environment, successful functioning is conceived of as mastery over the environment. Hence the objectivist metaphors KNOWLEDGE IS POWER and SCIENCE PROVIDES CONTROL OVER NATURE.

The principal theme of the myth of subjectivism is the attempt to overcome the alienation that results from viewing man as separate from his environment and from other men. This involves an embracing of the self – of individuality and reliance upon personal feelings, intuition, and values. The Romanticist version involves reveling in the senses and feelings and attempting to gain union with nature through passive appreciation of it.

The old myths share a common perspective: man as separate from his environment.

The experientialist myth takes the perspective of man as part of his environment, not as separate from it. It focuses on constant interaction with the physical environment and with other people. It views this interaction with the environment as involving mutual change. You cannot function within the environment without changing it or being changed by it.

Do you get the idea? It’s a kind of division between the rationalists and the Romantics, with the claim that metaphor builds a bridge between reason and the imagination and gives us a third way. One which neither denies objective reality, not gets lost in subjective relativism. In the process, this “experientialist” way, shows how there are no Absolute truths out there discoverable without an understanding based on cultural systems, but keeps the project of the imagination and feelings grounded in our interactions with the world.

Objectivism takes as its allies scientific truth, rationality, precision, fairness, and impartiality. Subjectivism takes as its allies the emotions, intuitive insight, imagination, humaneness, art, and a “higher” truth.
The proportions of our lives governed by objectivism and subjectivism vary greatly from person to person and culture and culture. Some of us even attempt to live our entire lives totally by one myth of the other.

How do you think it is for you? Are you more drawn to objectivism’s allies, or subjectivism’s?

I find both main strands of their case very convincing. The more you look for it, the more you become aware of the pervasiveness of metaphor, and the more you study it, the clearer it becomes that conceptual metaphors are grounded in our experiences and interactions. Their experientialist myth appeals to me much more than either of the other two older myths. It strikes me as more true. I also think it allows a much more robust defence against scientism than romanticism ever did.

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Human beings are sensing, feeling, thinking, meaning-seeking creatures. We are probably the only species of life on Earth to function this way. Consciousness is that strange phenomenon which allows us to be aware of all these functions, and it’s consciousness which has enabled us to develop language which allows us to communicate the inner experiences of our lives.

How do you know what another person senses, feels or thinks? Through the sharing of stories. Our key tool in organising all these elements and conveying these experiences to others is narrative. We put things together in our heads in the form of stories. Remember, a story is created by telling of the present as it is emerging from the past in the light of future possibilities. Stories are dynamic. They move, they grow, they develop. And every story is unique, because every human being is unique. We feel less alone when we find connections with others through the stories we share. We use the imaginative facility of empathy to try to understand what another person is experiencing.

These experiences of our lives are made up of the sensations we become aware of, the feelings which develop inside us, and the thoughts which allow us to put it all together. All of this is framed inside what sense we make of it all. Two people can have very similar experiences but understand those experiences differently because sense each one makes of it is different.

Owen Flanagan, the philosopher, describes this very well in his book, “The Really Hard Problem”. He points out that there are many different ways of making sense of experience and these different ways lead to very different perceptions and understandings of the world. He describes the idea of “spaces of meaning”. A “space of meaning” is what a person lives in and through which he or she experiences the world. A “space of meaning” is publically available.

He describes six such spaces – art, science, technology, ethics, politics and spirituality.

Each of these six spaces of meaning names, or gestures in the direction of, a large domain of life. Art includes painting, poetry, literature, music and popular culture. Science includes all the sciences, as well as whatever synthetic philosophical picture of persons (or reality) is thought to emerge from the sciences. Politics includes the relevant local and/or nation-state form of government as wel as the legal and economic structures it rests on and/or engenders. Spirituality includes multifarious religious practices and institutions, theologies, and such non-theistic spiritual conceptions as ethical naturalism, secular humanism, pagan shamanism, Confucianism, Buddhism and Stoicism.

If we want to understand how some person or group self-conceives, and what kind of worldview they have, then we can consider how they make sense of their experience in relation to these “spaces of meaning”. There are as many different “worldviews” as there are people. If we are to understand each other and communicate then we need to grasp something of our own and the other’s worldview. For some people, one of these “spaces of meaning” will be pre-eminent – for example, there are some who think that only the scientific worldview is the “right” view and that all others are flawed. Others think the same of a particular religious or political view of life. We connect with those who inhabit the same spaces as we do. Most people don’t inhabit only one of these spaces. We each have our unique cluster, but some people seem almost incapable of seeing the world in any way other than through one particular space.

One of the points Flanagan is making is that there is no single “right” worldview. Those who cannot see that fail to connect with others who make sense of their lives very differently.

I think we can all learn something from a bit of self-reflection. Which of these “spaces of meaning” resonate most strongly with you? What does that tell you about the way you make sense of the world?

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