Rule 13 for history of philosophy: take metaphors seriously

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Rule 13: Take metaphors seriously

The history of philosophy is full of metaphors, analogies and similes - from Plato's cave to Neoplatonic "emanation" to Rawls' "veil of ignorance" (not literally a veil). In general, I am a big supporter of taking seriously the "literary" features of philosophical texts, like structure or characterization and dramatic setting (in the case of dialogues). Metaphors are a particularly interesting case, though, because one needs to decide how exactly to apply the metaphor. Obviously many philosophical metaphors have been parsed and analyzed in great detail - no one would say that Plato's cave has received insufficient attention. Nonetheless I think there are a lot of such metaphors that bear further thought. For instance I'm writing a little paper at the moment on the widespread ancient tendency to compare the following things to one another: the individual (or the soul); the household; the city; and the cosmos. It turns out to be useful to dwell on exactly how such metaphors are cashed out, and what effect they have on philosophers' ways of thinking. For instance that comparison between a city or other society and the cosmos tends to push them in the direction of arguing for monarchy, because the cosmos is likewise for them ruled by a single divine principle. (Or is it the other way, that they draw the analogy in the first place as a way of justifying their political preconceptions?) And then there is the issue of what, if any, argumentative weight a metaphor has - should we be more persuaded by a philosophical view just because it is illuminated by a rhetorically powerful metaphor? Again, think of Plato's cave and how much less resonance it would have if he had just said something like, "I think people in everyday life are paying attention to images of reality, instead of true reality," without giving the metaphor. Yet that resonance itself doesn't make the philosophical position more convincing... or does it?

Again, it's just one example of what could be a more general rule, which is to pay heed to literary features of texts; it would be interesting to hear what other examples you all might have.

David on 10 December 2014

Absolutely, yes! Metaphors do

Absolutely, yes! Metaphors do a great job of making an argument more convincing. They're the original thought experiments, right? My mind immediately went to Avicenna's flying man argument. And then I pictured Einstein riding a beam of light.

In reply to by David

Peter Adamson on 11 December 2014

Actually I thought about that

Actually I thought about that when writing this post and decided that a thought experiment is not quite the same thing as a metaphor or analogy, because a thought experiment isn't necessarily being compared to anything. (So the idea isn't that we are all like the flying man, for instance, the idea is that the situation with the flying man is supposed to prove something or at least elicit an intuition.) However similar issues arise, like when we are considering a thought experiment is it ok to ignore all the various questions that arise, apart from the central idea? For instance in trolley problems you might wonder whether it is really feasible that you know what will happen if you switch the trolley to another track etc. but once you start asking questions like that the thought experiment is ruined. Students frequently react to thought experiments like this: they start raising objections to prevent the thought experiment from being posed - like, "that could never really happen" - rather than concentrating on the thrust of the thought experiment, and it may be that they are right to react this way!

In reply to by Peter Adamson

David Crohn on 14 December 2014

Of course we should

Of course we should concentrate on the thrust of the thought experiment! That should be rule 14, or 13.1 or something, a rule regarding thought experiments. After all, we don't invalidate the findings of "real" experiments just because they simulate or create specialized environments, right?

Brett Harris on 12 December 2014

Metaphors make an argument

Metaphors make an argument more convincing for me because I think that in order to apply a metaphor in the first place you need to have a deep understanding of the concept to which you're applying the metaphor. If you don't, the metaphor chosen may not be resonant at all, as elements of it do not fit the idea. Fro example, "free as a wombat" is not as resonant a metaphor as "free as a bird", because freedom implies the ability to leave a situation and "get above it". A bird can do that more effortlessly than the hapless wombat (who is earthbound). If I were to use the "free as a wombat" metaphor I could be accused of not considering this "getting above it" aspect of freedom and so not being as au fait with the idea as I need to be to create an argument.

As for the "flying man" thought experiment", wI have to admit upon reading those words my mind immediately goes to the "flying whale" in Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy !
Oh, and I initially used the metaphor "free as a giraffe" for the 'lesser' freedom metaphor, until I realised 1) it is fact a decent metaphor, as giraffe's too "get above it" and 2) I didn't want to upset Hiawatha !
Thanks again Peter for your incredible podcast and these posts !

All the best to you (and your sister) and yours,


Nick Stavrou on 19 January 2015

Close to metaphor but it has

Close to metaphor but it has always intrigued me that when we speak of "grounding" something it is a metaphor to the way a physical structure stands and if the concepts go well together we can be convinced and thus believe we understood(so we think). As an example I put forward (my reading of) Heidegger as he's peeling the onion to get to Being, sometimes I think that it is very deep and sometimes I think that is metaphoric allusion at play. OK granted, this does not have the comparing element of metaphor...but it may resonate with deep structures of our mind and maybe that it why metaphors are so convincing.

Apologies if not right on topic.

Nick Stavrou on 19 January 2015

Metaphor is very seductive

Metaphor is very seductive and can convince you sometimes correctly and sometimes lead you up the garden path. One needs to be careful of the poets as Plato warned but was happy to use metaphor.

I have a similar encounter with my reading of Heidegger and the "grounding" metaphors as he is unpeeling the onion to get to Being. This sometimes makes me feel like it is extremely profound and other times that it may be that it just makes sense due to the grounding metaphor.

Do I like it? Yes I do but need to be cautious.

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