Deep Metaphors

Posted: February 18, 2012 in Consciousness, Culture, Philosophy

Over time, I’ve come to expect that every time I hatch a new idea, often extrapolated from something read or learned, there is almost always an academic or philosopher who wrote a book about the same idea a decade or more ago. Rarely, I get to an idea first and the inevitable book postdates my thinking. Some of my ideas, often thematically oriented, find their way onto this blog; others find their way into speeches I prepare and present every 18 months or so. Thus, it could only be without surprise that the twin subjects of my last speech — the embodied mind and its deep metaphors — were developed in great detail in two books of which I have only just learned: Philosophy in the Flesh and Metaphors We Live By, both jointly authored by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Had I known about these books prior to preparation of the speech, I would have had to incorporate them, but as it was, I used other sources probably less on point.

One of the deep or hidden metaphors I cited in my speech was described by Adam Frank in his article “Farewell to a ‘Tick-Tock’ World,” which is excerpted and adapted from his 2011 book About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang:

The introduction of mechanical clocks shifted the organization of the European day and eventually provided a new metaphor for the heavens — a precise, cosmic clockwork set in motion by God’s hand. Centuries later, the introduction of steam power started the industrial revolution’s new machine age and drove the rhythms of its workers’ punch-clock lives. The science of thermodynamics … advanced a new understanding of time and transformation in terms of energy, entropy, and evolution … metaphors and conceptual tools that reshaped cosmological thinking. Then, just before the dawn of the 20th century, trains and telegraph wires created new experiences of simultaneity across vast distances. Einstein’s theory of relativity used its own new vision of simultaneity as a pivot point for merging space and time into space-time … By the last decades of the 20th century, silicon technology dominated our material engagement with the world … [and] moved at speeds so fast [the] cadence was far more native to atoms than to humans.

Frank’s position as a professor of astrophysics might seem an unusual perspective from which to make sweeping philosophical observations about our deep metaphors, but technical understandings in the service of broader aspects of culture is the right relationship, and he writes perceptively and lyrically.

The follow-on discovery that did in fact surprise me, however, was the new documentary film The City Dark, which chronicles the disappearance of darkness from the night sky and landscape. I mentioned briefly the subject of scotobiology in a previous blog as an environmental concern. It never occurred to me there might also be a deep, metaphorical dimension. More specifically, because the night sky is largely extinguished from view by light pollution spreading insidiously all over the globe but especially concentrated in cities (where nearly everyone lives), the whole idea of gazing skyward in wonder and amazement fades away and we become increasingly preoccupied with ourselves, as though living inside a mirrored sphere with nothing to see except our own reflection. This is an inversion of the idea of darkened skies and the island universe I also blogged about previously, which stated that as stars recede from view over cosmological time, the Earth would appear (incorrectly) to be alone in the universe. It seems we’ve gotten to that view a bit early but by blotting out what’s there or ignoring the cosmos as irrelevant.

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