ON MINDING YOUR METAPHORS

Ralph Windle Posted by Ralph Windle.

Ralph Windle is the editor of The Poetry of Business Life, as well as the author of Boardroom Ballads and The Bottom Line, and co-editor (with William Keyser) of Public Enterprises in the EEC.


As a student of ( the so- called ) ‘Greats’, I found those heady university days of Aeschylus and Aristotle required some fairly frequent justification to my ex-school- c....

As a student of ( the so- called ) ‘Greats’, I found those heady university days of Aeschylus and Aristotle required some fairly frequent justification to my ex-school- chum contemporaries, then deeply into their physics and chemistry labs just down the road. Maths was the nearest thing to a possible lingua franca, against which ‘words’ were a relatively old-fashioned and devalued currency. Still, If the coffee and gossip were good, as they usually were, we could stumble away towards midnight, happy in our separate worlds.

Coming later to the current imperatives of arts/science/ humanities interaction, one of the least expected paradoxes has been the extent to which words, syntax and metaphor have come to dominate agendas , both within and across the key areas of mainstream science .

There are many critical key issues involved, not least those affecting some aspects of the neurosciences, and the divergences between molecular and systems biology. Pelion is being piled on the Ossa of these paradoxes by the extraordinary choice of this moment in time to raise the volume of attacks on ‘philosophy’ by some high-profile, media-savvy scientists ( Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, VS Ramachandran among them ) . Many philosophers, and wiser scientists who understand philosophy’s still vital relevance are, thankfully, increasingly engaged at the key points of analysis and action. See …..
http://www.creativevaluenetwork.com/arts-science/sciences-civil-wars-send-in-the-philosophers/

In the thick of it, as followers of this website know, is Denis Noble whose ‘ Selected Papers: A Journey in Physiology Towards Enlightenment ‘ will be published on 31st March ( full citation below).


Professor Noble has kindly allowed me a pre-view of one chapter ‘ Systems Biology and The Music of Life’, which precisely and elegantly defines the essence of the ‘philosophy/metaphor’ contretemps.

It unambiguously targets that other brilliant scientist and philosophy-denier, Francis Crick, quoting these words from his ‘The Astonishing Hypothesis’ ( 1994) ….

“ You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules … “

Dismissing the idea that Crick ( a well-known joker ) might here also be pulling our legs, Noble attempts a serious diagnosis of what Crick’s statement actually means ….” It is based on a philosophical position, which is that the lower elements in a system ( in this case the cells and molecules ) are always to be preferred in seeking an explanation for the higher elements (memories, ambition, identity and free will )……

“This is a prejudice, though a common one in scientific writing. …”

“ There is absolutely no reason, a priori, to favour one level over another in seeking the ‘causes’ of anything…. ‘level’ , ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ are metaphors, though not always recognised as such. “

Having made the link between a ‘philosophical position’ ( assumption?) and the ‘metaphors’ used or implied in its description, Noble draws the critical, but persistently unrecognised, conclusion …

“ Scientists are sometimes not aware, first, that they use metaphors much more frequently than they might think and, second, that the relationship between a metaphor and reality is very different from that between a scientific theory and reality…. The selfish gene is an idea more in the field of metaphorical polemic than science “.

There is no conceivable empirical experiment which might establish the ‘selfishness’ of a gene. The concept is therefore redundant and misleading, and of no use in physiological science. It’s an interesting metaphor but redundant in the lab.

So what metaphor is, and how it influences the way we think and act, becomes of more than passing interest to creative scientist as much as literary scholar; and good philosophy is catalyst and mediator . Some combination of all three attributes, occasionally in the genius of an individual, but more realistically in interdisciplinary associations across these areas of skill would be the optimum way forward, as well as best template for educational policy. The Creative Value Network ( CVN ) was formed over ten years ago to help further that cause.

Few scientists would now dispute that’ metaphor’ can be a positive tool in creative discovery; though Professor Noble’s demonstration that even some among our foremost Nobel Science laureates may not have fully realised the implications of their ‘metaphoring’ at the time, requires a serious and proactive response.

For, though metaphor , as a figure of speech , has its oldest credentials in literary usage - and, especially, poetry – Lakoff and other linguists have put it more firmly on the ‘serious’ science agenda by linking it directly with the human need to understand abstract concepts by ‘metaphorical extensions of physical experience.

Metaphor is not merely a decorative element in literature, but fundamental to the very way we think and act.

Here’s how Emanuel Derman, a professor of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research at Columbia University ( and mathematical modeller of financial systems ) describes it :

Most of the words we use to describe our feelings are metaphors. To say you are elated is to say you feel as though you have been lifted to a high place. But why is there something good about height? Because, in the gravitational field of the earth all non-floating animals recognise the physical struggle to rise, and experience wonder when they see the world spread out beneath them. Being elated is feeling as if you’d overcome gravity… Language is a tower of metaphors, each ‘higher’ one resting on older ones ‘below’. “

That’s why we are ‘cheered up’ rather than ‘cheered down’ !

As Lakoff concluded …. ‘ our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical ‘.

And in this discussion, now so immediate and contemporary, one name from the past always comes to mind, miraculously ticking all these boxes – of science , great literature, unique metaphor, great courage and eventual tragedy. That man was the Italian Primo Levi, whose great book ‘ The Periodic Table ‘ I had first read in the Eighties, with what I later learned to recognise was too shallow an appreciation of its true beauty, depth and significance.

The person who alerted me to a fuller appreciation was Rachel Falconer, then Professor of Contemporary English Literature at Sheffield University, and initiator of that university’s brilliant Arts/Science Encounters programme that I was privileged to monitor and review in 2009 –
http://www.creativevaluenetwork.com/arts-science/artsscience-encounters-a-review/


Rachel is now at the University of Lausanne, but I’m delighted that the Sheffield ‘Encounters’ continue.

She explained, in an ‘Encounter’ on Metaphor :

“ The transference that most interests me as a literature scholar, is from science to what Rushdie calls ‘ the felt shape of human life’. The book which has created such a bridge for me is Primo Levi’s ‘The Periodic Table’ which once beat Darwin’s ‘ Origin of Species ‘, to win the title of best science book ever written,”

‘ The Periodic Table’ (1975) is a metaphorical autobiography, in which Levi uses Mendeelev’s table of chemical elements to structure the narrative of his own life. Each chapter has the title of a chemical element, and in each Levi recounts his experiences, first as a student in Turin, then as a prisoner in Auschwitz, and afterwards as a writer ( he was a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature ).

“ In each chapter, correspondences are discovered between a particular element, and an aspect of human nature, which are developed in brilliant cameos of Levi’s friends, alongside descriptions of experiments in the lab. So the biography unfolds as a network of relationships which mirrors the shape of Mendeelev’s table. At the same time, the lay reader comes to experience Levi’s passion for chemistry, not only in the history of his daily experiments, but more broadly, in its human and historical significance “.

“ For Levi, growing up in Turin in the 1930s, under the increasingly stringent racial laws against Jews, the language and practice of chemistry represented an antidote to fascism; a rejection of its empty rhetoric and pseudo-science. In the chapter called ‘Zinc’ , he identifies with the element in its impure state , since in that form it causes other elements to react: ‘ in order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed … dissension, diversity …. Fascism does not want them … and that’s why you’re not a fascist, ‘ he tells himself.”

I think that a healthy reaction to Professor Noble’s warnings might be the inclusion of ‘ The Periodic Table ‘ on more university science reading lists. There will doubtless be many other issues in his own forthcoming ‘Selected Papers’ * to stimulate thoughts and reactions.

RW March 2012.

*The Selected Papers of Denis Noble CBE FRS: A Journey in Physiology Towards Enlightenment. ( Denis Noble, Editors Zhu Chen and Charles Auffray ) Imperial College Press. March 2012.