Metaphor in Intellectual Investigation


Speaker: Emeritus Professor Roly Sussex (School of Languages and Comparative Cultural Studies UQ and Centre for Educational Innovation and Technology)
Date: 20th August 2010

Metaphor is a literary device whereby we use an unusual word to assign new properties to an entity: a sea of troubles, all the world’s a stage (Shakespeare was outstanding good at the memorable metaphor). Metaphors create lively, striking expressions.

Good ones can persist and become cliches – part of the everyday language. Some are so common that we are no longer alert to them. Take the metaphor CONVERSATION IS WAR. We WIN an argument, CONCEDE that someone has a point, OUTFLANK their objections, GIVE GROUND, OVERCOME resistance, and so on. SPORT IS WAR is more familiar: the Cats ANNIHILATED the Bulldogs on Saturday.

But metaphors are not only useful for lively, evocative language use. They allow us to import features of one area of meaning and to attach them to another. This joining of two areas can create new ways of interpreting things. Research and intellectual investigation are replete with metaphors: Maxwell and electromagnetic waves, string theory, electron distributions as clouds; even electric current. Computing is full of metaphors: server, client, host, virus, worm, cloud computing, web, network. Some of these, once established, move from being metaphors to being the default way of describing entities.

In this paper I will examine metaphor in everyday language, and in intellectual discovery. I will pay particular attention to the language of pain – how people talk about pain – and how it is used in diagnosis and treatment. And I will show how, by picking up certain of the meaning aspects of metaphor, we can use it for original discovery.