Notes from a paper Gene delivered to the State College Lit Club February 20, 2010.


Thank you for the invitation to give a Lit Club discussion paper.  My take is that a discussion paper presentation is meant to be brief, expressing ideas having personal meaning, and, in effect, promoting or even provoking discussion and commentary from around the table. Here goes.


 “Living in Metaphoria”


I start with a quote from Stephen Jay Gould ((1996), “Full House“, p. 7, Harmony Books, NY):

We reveal ourselves in the metaphors we choose for depicting the cosmos in miniature.

I must confess I had little trouble in choosing a title but experienced  more than a little uncertainty about where to go with it.  The title, you will recognize, carries echos from the Lakoff and Johnson book, “Metaphors we Live by.”  The Stephen Jay Gould quote considers metaphors we use as a revelation of what is important to us in our personal worlds.  So, this is about me and the metaphors that seem to have provided shape, substance, and story to my personal life.  At the end, I’ll pose questions about the metaphors that have shaped your lives.

But what I really want to do is confess a recent and still on-going love affair; the affair has brought excitement and intrigue into my life, even though it has unfolded completely in the open, visible to all who share my days, stirring feelings of “not that again” on the part of many.  The affair has been with the idea of metaphor itself.

I suffer from the lack of a good liberal arts background, so my long-standing take on metaphors has been limited to a vision of figures of speech gracing the rhymes and meter of poems, pop songs, and Hallmark greeting cards.  As for poets and poetry, I hadn’t been able to understand why they had to confuse meaning behind some soar of fancy: “Why not just say it, clear and direct.”  The virtue of literalness seemed to have escaped those who laid claim to poetry.

Then, about four years ago, in living out the metaphor of studenting, I attended a seminar series on “Imagination.” One theme explored was the role of metaphor in the poet’s imaginative process and reference was made to a presentation with the title “Education by Poetry” given in 1930 by Robert Frost to the Alumni at Amherst College.  In it, Frost proposes that: “Education by poetry is education by metaphor.”

I found his proposition to be totally disquieting, beyond my own capacities of imaging what he could possibly mean by equating education with poetry and metaphor making. Education to me had always meant enlightening and empowering the mind of the student, preparing her to construct and reflect upon a path of experiences over a lifetime that would heighten capacities for independent and imaginative thought. Two questions loomed large: What do poetry and capacities to construct metaphors have to do with education in general? What can the ability to say and think about one thing in terms of another have to do with the practice of scholarship by students in achieving the grand outcomes of education over their lifetimes?

So, I entered the magic world of Mr. Frost’s mind as revealed in his paper. Here is a selection of quotes, some modestly paraphrased, that form the hinges of his argument:

“Education by Poetry is education by Metaphor.”

“Poetry is about taste, judgment, and enthusiasm.”

“Poetry is the only permissible way of saying one thing in terms of another.”

“Poetry begins in trivial, pretty, graceful metaphors and goes on to the profoundest thinking we have.”

“Nobody knows the discreet use of metaphors unless he has been properly educated in poetry.”

“The aim of poetry and metaphor construction is to liberate Freethinking and Freewill.”

“A metaphor is a very living thing; it is life itself.  Until you have lived with it long enough, you don’t know when it is going to break down.”

“ All metaphors break down somewhere.”

“I have wanted in late years to go further and further in making metaphors the whole of thinking.”

“All thinking is just putting this and that together; it is just saying one thing in terms of another.”

“Introducing a student to this idea is to set his feet on the bottom rungs of a ladder, the top of which sticks through the sky.”

“The lost soul is the materialist who gets lost in his material and fails to gather his material without a gathering metaphor to throw it into shape and order.”

“The richest accumulation of the ages is the noble metaphors we have rolled up.”

“The ancient Greeks used to say the All is three elements: air, earth, and water.”

“Pythagoras’ fruitful metaphor was that the All of the Universe is numbers; from this we had science and all that followed in science. The metaphor breaks down only when it comes to the spiritual or psychological.”

“It is the height of poetry, the height of all thinking, the height of all poetic thinking, that attempt to say matter in terms of spirit and spirit in terms of matter.”

“Art belief is starting a creative project without foreknowledge of its outcome, with only a feeling about it’s future, and then believing it into existence.”

Each of these propositions is worthy of a life-time of study.  So, with my own limited expectations of life-time horizons, I began reflecting and meditating about the deep metaphors that have given shape and momentum to my own life. Clearly, there  have been three: Love, Education, and Studenting. At another level, the metaphors most operative in my daily living-out of these deep metaphors have been Thinking, Imagination, and Development of a Sense of Self—also topics well-beyond the scope of a brief discussion paper.  It was about here that I realized the topic might well be my recent personal experiences with the metaphor concept itself and with the practice of living with metaphors.

My affair with the metaphor has become an obsession much like that of a bird watcher: I find my self continuously alert to spotting metaphors lurking and fluttering about, even in obscure paragraphs, casual conversations, and at the edges of consciousness, wherever I am, whatever I am doing.  “Ah, there is one”—this time it is a dead metaphor, a cliché, having lost its charm in arousing the imagination and in revealing something new.  And there goes another—this time a noble metaphor, patriotism, perhaps, that shapes the imagination of whole cultures as they respond to current uncertainties.

And what about the role of imagination in the construction of metaphors?  Imagination, it seems, is itself a metaphor; it is the comprehension of objects not present or beyond observation; it is the power to create mental images of things yet to become or of things that once were.  Imagination is at the core of the creative metaphorical process of playfully comparing objects not present or observable with imagined possible realizations. A work of art is created by transferring characteristics of images existing in the artist’s mind onto an observable named object; to use the language of metaphorical thinking, the source thing is imagined by the artist and the target thing is produced as representative of the imagined.  The creative artist is a poet who produces the representative metaphor through self-belief and playful imagination.

As Frost points out, the metaphor has its limits; somewhere it will breakdown.  The validity of the created metaphor as representative of another thing is subject to challenge and must be analyzed and determined for the metaphor to be accepted objectively.  The enterprise called poetry must be concerned with the limits and validity of the metaphors it produces.

The exciting imaginative leap that has occurred in my romance with the metaphor has been the realization that all scholarship aimed at producing, integrating, applying, and teaching knowledge is really the work of poets, who create metaphors in the form of hypotheses, principles, theories, and models to explain the workings of observable or imagined phenomena.  The disciplines of academia are, in effect, communities of scholar-poets, concerned with the thought processes involved in creating and validating metaphors.  Each discipline develops and adopts special metaphoric languages and special techniques for objectively validating the noble abstract metaphors it creates and teaches.  As Aristotle is said to have observed:  “The greatest thing         by far is to be master of the metaphor.”  It is “a sign of genius, since a good metaphor shows an understanding of the similar in dissimilars.”

Certainly, Frost’s suggestion of a prime candidate for the distinction of being the most noble of academic metaphors might well be the Pythagorian observation that the Universe is all about numbers—representing, it would seem, the operating principle of all science.  Frost mentions, in addition, the ever-present metaphor of Evolution.  And in this piece, I believe he is proposing that the most profound metaphor is the concept of metaphors itself—that all thinking is constructing propositions about one thing through making comparisons and connections in terms of characteristics of another thing.

Other candidates abound:  Einstein’s most famous metaphor: e =mc2, for example or Shakespeare’s words for Helena in Midsummer Night’s Dream:
”Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.”

My own candidate for the most profound and noblest of metaphors is the concept of self.  “This is who I am” or “This is what I would like to become” stir deeply in shaping our thinking and actions. Each of us attempts from our earliest to our later years to reconstruct and realign our sense of self—our values, our beliefs, our emotions, our knowledge bases, our capacities for agency—as we reflect on and make personal meaning of our experiences and imagine our future. Our personal sense of self daily shapes our enthusiasms in evaluating situations and in forming judgments and decisions to guide our actions.

Two father and son psychologists named Zaltman from Harvard have proposed that much of our thinking in our constructed sense of self reflects the personal stance we have adopted with reference to just seven deep metaphors: (Gerald and Lindsay Zaltman, Marketing Metaphoria: What deep Metaphors reveal about the Minds of Consumers, 2008.  Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.)

  • Balance—How justice, equilibrium, and interplay of elements affect Thinking
  • Transformation—How changes in substance and circumstances affect Thinking
  • Journey—How the meeting of past, present, and future affect Thinking
  • Container—How inclusion, exclusion, and other boundaries affect Thinking
  • Connection—How the need to relate to oneself and others affects Thinking
  • Resource—How Acquisitions and their consequences affect Thinking
  • Control—How Sense of mastery, vulnerability, and well-being affect Thinking

For me, the major aim of Education for the practice of living is the construction of a personal working model by the Student for the empowerment and development of a responsible self as agent to author our own lives, our own ideas, perspectives, knowledge, opinions, judgments, and story lines.  We need to develop the capacities for negotiating and acting on our own purposes, values, feelings, and meanings, rather than those we have uncritically assimilated from others.”  (Mezirow, J. (2000). LEARNING AS TRANSFORMATION: CRITICAL PERSPECTIVES ON A THEORY IN PROGRESS. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.  Studenting is the development and practice by the student of this personal model for responsible self-agency.

Again, for me, entertaining Frost’s claim that the aims of Education can be achieved by Poetry and metaphorical thinking has been a source of delight, ever present as a preoccupation in my reflections and meditations.  It has led to a re-examination of the personal metaphors I have lived by—Education, Studenting, Thinking, Imagination, and Personal Development—resulting in a fundamental reordering of my own cosmos.

Love has been a constant in all this; deep, non-volitional caring enabled by empathy and operating in both my conscious and unconscious self, while revealing passions and anxieties alike as I connect with others in my world.

With all creative thinking metaphorical in nature and with all propositions in all domains of thought being created and tested in terms of metaphorical analogies and comparisons, my view of the Landscape of Disciplines and Colleges across the University has become one of a series of Metaphorical Clusters, each inhabited by Scholars as Poets in Residence and by Students as Scholar/Poet Practitioners struggling to master the creative metaphorical process.

This raises for me a question regarding the cluster of metaphors that define scholarship and studenting in the Arts and Humanities. To many outsiders, there is a perceived crisis of relevancy in the Arts and Humanities, as evidenced by falling and shifting enrollments and shrinking budgets, in particular.  Apparently, the often referred to general education purpose of “preparation for civic engagement,” no longer attracts students; it has become a dead metaphor, a cliché.  What new metaphors regarding the enterprise of Education in the Arts and Humanities—its purposes, curriculum, and pedagogy—might be constructed and marketed in order to arouse the imagination of students in their thinking about the relevancy of the Arts and Humanities in their personal and professional lives?

Economists looking toward what will sustain growth and help reduce employment deficits consistently reference the need for increased creative capacities to generate new ideas, new solutions, and new inventions. Daniel Pink, in his book, The Whole Mind:  Why the Right Brainers will Rule the Future(2005. New York, NY: Penquin Publishing), offers six Arts and Humanities based metaphors, all referencing mental activities conducted primarily in the right hemisphere of the brain.

  • Design—beyond function, creating something that is also beautiful and emotionally engaging.
  • Stories—not just argument, but the ability to fashion a compelling narrative to persuade, communicate, and gain self-understanding.
  • Symphony—not just focus, but the aptitude to synthesize and put pieces together—seeing the big picture, crossing boundaries, and being able to combine disparate parts into an arresting new whole.
  • Empathy—not just logic, but being able to understand what makes others tick, to forge relationships, and to care for others.
  • Play—not just seriousness, but the capacity to engage in games, humor, and lightheartedness as experiments to arouse curiosity and imagination.
  • Personal Meaning—not just accumulation, but the ability to pursue personal desires, purposes, transcendent and spiritual fullness.

Since these right-brained activities fall in domains of thinking typically addressed in the mother disciplines of creativity, the Arts and Humanities, perhaps his suggested metaphors might provide a starting place for reforms to be addressed in their academic scholarship, curricula, and pedagogy.

So, to return to where this all began: when everywhere one looks—within one’s self and across the external landscape—one sees metaphors and Poets at work, this is, I believe, “Living in Metaphoria.”

Here are the two questions aimed at promoting and provoking discussion around the table that I promised at the beginning:

  • What metaphors guide your imagination in shaping your own personal and professional lives?
  • What new metaphors should the Arts and Humanities dare to imagine to reinvent its relevancy?