Happy New Year, Metaphorically Speaking

This is one of the few times of year that reflection and introspection is culturally encouraged. That also makes it a cliché to share the results of the process! So it’s an ironic pleasure to publish one of my realizations for the year: that this blog is first and foremost a place for me to reflect. Is the fact that it’s public pure vanity? My mind comes up with plenty of excuses for it. In the spirit of the time, though, I’m imagining what difference it would make to me if I kept all the stuff I put here to myself.

But enough of that for now. My larger reflections are about how I changed in 2006, and what the continuation of these changes might be in 2007. I had some big realizations this year, realizations that reveal to me that I’ve blundered through most of my life so far in blind denial. And I’m quite certain that I’ll continue to do so! But perhaps in some new terms…

Language is metaphor

I’d probably been told this a number of times from various sources, but the significance of it failed to sink in until this year, when I recognized that Mathematics is a language, and therefore metaphorical. Maybe this sounds high-minded and pedantic, but for me it has been the opposite – a debunking of the mind that thrust me back towards my basic experiences as a human being. I had imagined the universe being governed by mathematical laws, as if the mathematics were built into it. This year I demonstrated the opposite to myself. Mathematics is governed by the universe, as we experience and describe it! Those descriptions take the form of metaphors, as they do in any kind of language. The number 3 may not exist at all until we map it via metaphor onto a specific human experience, like 3 fish tacos in a basket. Metaphors like Numbers Are Collections of Objects are the true foundations of mathematics, and the source of its meaning.

This was enough of a shock to make me start seeing the metaphorical roots of all language. Instead of looking for metaphors, I started looking around for exceptions – what is not a metaphor? What are the most foundational metaphors metaphors for? (Eyiyi, talking about language isn’t easy!) It seems that ultimately a string of metaphors must lead to an experience, like the steaming fish tacos I once had for lunch, or the metaphor is meaningless. I’ve been enjoying uncovering metaphors I use unconsciously and trying to recall the experiences they reference.

I’ve also been paying more attention to how I experience things, which has led to another realization: my experience is dominated by language! I hear language, read language, speak language, and most of all, think language. So can language include metaphors for the experiences of language? Is the snake eating its own tail? I hope to unravel some questions of this kind in the coming year.

I am part of a food chain

Another statement that perhaps should be obvious, but until this year I have been oblivious. Everything I eat has a story that ends with me. I depend on stories like this every day to survive, yet I’ve been content to remain ignorant of the vast majority of my food chain. How simple and easy it is to be complacent in the land of plenty. Even if food is scarce for me, I feel like I know the plenty is still there sitting on the grocery store shelves. The recent blizzards gave us a tiny peek at the possibility that this system might not be unstoppable as some shelves did indeed sit empty. Still, it takes great motivation to pursue the story of our food, probably because it does scare me on some deep level. I sincerely want to learn more this year.

And the rest

Of course there is lots more going on. I have no idea what will happen this year, except that I’ll start it by wishing you good food and rich metaphors! Happy new year!

5 responses to “Happy New Year, Metaphorically Speaking”

  1. My study focus is computational linguistics, therefore I very much related to your statement/reflections about languages.

    Mathematics and programming languages are formal languages, therefore although sometimes people might find problems understanding them, there’s still a rule/proof to find the ultimate solution.

    However, natural languges are so flexible and contains many exceptions. Cultural and historical factors mix with natural language along their development, so natural languages are so flexible and sometimes hard to make sense. However, the creativities (often represented by metaphors) make natural languages very attractive.

    Happy New Year!

  2. Wow, I didn’t expect any comments on this one!

    I don’t think people have trouble understanding the formalisms of mathematics. It’s that the formalisms make no sense if you don’t understand the underlying metaphors, and these are never explained. Once you know the right metaphor to apply, you can relate the formalisms to your own experience, and they become meaningful.

    I’d love to learn about computational linguistics from you sometime. Thanks, and happy new year to you too!

  3. Earthquakes have finally been overcome and I can read your latest blog entries! This one is wonderful, and it makes me wonder if, as a writer and painter who communicates in metaphor as a profession, I do this on about a third or fourth remove from the basic metaphor of language or even color? Obviously, I don’t get it, having no education in mathmatics, but I sort of get it. My own new year’s muse, which hasn’t yet been posted (sigh), deals uses metaphor in the more obvious sense.

  4. I think I’m talking about metaphor in the obvious sense, talking about one thing in terms of another. My point is just that eventually the other thing must be your own experience, or the metaphor doesn’t work and isn’t meaningful.

    I like the way the authors of Where Mathematics Comes From make metaphors explicit with titles like Numbers are Collections of Objects. That way both parts of the metaphor are clear.

    What Little Po was getting at, I think, is that in art you are free to use a vast array of experiences to build up metaphors in any way you choose. In mathematics only a few kinds of experience are used, and the metaphors are very precise or “formal”. These few kinds of experience are very common, though, which gives mathematics the apparent universality that I mistook for existence apart from humans.

    I look forward to your New Year’s metaphor!

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