Monday, May 28, 2012

What are Metaphors, and How do We use them?

When trying to understand something indefinite, we frequently use metaphors. For instance, life can be understood as a journey, or a debate as a fight. This method to understand subjects through metaphors are said to be key in cognition. Furthermore, using metaphors plays a critical role in the constructive way of understanding. 

On May 15th, we discussed the rhetoric of the use of metaphors, based off of Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, and What I Talk about When I Talk about Running: a Memoir by Haruki Murakami.

First things first, what is a metaphor? Like I said in the above, it is a method to describe something indefinite, such as life can be understood as a journey, or a debate can be understood as a fight. However, the use of metaphors is actually much deeper than just describing things with another word.

When applying a metaphor, we think of analogies – pairing together two words that seem similar depending on the characteristics. Yet like the word: “journey” is only similar, and not exact to the word: “life,” no two subjects are exactly the same, and when using an analogy to pair them together, there will always be affirmative analogies and negative analogies. 

And this phenomenon happens more often than we think. The word “discover” describes the state of something being new coming forth- in just one word. That is why the word comes from the word: “cover,” meaning that something is hidden, uncovered, and its prefix: “dis,” meaning the negative of something. Thus, in a sense, the word “discover” is only a metaphor of the actual action. That is why the significance of using a metaphor is similar to translating; to perceive and understand the true essences of words, which is impossible when just looking up the dictionary.

So how well can Japanese people use metaphors? The Japanese language consists of two different kinds of characters: Hiragana, and Kanji. While Hiragana is a character relatively native to Japan, Kanji is imported from China. The role of the Kanji was to substitute several characters of Hiragana into one character of Kanji, making sentences shorter, and many times easier to read. However this substitution of Hiragana with Kanji might have limited some expressions, for instance: two words with different meanings but with the same Hiragana might have been substituted with the same Kanji. 

On the other hand, Japanese is a very symbolic language. Kabuki, a classical Japanese dance-drama, heavily emphasizes the meaning and essences of each word in lyrics and script. Like so in Haiku and Tanka(Japanese poems), where people attempted to describe their indescribable feelings within few words and rhythms, the powers of words and their metaphorical uses have been heavily emphasized in the Japanese language. We could still see this today, for instance students applying for universities stay away from the word “slip” (symbolizing not receiving acceptance). In addition, depending on where they are written, people purposely write words usually written in Kanji to Hiragana, or vice-versa. 

Like so, many of our activities are metaphorical in nature. The many things that we do, what we see, what we hear, what we feel, are dictated by how we understand them, as words. This means that the conceptual systems in people’s minds are created by metaphors, and that new metaphors have the ability to give new insights to the present conceptual system.

And this creation of a bridge between subjective metaphors and objective existing conceptual systems that brings new paradigms. For example, Learning Patterns is a collection of metaphors, because each pattern takes a subjective way of learning into an objective “successful learning.” And it is through these metaphors that we may perceive something that an existing subject from a new perspective. That is why the use of metaphors is significant in our research, and in the constructive way of understanding.

For the second part of the class, students finally presented the vidoes they have filmed, and edited. It seems everyone zoomed in, flipped pictures, added music, changed angles, into their own constructive way of understanding. One student in particular saw a common Japanese snack into something a little different, and much more interesting. 

Here’s the video:

Next, we will discuss how paradigm shifts happen, and look deeper into how they relate to the constructive way of understanding.

George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, The University of Chicago Press, 1980

Haruki Murakami, What I Talk about When I Talk about Running: A Memoir, Vintage Books, 2009

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