Metaphor, Map and Model


1. a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance…
2. something used, or regarded as being used, to represent something else; emblem; symbol.

Metaphor is the basis of language and related creativity. While this has always been apparent in the arts and literature, it is perhaps not so readily associated with other fields.

Just consider the two domains of thought that have dominated Western cultures for thousands of years: religion and science.

Religious texts are full of metaphor pointing towards the great religious and spiritual truths that can never be precisely expressed in language. Religions become problematic for human society when these texts are interpreted literally, rather than metaphorically. Then fundamentalism becomes a big problem, as it was for centuries in Europe and still is in many parts of the world. In the terms of Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary, the Left Brain Emissary has usurped the function of the Right Brain Master.

But surely science is different, you exclaim – it’s objective. Piffle! In essence, science makes mathematical models of the real world. And what are these models but metaphors that reach towards the underlying reality. Scientific fundamentalism becomes a problem when the scientist believes that the model accurately describes the real world, rather than being a metaphor, leading to losing touch with reality itself. The map is not the territory (another metaphor).

Of course, science’s handmaidens technology and modern capitalism have this problem in spades. It is not a huge leap to suggest that this Left Brain dominance has significantly contributed to today’s ecological and climate problems, and to the mealy mouthed response to these problems so far.

It’s all metaphor really!

Inspired by Iain McGilchrist’s magnum opus The Matter with Things.
Featured image includes a quote from Genesis I, King James version.

The fate of man

When the tide is out,
for long man and his companions
stand proud together,
facing the western horizon,
full of promise.

Inevitably the tide turns,
heads back towards the shore.
Wave after wave comes closer,
at first harmless,
but soon a sea of troubles.

The forward phalanx slowly disappear from view,
then ever more of his companions.
Soon the waves lap at his feet,
up his legs, to his torso.

He is alone.
The occasional wave splashes right over his head,
yet recedes. He endures,
again and again submerged.

Unbowed, he is the survivor.
The primitive force of earth and moon spent,
the waves slacken, begin to recede,
new hope kindled.

Soon the heads of companions appear
in the lull of a wave.
New life, new companionship,
the promise of idyllic times again…

The cycle of earth, of life,
of man.

* * * * *

Inspired by a high tide at Antony Gormley’s Another Place on Crosby Beach, where 100 cast iron figures face towards the sea at varying distances from the land. In my mind this presents a metaphor of the wave of troubles now besetting us human beings, with the effects of global warming, the floods and wildfires, the species extinctions, the pullution, the failing societies, shortages of resources, the covid pandemic, the rise of nationalism and inequality, and on and on. Nature tells us there will be a way through, but many of us may not like it…

Other posts inspired by Another Place:
Another favourite place,
Another Place,

Another Place, Another Time.