Metaphor, Part 2: The Pin-Prick of Metaphor

Written by Mark Farnham

On April 18, 2011

In his book, I is an Other, James Geary recounts the story of Édouard Claparède, a Swiss neurologist who studied patients with neurological damage who could not recall old memories. One of his patients had completely lost her short-term memory. Everyday when she arrived at his clinic, it was as though she was meeting Claparède for the first time.

Claparède wanted to see if any part of the woman’s memory remained, so one day when she arrived, he shook her hand, sticking her with a pin he had concealed in his hand. She cried out in pain and withdrew her hand. The next day when she arrived, Claparède proffered his hand, but the woman hesitated, fearing another jab. The experiement proved that at some level, the woman recalled the pain and associated it with Claparède’s handshake.

Like Claparède’s handshake, metaphor slips a pin into the mundane. “By mixing the foreign with the familiar, the marvelous with the mundane, metaphor makes the world sting and tingle. Though we encounter metaphor everyday, we typically fail to recognize it. Its influence is profound but takes place mostly outside our conscious awareness. Yet once metaphor has us in its grasp, it never lets us go, and we can never forget it.”

Geary’s book expounds on the power of metaphor in all arenas of life: politics, advertising, finance, science, and psychology to name a few. Who can forget Ronald Reagan’s 1984 Campaign commercial, “It’s morning again in America,” or George Bush, Sr.’s “a thousand points of light”? Or advertising’s “like a good neighbor” and “you’re in good hands”? Or high finance’s “bulls” and “bears”? Or science’s light “waves” and “particles,” and “the blind watchmaker.”

Geary makes a convincing case that metaphors are such a part of our thinking, writing, and speaking, it is impossible to communicate without them. Philosophers such as Hobbes, Berkeley, and Locke attempted to purge language of metaphor because they regarded it as dangerous and full of absurdities. Yet, in their very condemnation of metaphors, they used them! They couldn’t help writing without using metaphors.

Although metaphors are not the only way people think, it is obvious that they constitute a significant part of how we understand virtually everything we experience. If this is true, what does this mean for preaching? What if preachers could tap into the power of metaphor to communicate more vividly and memorably?

In part 3, we’ll explore metaphor more fully.

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