"A linguistic form which is used to acquire and communicate knowledge through a transfer of meaning" (J.van GIGCH, 1993, p.45).
Etymologically, a "meta-phor" is a carrying over device. Accordingly, a metaphor is a transfer of the meaning of a word, usually from concrete to abstract, by its inclusion in a unusual context.
Example: "the root of the difficulties". Of course, only plants have roots, but the word "root" may be used to describe and convey the more abstract notion of the basic origin or the difficulties.
In a more general sense, as expressed by C. MESJASZ: "Metaphors involve the transfer of information from a relatively familiar domain… to a new and relatively unknown one" (1992, p.1174).
The positive aspect of this transfer is that it frees creativity by crossing hitherto blocking paradigmatic limits. However, as metaphors create analogies within the mind, they should be taken and used with much care because they may perfectly well generate false analogies, or at least overextended ones. Propaganda, for example, makes an enormous use of unsound metaphors.
MESJASZ observes rightly that while: "… metaphors and analogies (are) inherent parts of the language… (their) applications… can have a strongly normative character, frequently based on various ideological assumptions" (Ibid).
Metaphors should be thus carefully scrutinized, especially in systemics and cybernetics, whose models could easily be weakened, or even perverted, by their imprudent use. A satisfactory process of elaboration should lead from metaphor through confirmed analogy, to homomorphic models of concrete systems or situations and, when possible to general isomorphic and transdisciplinarian more abstract models.
Quoting G. MORGAN (1980), J.van GIGCH writes: "Metaphors can be used "to understand one element of experience in terms of another… They provide a framework to structure perceptions… (and they have) important implications for the process of theory construction" (quoted Ibid, 1993).
According to H. MALTA MACEDO: "A metaphor, although sharing properties of both component units, conveys a new specific meaning rooted in the fused total areas of transected, enhanced attributes" (1992, p.677).
Metaphors offer interesting heuristic openings, but then only if they are correctly critized and evaluated, a point made by D. and G.A. MIRHAM who insist on the necessity to seek confirmation of speculative metaphors, or of their eventual rejection.
They also state that the linguistic scrutiny of the metaphor is an important stage of its critique (1975, p.51).
H. ATLAN expresses the following about the "genetic program ", a very apt example of metaphor's limitations and dangers: "The problem with the genetic program is that it is a metaphor, which should not be pushed too far because it leads to practical difficulties and the only way to get around it is to modify the idea of a computer program to such a point that almost nothing is left from the metaphor.
"Already from the beginning of molecular biology – and this can be found in every textbook – the so-called genetic program was described as a very peculiar program, since it needs the products of its reading and execution to be read and executed; or else, that it functions as a self-programming program. Additional questions were raised about the language in which it is written and it was recognized very soon (note: By B. SHAN ON and D. HOFSTADTER) that the genetic code certainly does not constitute a computer language, being at most a lexicon" (1972).
As a conclusion, it could be said that metaphors are most useful through a consistent critique.
About the use of metaphors in social sciences, and particularly, in communication, K. KRIPPENDORFF observed that "most social scientific theories can be shown to have grown out of ordinary folk wisdom "(1993, p. 3). He gives numerous examples. He moreover questions the consequences of this not very conscious phenomenon. Among them he discusses
- communicative competence
- communicative authority
- self-authorization in mass media
- impoverished communication (specially through manipulation)
- surrender of cognitive authority
As a conclusion, systemists should always carefully scrutinize metaphor-tainted concepts and models.
- 1) General information
- 2) Methodology or model
- 3) Epistemology, ontology and semantics
- 4) Human sciences
- 5) Discipline oriented
To cite this page, please use the following information:
Bertalanffy Center for the Study of Systems Science (2020). Title of the entry. In Charles François (Ed.), International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics (2). Retrieved from www.systemspedia.org/[full/url]
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