More Metaphors

Nietzsche defines truth as “A mobile army of metaphors … in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people.” In other words, he wants us to realize that we have invented knowledge and truth within human communication (this should remind you of Peters), but we tend to forget that truth is human-centered. Because we forget that humans constructed truth with metaphors (arbitrary words that become concepts) we tend to accept the “serious premises” and treat truth as stable, firm, and natural (sort of like Lanham says we think about our “central self”).

We looked at a few examples in class and tried to define the “truth” about “trees,” “mammals,” “family,” “honesty.” You could also think about “love” as a metaphor. We can’t know for SURE or with absolute certainty what “love” is. We can only group together similar (but not identical) experiences and feelings and stories and moments and call them “love.” But the essence of that concept is unknowable — we can only “know” it through what we say about it and what people agree to call “love.”

Colors might also help you think about how metaphors work. First, we made arbitrary distinctions as to what we would call light at certain wavelengths. So the “fact” that we call a certain wavelength of light “blue” or “red” or “green” is a metaphor. However, humans have added even more meaning to these metaphors because we associate certain colors with certain ideas or feelings. What do you think of when you see “black?” We wear black to funerals or when we’re sad or somber. It usually symbolizes evil and darkness. The way we use and talk about that color makes it seem like there is some inherent truth to the color. We could wear green or purple to funerals but we don’t. Those don’t have the right “meaning.” The same goes for red and sensuality or anger; blue and calm or peacefulness or sometimes sadness; white for purity and cleanness and goodness. But again these meanings are arbitrary things humans created that we’ve forgotten we made up.

I said in class that there isn’t much on the line when we talk about “squirrels” or “trees” … but when we believe we know the “truth” about bigger issues like what “life” truly is or what it means to be a true “American,” then it becomes important to remember how “flighty” knowledge can be and how we have the ability to create and revise knowledge–for good or for bad. 

We looked at one of the following clips before. During last fall’s election many candidates and pundits argued for their absolute knowledge and truth what it meant to be an “American.” Is there a Truth to that term? Many peple acted as if there was a truth to that concept? As if they knew the “real America” or the TRUE America … The Daily Show with John Stewart (which is typically a prime example for the “rhetorical view” of communication) featured these segments about the idea of a “REAL” America:

Again, the point is not that truth doesn’t exist and so we shouldn’t even talk about it. We’re not saying that anything goes.” Rather, because we have the ability to construct truth and knowledge with metaphors, we should pay attention to the rhetorical process that creates our knowledge. Whenever someone claims to have the definitive truth or knowledge, we should pay attention to how and why that knowledge came to be. Maybe we’ll all agree to it (like we all agree to call cute, fuzzy, rodents “squirrels”) and we’ll move on with no problem. But maybe we’ll see a problem that we could address like when someone claims that a small segment of the country are the “real” Americans. And remember, Burke helps us see that identification implies division–if we claim that it’s TRUE that one group represents “real, pro-America” Americans, then we’re implying that other citizens are bad, anti-American people.

Think about how we define “life.” Many people have strong beliefs about the knowledge of what counts as “life” … but even that concept becomes shaky when we consider debates over euthanasia or physician assisted suicide, removing brain-dead people from life support, abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, the death penalty, casualties of war, the quality of life for people living in poverty. And those are just the debates over human life. Environmental activits or animal-rights activists will use the metaphor of “life” to include farm animals, endangered species, even plant life and eco-systems.


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