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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Search for Truth

The way we think about communication impacts the way we think about “truth.” We tend to think about truth as something that is objective and verifiable, something that has always existed, something that we just need to discover and describe. And when we use the “tool” of communication to describe or “convey” or “transmit” truth we usually judge the communication by whether it was “true” or “false;” “correct” or “incorrect;” “right” or “wrong.” We want people to be truthful and honest. We value finding and discovering objective Truth. Most of you talked about “truth” in these ways on your first assignment.

The slogan from the television series X-files makes sense because we tend to want to cut through all the illusions and discover Truth:

Likewise, we don’t like it when it seems like people twist the objective “facts” of a situation. We certainly don’t want to be deceived by lies and illusions. We make people swear to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” in court with the understanding that they will not spin the facts or manipulate anything. We usually think about lies or distortion or spin or rhetoric as things that get in the way of clear, truthful, transparent, successful communication–it’s all “noise” when we think of communication as “transmission” or “sending info.”

These ideas about truth trace, in part, all the way back to Plato (and Aristotle and Socrates). As you read Plato’s Gorgias you should be able to identify some of these ideas in Socrates’ attitude about communication and rhetoric.

Think about these other examples that represent standard and typical ways we think and talk about truth:

  • Last fall, the presidential candidates had teams dedicated to telling the facts and “truth” about each candidate and combating the myths and lies … John McCain started the “McCain Truth Squad” (and the “Palin Truth Squad”) / Barack Obama tried to “Fight the Smears”
  • Karl Rove criticized some of the McCain campaign ads for going “one step too far,” and “attributing to Obama things that are … beyond the ‘100 percent truth’ test.”
  • When we learn history in K – 12. We memorize “objective” facts and data about the past that we typically treat as absolute truth. We see that attitude in a show like “Digging for Truth” on the History Channel, that goes on a quest to discover the truth of the past.
  • We want the news to tell us the truth. A CNN commercial tells viewers to “Get the facts. Demand the truth. We do!” We usually expect that ideal news will communicate neutral truth about the world.
  • We also value the objective truth in science, where numbers and data prove facts about the world.

Plato (via Socrates) isn’t exactly talking about physics and the history channel. He’s more interested in discovering True Beauty, the True “Good Life,” True Love. But the point is that the way Plato thought about speech, rhetoric, communication, and truth trickled down through the years and influences us today.

Suggestions: Think of other everyday examples where we value the Truth as something that has always existed outside of communication? As something that we just have to find, discover, and describe? How does that relate to the way we sometimes think and talk about our identities, our True self?

It might be equally helpful to think about messages that criticize what Socrates calls “rhetoric.” Other than politics, where do we devalue and criticize communication that we believe distracts us from the truth or misleads us from the truth?

Once again, relationship advice is another good source for seeing some of the common ways our standard way of thinking about communication shapes the way we talk and understand “truth”: