Metaphor: the Alchemy of Thought

In the murky centuries before the dawn of the scientific age, alchemists used the phrase “As above, so below” to convey their belief that the neat order observed in the heavens could also be discerned amidst the chaos on earth. Thus the alchemists hoped to understand the one in terms of the other — the complex in terms of the simple. They viewed macrocosm and microcosm as reflections of each other. This remained an esoteric ideal rather than a formula for practical knowledge until Isaac Newton — himself a dabbler in alchemy — brought the stars and the earth closer together by showing that they could be understood using a unified language: mathematics.

“As above, so below.”

Metaphor is the alchemy of thought: not “as above, so below”, but “as known, so unknown”. According to linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, “The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.” It might not be an exaggeration to say that metaphorical thinking is the basis of our ability to extend the boundaries of human knowledge.  For those of you who only remember the word from middle school English class, I imagine this dramatic inflation of the importance of metaphor comes as a surprise. Isn’t metaphor just a linguistic flourish? “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”? “Now is the winter of our discontent”? Surely this kind of frippery is only for poets and artists? For the cafe and the studio, rather than the workshop and the laboratory? Nothing could be further from the truth.

Is it possible to speak plainly and just name things and processes without recourse to metaphor? The answer is not as straightforward as many of us would like it to be. Concrete concepts often evaporate into metaphorical abstraction upon careful examination. Conversely, even the most abstract concepts usually begin their lives as metaphors constructed from day-to-day human experience.

The word “matter”, for instance, comes from the Latin materia, meaning source, which in turn may have come from the Proto-Indo-European word for “mother”. At the other end of the spectrum, the word “abstract” comes from decidedly non-abstract roots: it stems from the Latin abstractus which means to “draw (tractus) away (abs)”, and stems ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *tragh-, from which we also get the English word “drag”. So the act of abstraction travels down through the ages from a time when it meant something as mundane as dragging out. “Metaphor”, interestingly enough, comes from the Greek for “carry over” or “transfer”. Thus metaphor and abstraction both have their roots in the physical act of carrying or drawing something from one place to another — metaphor carries meaning from the known to the unknown, whereas abstraction drags meaning from the specific to the general.

Here one might justifiably point out that when the primeval metaphorical quality of a word fades from memory over the centuries, we are left with dead metaphors — mere labels that have long since lost their original signification. Perhaps metaphor is only of interest to the archaeologists of language? I think not. To speak only in terms of old names and dead metaphors is to asphyxiate thought: to deprive it of the opportunity to make unforeseen connections and unanticipated leaps. These connections, these leaps, are essential to creativity and exploration.

For the purpose of investigating metaphor further, I think we can use some of the terminology invented by Julian Jaynes in his magnificent and idiosyncratic work  The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes described a metaphor as comprising of two parts. The metaphrand is the thing to be described or understood, and the metaphier is the more familiar thing with which it is compared. The human body is a very common metaphier; we speak of the head of a table, the foot of a mountain, the face and hands of a clock, and the mouth of a river.

The human body is a rich source of metaphiers. (Click to enlarge and en-gif.)

Consider the metaphors we use to talk about a table. If we decide on the metaphor of the “head” of the table, we might ask: what are the other parts of the body mapped to? The “foot” of the table is on the opposite side from the head. But the legs of the table are underneath. The metaphor does not invite us to wonder what the arms of the table are.

Where is the foot of the table? What about the arms  and legs? (Click to enlarge.)

Extended metaphors offer much more scope for description and discovery. We can now introduce two more Jaynesian terms: paraphiers and paraphrands. Paraphiers are properties or aspects of the metaphier that cast more light on the metaphrand. It is as if the first association leads to many more. One of the most evocative examples of this kind of   expansion is when we see human society as a human body. The metaphrand is society, and the metaphier is the body. The paraphiers are the head, the arms, and so on, as well as other concepts we associate with the body, such as health. So we not only have a head of state and the long arm of the law, but also a sick society. Here the paraphiers are especially handy — their corresponding paraphrands in society don’t always have non-metaphorical names.

In a passage from the Incredible String Band’s song “Maya” this metaphor is extended to almost comical degree.

The great man, the great man, historians his memory
Artists his senses, thinkers his brain
Labourers his growth
Explorers his limbs
And soldiers his death each second
And mystics his rebirth each second
Businessmen his nervous system
No-hustle men his stomach
Astrologers his balance
Lovers his loins
His skin it is all patchy
But soon will reach one glowing hue
God is his soul
Infinity his goal
The mystery his source
And civilization he leaves behind
Opinions are his fingernails

What we see here is a kind of feedback and resonance. In the case of man and society the microcosm and the macrocosm often seem equally unknown, and in this extended metaphor it seems as though we might understand both better through comparison. Not only do we see the various sections of society as parts of a “great man”, we also come to see the individual man as a meeting of impulses that are analogous to the forces operating in a society or economy.

Another rich example comes from seeing ideas or opinions as food. Ideas are the metaphrand, and food is the metaphier. Thus we have food for thought. Some ideas smell fishy, some are half-baked, some are hard to swallow. One man’s meat is another man’s poison. Additional paraphiers jump out at us, inviting us to uncover their paraphrands. Which ideas are nutritious? Which are like junk food? Which are acquired tastes? An extended metaphor lurches forward into the unknown, its paraphiers reaching for more paraphrands to domesticate.

Food as a metaphor for ideas. (Click to enlarge.)

These examples may still seem more ornamental than useful. Perhaps some time is saved when pointing to the foot or head of an inanimate object rather than having to use precise geometric language, but knowledge is hardly expanded. To fully appreciate the power of metaphor (and it’s more formal cousin, analogy), we must look to its oft-neglected role in science and technology. We speak of a genetic “code” or “blueprint”. We explain the structure of the atom  to schoolchildren by analogy with the solar system. We think of the brain as a machine, or a computer, or a social network. These metaphors and analogies can help impart new ideas to the student and the layperson. But metaphor is more than a classroom aid. It is a crucial element of discovery and invention. Scientists are not blessed with a magical ability to apprehend the world as a vortex of symbols and equations, as Neo appeared to do in the film The Matrix. Scientists, like everyone else, seek to cast what they see in terms of what they have already seen.

Der Mensch als Industriepalast (Man as Industrial Palace) (1926). From Fritz Kahn (1888–1968). Chromolithograph. National Library of Medicine, Stuttgart. (Click through for a paper on metaphors of mind and brain.)

One example suffices to illustrate this point. A prominent advocate of the use of metaphor in science was James Clerk Maxwell — the man who unified previously unrelated observations and equations in electricity, magnetism and optics into a consistent electromagnetic theory. Maxwell asserted that metaphors are not only “legitimate products of science, but capable of generating science in turn”. He and Lord Kelvin explicitly acknowledged the metaphors that helped them formulate their ideas: from the “lines of force” notion of magnetism to the view of heat as a “fluid”. An extended quote from Maxwell seems appropriate here:

The figure of speech or of thought by which we transfer the language and ideas of a familiar science to one with which we are less acquainted may be called Scientific Metaphor.

Thus the words Velocity, Momentum, Force, &c. have acquired certain precise meanings in Elementary Dynamics. They are also employed in the Dynamics of a Connected System in a sense which, though perfectly analogous to the elementary sense, is wider and more general. These generalized forms of elementary ideas may be called metaphorical terms in the sense in which every abstract term is metaphorical.

Sadly, modern academic writers frequently obscure this aspect of their thinking, preferring to hide the metaphorical leaps behind terse technical jargon. Many of my college science textbooks present the history of science as a rational progression of self-evident experiments and theories. A plodding, inexorable march of logic replaces the wild adventure that is scientific exploration: from the height of curiosity, through the forest of bafflement, around the wasteland of false starts, leading finally, for the fortunate and the steadfast, to the garden of earthly insights.

Despite using metaphor and analogy to take their work forward, scientists often leave the task of sharing these metaphors to a separate class of writers whose aim is a mass audience. I think we are missing an opportunity here. Perhaps human knowledge does not benefit from a partition between those seeking new knowledge and those seeking to understand and use what is already known. Perhaps we can do better than a Temple of Knowledge: where pop sci oracles transcribe the revelations of the scientists in the inner sanctum into self-help sermons for the confused congregation. Perhaps the veil of this temple must be torn in two?

As science becomes a more complex and resource-intensive activity, drawing more and more money, prestige, and power from society, it is imperative that we have as many outsider perspectives as possible to assess its merits and failings — the alternative is a scientific world that is hermetically sealed. Perhaps only a tiny minority of people will ever be capable of understanding opaque terminology and higher mathematics, but a much larger number may well be capable of testing out metaphors and analogies — seeing where they are successful, and where they break down. In the hypertextual world of rapid communication we inhabit, metaphors may be more important than ever, serving as the bridges by which knowledge and experience are carried over from one domain to another. Without these bridges, society may splinter ever further into mutually distrustful tribes of “people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening” —  a cacophonous electronic tower of Babel.


If metaphor does prove to be as important as I suspect it is, we will have to move this discussion beyond academia. In any case, it seems to me that no one is really an expert on metaphor. No one can claim to know how metaphors works — how we form them, and how we decide whether they are successful or not. I’m keen to open up the discussion to the readers: what are your favourite metaphors and analogies? Which ones do you find most enlightening or useful? And which ones ring false in your ears? A broad nontechnical discussion of metaphor must start somewhere, so perhaps it can start here! Feel free to share your thoughts in the commentspace!

I’d like to end with another quote from Maxwell — he gives us a vivid metaphor of the workings of the human mind:

But the mind of man is not, like Fourier’s heated body, continually settling down into an ultimate state of quiet uniformity, the character of which we can already predict; it is rather like a tree, shooting out branches which adapt themselves to the new aspects of the sky towards which they climb, and roots which contort themselves among the strange strata of the earth into which they delve.


  • An exhaustive list of common metaphors can be found in George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s book Metaphors We Live By. This wikpedia page also elaborates on their ideas: Conceptual Metaphor. Some of the examples here (society as a body, ideas as food) are from their book, but can be found in many discussions of metaphor.
  • My thoughts on metaphor and its centrality to the mind have been informed in large part by Julian Jaynes’s book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It’s a strange book with plenty of questionable details, but in the main I think it provides a unique take on consciousness that that many people will find rewarding to grapple with.
  • The quotes from James Clark Maxwell can be found here. I discovered them today via a book chapter by Robert R. Hoffman.
  • Here is a TED talk on the importance of metaphor.
  • Here’s the Incredible String Band’s song “Maya“.
  • Clipart used in the figures was found here, here, here and here. Black and white figures were generated using Inkscape.

By Yohan

I'm a Research Assistant Professor at the Neural Systems Laboratory in Boston University. My PhD was in Cognitive and Neural Systems, and my work involves computational neural network modeling of cognitive-emotional interaction and psychiatric disorders. My bachelor's and master's degrees were in physics.

18 replies on “Metaphor: the Alchemy of Thought”

Really nice post Yohan. Long overdue. I just have two reflections on your post. I am not going to be coherent here, but will try nevertheless.
Mathematicians, for example, work with a different language, symbols and rules. Often, they engage in expressing one object ‘in terms of the other’ by establishing them as being ‘equivalent’ and work with the new object to understand certain properties. The rules establishing equivalence are of course specific, but it is still like something that you described. In the case of more flexible everyday languages which can mutate, the rules of equivalence between objects are rather hazy and this haziness, to me, seems to be the region where creative interpretations are seething. First, while I am in agreement with what you have to say, it seems to me that metaphor is in the realm of language, that which involves the ‘act of description’. I think ‘analogical thinking’ is not necessarily bound by the conventions or rules of language. If we agree that we can perceive more than we can describe, then metaphor comes later than analogical reasoning in mind? Just a thought. I say this because some constructivists (Like L.E.J. Brouwer) regard mathematical thinking as being the activity of the mind, independent of language and I am trying to interpret it in the light of what you said. May be there are metaphors that are not restricted by language. I don’t know or what to call them.

Second, while we talk about metaphors, there is always some point of comparison between objects, shall we call it common ground. But then like you said in the table example, we don’t transfer all the properties of one object to another. This seems to be fairly evident and well understood in ordinary metaphors that we encounter in everyday life. But in academics, I feel that the ‘limits to metaphor’ are never really understood. Where is that the metaphor stops corresponding to the actual object becomes harder to determine because we do not have a complete knowledge of what we are dealing with. I am thinking of economics while I say this, but I am sure you can think of other examples too. This can be and it is dangerous.

Some metaphors in economics that I came across so far:
Invisible hand, Rocking horse (Business cycle), Utility Computer, Signal processor, Information processor, problem solvers, Robinson Cursoe (Economic agents), Jig-saw puzzle…

Here is a quote by an economist (Richard Goodwin) that is remarkably similar to the quote by Maxwell:
“The study of dynamics of the industrial capitalism should not proceed as the solution of a given system subject to exogenous shock. The economy has been characterized by the fact that it generates not only perpetual motion but one which exhibits continual alteration of its own structure in the pursuit of private profit. It can be considered either as a single species altering its structure(morphogenesis) or as a selection of new species through competitive survival and/or disappearance.”

Sorry I rambled again.

Very pertinent comments Ragu! All issues I would like to get into.

In this post I collapsed mataphor and analogy into one thing, but that probably needs explaining. Analogies take the for A:B::C:D, as in SAT or GRE questions. In a metaphor it’s sort of like head is to body as head of table is to table. The “is to” or “:” relation is implicit and unstated in a metaphor. So I think of metaphors as “folded” or implied analogies that can sometimes be “unfolded”.

Also, metaphorical thinking is probably separable from metaphorical language. Forming a metaphor or analogy may be pre-linguistic or meta-linguistic.

But I also think of mathematics as a language in the loose sense that language is a sequential set of coded symbols that carry meaning.

>>> ‘analogical thinking’ is not necessarily bound by the conventions or rules of language. If we agree that we can perceive more than we can describe, then metaphor comes later than analogical reasoning in mind? Just a thought. <<<

I believe that metaphor occurs at the level of analogical reasoning, and is only "translated" into words a fraction of a second later, if at all. Words are like "handles" that access visuospatial concepts, e.g. cube, sphere, ellipsoid, each of which conjurs a full 3-D image in our analogical mind. But when we view a rock in our hand, we see the (regular) ellipsoid embedded in the (irregular) pebble, long before the word "ellipsoid" springs to mind. Even seeing the ellipsoid in a pebble is a metaphorical act of perception. Further distinguishing the pebble into "head" and "tail" ends due to some asymmetry between its opposite poles, is a second metaphorical act that merges with the first, to create an elastic cartoon perfect rendition of the irregular pebble expressed as an egg-shaped ellipsoid. This is the most basic level of mathematical understanding inherited directly from perception, and revealed explicitly in "how to draw" books, and in all of human art and ornament, the tendency to see regularity in an irregular world, and to perceive things with a cartoon type perception that makes the world seem as clear as a cartoon. That is the basis of perception, art, and mathematics, the common stem from which knowledge and beauty both sprout, the font of the beautiful theorum, and of the mathematically perfect works of art.

That’s very well put, slehar! I like the idea of an analogical or metaphorical “act”. It reminds me of one of the great challenges for neuroscience — how the brain brings disparate things together for comparison.

I think this explains metaphor very well: “Scientists, like everyone else, seek to cast what they see in terms of what they have already seen.” I don’t understand why this should be so mystifying. There is hardly any other way to explain something “new” except by reference to what is already known.
In that sense pretty much everything that is deduced or discovered or newly experienced by a person and is being communicated by them will require the use of analogy and/or metaphor.
As for the origins of language, isn’t it widely accepted that it developed because of the benefits of and capacity for more complex communication among early primates?

Thank you! Yes I agree that it is strange that some people dislike the idea that metaphor is fundamental to human communication. I suspect that these people are analytical philosophers and logical positivists who just love the idea that language can give us a veridical ‘picture’ of the world.

The origins of language, however, are quite murky. The problem with evolutionary theory is that we can always use post hoc reasoning to point to benefits for some trait like language. It’s true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t tell us anything much about the details: were there symbolic ‘proto-languages’? Or did language emerge fully formed, as Chomsky seems to suggest sometimes?

I’ll use the concrete “fishbowl” to connect students from elementary to post-high school with the “abstract” ideas of everything from trying a new food, to Cultural Invisibility, to Plato’s Cave allegory to the perils of transcendental existentialism — using something easy to understand to grasp something difficult to understand.

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