Phil Friedman

3 years ago · 4 min. reading time · visibility ~10 ·

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Of Metaphors, Models, and Malarkey

Of Metaphors, Models, and Malarkey

METAPHORS ARE INTENDED TO ELUCIDATE AND CLARIFY, BUT DO THEY ALWAYS?


Do not mistake obscurity for depth of thought ...

Chung King in The Wisdom of Chung King (circa 650 AD)

Not being understandable does translate into being profound. And frequently, what is incomprehensible is so simply because it is, in fact, meaningless.


Make no mistake, you can string words together into sentences that appear superficially to be saying something, but which are actually nonsensical.


Where difficult concepts and ideas are involved, metaphors and conceptual models can often be used to facilitate understanding. However, it is critical, I submit, not to confuse metaphors with conceptual models and, moreover, to always avoid being mesmerized by one's own metaphors, lest one's thoughts are led into the quagmire of obscurity. 


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A metaphor is a figure of speech often used to elucidate an idea, occurrence, process, or system when these are too abstract or complicated to be readily understood directly.

For example, one might talk about "the trapdoor of clinical depression" as a way of describing in familiar terms how people can "fall" into depression unexpectedly and have difficulty "climbing" back out to a normal life. One might even go on to talk about the dark thoughts of depressions being like rats scurrying about in a lightless cellar (of the mind). In which case the trap door, the dark cellar, and the rats become elements of a relatively elaborate metaphor for clinical depression.

However, it would be a mistake to think that, in this case, one can learn much if anything factual about clinical depression from the trapdoor/cellar metaphor. Moreover, if one insists on trying, the result is likely to be confusion, not elucidation, obscurity, not clarity   in a word, malarkey.

Because a metaphor is not a model ...

A model is also a device employed to elucidate an idea, occurrence, process, or system, when these are too abstract or complicated to be readily understood directly or when the phenomena being discussed are not directly observable.

There are different kinds of models, both physical and conceptual.

Some physical models are precisely that, miniatures of full-size physical objects, such as airplanes, automobiles, and ships. Often such physical models are deployed in purpose-created testing environments, such as wind tunnels and test tanks, for the purpose of investigating the likely behaviors of the full-size object(s) being studied.

A classic instance of physical modeling is the behavior of running water in pipes modeling the behavior of electricity running through wires.


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You cannot directly observe electrical current being carried in through wires. (Note, you can observe the effects of such current, but that is not to observe the current itself.) You can, however, observe water running through pipes. And you can gain insight into the relationships between electrical voltage, amperage, and resistance by considering the relationships between pressure, flow volume, and cross-sectional constriction in the piping carrying the water.

Some conceptual models are actually mathematical formulae, in which the relative behaviors of multiple elements in an equation "mirror" those of elements in a physical system. Such mathematical models are common in Engineering, where elements of formulae represent properties of materials and structures in the physical world, and in which manipulation of such contained elements provides insight into, for instance, how to achieve the highest load-bearing capability in a given structure at the lowest unit weight.


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Models can also be parsed as either descriptive or predictive, and as fully isomorphic or only partially so. But an important characteristic of conceptual models is that their internal elements bear a relationship to one another that "mirrors" the relationship between the internal elements of the subject system being modeled. Prime examples of this are the predictive (both statistical and dynamical) models on the basis of which a lot of hurricane forecasting is performed.

Once a sufficient level of isomorphism is established between a model and subject system it models, the model itself can be explored for insights into the workings of the subject system. And that is an important reason models are created and manipulated in a scientifically and logically rigorous manner.

Metaphors, similes, and analogies grease the wheels of Appreciation but they do not lubricate the drill of Insight ...

A self-similar metaphor by Phil Friedman

Metaphors, similes, analogies are literary stylistic devices. They are neither constructed nor probed for validity and confirmation in the way scientific and conceptual models are. We should, therefore, not look to such devices for factual or normative insights or conclusions.

More importantly, when such a conclusion is presented, we should not be hypnotized by the undulating fluidity of a metaphor or analogy offered up in its support. For when we do, we invite Malarkey and its cousin, Gibberish, to the conversation.    Phil Friedman



Author's Notes:   If you enjoyed this post and would like to receive notifications of my writing on a regular basis, simply click the [FOLLOW] button on my beBee profile. Better yet, elect there to follow my blog by email. As a writer-friend of mine says, you can always change your mind later.

As well, feel free to "like" and "share" this post and my other articles — whether on beBee, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or Google+, provided only that you credit me properly as the author, and include a live link to my original post.

Should you be curious about some of my previous musings along similar lines, you're invited to take a look at the following prior posts: 

"Collectives Versus Individuals"

"On Forcing Perception to Fit Preconception"

"Reason and Rationality Do Not Exclude Intuition or Creativity"

As to the origin of the quote from Chung King, see

"Six Life Lessons for Today from Chung King"


About me, Phil Friedman: With some 30 years background in the marine industry, I've worn different hats — as a yacht designer, boat builder, marine operations and business manager, marine industry consultant, marine marketing and communications specialist, yachting magazine writer and editor, yacht surveyor, and marine industry educator. I'm also trained and experienced in interest-based negotiation and mediation.

In a previous life, I was formally trained as an academic philosopher and taught logic and philosophy at university.


Before writing comes thinking (The optional-to-read pitch):

As a professional writer, editor, university educator, and speaker, with more than 1,000 print and digital publications, I've recently launched an online program for enhancing your expository writing: learn2engage — With Confidence. My mission is to help writers and would-be writers improve their thought and writing, master the logic of discussion, and strengthen their ability to deal with disagreement.

 

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For more information, click on the image immediately above. To schedule an appointment for a free 1/2-hour consult email: info@learn2engage.org. I look forward to speaking with you soon.


Text Copyright 2017 by Phil Friedman  —  All Rights Reserved
Image Credits: Phil Friedman, Google Images, and FreeDigitalPhotos.net


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 #METAPHOR #CONCEPTUALMODELS #LITERARYDEVICES #REASONING #INSIGHT

 

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Comments
Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #39

#44
Peter, I will tweet you my answer tomorrow morning at 3:30 am. Attna time when all seems connected and it is possible to construct first-class gibberish. Watch for it! Cheers.

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #38

#41
Peter, how one views Apophenia depends, it seems, on how much weight one gives to the modifier “seemingly”. Some see it as aberrant cognition: “Apophenia is the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena. The term was coined by German neurologist and psychiatrist Klaus Conrad (1905-1961). Conrad focused on the finding of abnormal meaning or significance in random experiences by psychotic people.” As to whether it has a metaphoric use, I might allow, “His writings appeared as organized as an Apophenisc’s breakfast.” Thank you for reading and for joining the conversation. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #37

#41
Peter, how one views Apophenis depends, it seems, on how much weight one gives to the modifier “seemingly”. Some see it as aberrant cognition: “Apophenia is the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena. The term was coined by German neurologist and psychiatrist Klaus Conrad (1905-1961). Conrad focused on the finding of abnormal meaning or significance in random experiences by psychotic people.” As to whether it has a metaphoric use, I might allow, “His writings appeared as organized as an Apophenisc’s breakfast.” Thank you for reading and for joining the conversation. Cheers!

Harvey Lloyd

Harvey Lloyd

3 years ago #36

#36
Wish i could claim the metaphor but it was used during the last president's term by conservatives as part of their dogma when meeting the othersides dogma. Seemed appropriate here. Thanks

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #35

#38
Paul \ - As writers or editors? But anyway, I am sure you'd agree that a criterion for the use of a metaphor is that it improves the clarity of what is being said and does not itself, because of its own complications, become the subject of a separate "investigation" as to what it means. Eh? (Just a bit of Canadian thrown in their for colour. :-)

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #34

#35
Paul \, I am not here admonishing anyone to abandon metaphors. Only pointing out that the metaphor is a device for communicating concepts and ideas which are otherwise difficult, in some venues, to understand. And that we should not fall into the trap of thinking that the metaphor becomes the primary target of exploration. we can use a metaphor to describe in a more understandable way, for example, depression but we cannot study the metaphor in order to learn more about depression. In order to gain knowledge of depression, we need to study the phenomenon itself. Thank you for the suggestion re #buzzBeBee, I will follow up (and notify Jim,as well).

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #33

#34
I believe, Harvey, that we are on the same page on this. Metaphors are useful for restating abstract or difficult concepts in terms free of arcane jargon and, thereby, conveying a measure of understanding to what we might call a "lay" audience. But, as you very correctly note, we cannot study and learn FROM the metaphor because it, of needs, does not sufficiently mirror that which is under discussion. BTW, I like your "empty suit" metaphor. Very apt, very pointed. Thanks and cheers!

Harvey Lloyd

Harvey Lloyd

3 years ago #32

#24
I agree with your approach and that we can move away from facts within the metaphor delivery. More importantly i think that just because i understand the metaphor of "depression" i cant offer advice from the metaphor. Just because i know how a trap door works does not imply factual understanding of depression. I would sense that you come from the approach of technical when you view a metaphor. Myself, working with non-verbal children who can't share within the larger metaphysical aspects of life, the metaphor process means something different. Within the physics of life i would agree but see the metaphor as an opportunity for those who are lay people within a context to get a small grasp of the concept. Depending how "lay" the audience is determines how much you lean on the metaphor. My assumption is the person using the metaphor understands the underlying facts and in someway is trying to retain my interest in something that is complicated. As you stated though, i have encountered many that the metaphor is all that is being presented, or otherwise known as the empty suit. I do believe these days that there many more empty suits in the marketplace than we would care to admit..

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #31

#31
Thank you, Lada \ud83c\udfe1 Prkic, for reading and commenting. I was looking forward to having your opinion as an engineer and academic, especially since mathematical models play such a strong role in understanding structural design. I agree that it’s often advantageous to use metaphors instead of scientific jargon to explain scientific concepts and systems to a lay audience. (Feynman) But I also think we need to keep in mind always that metaphors are tools of explanation and are NOT the same sort of animal as models, which are mirrors for exploration. For confusing the two almost always leads to the generation of ... poppycock, as well as malarkey and gibberish. :-)

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #30

#31
Thank you @Lada firmreading and commenting. I was looking forward to having your opinion as an engineer and academic, since mathematical models play such a strong role in understanding structural design. I agree that it’s advantageous to use metaphors instead of scientific jargon to explain scientific concepts and systems to a lay audience. But I think we need to keep in mind always that metaphors are tools of explanation and are NOT the same sort of animal as models, which are mirrors for exploration. For confusing the two almost always leads to the generation of ... poppycock. :-)

Lada 🏡 Prkic

Lada 🏡 Prkic

3 years ago #29

Phil, it's another thought-provoking and a bit provocative post. Since English is not my first language, I needed first to find out what malarkey and gibberish are. :-) I know that you are not a big fan of using metaphors in exploring conceptual models. We already had a discussion related to the friendship concept metaphor. I wonder what's the reason you pulled this topic out again. I have some thoughts about that. :-) In defence of using metaphors in science, I agree with the opinion that models are metaphors actually. They are both an interpretation of an observing process, structure, object or phenomena. You obviously cannot study a metaphor in the way you can study a model, but metaphors can inspire and may be a trigger for problem-solving as in Feynman's case.

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #28

#29
My error, Randall Burns will testify. Cheers!

Randall Burns

Randall Burns

3 years ago #27

#28
LMAO!!! Oversensitive? I was trying to be funny but it's all good...

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #26

#27
Randall Burns, you are spot on -- except I think you are being a bit over-sensitive, admittedly in my defense. The reaction hs been relatively mild compared to that I've engendered in times past. But just so we're all clear about what I'm saying. You are correct that this piece is NOT an admonition to forsake all use of metaphor. Rather it is a warning not to become so fascinated with metaphors that you allow yourself to be led into writing and speaking malarkey. Metaphors are legitimate literary devices (tools), as are similes and analogies. And they can sometimes be used to advantage when one is trying to elucidate a difficult or unfamiliar idea or cluster of concepts. But -- and this is my core point if there is one -- you cannot study a metaphor in the way you can study a model in order to gain knowledge of the subject entity. Thanks for joining the conversation. And cheers!

Randall Burns

Randall Burns

3 years ago #25

"Once more unto the breach dear friends", I can't help but interject here, again, as this dialogue seems to be turning into a tempest in a teapot, everyone is making a mountain out of a molehill. If I understand correctly Phil Friedman was only warning of the inherent pitfalls that are possible with the "literary stylistic devices", (in his words). He was not saying we should not use them as that would be like cutting off our noses to spite our faces, sometimes you just can't see the forest for the trees. It has been an interesting discussion with great points from everyone and I think that everyone can agree, even Phil, that without these "literary stylistic devices" our communications would be like trying to describe color to a blind man. But I may be way off base here and if that's the case then just tie me to the whipping post and have at it.

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #24

#23
Thank you, Franci\ud83d\udc1dEugenia Hoffman, beBee Brand Ambassador, for reading and taking the time to comment. Iagree with you that too often metaphors, especially when over-used, can actually confuse an issue rather than clarify it.And this is doubly true when someone becomes so enamored of metaphors that he or she speaks almost exclusively of them.

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #23

#22
Gert Scholtz, I think in the main you are correct. A metaphor is a tool used at times to stimulate insight... maybe. But you cannot learn anything about the original object or system or idea or cluster of ideas by studying the metaphor itself. That is NOT the case for a "model". Once you've empirically confirmed sufficient isomorphism between the model and the subject modeled, you can generally benefit in terms of understanding by studying the model, especially when the object or system being modeled cannot be directly observed. My issue with what frequently happens on social media is that some writers use a metaphor to help the reader understand something about an object, system, or cluster of ideas, but then fall into flopping back and forth between inferring things about the subject from the metaphor, then inferring things about the metaphor from the subject. Welcome Malarkey and its cousin Gibberish. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #22

#16
Harvey, speaking candidly I am uncomfortable with the term "metaphoric understanding" -- almost as much so as with the notion of metaphysics in the absence of an underlying epistemology. As well, I reject your assertion that, "the facts of understanding that which is a mistake and that which is not, is subjective to the position you take, events or context of setting." All perceptions, cognitions, and judgments are made from the perspective of the individual who has or makes them. In that sense, yes, you can say they are "subjective", but that does not mean they are baseless or can be made arbitrarily and have as much validity as those made with attention, support, and reason. And, of course, the obverse of that is one can be more or less mistaken, depending on how one has developed one's judgment of "the facts". Consequently, the admonition quoted, not to mistake obscurity for depth, is to my mind perfectly in order -- although I do admit the provenance of the quotation may be questionable. As to my reference to depression, you might see it as a "metaphysical" state if you deal with it soley in terms of metaphors, but you will see it as more objectively part of the physical universe if you seek to understand it the context of brain and body, as I would guess Ian Weinberg does. That, however, is not my point. My assertion is that investigating the metaphor referenced will not yield an understanding of the phenomenon, although the metaphor may give the illusion (or feeling) of understanding. I recommend reading the work of epistemologist, A. J. Ayer, in order to get a handle of understanding and scientific (objective) meaning, the opposite of which is precisely what we gain when we are enamored of metaphor. IMO. Cheers!

Franci 🐝Eugenia Hoffman, beBee Brand Ambassador

Metaphors can be useful in creating ways of seeing, but overuse can be a distraction. Plus in order for the metaphor to be effective, it should be understood by the audience. The same with models, which should be used to clarify the writers intent and be used just to decorate the article. No malarky in this enlightening post-Phil Friedman!

Gert Scholtz

Gert Scholtz

3 years ago #20

Phil Friedman As you do Phil, you made me think and this is how I now see it: Metaphor is a way of understanding, illustrating or illuminating a truth, but is not in itself a proven fact or truth. That is if truth is accepted in a scientific way – otherwise it is either a belief (which can be a subjective truth) or even an as yet possible objective truth. “As yet possible objective truth?” I can imagine someone once saying: ”We all know the earth is flat, but imagine it were round like a ball, floating in the sky…” But I might be talking malarkey- which is a new word I also learned! Thank you for a thought provoking post.

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #19

#18
Thank you, Ian Weinberg, for joining the conversation. I am fully comfortable with your view -- although admittedly, it may be "subjective". Here is something I would like everyone to consider: Perception, understanding, and judgment are always "subjective" in the sense that, unless you are one of the rare among us who can spirit-walk, they are experienced from a given individual's perspective.That does not, however, mean that such perceptions, understanding, or judgments are all of equal value or no value. For some will be better developed, some will be better reasoned and supported, and some will be closer to objective reality, than others. The job, if you will, of the Left Hemisphere is to assure that these necessarily subjective activities are as accurately developed as possible. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #18

#17
Very succinct -- and insightful -- Jerry Fletcher, if I do say so myself. As I wrote this piece, I found myself wanting, at least in part, to demonstrate that about which I also wanted to speak. The result, as you very perspicuously point out, is an odd blend of actual analysis and ... well, malarkey. BTW, I think I prefer "befuddle" to "bamboozle". Thanks for reading and commenting. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #17

#16
Harvey, thank you for reading and commenting. Your comment requires a longer than usual reply, so please be patient. I will respond as soon as I can. Cheers!

Ian Weinberg

Ian Weinberg

3 years ago #16

Agreed Phil Friedman Since my subjective world is very neuroscience colored, I fall back on that context to provide clarity. The right hemisphere is the 'soft' place of innovation, subtlety, emotion, big picture sensitivity etc. Here is where mataphor finds it home - subtle resemblance and vague resonance. But the products of the right hemisphere are unusable and have little self-standing application. It needs to invite the left hemisphere to create theory/model through precise quantification and appropriate context. So while the right hemisphere is enriched in it's warm fuzziness, it is the driven, focused and quantified left hemisphere which brings concepts to fruition.

Jerry Fletcher

Jerry Fletcher

3 years ago #15

Dr. Phil. Were I to cite your clarity I would be in complete denial of your ability to bamboozle.

Harvey Lloyd

Harvey Lloyd

3 years ago #14

I agree that in certain contextual settings that metaphors can become quite irritating and distracting to the process. These would be engineering, accounting and generally sciences that can claim harden "accepted" facts. But what of the writer or the the professional areas where a metaphysical aspect of understanding is all that can be passed. Many year of study that i might not be able or want to endure to get factual understanding can be served to assist in me understanding the points made by the writer. I acknowledge that i will never know the facts but can get some metaphoric understanding of the topic. As with all philosophy the statement in itself observes something from a position. "Do not mistake obscurity for depth of thought, nor shallowness for clarity" Do not mistake is the operative phrase. I would suggest that the facts of understanding that which is a mistake and that which is not, is subjective to the position you take, events or context of setting. Although a grand statement it begs interpretation that at best could be subjective. The physical world declares that we establish facts that can be uniformly used, applied and distributed. But yet even in your post you discuss depression. A metaphysical condition (Except where physical brain issues exist). How do we express a metaphysical space to the masses without metaphor or mandating minors in psychology?

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #13

#11
I am pleased, Pascal Derrien, to see that you “get” the piece. For it turns upon itself and is a blend, I think, of substantive truth embedded in a matrix of malarkey. And it is intended to challenge the reader to ask some serious questions.

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #12

#10
Jim, the answer is one doesn’t and wouldn’t. A metaphor is a tool of expression, while a model is a “mirror” or reflection of something in the world that cannot be readily observed directly. That is why it makes sense to sometimes explore a model, but not so a metaphor. For examining a metaphor for all its hidden implications is like analyzing a selfie. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #11

#9
Melissa, My vision Is like a lesion. It’s a break in my shell, And a torment as well. — Anonymous

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #10

#9
Melissa, My vision Is like a lesion. It’s a break in my shell, And atorment as well. — Anonymous

Pascal Derrien

Pascal Derrien

3 years ago #9

I hope people read that one as thought provoking and not provocative because it is asking the right questions me thinks :-) Now I cannot count any further than 3 so my theory will not be proven any time soon :-)

Jim Murray

Jim Murray

3 years ago #8

So I'm wondering how one would go about making a metaphor out of a model or vice versa, which is your caution here. It seems to me that they are significantly different from each other so as not to present or any sort of trap door or pack or rats or even the dreaded Ebola virus of malarkey. I would also argue that metaphors and other literary devices help people visualize whatever the model might be, and once that occurs, insights are free to enter into the picture. In many ways, context is key. For example, if the model is a poem, what is a poem but a series of thoughts illustrated by literary devices? In other words a model constructed mainly of metaphor. Cheers, Phil

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #7

#7
The problem, Melissa, is that, if I explain it, its purpose will be defeated. For as you know, as the waterfall is composed of an ever-changing array of droplets, one can concatenate any number of facts, yet never speak a single truth. Perhaps, some pre-study in the Wisdom of Chung King might help. And in that respect, should you be interested in that, I recommend the conceptual guidance of Dr. Gerald Hecht, Ph.D., who is the official guardian of the Second Scroll. Please thank me not, for it is I who am indebted to you for the truly lovely word "apophenia" which has triggered in my psyche the emergence of the appellation "apopheniac" and in so doing has brought insight into so much that is published on social media. Cheers!

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #6

#5
If your insight rides in the Chariot of Metaphor, Kevin Pashuk, do keep checking the wheels. For your Thought may have blown a tire.

Kevin Pashuk

Kevin Pashuk

3 years ago #5

As the curtain of night glides across the stage of the world, my curiosity is a rollercoaster of emotions. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Another fine bit of enlightenment Phil!

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #4

Also for for my Beezers buddies, Kevin Pashuk.

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #3

#2
Randall Burns, you are as wise (or perhaps wise-ass) as Chung King. Stick with me, bud, and you'll soon be cooking with gas. Cheers!

Randall Burns

Randall Burns

3 years ago #2

ahhh Phil Friedman With nerves of steel like a surgeon your article cuts through the crap to the heart of the matter, illuminating the pitfalls of the literary stylistic devices that so many of us are dependent on, (Yes, I am in that group as well). love your metaphor/analogy of; "Metaphors, similes, and analogies grease the wheels of Appreciation but they do not lubricate the drill of Insight ..." I did have Malarkey and his cousin Gibberish over for dinner the other night, I was not impressed as they stayed around just long enough to empty the fridge and drink all my beer; definitely do not want to invite them to any type of function/event/conversation. Great post, (apologies if I got a little carried away).

Phil Friedman

Phil Friedman

3 years ago #1

FYI - Lada \ud83c\udfe1 Prkic. Cheers!

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