By W. Clark Gilpin
A major “hallmark of wisdom,” according to Paul Baltes, “is knowing how, where, and when to take risks and to deal with uncertainty” (Baltes & Smith, 2008). Sometimes this risk-taking entails detective work that resolves the uncertainties of a past event. But, most often, wisdom requires taking the risk of dealing with an uncertain future. We may have reasons to hope that our present decisions will lead to the future we desire, but any significant decision knowingly risks itself on a future that will hold unanticipated events and unintended consequences.
In dealing with the uncertainty of the future, language makes a difference. Rhetoric, forms of argument, and figurative language shape how individuals and societies understand the connection between present decision and uncertain future. Hence, the exercise of wisdom requires self-awareness about the tacit implications of the language we use.
This is especially true in the case of metaphor. Different metaphors tacitly orient a person’s or a society’s stance toward the future in quite different ways. With this feature of metaphor in mind, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1984) have argued that a metaphorical concept focuses attention on one aspect of the relationship between different objects or experiences and, in so doing, draws attention away from other aspects. By “partially structuring one experience in terms of another,” metaphors can thus act to “hide an aspect of our experience.”
Two contrasting examples will illustrate this capacity of metaphor to divert our attention from one possibility and focus it on another.
As these two illustrations suggest, the metaphorical structuring of experience includes both an image of the future and an orientation toward the future. Thoreau’s metaphor of the experimental life had reveled in the unknown dimensions of the future and implied its boundless possibilities. By contrast, Friedman’s metaphor depicts the future as a threatening storm and counsels “weatherproofing” that will give the national house the resilience to survive. But beyond the different moods evoked by these contrasting metaphors, they share two features that are instructive for thinking about wisdom.
Returning to the definition of wisdom by Paul Baltes, I would add that “knowing how, where, and when to take risks and to deal with uncertainty” in large measure requires making a discriminating choice about language. Perhaps no small part of the wisdom that resides in metaphorical thinking is the capacity to allow diverse metaphors to contest one another, in the process of reaching a judgment about an always-uncertain future. Wisdom, it would seem, requires a capacity not only to imagine a possible future through an evocative metaphor but also to establish some critical distance from that metaphor, in order to identify the aspects of the situation that it may be hiding from our attention.
Baltes, P.B. & Smith, J. (2008). The fascination of wisdom. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 56-64.
Canby, H.S. (Ed.). (1937). The Works of Thoreau. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Friedman, T.L. (2012, October 23). Our secret sauce. New York Times, A25.
Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1984). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Porte, J. (Ed.). (1983). Essays and Lectures. New York, NY: Literary Classics of the United States.
Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.
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The issue is not
whether looking at a situation through one metaphor masks the view that could
be offered by looking through another metaphor. We must make peace with the fact that
perspectives are distinct. The issue which could mislead us is over-reliance on a single metaphor when
dealing with an issue that requires wisdom from among a plurality of
Consider, if you might, how you would seek to make sense of an
unknown situation without referencing its possibilities to situations for which
you might feel you do have some intimate understanding. The resolution to the
handicap that results from over-reliance on a single metaphor is to apply a
combination of metaphors. This approach is central feature of philosopher Gerard
de Zeeuw's formulation of third-phase science (1997).
We cannot strip ourselves of our metaphors without
losing our capacity to reach between spheres of distinct experience. Our humility might come from recognizing that our reaching is not a means of defining the uknown but rather is a means of engaging it.
Institute for 21st Century Agoras
W. Clark Gilpin writes that figurative language shapes how we "understandthe connection between present decision and uncertain future." The renegade's' in the title of his article, "The Futures of Metaphor," effects its ownfigurative gesture, autological to boot. But what if we take it literally?Why settle for the notion that a rhetorical posture anticipates this or thatparticular future? The way our puterate age is accommodating itself tometaphor suggests we may have to imagine more than one "contemporaneous"future. Figurative language comprehends three dimensions of semiotic relation. TheMETONYM, Murray Krieger's cooled, mimetic "counter," simply plots a label onan uncontroversially defined segment of perceived reality ('Life' = Thebiological interval between birth and death). The more resonant SYMBOL,exploiting the fit between I. A. Richard's "vehicle" and its superordinate"tenor," joins a range of associations to a single figure ("Get a life!" orthe more opaque "half-life" of a radioactive substance). The incipientMETAPHOR (say, a fictional character named "Shelflife") reorders entire setsof associated concepts by juxtaposing, and thus reanimating, uncongenialfigures. Humans' awareness of this amplitude of expression has emerged only bydegrees. Adjurate, pre-literary verbal cultures saw words as the magicalequivalents of their referents; uttering a curse was transeunt behavior.Literate cultures perceive a evaluative relationship (think Locke), more orless poetically resonant, between an obedient signifier and its signified.Puteracy (Charles Sanders Peirce got it right) grasps the reciprocity whichinforms the dyadic metaphorical figures we cobble together well before weconstrue them. Attendant on this deepening appreciation of verbal art is an evolving senseof what a "future" might entail. Adjuracy conceives of time as cyclical;what will be is preordained. Literacy imagines itself riding acause-and-effect roller coaster, where various indices of truth and virtue(enhanced by probability theory) promise to stand in for supernaturaladvocacy. And so, as we imputerates fall in step with "crowd sourced"rhetoric, we are likely to embrace a very different idea of what's tocome. How about alternative networks of contingent moments?
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