Everything’s a Metaphor

The word metaphor is generally refers to the figurative use of one word or phrase to describe another unrelated word or phrase. It is non-literal. For example, “time is money,” is a metaphor, because time is not literally money. However, as the title of this post suggests I am using the word ‘metaphor’ with an expanded, (you might say, metaphorical), meaning. Let me explain why everything’s a metaphor.

When someone says, “I like this coffee,” what do they mean? This is fairly cut and dry, no metaphor in sight; they mean just what they have said, i.e. they enjoy the coffee they are drinking, just finished, or saw the bag of, etc., which precise meaning is context dependent. That’s all very well and good, but what do they really mean? That may strike the reader as a strange question but here’s my point. The metaphoric is omnipresent in everyday use of language. When one says, “I like this coffee,” what they mean to convey is the nebulous and impossible to precisely define conception of enjoyment of “this” coffee. Ask them why they like this coffee and you may be treated to a soliloquy on its aroma, taste, mouthfeel, or some memorial-emotional connection. Yet, ask them why they like that taste, that aroma, etc. and most will be at a loss to explain. A great deal of human experience is hidden from conceptualization by both outsiders and ourselves.

Thus, everyday language, and even more precise academic language, cannot capture everything one means. At best language can hint at the outside world and the internal mental world.  I think this hinting is best described as “metaphor.” Furthermore, much of people’s everyday speech is not as direct and simple as, “I like this coffee.” A great deal of the time, interpersonal communication, especially among friends and family, involves shared secrets, inside jokes, and communicative short-cuts.  Here, there is yet another level of abstraction, thus another level of metaphor.

One criticism of this view maybe that it is a little thin on explanatory power. For example, of what is the phrase “I love you” a metaphor? Well, it is a metaphor of the experience state of the feeling of love for the loved person by the speaker. Great, says the detractor of my view, but what exactly does this actually explain? Here is the problem; it doesn’t really explain anything, because it cannot. Language is metaphorical, therefore trying to explain on metaphor leads to another metaphor and on and on. This is why even the very statement that everything’s a metaphor is a metaphor. Where does this leave us?

This position does nothing to one’s everyday life. Language is still the same; ideas still remain as they were. Might this position affect one’s world view? Perhaps, but it needn’t. Just because language is ultimately a collection of imperfect metaphors about the world, doesn’t mean that knowledge is unattainable, or that this or that thing doesn’t exist, or that language isn’t one of the best tools (if not the best) we have in life. As Haruki Murakami wrote: “A certain type of perfection can only be realized through a limitless accumulation of the imperfect.”