Being Human: On the Metaphorizing Instinct

“What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and; anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding.  Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions– they are metaphors …” (sec. I.6)

Friedrich Nietzsche
“On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”



In this excerpt, the author suggests that if truth is found or emerges from language, and language is a metaphor, then truth is also metaphorical.  A metaphor being a comparative relationship between two unrelated things, Nietzsche claims that words perform just such an act: linking a physical object or phenomenon to a label where the word is the active metaphorizing agent binding a thing to its name, active during the process of labeling and the process of appreciating, as in reading, speaking, or redefining that word-object/idea relationship.

Nietzsche not only explains the connection between a thing and its given name, he also performs the metaphorizing act himself.  He enframes his theory of truth in a metaphor early in the essay.  This demonstration of his own idea suggests that truth is not concrete but determined by the context of an experiential thing or idea by being bound to language.  Thus, Nietzsche says man’s prideful intellect is “pitiless, greedy, insatiable, and murderous–as if hanging in dreams on the back of a tiger” (sec. I.2).  Truth as metaphor, couched in the instinctual human act of “languaging,” means that to express his own revelation (truth is not concrete but ambiguous and creative), he has to express his point in metaphors–form reflecting function.

Using words as if they were their meanings or referents, the philosopher accomplishes the task of making something meaningful out of meaningless, unrelated things; he creates pseudo-literal metaphors.  Nietzsche then takes the form-to-function praxis a step further by making image metaphors out of language the way an artist uses oil paints: image-ing (imagining.)  By creating a visual metaphor out of verbal language the author essentially holds up a mirror to the reader’s mind in order that he might see what his own thoughts look like.  Setting metaphor within metaphor, the effect is a hall of mirrors showing the inner contextual space reflecting outside world through man’s own limited senses, understanding, and imaginative abilities.  Thus, man’s intellect is dream-like and irrational, clinging to something dangerous (the back of a tiger).  Dreams can only be related through metaphors because they are irrational, illogical, and non-linear; they don’t make sense as anything but rough approximations, hence analogous connections to something logical and known.

This is the act of metaphor-making: taking something known like a name or word that is logically defined and using it to explain something undefinable, like love or truth, pain or fear.  Nietzsche shows man’s brain as something alive, embodied, and riding on the back of a large feline predator.  A tiger is more evocative than saying “ignorance and naiveté are dangerous.”  The metaphor carries meaning in multiple forms, offering more truths than rigid logic via denotation.  He doesn’t explain what the thing on the sharp fanged beast thinks, feels, sees, knows; the reader intimates the meaning, which is implicit and amorphous.  Rather than word equaling thing, Nietzsche says human perception gives a likeness of outside world by draping some other barely correlated image or experience over the first, the words and their values tentatively hung there.  Man then compounds the interest of those once defined things, “coins which have lost their embossing,” in reinterpreting the very act he has performed.  Every percept, word, definition, cognition, feeling, association, connotation, intimation, thus reflexively cascading out in domino-like fractal imitations–a shock wave and energy surge sent out from the point of detonation at lightning speed.

Even in explaining what Nietzsche is doing, I cannot seem to accomplish my intention without adding metaphors to the language used.  Simple grammar, syntax, vocabulary, mechanics: none of these seem to adequately express what the philosopher is attempting to demonstrate.  To emote the quality of information the words fail to carry, more confounding image-based language has to be employed, hence metaphors like “domino-like fractal imitations” and “a shock wave and energy surge” to capture the active process of thinking, which is itself metaphorized in its synonym reflecting.  Humans alone on this planet amass libraries full of such records of philosophical musings on life, value, material existence, morality, truth, divine beings.  Each binding offers a uniquely human perspective.  This wide swath of conscious ideation, trimmed down into a walking path for human thought to tread upon, is often called a library and now has a digital counterpart in information technology.  Metaphors have been tatted together and bound into historical stepping stones leading from a distant past of unknown, meaningless physics, chemistry, and biology long before they had names.  Now, the enormity of label metaphors, phrase metaphors, logic metaphors, phonemic metaphors, visual metaphors, and so on swells and folds into itself as great minds continue to de-sign the world in man’s image—the form of a perpetual meaning-making, self-aware, story-telling agent whose eye, mind, and breath mark every phenomenological Augenblick with the attentive wrinkling of mind.  There may be no greater self-love, or rather celebration of human beingness than the rhapsodic metaphor, the cold seal thrust in hot wax.  Words are the mirror- membrane of still dark water deep in a bottomless well, broken only by the inward glance.

About thepoetsglass

Professor, poet, philosophical dilettante, plus some other impressively heady alliterations. Instructional designer and copywriter. Cognitive neuroscientist by night. Self-diagnosed coffee addict, sometime dancer, brooding bibliophile, and an always salty sailor.
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3 Responses to Being Human: On the Metaphorizing Instinct

  1. Pingback: Life Path Metaphors We Live By | Better Endings

  2. Pingback: Life Path Metaphors We Live By | Better Endings

  3. Lovely analysis. Vico and Rousseau also also base their understanding of culture on a theory of language as originating in metaphor.


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