Here we are at the final post in this series and the last of my grand list of six principles, and thus we are also at the concluding thought on the topic.
The question is, “what’s a metaphor?”
A metaphor is most commonly defined in terms of a literary device, a figure of speech whereby one thing stands in for another. The connection between those two things is deliberately not literal, as meaning is drawn by a comparison and by an underlying truth usefully is conveyed in the juxtaposition. Metaphors are also often thought of as optional, a way of adding colour to conversation. They are a routine device (part and parcel, in fact) in poetry, literature and instances where rhetoric is used to evoke emotion or call to action. It doesn’t take too much effort to realise that we use analogy, simile and metaphor very frequently (just listen to any news broadcast, for example, and begin counting). In their book “Metaphors we live by” Lakoff and Johnson investigate the ways in which metaphor plays a very large part in our everyday language. Metaphors dominate and shape our discourse on business and management.
One could stop there, at words, but Lakoff and Johnson go on to note that “metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” Bateson would perhaps agree to a point, but Metaphor is a paradoxical form of communication found not just in human communication. For example, any instance of “play”, whether among humans or animals, relies on an intricate, convoluted (to describe) relational series of messages and meta-messages (messages about messages), signals as signals. It would not be play if it only had literal meaning. This is so embedded in communication that we have to tend to miss that para-language, the non-verbal elements of communication such as body language, timing and intonation, is at a higher level to the words we use. The facial expression and intonation of one person as they say the words “I’m going to kill you” to their best mate is what lets the other know whether to laugh or run, and is no different a pattern to the meta-message of the wagging tail on a dog as it bites another and says (so to speak) “let’s play”. Behaviorists have a problem here, as metaphors are not acts or actions. “management”, therefore, is not an action or a behaviour. it is the meaning ascribed to a set of actions and we commit a fallacy if we equate the name with the thing it names. “This is management” (or, if you prefer, “this is leadership”) and also “this is reflection” are both names for sets of actions, not actions themselves. ”This is reflection” is a mental frame and it is one with almost infinite meta-levels of regress, endless loops of (mostly unconscious!) context-markers. This is brilliantly demonstrated in Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in which Shakespeare’s play-within-the-play is carried at least two further levels down, causing both humour and existential distress for the main characters, for whom reality is a shaky concept.
Framing and reframing might be another way of describing this, and these are now familiar concepts used – often in a flattened, simplified way - in cognitive and spoken therapy, counselling (NLP being one well-known example) and coaching. Metaphor is easy to spot and impossible to define, except perhaps in contrast with what it stands against; the literal and the prosaic
The principle in the title is not “use metaphor” but “use the logic of metaphor, so we need to establish what is meant here by the ‘logic’ of metaphor. Bateson used the term “abduction” to explain this, a form of reasoning originally coined by the American Pragmatist philosopher C. S. Peirce at the turn of the last century. Peirce used abduction as a sort of reasonable inference of predicates in reaching a practical conclusion, which may then be further explored via another form of reasoning. In Bateson’s writings, abductive logic was contrasted with inductive and deductive forms using the three syllogisms below.
The syllogism on the left represents induction – a weak prediction based on regularity of past and present observation, true only until contrary case is found. The centre syllogism is a deduction – the formal, logical necessity of “if X, and if Y, then Z must be so. This form of logic encourages linear hypothesis building and testing and has been very successful in the natural sciences, and occasionally useful in the social ones. The third syllogism is Bateson’s “Men are Grass” and is an abduction, where the agreement is of the predicates (in this case “die”). As with induction, abduction is meant to explore using prediction, but in a non-linear, poetic way. The more predicates one can find (analogies or cases that look similar) the better the pattern and the closer one is to an insight into the pattern of patterns.
This whole question could usefully and playfully be re-phrased (as Gregory Bateson suggested) “what’s a meta for?” If the essence of a metaphor is the playing around with messages from different domains and different levels, is this of any importance or use in management practice? I think it is. Gregory Bateson’s daughter, Mary, in Angels Fear provides one clue how when she writes “one can use an imagined identification with another person to enhance one’s own understanding of an idea or event by asking, how would so-and-so see this?” This is the essence of using dialogue as a way of seeing, as a kind of logic of metaphor in order to gain better self-awareness. In some way, reflection must be about this – a bewildering and dazzling set of possbilites between the internal and the external.