Posts Tagged ‘metaphor’

A day or so ago I received an email (pasted at the end of the post below) from LinkedIn with the subject line “Sharing on LinkedIn and Twitter”. It appears to be the sort of mass message sent out to all users, so no doubt many others have also read it. That message is a straightforward one, to the effect Twitter has removed the possibility to share a Tweet automatically with the status screen on LinkedIn. What caught my eye, though, was the following sentence in the email:

“Twitter recently evolved its strategy and this will result in a change to the way Tweets appear in third-party applications.”

The odd thing for me was not the substantive change in policy. This is probably being endlessly debated elsewhere online and probbaly just as easily explained in economic terms, as Twitter wants to show potential investors that potential advertisers can best reach Twitter users by advertising on Twitter, not on LinkedIn. What caught my attention was the use of the phrase ‘Twitter evolved its strategy’.

What does that mean? Is it a synonym for ‘change’, used to make a less than palatable shift in direction seem like progress? Or do they really think that a company evolves strategy?

If it’s the latter, then I think they are in error. The fallacy is in two parts, the first being the idea that an organisation cannot evolve anything, even itself. Develop, build, adjust, construct a strategy, perhaps these words could describe the efforts of an organisation to make small changes to either its environment or to itself. But that is not evolution.  Evolution is a process that is transcendent of individual entities, and one that is not purposive in the sense the writer of the email almost certainly meant. The second part of the mistake, to my mind, is the idea that the unit of survival in evolution is the individual (regardless of whether the unit in question is an organisation, part of an organisation such as its strategy, or an organism). Nor is the unit of survival the population, or species, or industry. Rather, the unit of survival is the niche, the ecology – in short, the organism and (not in) its environment. In this sense, Twitter cannot evolve a strategy, a strategy changes or doesn’t change in line with external conditions and internal limits which are visible only over a long period and not really from the perspective of the individual that is living in the present.

It could be argued that this is nit-picking on my part.  But my point is not simply meant to be a pedantic response to choice of wording. It is exemplary of the metaphor applied by people to the world – one of control, ownership and possession. I don’t think this is a useful line of thinking – more like one which (like 99% of all species that have ever lived on earth) is prone to extinction through ignorance of the balance between a thing and its environment.


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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.

"Men are Grass"

Induction, deduction and abduction

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.

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Another set of thoughts prompted by a chapter in “A Sacred Unity” by Bateson, this time it’s “Men Are Grass: Metaphor and the World of Mental Process”, which is the transcript of a talk he gave (or broadcast, since he was too frail to attend in person) at an event in 1980, the year of his death.

The talk revolved around two themes (one general, the other specific) that were occupying him at the time: the direction of his life and work, and the limits of mechanical and material forms of language in explaining biological process.


1. The language of description is a language of materialism. It is incredibly difficult to ditch this, though in order to understand the processes that explain Reflection, we may have to. Or try, at least, for inevitably we may fail.

2. Ideas are not “things”.  They have zero mass, zero energy, zero dimensions. There are no “things” inside ideas, only ideas of things. Bateson writes “This lands you in a world which is totally strange. I find myself running screaming from its contemplation, and essentially running back to a world of materialism, which seems to be what everyone else does, limited only by their amount of discipline.” (p. 237)

3. The retreat to the world of a language of “things” creates a division that is, in one sense, not a real one. The split between “mind” and “matter” is a good example. So when we describe Reflection as a mental process we have to careful because the langauge of science (even social science) will want us to draw explanations of cause and effect that assume linearity.

4.  The “Barbara” syllogism

Men Die / Socrates is a man. / Socrates will die.

requires that there be such a “thing” as the invention of the concept of a subject (e.g. Socrates) in order for the logic of the proposition to mean anything. These were not invented until about 100,00 years ago, says Bateson, and though it may look like the only way of making sense, this logic cannot be the logic of the vast period of natural history and biological process. In the Socrates syllogism,  it’s equality membership of a class or set that is crucial. To many, the alternative equality, that of predicates which the Grass syllogism (Grass Dies / Men die. / Men are grass. ) uses is simply wrong and very much to be avoided in explaining anything except, perhaps, poetry, art, humour, games, fantasy, dreams and (controversially) mental conditions such as schizophrenia. For Bateson, this was, partly, we all have such a problem, as it cuts us off from a greater understanding of the mystery of natural process in living things.

5. According to Bateson that process got along just fine, messages were understood, and our best shot at understanding this is by the metaphor summed up in the Grass syllogism. We are quite used to the “idea” of metaphor as expressed consciously and linguistically, but for humans the questions may be “can metaphor also be unconscious or subconscious?” In fact, is this how metaphor operates, and if it is then what is the consequence for us in practice (or in research)?

Metaphor becomes the “organizing glue of this world of mental process” (p 241).


Bateson, G. (1991) “Men are Grass: Metaphor and the World of Mental Process”, in “A Sacred Unity: further steps to an ecology of mind.” A Cornelia and Michael Bessie Book, pp 235 -242

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