“Under this view, metaphors are not mere linguistic embellishments. Rather, they are foundations for thought processes and conceptual understandings that function to map meaning from one knowledge and/or perceptual domain to another.”
-Cynthia Taylor and Bryan Dewsbury, “On the Problem and Promise of Metaphor Use in Science and Science Communication”
I think I can remember experiences in which I had no thought of “time.” Legos on the floor of a childhood room. Clicking together, clicking apart, the shapes they were and weren’t. The shapes they became. I also remember moments when I started focusing on time: getting into the car for a seven hour drive, for instance, and my parents had given me a little digital watch. I looked at it. I looked at it again. Two minutes. And I tried to imagine all the minutes that made up seven hours, to cram them into the backseat with me. I wasn’t sure how they’d go by. In the end they went by with the wind when I wasn’t watching.
Somewhere, someone must’ve been the first to tell me, time is money. What a capitalist idea. If time were clouds, for instance, you might not mind so much when you watched it drift by. You might think forward to the rain.
Whatever time is or isn’t, it’s not an apple I can pick or a swing that goes still while I’m watching. Whatever my conception of “time,” it’s a constellation of thoughts I’ve built over lots of experiences and lots of being-tolds and lots of metaphors. It is money. It is something that can be wasted. Like the tide, it waits for no man. It’s a line. An arrow. An ocean. A march. All those metaphors use concepts I can engage more directly with my senses, my actions. I’ve drawn a line, and then used what I drew to try and imagine a geometric ‘line’ that goes on forever. I’ve shivered and laughed in the ocean. I’ve wasted water, and felt awful about it. I’ve counted how much money’s in my wallet. Metaphors are a way we talk, but Taylor and Dewsbury suggest they’re also a means of cognition. They’re a way we think. We take a system we’re familiar with, a system we can touch or see or jump into, and map its properties onto a less familiar system we’re trying to understand.
That’s pretty wondrous, and it makes me wonder about the worlds I’ve opened up to. If metaphors take a thought-constellation I’m familiar with (swimming in the river; pushing a needle through cloth), and use it to engage with a constellation that’s hard for me to understand (time; astronomy), then don’t my metaphors—my thoughts—depend on the breadth of my attentive experiences? If I never really engage with music, I miss out on music. But maybe I miss out on more. Maybe I miss out on one whole type of system that I could’ve used in struggling with a new idea. To put it another way, if understandings are seeds, and metaphors are planting seeds to grow roots into new soil, then is the diversity of systems I’ve touched and listened to my seed bank?