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Understanding and experience
Some implications of the experiential basis of metaphor.
One implication of the metaphor view detailed thus far is that experience precedes understanding; in other words, that you can’t properly understand a metaphor if you lack its experiential basis. This can be obvious as when, for instance, you try to explain an abstract concept to an English friend using metaphors drawn from NFL. Or it can be less obvious, as when participants in a study were primed to understand electricity in terms of flowing water—but they didn’t understand how water flowed. To some extent, then, your understanding will be dependent on your familiarity with the source domain invoked. This means that if you want to explain something to someone, you’d be best to draw on metaphors with which you know them to be familiar.
You can also construct narratives to explain abstract concepts by using a variety of more familiar basic metaphors. As an example, take the Kantian distinction between the noumenal and phenomenal worlds. Kant might have had better luck if he’d come up with some sort of imagery to describe this, even if only in an avowedly metaphorical sense. Maybe he could have had a cave in which prisoners were chained, and then behind there was a fire from which were thrown the shadows of …. You get the idea. There’s a reason that Plato is still so popular, and partly it’s because of how he wrote. By placing contrasting positions in the mouths of separate characters, for instance, Plato’s Dialogues act out a dialectic in a way that’s far easier to grasp.
Similarly, the Bible is far easier to understand than a set of abstract precepts. There’s much truth in the (unfairly maligned) saying: what would Jesus do? Humans have evolved to understand people quite well; logical precepts, less so. It’s fair easier to familiarise ourselves with Jesus’ character and then leverage our understanding of him as a person than it is to interpret and apply an altogether abstract moral rule. Just as, for instance, we can imagine how a partner or parent might react to something, so also we can draw on the same cognitive reserves to inform our behaviour based on what Jesus would do.