Collective Metaphors

Travis and I recently chatted about written vs. spoken discourse. Travis wondered if writing was a dilution of our ideas, because speech preceded writing. Is writing a poor hand-maiden of the spoken word? I answered no.

Both writing and speech are indispensable: human cognition would not be possible without speech and collective cognition would hardly be possible without writing. Think of writing and speech as two sides of the same semantic coin, each complementing the weaknesses of the other. Consider: spoken discourse often lacks precision while written discourse often lacks emotion and stress.

But in semantic richness both writing and speech pale when compared to the expressive power of collective metaphor.

A collective metaphor is an idea that activates many semantic categories in the brain: a collective metaphor is a living complex of ideas. Take the notion of freedom. As a metaphor, freedom has many semantic entailments: there is freedom of motion, freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and freedom of determination. We cannot talk about freedom without being aware of its many entailments: freedom is an example of a rich, living complex of ideas.

Another powerful collective metaphor is that of the mirror, a common household object rich in metaphorical entailment. When I think of a mirror, I think of calmness, stillness and reflection—the feelings that we have when we sit by a quiet lake and contemplate. It isn’t surprising that mirrors are linked with lakes: we find our reflection in both.

Collective metaphors permeate our collective cognition; they are the ideas and memes that express the history and continued development of our collected knowledge.

Both speech and writing would be impoverished if they could not draw upon the rich store of our collective metaphors.


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