Exploding the Metaphor

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 3 min.

Painting by Don Van Vliet
(title unknown) by Don Van Vliet

One of the most irritating argumentative tactics I can think of is when an interlocutor concocts a metaphor of limited reach, and then, in an ad hoc effort to save face, explodes the metaphor (as I call it) by over-straining it. The result is an elaborate reductio ad absurdum of the interlocutor’s own making.

The best way to defuse this rhetorical device is to call the exploder’s bluff. For instance:

Jack: “Lots of music doesn’t work because it lacks a good solid framework to hold it together. Music is like architecture. You have to construct a sturdy framework, then you can proceed to build the building.”

Margie: “Ok… That’s a nice metaphor, but not all music has to be that way. I mean, music isn’t really like architecture. The physical laws that hold up a building, and thus impose certain restrictions on architects and engineers, don’t apply to music.”

Jack: “Sure they do. It’s all the same laws, but in certain applications they manifest as music, in others they manifest as a building.”

Margie: “What? How does that work? Ok, what I mean is, music is not literally architecture. It’s a nice metaphor that could be useful for some people and from a certain perspective, but it could also be bad advice for people who don’t aim to create highly structured music. Some people might like to think of music as clouds or, as Captain Beefheart once put it, throwing up in tie-dye. Music isn’t a physical building, it’s an internal experience. You can’t live in a song.”

Jack: “Oh, sure you can! When I really love a song, I inhabit it — I live in it.”

Margie: “No you don’t, not literally.”

Jack: “I DO! I really DO! And think about it, everything is a vibration, which is the fundamental basis of sound, of music. We are vibrations and we live in vibrations.”

Margie: “Alright. See that homeless man over there? Go give him your iPod. Tell him it’s full of houses for him to live in. Go ahead, do it.”

Jack: “That’s ridiculous. Now you’re just straw-manning me. Of course I don’t mean it that way — not literally. And it’s a simile, NOT a metaphor.”

Margie: “Fuck you, Jack. We’re through. Don’t call me anymore. I find your disingenuous argumentation a symptom of deep intellectual insecurity, and it’s a tremendous turn-off, despite your other great qualities. Get some therapy.”

Jack: “What?!? You’re lecturing me on intellectual sincerity? This is coming from the person who just yesterday defended her smartphone addiction by quoting Einstein’s thing about ‘never memorize anything you can look up’??”

Ok, ok… I was getting into the characters there. The point is, I can’t stand this tactic. And I encounter it all the time, in ways both obvious and subtle.

(Aside: Lackoff and Johnson, in their recommendable book Metaphors We Live By, invite the reader to imagine what it’d be like if argumentation were characterized by the language of dance rather than that of war. Perhaps I should re-write the above intro in the language of dance. Speaking of war, though, ‘exploding the metaphor’ brings to mind a phenomenon that philosophers refer to as ‘biting the bullet’: accepting the embarrassing logical consequences of an argument to which one is committed [Jack committed to his metaphor, but not enough to bite the bullet and give the homeless man the iPod].

You can call the bullet-biter’s bluff, too — see how hard you can get him to bite down before something gives. In the right, uh, teeth, it can be pretty impressive. Indeed, when done out of a genuine commitment to a well considered position, it can be respectable. Admirable, even. When done merely out of a refusal to concede, or explicitly to annoy, it can be impressively frustrating, and is best ignored.

At any rate, I don’t know the language of dance, but the idea’s worth considering. Hmm…)

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