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Never Met a Metaphor I Didn’t Like

December 20, 2009

Anthony Gottlieb (whom I have cited in the past with respect) provides an excellent archetype for the type of writer I’d like to become; a philosopher for the masses, concisely summing up current debates with literary eloquence and style, making an otherwise esoteric topic accessible and gripping.  Most recently, he masterfully condensed the latest stages of the skeptic/believer dialectic through a powerful and easily understood metaphor (even though he’s basically just reiterating Karl Popper’s philosophy without any explicit reference to the man).

One trenchant critic of the New Atheists is Terry Eagleton, a leading literary critic (and Catholic), who defines God as “what sustains all things in being by his love, and…is the reason why there is something instead of nothing, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever.” Some find it comforting or inspiring to utter such statements. But unless they can explain what those ideas mean and how one might tell whether they are right (which Eagleton never does), this is a self-deluding comfort.

As Nietzsche once put it, “truth” is nothing more than “a mobile army of metaphors,” and thus it behooves the author to find the most fitting and understandable metaphors that may communicate his or her intended meaning to his audience.  Words alone tend to obfuscate raw meaning.  After all, when I say the word “love,” it triggers some set of meanings or definitions in any listener that may not correspond exactly to my meaning.  The more meaning an audience may idiosyncratically impute to a given metaphor, the more clumsy the tool. Sometimes something more poetic is necessary, and then the mushy, facile words will work to achieve that sense of understanding, but when you are seeking precision of meaning in communication, a metaphor may carry a much more well-defined set of implications.

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