From Naval Gazing to Navel Gazing: Thinking about and with Metaphor

With this week's video we're back to the "ways of knowing" miniseries, and a look at metaphor, and how it connects the development of sailing technology and "the journey of life":

This one has quite a long history. It was originally a series of three posts on my very first blog (1 2 3), which I later updated and combined into one long post on my second blog, and you can now also access that version here on my current website. Basically the backstory is that I was teaching a course in narrative, and one of the thematic groupings of texts I put together was travel narrative. As I was preparing this, I noticed that there was an interesting parallel between the way the "journey of life" metaphor was used in many texts and the development in sailing technology from the ancient world into the 20th century. I've always been interested in the relationship between science and technology on the one hand, and literature and culture on the other, and I've sometimes worked this into my lectures a bit; that's the genesis for this idea.

There weren't many stipulations for this narrative course other than that we were to consider narrative from fairly broad terms. I decided to divide the course into two parts. First we would survey some of the major narrative genres of western literature — myth, folktale, legend, etc.; epic and saga; romance; the novel; the short story — and then we'd spend the rest of our time on thematic units. I wanted to consider narrative broadly speaking as a way human beings tend to organise information and make sense of their world. Starting off with myth was a particularly good way of introducing this idea. We compared parallel stories such as creation myths, destruction myths (like flood myths), and so forth from the Bible, Greek myth, and Norse myth. This also gave us the opportunity to do a bit of comparative mythology and consider the differences in religious beliefs and some of the different world views these reflect, for instance the very personal relationship between humans and God in the Judeo-Christian world and the relationship based on fear in the Greco-Roman world.

I also wanted to spend some time on some of the fundamental narratives of western culture, and the first thematic unit that I settled on was travel and exploration. As I was prepping my lectures on this topic it occurred to me that there was an interesting parallel pattern between the travel and exploration literature and the world views reflected by this imagery on the one hand, and the development of sailing technology on the other. I suggested to the class that the travel and exploration metaphor could be seen as reflective of cultural change from the ancient world to the modern. This narrative metaphor often describes humans' relation to the world in which they live — the narrative is symbolic of people's place in the universe. And the use of this narrative metaphor changes over time to reflect different beliefs about people's place in the world.

I've held on to this idea over the years, and when I started to work on this web series, it was one of the first things I wanted to come back to and adapt for video, since it would be nicely visual. Indeed the concept map is figured here as an actual map, and the chronological journey of the development of this metaphor is figured as a journey.

The centrality of metaphor to our language and our cognition is perhaps most importantly explored in the groundbreaking book Metaphors We Live By (1980), by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Though Lakoff's useful index of conceptual metaphors, the Conceptual Metaphor Homepage, no longer seems to be available at its old ulr, it's mirrored here (at least for now), so have a look. Here is the relevant section that includes the "life as a journey" metaphor. Interestingly, the idea of fundamental cultural metaphors was explored earlier by Ernst Robert Curtius in European Literature of the Latin Middle Ages (1948). I first encountered Curtius while writing my doctoral dissertation, and, after constructing the appropriate footnotes for that project, I filed him away as something I should come back to later. More recently, there's the very exciting The Mapping Metaphor with the Historical Thesaurus project at the University of Glasgow, which is drawing on the Oxford English Dictionary's Historical Thesaurus to map out how metaphors in English have developed and changed over the history of the English language. I'm very excited to see the (ongoing) results of this excellent project. You can read more about the project and see some fascinating visualizations on their blog.

And one final link for those interested in reading a little further: if you want to know more about the development of sailing technology in the ancient world (and beyond) a good starting place is this useful overview.

Programming note: in two weeks we'll go back to looking at word origins with the first of a very special two-parter about an interesting etymology and the surrounding cultural connections. The final part of the "ways of knowing" miniseries, looking at narrative, will be coming later, so stay tuned...