My cultural anthropology professor mentioned something that I think is very interesting. He suggested that what separates humanity from the rest of life on earth is our perception and cognition of everything in a symbolic world. He illustrated this by telling the story of Hellen Keller, saying that once she realized that objects, people, characteristics, and actions all had names it was like a ray of light from above, an epiphany of everything at once.
I think this is brings up a very interesting line of questioning. It seems to me as though my professor is correct in saying that we think symbolically. I don’t picture every idea in my mind when considering it, but instead I think of the name that I associate that idea with. This follows with cognitive psychology’s ideas of associative networks. So that brings us to the value of names themselves and metaphors.
Names seem entirely arbitrary. It doesn’t matter what the name is once we’ve associated it with an Idea. There are some issues though. What happens when multiple things have the same name, or when there doesn’t seem to be an adequate name to describe something with, and an arbitrary one won’t drive the point home? As my History of English Language professor mentioned today, cultures don’t have names for things that they don’t need names for, but they can generate names for anything. A 2nd century Roman wouldn’t understand the words: spaceship, spacesuit, google, or googol, but we could describe these things to him using his own language so that he could associate these names with ideas. He also mentioned using loan words, after all, why make up a new word when someone else already has one?
At anyrate, my main point here concerns metaphor. Metaphor seems to me to be incredibly powerful. Without attributing a name to something and instead using an entire experience we can describe an idea often more powerfully than had we just used a name. The name is just a node index for our minds to search to pick out a single idea, or a category of ideas. But a metaphor is not limited to one idea or one category of ideas. In conversation with my friend Zan he quoted a line from Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, part 2:
“We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.”
When Falstaff says this he means not only that they have literally heard the chimes at midnight, but also that they have experienced a large and encompassing amount of things and feelings. If Shakespeare had instead written,
“We have experienced a great many things, Master Shallow.”
it would be more clearly stating the underlying idea, but neglecting a feeling associated with that idea. By using metaphor we can associate emotion, experience, and additional imagery to an idea or set of ideas.
Perhaps metaphor is language’s most powerfully communicative aspect, or perhaps not. But I would say that our literature and tendancy to base what most consider great works around metaphor is a testament to its brilliance.