||To use Aristotle\'s definition, a \'metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else\'. Such a practice is rampant in human geography, as in other disciplines: cities are plant biomes (Chicago school); cultural landscapes are texts; places are geological strata (layers of investment); and non-renewable resources take on a life-cycle.
While pervasive, metaphors have been seen by some as at best ornamental, and worst obfuscatory and perverted. Plato thought that they made \'trifle points seem important, and important points trifles\'; Hobbes believed that they \'deceive others\'; and in geography Harvey (1967, p. 551) argued that they \'hinder objective judgement\'. In each of these cases, metaphor is attacked because it results in ambiguity, it is \'a sort of extra happy trick with words\' as Richards (1936, p. 90) put it. More generally, such misgivings result from a particular view of language held by such critics; that language should be transparent, limpid and utterly dependable, all of which are undermined by metaphor.
In twentieth-century philosophy, however, there is increasing recognition that language takes on none of those characteristics, and concomitantly that metaphors are an indispensable part of both writing and theorizing. Here it is useful to make a distinction between \'large\' and \'small\' metaphor use (Barnes and Curry, 1992).
Small metaphors are those that pepper individual writing and research projects. As Lakoff and Johnson (1980) argue, our language is full of metaphoric bits and pieces, as when we speak metaphorically of \'attacking\' an opponent\'s argument, or even \'peppering\' our prose with metaphors. Metaphors such as these are present from the beginning. They are an \'omnipresent principle of language\' (Richards, 1936, p. 92). But effectively mobilizing those small metaphors requires skill and sensitivity, and forms an important component of rhetoric, the attempt to persuade others of the force of one\'s argument by using literary tropes such as metaphor. For example, White (1978, p. 114) argues that the writings of the British historian A.J.P. Taylor are so convincing because of his heavy use of \'dead\' metaphors that convey objectivity.
Large metaphors are those that structure research paradigms, and shape the very explanatory framework offered. Some large metaphors, such as \'organism\' or \'mechanism\', are so deeply ingrained that they are \'root metaphors\', to use Pepper\'s (1942) term, whereas others are temporary, mobilized for a particular use then discarded. However long their durability, all large metaphors operate in the same way, through a process of \'metaphorical redescription\' (Hesse, 1980) — that is, transferring meanings and associations of one system in order to redescribe the explanandum (the part of the explanation that does the explaining) of another system. A classic example is Isaac Newton\'s metaphorical redescription of sound in terms of waves. The practice is ubiquitous, although that doesn\'t mean it is trivial. For the introduction of large metaphors can be \'potentially revolutionary\' (Arib and Hesse, 1986). When Adam Smith coined the metaphor of the \'invisible hand\' to describe the efficacy of the market, or when Karl Marx said \'workers have nothing to lose but their chains\', or, closer to home, when Bill Bunge (1966, p. 27) asked, \'Why cannot … concepts dealing with exotic and dioric streams be applied to highways?\', revolutions, albeit of different kinds, rang out.
In philosophical literature three theories have been proposed to explain the force of metaphors. The least satisfactory is the substitution view where the literal characteristics of the object of metaphorical comparison are substituted for the characteristics of the object itself; for example, the city is a plant biome in that the former is literally characterized by the features of the latter including competition, niches, invasion and succession, and so on. The problem here is that the new context of the city makes features such as competition and so on, garner meanings that they did not possess in the original biome setting (Barnes and Curry, 1992). Such criticism is avoided in the interaction approach, where the meanings associated with both the object of comparison and the object itself are not indelibly fixed, but change in creative ways through interaction producing new meanings. In geography, Livingstone and Harrison (1981) explore this approach through their examination of the metaphor of \'frontier\'. The interaction view is criticized for assuming that new meaning takes on a cognitive status; it represents legitimate knowledge. For a third group of philosophers, however, a metaphor can never achieve that kind of status because a metaphor has no meaning other than its literal one which is \'usually a patent falsehood or an absurd truth\' (Davidson, 1979, p. 41). Rather, the importance of metaphor is not its meaning, but its use, which is changing beliefs through the jolt, or frisson, that a novel metaphor can produce. Metaphors, precisely because they are patently false and absurd, cause us to stop and think, leading us sometimes to conjecture in different ways: to conceive the city as a biome, or landscape as text, or human interaction as the force of gravity.
In geography there has been sporadic interest in metaphor since the 1960s when spatial scientists first discussed the linkages between models and metaphors (Haggett and Chorley, 1967). But their approach tended towards the now discredited substitution theory. Later humanistic geographers, such as Tuan (1978) and Livingstone and Harrison (1981), were drawn to metaphor because it offered a means of illustrating human imagination and creativity, indelible human traits according to them. Most recently, critical attention to metaphor has come from geographers interested in epistemological issues. They argue that users of large metaphors are often not aware of the intellectual freight they carry, and as a consequence are led to positions that either they would not otherwise accept, or which would be contradictory (Pratt, 1992). For this reason it is necessary to \'exhume\' dead metaphors that are sometimes unwittingly employed, and inspect them critically for their coherence, consistency and compatibility with the other things that one might also want to say (Barnes, 1996, chs 4 and 5). Doing so often means scrutinizing the historical and material origins of the original metaphor, which shape its meaning. In this sense, taking metaphor seriously means taking the world seriously too (Smith and Katz, 1993). Metaphors require \'worlding\'.Â (TJB)
References Arib, M.A., and Hesse, M.B. 1986: The construction of reality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Â Barnes, T.J. 1996: Logics of dislocation: models, metaphors and meanings of economic space. New York: Guilford.Â Barnes, T.J., and Curry, M.G. 1992: Postmodernism in economic geography: metaphor and the construction of alterity. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 10: 57-68.Â Bunge, W. 1966: Theoretical geography. Lund: Gleerup.Â Davidson, D. 1979: What metaphors mean. In S. Sacks, ed., On metaphor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 29-45.Â Haggett, P. and Chorley, R.J. 1967: Models, paradigms and the new geography. In R.J. Chorley and P. Haggett, eds, Models in geography. London: Methuen, 19-41.Â Harvey, D. 1967: Models of the evolution of spatial patterns in human geography. In R.J. Chorley and P. Haggett, eds, Models in geography. London: Methuen, 549-608.Â Hesse, M.B. 1980: Revolutions and reconstructions in the philosophy of science. Brighton: Harvester Books.Â Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. 1980: Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Â Livingstone, D.N. and Harrison, R.T. 1981: Meaning through metaphor: analogy as epistemology. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 71: 95-107.Â Pepper, S. 1942: World hypothesis: a study in evidence. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Â Pratt, G. 1992: Spatial metaphors and speaking positions. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 10: 241-4.Â Smith, N. and Katz, C. 1993: Grounding metaphor: towards a spatialized politics. In M. Keith and S. Pile, eds, Place and the politics of identity. London: Routledge, 67-83.Â Richards, I.A. 1936: The philosophy of rhetoric. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Â Tuan, Y.F. 1978: Sign and metaphor. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 68: 363-72.Â White, H. 1978: Tropics of discourse: essays in cultural criticism. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Suggested Reading Lakoff and Johnson (1980).Â Smith and Katz (1993).