Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

Bridges for donkeys and some other metaphors … relating mind and world … a reply to Aldo

Published on 06 September 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024


Apparently, sometimes it is hard to make the donkey cross the bridge.

I begin with a confession: I had to google the term “pons asinorum” and part of my newly gained knowledge of the term comes from an online dictionary. Roughly translated it means “a bridge for donkeys.”

In our recent exchange on metaphors and diplomacy, Diplo fellow Aldo Matteucci points out that metaphors were called “pons asinorum” in his philosophy classes. The term aimed to describe them as “a bridge for donkeys, which facilitated understanding.”

I am not sure how to interpret this metaphor, and a metaphor it is. Am I the donkey in the image? Or rather is the donkey the vehicle I travel on to cross the bridge between two concepts that are related in a metaphor?

In the famous Metaphors we Live by, Lakoff and Johnson point out how human thought processes are largely metaphorical. So, aren’t we all travelling on donkeys’ backs from time to time, or maybe even most of the time?

Well, leaving rivers to cross, bridges, and donkeys aside for a moment, there is another aspect of the metaphor and diplomacy debate I entered with Aldo that I would like to comment on.

Aldo’s earlier comments on the need to verify our concepts got me thinking. I am also wondering about his recent assertion that “we communicate, hence we are” and that human beings are social animals. I absolutely agree. And I think we both seem to agree that metaphors are a key element of communication. But I am wondering: if we bring ourselves into existence by communicating, what role is left for “reality” and what role is left for verification?

In the second half of his reply, Aldo seems to assert that there is an objective reality we can know and calls for turning subjective concepts into objective reality. I have doubts how this fits with the view that we bring ourselves into existence through language.

However, this question is the motivation to once again shed some light on some wider questions about the mind and the world and how the two relate. This might be not as much fun as imagining big donkey asses being pushed across bridges – but I guess I’ll have to move on from this mental image anyway. At the heart of what I want to get at is the question: how do mind and world relate to each other?

I think Aldo’s and my disagreement starts with differences in our philosophy of science points of view. I would describe Aldo’s point of view (and I hope he will correct me if I am mistaken) as follows: metaphors can be useful in exploring reality. However, they are nothing more than creative tools that can help to give birth to new ideas and hypothesis. We “test” them against reality and by doing so reject the misleading ones and develop a better understanding of what “really” is. Paraphrasing Aldo’s words, we transform metaphors from subjective concepts into objective reality through a process of verification. Very broadly speaking and without getting into details, this is consistent with a (neo-)positivistic point of view. One of the key aspects is the idea that there is a reality out there; there is mind on the one hand and the world on the other hand. We can test tem to establish what is real and hence turn subjective concepts into objective reality. But is this really the case when it comes to the social world, to politics, and international relations?

This brings me to a different perspective: From this perspective, mind and world are not separate. The world is always in part created by the mind. From this vantage point (called pragmatism or analyticism), the assertion is that there are various ways of describing the world. Each possible description is not compared with “reality,” but is judged according to its usefulness. Judging the metaphor from this perspective does not depend on whether or not it is true but whether or not it facilitates understanding and serves the purpose we designed it for. It does not matter what “the thing” actually is because we are never able to know what something is in itself. Indeed the questions of discovering “the thing in itself” becomes irrelevant when one accepts that our access to reality is always mediated. I find metaphors one of the tools that mediate that access – and indeed one of the most important ones. Broadly speaking, this is the vantage point I personally view metaphors from at the moment.

I don’t think any of these views is superior. They simply reflect different takes on big questions such as: How do mind and world relate to each other? How can we know something? Can we know things in themselves and how is our access to these things mediated?

Trying to judge one point of view on metaphors from outside the philosophical tradition it is situated in is futile: A positivist critique of pragmatism doesn’t make sense. The key lies in acknowledging and appreciating other views in order to eventually create a full picture of the subject we are interested in. When I outlined three different approaches to metaphors for diplomats I tried to do exactly that.

Donkeys or not, without acknowledging various philosophical takes on reality and mind, we will never be able cross the bridge and appreciate the view and the green grass on the other side.



P. T. Jackson. (2011). The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations. New York: Routledge.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors we Live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


1 reply
  1. D.Pehar
    D.Pehar says:

    I think I know a few things
    I think I know a few things on this, so I add it without a proper intention or a will to clarify/adjudicate anything fully.
    I published a paper on metaphors in 1991 ‘Caveat, metaphors!’ and grappled with the issue for a long time. Here are a number of my results:
    1. Metaphors are a part of ontogeny – in other words, they emerge spontaneously, without a training or a special instruction by adults. While noting that the pipe generates a strange sound a child says ‘the pipe chokes’ and everybody understand him or her. The child is using the metaphor, without being aware that it is a metaphor, to extend the boundaries of his/her vocabulary. Many metaphors were produced for such a reason and are now used as a non-metaphoric parts of dictionary- think of ‘bottle-neck’ and similar examples.
    2. I do not believe that there are some special beings called ‘metaphorical meanings’. In other words, in metaphors words appear in their only, literal meaning. All the ways known to me in which linguists or philosophers of language have couched the transition from a literal meaning of a metaphor to a metaphorical meaning of the same metaphor are implausible. In this I agree with Donald Davidson, but obviously the strategy of my argument differs from his.
    3. What distinguishes metaphors from other, non-metaphoric aspects of human language may be put, somewhat imprecisely, as follows: a. they require a higher amount of creativity; b. the interpreter of the metaphor has somehow to get the sense that one word in a metaphorical sentence is taken from a realm of discourse in which it naturally belongs to a different realm of discourse in which its place remains to, but perhaps will not be secured. This means that ‘metaphors’ are transient phenomena. Applied to Lakoff/Johsnon, this means that some of our fundamental concepts have their origins in metaphors, though today we should not, strictly speaking, consider them as metaphorical.
    4. One German philosopher claimed that metaphors are ‘Erweiterung der Welt durch Verfremdung der Sprache’ – extension of the boundaries of the world through estrangement of language. Such extension may serve many purposes – one is to present or simulate the hidden mechanisms of, and point to relevant similarities within, the worlds both social and natural. Hence epistemologically metaphors are valuable, which should be combined with my point 3.
    5. Perhaps unlike Aldo, I do not care if metaphors add evidence to a pragmatist/consequentialist or realist philosophy of science and/or of cognition. In my view, they are not too interesting if treated as evidence in support of such philosophies. The only relevant question is as follows: should we consider metaphors as open to rational assessment on the basis of both supporting and opposing considerations? I think that the answer must be in the positive.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

Subscribe to Diplo's Blog