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Metaphors for diplomats – the philosophy of science

Published on 20 August 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

Metaphors matter in the world of diplomats. In the following, I suggest three distinct ways in which they do matter. Each of these areas highlights a different take on the role of metaphors in language as well as in making sense of and creating the world. A skilful diplomat will be aware of all three areas and will be able to reflect on and use each of them when and where necessary. Here, I aim at reflecting on philosophy of science perspectives on metaphors and in a second blog post I will be aiming at suggesting a “user manual” of metaphors for diplomats.

Over the past months, I had an interesting conversation with Aldo Matteucci on the looking sideways channel of Diplo’s blog. We talked and disagreed about the role of metaphors and analogies. I think there are a few things to be clarified and a few points to be salvaged from a discussion that went as far as Baudrillard and a Polynesian rat.

Metaphors as tools for persuasion

I think this first point needs to be gotten out of the way fairly quickly. Metaphors are an element of language. Yes, metaphors can be rhetorical tools and tools for persuasion. As such, by providing mental images they can stir emotions. By suggesting connections between hitherto unconnected issues or elements, they can subtly influence our perceptions. Consider for example the expression “the negotiations are back  on track.” Such a statement is best seen as  a figure of speech that can work on an emotional as well as perceptual level

This first role of metaphors is uncontested. However, often metaphors are confined to this role alone. Doing so means to miss to ask some important questions. The main issue in my debate with Aldo is the question of what metaphors can be beyond that.

Metaphors as tools for accessing the world

Metaphors can take the role of a useful heuristic tool that enables us to structure the world around us and to give us some orientation. For example, the metaphor “life is a journey” gives meaning to a very abstract concept. It provides some structure to how we understand life (a beginning, an end, and events in-between the two) and generates categories for certain events (being derailed, bumps on the road, tailwind, reaching the summit, going down-hill, etc.)

This perspective on metaphors as having a “structuring function” is still relatively uncontroversial. However, we can take it even further,

Consider the following. Unless we are strict empiricists who maintain that knowledge comes only from direct sensory experience of the world, we are faced with a question: how do we gain access to the world? There is a gap to be bridged – the gap between our mind on the one hand and the world on the other hand.

There are aspects of the world we cannot observe directly; there are structures we cannot access directly. Metaphors play a crucial part here in that they allow us to think about the unobservable aspects of the world. (1) They enable us to build models and theories that try to explain what cannot be observed directly. In an earlier blog, I used the solar system model of the atom as an example.  Aldo remarked that “Analogies relying on mental constructs (rather than material conditions) reflect the horizon of our imagination, hence its limitations. Analogies always keep us within the comfort zone of the known.” However, the point here is precisely that we actually cannot escape the “horizon of our imagination” and hence our limitations.  Asking to go beyond that horizon is asking the impossible.

Metaphors as tools for making the world

This is where things get really interesting and also more controversial and more heated at the same time. Ultimately, when confronting metaphors as those elements that structure our world we also face very big and very challenging questions: What is real? What is the relationship between our ideas of the world and the world itself?

According to this third perspective, which might broadly be described as postmodern, the mental constructs we have about the world matter more than the material aspects of the world.

This third way of looking at metaphors aims at raising awareness of the possibility that “the reality” that seems to provide such a comfortable basis for knowing might be less “real” than we think. In another recent blog, I used Baudrillard’s point about how the postmodern condition is a situation in which the (mental) map takes precedent over “reality”. Especially in the area of international relations and diplomacy, this is a perspective we need to engage further.

Despite the intense reactions that this point might provoke such as Aldo’s remark that “(b)eing subjected to his (Baudrilliard’s) thoughts is worse than enduring psychological torture at Abu Graib!” it is a point worth confronting.

In a future post, I will connect these three perspectives on metaphors with the work of diplomats and aim at establishing a “user manual”.



(1) It ‘s useful to make a distinction between a pragmatist and a critical realist view. Both would fit my second category. The pragmatist maintains that we judge the knowledge we have about the world (for example through utilisation of a metaphor) by its usefulness, What matters is that the explanation we have established works for the purpose we are pursuing. As long as the metaphor fits the purpose and we do not have a better explanation, we stick with our current best explanation. For a critical realist, the metaphor is a tool for getting closer at the underlying structures of the world. From this perspective, reality not purpose matters. A metaphor is a tool for getting closer at the part of reality that is not directly observable. However, this does not mean that we could somehow compare our metaphor directly with “reality”. The current  explanation holds as long as we haven’t found a better explanation for the object we are interested in. Note how neither perspective implies that we could somehow test or verify directly.

2 replies
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Fascinating Kat and although
    Fascinating Kat and although I enter the DMZ of debate gingerly I think GB’s recent experience in the ordinary Olympics offers an interesting case study. There are 100s of mental maps which contest in our public spaces, both large scale as in media and smaller scale as in the pub. Our sense that ‘fair-play’ is a dominant characteristic (always richly ironic given our bloody colonial past), for example, was always as much about constructing an image of how we should behave and how we want to be seen as it was a reflection of reality. And sport has been the richest source of metaphors illustrating our decency. We’ve always been ‘plucky losers’ and loved the tears of pain (‘Dunkirk spirit’) as much as the tears of glory that were so wonderfully on display during the ceremonies.

    But the one which I find most interesting is our sense of ourselves as a ‘diverse’ nation. That is a contested term in itself and people like me have long promoted it in opposition to racism and jingoism, still sadly too common. But a lot has been written about how the success of GB athletes from a global gene pool has energised the concept, and framed it almost as a pre-requisite for team GB’s remarkable medal haul.

    So we have a new narrative where grinding, dedicated hard work in order to compete ferociously and beat everyone else in the world replaces being born with an predilection for being graciously fair and Britishness no longer means being able to claim lineage from important (or lucky) noble forebears but celebrating and exploiting ‘mongrel’ breeding.

    • Katharina Hone
      Katharina Hone says:

      Thanks for your comment Pete.
      Thanks for your comment Pete. I absolutely agree.
      At any time, there is a multitude of metaphors (and related to it a multitude of narratives) competing in the public sphere. The point about the historic legacy and cultural boundedness is also worth stressing. What I like most is the comment that two aspects get usually mixed in a metaphor: a description of how things are and one of the desired state of things.
      Last but not least, looking at the area of metaphors for persuasion: from a communications aspect the question of how to frame team GB and its success is a crucial one. Again, past and future meet in an image that is as much a description of what is as it is a description of what should be.


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