Ideals and Ideas, Part 2 – Metaphor

            This is another way to think about ideas and ideals. I previously argued that there is no ideal behind an idea, that every version of an idea is material in an individual’s brain, that no one example of that idea is exactly like another, and that no perfect example of that idea exists anywhere as the ideal version.

            However, if we enter the world of metaphor, the last contention may not be completely true. But wait. A metaphor is by definition not real. If something isn’t real, why does it matter at all? Aren’t we seeking truth? Isn’t truth real? Doesn’t it have to be? Actually, not always.

            Fiction is a kind of truth with which we are familiar and know isn’t real. When we read a novel or short story, watch a play or a narrative film, or listen to a story teller, we know what we are experiencing isn’t real. But we also know it contains truth. Of course, there is a range of truth between the fantasy of escapism and the deep heart-tugging of an insightful drama, but there is always truth. We know it. It’s a form of modeling: demonstrating something in a limited, artificial way that is expected to apply to a more general, real world context.

            We use metaphor that way. In the classic rock song “Wild Thing”, the singer says, “you make my heart sing”. That is obviously not literally true, but I doubt there are many adult English speakers who don’t instantly know exactly how that feels. That feeling is real. We all experience it. The experience is real and material and individual. It exists in our personal neurons, blood vessels, nerve endings, etc, but the immaterial metaphor might be viewed as something we share, an ideal.

            This is subtle again. When we consider the metaphor, our consideration of it exists individually in each of our brains. However, if we use the metaphor and decide to agree that when my heart sings and then your heart sings, that they are instances of the same thing, then the metaphor has an ideal existence outside of either one of us.

            It isn’t the same as a tree or a song, because we can’t point to an example of it. No one can literally share a feeling with someone else. A singing heart is always personally experienced, but IF the metaphor were real, we COULD share it like a tree. If my heart could literally sing, then you would hear it. This is characteristic of metaphor. It maps something personal and unsharable onto something concrete that would be sharable if it were real. Because it isn’t real, we are able to define it as a shared ideal that means the same to you as to me. We have a functional definition of an ideal.

            This understanding of metaphor maps onto the Platonic ideal and the Jungian shared consciousness. It is the same thing? I don’t think so for Plato. He was pretty concrete. It’s commonly believed that Jung also meant some real plane of existence on which these shared ideals actually exist connecting all of us together, but without being able to discuss it with him (and not being a Jungian expert) I just don’t know.

            Either way, I come full circle and, within the context I have developed, contradict my previous conclusion. Metaphor depends on myriad common human experiences to evoke its effect and without that, to say nothing of without humans, it vanishes like the idea of a tree. In my previous naturalistic context, it isn’t real. But even though it cannot exist independent of us as a group, metaphor as defined does exist independent of any particular one of us, unlike the idea of a tree which depends on each one of us to contribute to the resultant concept of “tree”. We share metaphor. It affects our lives as though it were real, and therefore is a functionally real ideal.


Hugh Moffatt
Waltham, Massachusetts
February 11, 2019