Metaphors and Our Understanding of the World


We use metaphors to help us communicate. Some metaphors help us communicate fairly basic ideas. Other metaphors* are more complex and they help us communicate groups of ideas. Here are a few examples of the second group:

The world as “machine“. An extension of physics and the concept of thermodynamics.

Society as “organism“. An extension of understandings in biology. This concept may have been strongly influential in the 17th century. Traces of this metaphor may be found in social theories, economic theories, and  may have been used as a model for the design of the American government and the American economic system.[1]

Other contemporary usage seems to be popular in systems theory, cybernetics, complexity theory, social network theory and many other areas of study.

The world as “a body“. This may be an extension of the “organism” model. Contemporary usage of this metaphor may be “ecological system as a body”. This is a popular metaphor in the current green movement.

The world as “energy“. This may once again be an extension of ideas from physics. More specifically, it may be a concept extended from the energy-matter relationship. In this case the world (understood as matter) is reduced to the understanding of energy. This metaphor may be found in branches of realist and materialist philosophies, science, cybernetics, and popular new age literature.

The world as physical relationships. The “theory of everything”[2] may be an example of this extension. Nobel Prize winning physicists, like Einstein spent years thinking how to explain the way that the world works through understandings in physics. (A good number of scientists are still at work on this.)

The world as a complex adaptive system. This is a macro-metaphor composed of metaphors in physics, and biology and other derivative theories.

All of these metaphors are interesting. They’re ideas full of engaging narratives that can keep a person engrossed for  life.  Today there is enough literature behind each one of these concepts to keep you reading for years – (maybe even for life).

While metaphors may be useful for understanding some aspects of the world we need to remember that they are only tools that help us understand the world – they are not how the world is in itself. Remaining skeptical of each one of these – even as we use them to understand the world may be an important habit as an exercise to keep an open mind.


[*] Macro-metaphors – “big metaphors” often composed of many other metaphors.

[1] Wikipedia: Social Organism,   See also: Superorganism. International Journal of Ethics “The Conception of Society as an Organism“.

[2 ] Wikipedia: Theory of Everything

[3] This is an orphan note. I am saving this one for a future blog posting. Goldsmith, Donald. E=Einstein

Recommended Reading

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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