Five Perspectives on Metaphors and Anthropomorphism

Perhaps one of our most consistent cognitive biases as human beings is our tendency to treat the non-human as human. The metaphors by which abstract concepts, collective bodies, inanimate objects, and animals take on characteristics they don’t actually have are, literally, untruths; they imply or assert something that is not the case. Why do we employ untruths in order to understand our world? Is it helpful, necessary, or a bad habit?

Not all metaphors impute human characteristics to the inhuman, of course. For example, a stampede of wild animals could be called an avalanche without either side of the metaphor involving humans. But there seems to be something in particular about human metaphors that appeals to us.


This blog post on “Perspective” provides an illuminating example. After an atomic bomb blast, the author writes, nearby concrete is bleached white, and any person standing in the way will have their shadow projected onto the concrete. Viewing these shadows later may cause us to wonder, “What kind of light is it that can bleach concrete?” But in fact, he writes, “The reality is slightly more grim. The shadows were not cast by a human figure shading concrete against an oncoming wall of light.  Rather they are the remains of that human, vaporized instantly by the bomb and forced instantly down into the pores of the rock by the blast.” The idea that a human body would be enough to shield a section of concrete from nuclear bleaching is, when we really think about it, entirely unrealistic. The more likely explanation for this mistake is one that seems to ring true to me: we seem to subconsciously distinguish two categories of matter, “people” and “scenery,” and we imagine that they behave differently. Thus, in another example, we have superheroes who are thrown through walls with no harm done, but can be defeated or injured by a blow from a human fist.


Susan Sontag wrote in Illness as Metaphor about the popular images of tuberculosis and cancer, which are often defined less by the actual symptoms of the disease than by emotional associations and supposed personality traits of sufferers: tuberculosis patients were thought to be romantic, artistic souls in the 19th century, while cancer sufferers are today described as defeated, un-feeling, and dissatisfied with their lives(1). “My point,” she writes in the introduction, “is that illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking.”  Sontag is right that these diseases have nothing to do with personality, and she may be right that metaphorical thinking can actually be harmful to patients. Why is it, then, that we indulge in it? Perhaps it is difficult for us (the healthy and sick alike) to conceive of something with so much power to destroy us, something we have so little power to stop, as a purely physical, somatic phenomenon. It is easier to imagine the disease as an outward expression of an inner self, whether feverishly romantic or pathologically introverted. It is easier to envision disease with, or as, a human face.


The untruth we commit when we treat this human face as real is known as the pathetic fallacy, a term coined by Victorian writer and critic John Ruskin. Ruskin himself saw untruthfulness in art, including the artistic use of metaphor, as inferior to perfect truth, although he admitted metaphors could be “pleasurable.” (Similes were fine with him.) After all, he argued, “We have always found that nothing could be good, or useful, or ultimately pleasurable, which was untrue.” In support of this he compares passages from classical authors, like Dante and Homer, with more modern poems by Coleridge and Alexander Pope’s awful translation of the Odyssey, showing that the latter have metaphors where the former merely have comparisons or evocative language. In the end he concludes that the pathetic fallacy is appropriate if it is meant to evoke an irrational state of mind, such as sorrow or rage, but metaphorical thinking “in cold blood” is unacceptable. Ruskin’s disapproval, however, was not enough to end the practice.


But perhaps it’s not only a sinful pleasure to anthropomorphize the world; perhaps it’s necessary. So argued Thomas Pynchon in chapter 11 of his novel V., in the following passage on the role of poets:

“Living as he does much of the time in a world of metaphor, the poet is always acutely conscious that metaphor has no value apart from its function; that it is a device, an artifice. So that while others may look on the laws of physics as legislation and God as a human form with beard measured in light-years and nebulae for sandals, Fausto’s kind [that is, poets] are alone with the task of living in a universe of things which simply are, and cloaking that innate mindlessness with comfortable and pious metaphor so that the ‘practical’ half of humanity may continue in the Great Lie, confident that their machines, dwellings, streets and weather share the same human motives, personal traits, and fits of contrariness as they.

Poets have been at this for centuries. It is the only useful purpose they do serve in society: and if every poet were to vanish tomorrow, society would live no longer than the quick memories and dead books of their poetry.

It is the ‘role’ of the poet, this 20th Century. To lie.”


According to neuroscientist Dr. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, poets may have a biological basis for their ability to think metaphorically. This conclusion arose out of his research on synesthesia, which Ramachandran believes may have a genetic component. The most common variety of synesthesia has synesthetes associate colors with numbers, a fact that stood out to Ramachandran because the area in the brain where numbers are processed is immediately adjacent to the area where colors are processed. According to the New Yorker (subscription required to read full article), Ramachandran’s research suggests that “the syndrome arises from a defect in the gene responsible for pruning away the neural fibers that connect the various centers of the brain as it develops early in life.” In other words, synesthetes, who are found disproportionately among artists, poets, and novelists, actually have extra neural connections between adjacent but unrelated areas of the brain. Ramachandran believes this may be responsible for artistic types’ “greater propensity to link seemingly unrelated brain areas in concepts and ideas.”


To sum up, artists and writers seem to have an ability to link different ideas in ways that aren’t always logical or even truthful, an ability the rest of us may lack to some extent but rely on nonetheless. Without metaphors, we might have a lot more trouble understanding the world around us, although what we did understand might be more unambiguous and true. In some cases, metaphorical thinking can be misleading and even harmful, but it always has a certain seductive power. We seem to be a lot better at thinking of the world in familiar and especially in human terms, even when the translation into those terms need to be provided by others.

Questions for commenters: What does all this say about the social role of art? Is providing metaphors to understand our world only one of its functions, or its entire function (as Pynchon seems to say), or not a function at all? Can you think of any other really good examples of anthropomorphisms we all commit on a grand scale?

(1) The stereotypes surrounding cancer are less obvious than the ones surrounding tuberculosis, although they must have been obvious enough to Sontag, who was undergoing treatment for breast cancer at the time. She presents a number of examples of cancer as the condition of cynics, betrayers, and cold inwardly-focused people. I would add to this list of examples the Pink Floyd song “Dogs” (1977), which describes a type of person who spends his life preying on other people (“you have to be trusted / by the people that you lie to / so that when they turn their backs on you / you’ll get the chance to put the knife in”) and ends up “just another sad old man / all alone, dying of cancer.”

Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.


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