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War Metaphors, Argument, and the Quest for Truth

In this "Township" preview Joshua Leland rethinks the way we approach disagreement

In this essay I intend to examine and evaluate some of the metaphors we humans commonly use, in particular those we use to understand argument. But, in writing about metaphors I am immediately faced with the reality that we are all so accustomed to them that we are rarely ever aware of them. In the case of metaphor, familiarity breeds blindness. When we hear the word ‘metaphor’, it may conjure within some of us dreary memories of dust motes floating in the sunlight as some English teacher drones on, or perhaps it is understood merely as the counterpart to that which is “literal.” Often the term is used pejoratively, as if to speak metaphorically is essentially to speak of some imaginary, subjective-idea-world that has no connection to the real world of facts and numbers and hard data.

But when you begin to study language more closely, you quickly find that metaphor is not just a poetic accessory or an optional trope You find that all of our language is metaphorical in nature. As Owen Barfield puts it in Poetic Diction, “If we trace the meanings of a great many words…we are at once made to realize that an overwhelming proportion, if not all, of them referred in earlier days to one of these two things–a solid, sensible object, or some animal (probably human) activity.” In other words, the core of our language is metaphorical in naturein that it compares some abstract thing to something else which is known by the senses. For example, the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ originally meant ‘stretched’ and so ‘straight’ and ‘wringing’ or ‘sour.’” Even the most basic ideas of human existence were originally understood in terms of laundry and milk. But these innumerable metaphors that comprise our language are mostly “petrified” metaphors, as Barfield puts it, frozen by over-use and familiarity, so that we no longer see them in their living, breathing, original meanings.

Notice how quickly I am forced to use metaphors in order to convey my meaning. This is because metaphors are primarily carriers of meaning, or bridges of meaning. I have heard it said that in modern Greek the word for a moving-van is basically a variant of the word “metaphor”: metaphors carry meaning from one place (or person) to another. In language, we use pictures of physical, sensible things in order to talk about things that are abstract, or to talk about anything at all, really.

Laffos and Johnson’s book, Metaphors We Live By, i effectively shows not just how pervasive metaphors are in our language, but also how influential they are in shaping our thoughts and experiences.The authors have compiled numerous examples of some of the most common metaphors that exist in our modern language (which I will draw upon throughout this essay). They begin by discussing some of the metaphors that we use to talk about language. For instance, we often unconsciously use what they call a complex “conduit metaphor:”


In other words, we speak constantly as if we put ideas/objects into words/containers and then send them ‘along a conduit’ to someone else who then unpacks those ideas/objects. Just take a look at the way we talk:

It’s hard to get that idea across to him.
I gave you that idea.
Your reasons came through to us.
It’s difficult to put my ideas into words.
When you have a good idea, try to capture it immediately in words.
Try to pack more thought into fewer words.
You can’t simply stuff ideas into a sentence any old way.
The meaning is right there in the words.
Don’t force your meanings into the wrong words.
His words carry little meaning.
The introduction has a great deal of thought content.
Your words seem hollow.
The sentence is without meaning.
The idea is buried in terribly dense paragraphs.

As you can see, these are common ways of speaking that you or I might use any number of times throughout the day–yet rarely, if ever, do we recognize that we are utilizing shared metaphors that are indispensable for anyone who wishes to communicate meaning.

When one begins to recognize how commonly we use metaphors (instead of using them unconsciously as we normally do), one is likely to be astounded at how constantly our language relies upon metaphor in order to convey meaning. But one also will grow to realize how drastically metaphors can alter and guide our experience of life itself. The metaphors that we use in our language, and the metaphors that we carry in our mind, shape who we are, how we see the world, and how we treat every person that we meet. We often think that we have power over language–and that is in some senses true–but there is a very real sense in which language exhibits a great deal of power over us.

Here are some examples of the “time is money” metaphor that we are so familiar with:

You’re wasting my time.
This gadget will save you hours.
I don’t have the time to give you.
How do you spend your time these days?
That flat tire cost me an hour.
I’ve invested a lot of time in her.
I don’t have enough time to spare for that.
You’re running out of time.
You need to budget your time.
Put aside some time for ping pong.
Is that worth your while?
Do you have much time left?
He’s living on borrowed time.
You don’t use your time profitably.
I lost a lot of time when I got sick.
Thank you for your time.

Lakoff and Johnson point out that, in Western culture, where “work is typically associated with the time it takes and time is precisely quantified,” time is “a valuable commodity…a limited resource that we use to accomplish our goals.” We don’t just act as if time were a commodity, “we conceive of time that way. Thus we understand and experience time as the kind of thing that can be spent, wasted, budgeted, invested wisely or poorly, saved, or squandered.” It is important to note that the TIME IS MONEY metaphor has not always existed in every culture, and is a relatively new metaphor to organize human experience it is a modern metaphor. It is not some a priori truth. There are other ways of understanding time.

There is a different, specific, metaphor at large in our culture, however, that I would like to spend the rest of this essay exploring: the primary metaphor that we use to understand argument? What metaphor ought we to use to understand argument?

This essay was essentially sparked by a conversation that I had with my Rhetoric II high school class class in which we were reading Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death, In order to solidify an understanding of his thesis that “the medium is the metaphor,” we read together the first chapter from Metaphors We Live By in which The authors attempt to establish their claim that the metaphors we use structure our everyday activities, and so they use the example of the conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR. Here are some examples of the way this metaphor ‘shows through’ in our language:

Your claims are indefensible. He attacked every weak point in my argument. His criticisms were right on target. I demolished his argument.I’ve never won an argument with him.You disagree? Okay, shoot!If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out. He shot down all of my arguments.

You can probably think of many more examples. But consider this from Lakoff and Johnson:

“…we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan and use strategies. If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and take a new line of attack. Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war. Though there is no physical battle, there is a verbal battle, and the structure of an argument–attack, defense, counterattack, etc.–reflects this. It is in this sense that the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture; it structure the actions we perform in arguing.”

They go on to point out that this metaphor is not the only way of viewing argument and challenge their readers to imagine a culture whose metaphor viewed argument as a dance where participants work together, their goal to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. Their point is that if we saw two people with such a metaphor arguing we would likely not view them as arguing at all for we would be looking for signs of war to signal an argument. Now, as we discussed these ideas in class, my students were dubious that we could abandon an Argument-is-War metaphor for an Argument-is-Dance metaphor-They felt it would lead to some ooshy-gooshy subjectivism where there is no real right and wrong, no winner and loser. One student rightly pointed out that dances often have one person who leads and one person who follows, which was insightful. But there was still an overall unwillingness to abandon our long-held and much-cherished War metaphor; after all, who hasn’t enjoyed the pleasure of smashing someone to bits in an argument? In Christian circles, we often– and in my opinion tragically–have whole apologetics classes dedicated to teaching students how to do just that.

I began to think there must be a better metaphor to understand argument. I couldn’t think of one immediately, but the thought stuck with me for days after the discussion and I found myself going back to re-read the passage I quoted above. Then a new thought struck me.

I have always thought of myself as fearful of confrontation and disagreement. I have a friend that I’ve always admired for his ability to be frank about his feelings and opinions. But when some kind of disagreement or argument is imminent, I immediately experience a very real and intense physical, bodily reaction: my heart rate goes up; my breathing rate increases drastically; adrenaline begins coursing through my veins, causing my hands and/or legs to shake; my voice begins to tremble with the strain of trying to control the bottled energy that is bubbling up inside of me. I’ve always assumed that this is some weird quirk of mine, a result of some insecurity. It’s highly unpleasant.

Suddenly, everything we had been talking about in class came together in my mind: there is a reason the presence of an argument suddenly evokes these classic “fight or flight” responses in me. if an argument is a war, then I am about to do some fighting and my body rightly responds in kind. My physical responses to approaching arguments stem directly from my conceptual understanding of what an argument is and if arguments are wars, then my involuntary physical response to either fight or run away is a perfectly logical and normal response. We tend to think that the imagination cannot affect and shape reality, but that is simply false. My metaphor for argument directly and concretely shapes my experiences.

As I stepped away, so to speak, from this deep-seated war metaphor, to examine it more closely, I began to see things in a new light. How many times have you been in an argument with someone who simply would not see the truth of what you had to say, who would not accept your point simply because they did not want to admit that they were wrong? Or, a more uncomfortable question: how many times have you been that person? I know that’s been me. This is, I believe, a result of the Argument-is- War metaphor that is so pervasive in our culture: if arguments are war, then losing always implies some injury to pride–and we all know what lengths we can go to protect our precious ego. I would rather endure a 10-year siege rather than suffer the pains of defeat. It is so easy for arguments to be primarily about winning or being right.

It was these thoughts that brought me eventually to a new metaphor, a new way of understanding argument: an argument is a quest for Truth.

Think of what this metaphor entails: when we view argument as a quest for truth, our goal becomes not to win, or to be right, but to find Truth with those whom we are arguing. There are still battles to be won on a quest(we don’t have to abandon all of the fighting metaphors)for there are giants, and bandits, and monsters along the path that leads to truth; there are many pitfalls and fallacies and enchantments that must be avoided with diligence and discernment. But perhaps the greatest difference between these two metaphors is this: if argument is a quest for Truth, then the people with whom we argue are not our enemies! How are we to love our neighbors as we love ourselves if the metaphors we employ cause us to fundamentally experience them as threats, dangers, and foes? If we viewed our neighbors as fellow-travelers on the road, then might we not be more eager to lend them a helping hand? To accept a helping hand when we have lost our way? How much better is it to strive for Truth than victory? Should we not rejoice if our brother is able to pull us from error and lead us to truth, rather than let our pride refuse to accept this helping hand? For it is pride that that the argument-as-war metaphor ultimately feeds.

The metaphors we use shape how our very lives are lived. We must not let our familiarity with them diminish our ability to examine the metaphors that we use. I want to change my metaphor–I need to repent of this metaphor I have used for so long and that has undoubtedly caused me to harm those I should have helped, to ignore those by whom I could have been helped, and to be cowed into silence for fear of humiliation and defeat. It will not come without some time and effort, I think, for the roots of this old metaphor run deep within me, and I find myself quickly returning to those well-worn paths in my mind. But in changing that metaphor within myself I hope to help my children and students to understand that argument is, above all, the pursuit of Truth.

I feel some trepidation even in saying all this, because in making a definite claim here about the deficiency of the Argument as War metaphor I am in essence making an argument–and still part of me fears that my arguments will be found weak or wanting by those wiser than myself, and I start to worry when I think that, in putting these thoughts out to the world, there are bound to be some who disagree with me and who will challenge my assertions. But I realize that this is only the old War Metaphor talking, and I find comfort in the realization that I am not at war with anyone over these ideas. We are all on a quest for Truth in this life, and it is not good that we should journey alone. Let us rejoice together when we find Truth, whenever and wherever we may discover it.

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