Friday, October 05, 2007

Hannah Arendt’s Praise of Metaphor

In The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt writes, "The metaphor, bridging the abyss between inward and invisible mental activities and the world of appearances, was certainly the greatest gift language could bestow on thinking" (105).

There goes a thought that should make any appreciator of language take pause. Consider the most famous speeches of twentieth century America, all rich with metaphors: Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “We must be the great arsenal of democracy.” John F. Kennedy’s “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin.” Martin Luther King’s “I have been to the mountaintop … and I see the Promised Land.” Ronald Reagan’s likening America to a “shining city on a hill … (whose) doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

Does such visual imagery appear in business? You bet. The IT world is laden with metaphors (e.g., blackboard, chat room, help desk, signing on). Commonplace conversations are abundant with them (e.g., “Been there, done that”; “Business travel is getting old for me”; “Let’s grandfather this employee into the project”; “What’s the bottom line?”).

The implications of metaphors are many, so we have to guard against ambiguity when using them. Since many metaphors are akin to idioms, we have to be sensitive to readers who are new to English and, therefore, unfamiliar with their meaning. Sometimes their multiple shades of meaning may not be precise for the situation. And often they’re just too informal in certain contexts.

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