Metaphor in science

Philosophers and other interpreters of science have long been interested in the use of metaphors (Benjamin, Cantor and Christie 1987; Ortony 1993; Taylor 1996a). The general idea, advocated in particular by Hesse (1966), is that analogies, metaphors, and models are alike in allowing the associations from one field to animate a scientist’s thinking about another field. Black (1962) observed that this animation comes to work both ways. For example, Darwin’s metaphor of natural selection originally invited readers to think about the survival and reproduction of organisms with useful variations as if Nature were selecting those organisms. More than a century of use of the metaphor in science has contributed to the sense that when selection is intentionally performed, say, by educational testers, the ranking follows a principle given by nature, not merely a social convention.

Metaphorical associations carried from one field to the other are open in three senses: they are not fully explicated; they vary among users and readers; and they vary for the same user among different contexts. Notwithstanding the openness of the associations, analogies have limits, shaping the thinking of scientists so it fits within certain frameworks. Unlike Hesse, however, I do not distinguish positive, negative, and neutral aspects of analogies. As Taylor (2005, Chapter 3) shows, what others consider in hindsight to be limits of an analogy actually facilitated Odum’s work, making scientist’s research “do-able” (Fujimura 1987) given the context of the scientific institutions and wider social sentiments of his time.
In the analysis of the use of metaphors I see three related “meta-metaphors” of likening—of how associations are carried from one field to the other:

  • a. root, fundamental, underlying things shape the surface layers or visible forms;
  • b. mental things—thoughts, expectations, images we have seen—shape our actions; and
  • c. culture or society gets into these thoughts, expectations, and images (and thus we can be taught how to perceive the world).

These meta-metaphors work are not conducive to the idea, developed in Taylor (2005, Chapter 3 and subsequent chapters), that action and thought are jointly shaped through practical activity in which a diversity of resources are employed. Although thinking, imaging, viewing, speaking, and writing are actions, they are particular kinds; “acting as if” can be viewed as a more inclusive meta-metaphor of likening. For relevant examples of the dominant meta-metaphors see Lakoff and Johnson (1980); Stepan (1986); Danziger (1990); Gergen (1990); Lakoff (1993); Reddy (1993). Insight into the difficulty of moving beyond mental and verbal construals both of metaphor and of action is provided by Mitchell’s (1990) discussion of the distinction between persuading and coercing as a master metaphor in social theory (Taylor 1997c, 209-210).

Excerpted the Notes section of Taylor, Peter J. 2005. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. U. Chicago Press.


Benjamin, A. E., G. N. Cantor and J. R. R. Christie (Eds.) (1987). The Figural and the Literal : Problems of Language in the History of Science and Philosophy, 1630-1800. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Black, M. (1962). Models and Metaphors: Studies in Language and Philosophy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Danziger, K. (1990). “Generative metaphor and the history of psychological discourse,” in D. E. Leary (Ed.), Metaphors in the History of Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 331-356.
Gergen, K. J. (1990). “Metaphor, metatheory, and the social world,” in D. E. Leary (Ed.), Metaphors in the History of Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 267-299.
Hesse, M. (1966). Models and Analogies in Science. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
Fujimura, J. (1987). “Constructing ‘Do-able’ Problems in Cancer Research: Articulating Alignment.” Social Studies of Science 17: 257-93.
Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lakoff, G. (1993). “The contemporary theory of metaphor,” in A. Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 202-251.
Mitchell, T. (1990). “Everyday metaphors of power.” Theory and Society 19: 545-577.
Ortony, A. (Ed. (1993). Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Reddy, M. (1993). “The conduit metaphor: A case of frame conflict in our language about language,” in A. Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 164-201.
Stepan, N. L. (1986). “Race and gender: The role of analogy in science.” Isis 77: 261-277.
Taylor, P.J. (1996a). “Notes on metaphor readings, made with a view to stimulating discussion and clarification.” (viewed 12/20/00).
—— (1997c). “Afterword: shifting positions for knowing and intervening in the cultural politics of the life sciences,” in P. J. Taylor, S. E. Halfon and P. N. Edwards (Eds.), Changing Life: Genomes, Ecologies, Bodies, Commodities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 202-224.


One thought on “Metaphor in science

  1. Pingback: Interpreting social order and the twentieth-century life sciences | Intersecting Processes

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