Re: Metaphor and Mental Models

Barton Stanley (
Fri, 30 Dec 1994 13:04:59 -0600 (CST)

On Wed, 28 Dec 1994, Chas. A. Barclay wrote:

> Didn't your high school english teachers instruct you not to write in
> metaphors for instructional and technical material?

Charles, I must commend you for a well-written post (the balance of
which I have omitted for brevity). You were direct and to the point,
and in the end, your writing was an excellent example of precisely the
point you make. I must say however, that my answer to your (rhetorical)
question is: "no". I had many excellent English teachers, to all of
whom I owe a great deal, and all of whom were severely underpaid for the
services that they rendered. However, I do not remember them teaching
me not to use metaphor when writing for instructional purposes. For
this I admit that I envy you. You were very fortunate to have had such
training, and in reading your post, I reflected on the dangers of using
metaphor. Using metaphor in business and technical situations can lead
to a lack of precision and/or misunderstandings, both of which may be

Still, I have always been wary when I hear someone say "It must be
done this way", or "This is the only way." Certainly there is
far too little excellent writing today, but I'm not sure how I'd
feel if *all* technical, instructional, and business writing were
actually done without metaphor. To that end, I'd like to posit a
few of the advantages of using metaphor, and leave it to the
reader to decide whether or not we should strike all metaphor from
such writing.

First, a metaphor gives us a mental image. Charles, I read your
post yesterday (12/29). I was impressed with its clarity, and it
really drove home the point. However, today (12/30) as I was
preparing to write this post, I have to tell you that I could not
remember the *content* of it very well. Instead, I simply
remembered it as an example of good writing. I do not think this
is due to your lack of writing skill (for you are very skilled),
but to an inherent limitation in avoiding the use of metaphor. I
had no mental image to which I could refer -- forcing me to go
back and read your post again. Metaphors leave us with a mental
image so that we do not *have* to go back to the original source
later. This can be advantageous in a situation in which we don't
have the time and/or other resources to access the source.

Second, the imprecise nature of metaphor can be, IMHO, one of its
greatest strengths rather than a weakness. As we become more
mature, we can re-evaluate our mental images from metaphor, and
see more and more applications of the metaphor. This inevitably
leads to a deeper and more complete understanding of the world
around us. Therefore, I would hardly say that metaphors are
"simplified explanations, easy-to-use-models, instant puddings,
[etc]". Instead, the multi-faceted nature of metaphor reflects
the multi-faceted nature of the world around us, which I feel
deepens, rather than cheapens our "core understanding, discipline,
practice, and exprimentation".

Third, when in comes to instruction, how can you ignore Jesus, who
is one of the greatest teachers of Western culture? (Don't
worry, I won't get dogmatic here...) Socrates gave us the
socratic method as a teaching tool, and Jesus gave us the parable,
which is certainly metaphoric, if nothing else. Although Jesus
focused on religious/moral teaching, we cannot deny the facility
of his use of parables (and therefore metaphor) to instruct.

Fourth (and most subjective), is the *power* of metaphor. To give
an example of what I mean, I will say that I am on "sabbatical"
from business, and am in the process of re-evaluating my
philosophy, values, beliefs, etc. During this time I have found
myself falling back on metaphor time and time again. In my quest
for a revised set of core beliefs, I keep coming back to the idea
of growth and learning (which gives you a clue as to why I
subscribed to this list). It seems to me that if we are to remain
happy and productive as individuals and as a society, we must
continue to learn and grow, and that this is a fundamental truth
that cannot be ignored. I cannot tell you Charles, how many times
in the past month or so that I have been reminded of Jesus'
parable of the talents ('talent' here is a monetary unit, for
those of you not familiar with the parable). In my new-found
interpretation of it, this little story (Matthew 25:14-30)
encourages personal/organizational growth and learning, and
discourages stagnation.

Now, during the past month or so, I have gained a lot of strength
from my mental image of the parable of the talents without having
to go back to the source (point one). Also, I have seen a new
facet of this metaphor (I'd always taken it rather dogmatically
and negatively), which has brought me to a deeper understanding of
myself and my *raison d'etre* (point two). Today, however, in
preparation of writing this post, I took the time to go back to
read the parable itself, and when I did, I experienced
indescribable raw emotion. It was then that I realized that I had
been experiencing this *power* all along, simply through the
mental image, and indeed this was the source of the strength that
I gained. I dare say Charles, that when I read your post again in
twenty-five years, it will still be well-written, but it will not
have the *power* that this simple, imprecise parable has for me
after having its images in my head for twenty-five years.

Charles, is "a world looking for efficiency and economy in one's
purpose" really what we want *all the time*? I am dearly afraid
that in our unending search for "efficiency and economy", we may
*lose* rather than find that for which we *ultimately* search. I
believe it is this undefined *power* that we receive from metaphor
(and admittedly from other sources) that gives us the impetus to
press on in our journey even though we sometimes think that we are
too weary to continue. I beseech and implore that we do not
*completely* eliminate metaphor from our repertoire (including
instructional, business and technical writing), but that we
continue to use it as a tool to encourage learning and growth.

Peace and blessings to all in the coming New Year(s),

Barton Stanley