Friday, August 17, 2007


I've long had a professional interest in the power and limitations of metaphors. The concept of metaphor is a complex one, yet foundational to how humanity thinks and communicates. Metaphor is a way of expressing understanding but it also represents the way we think when seeking to understand. Gareth Morgan (Images of Organisation) defines metaphor in this way:

“Metaphor is a comparative figure of speech often used to add a creative flourish…But the nature and effect of metaphor is much more complex, much more fundamental. It is a primal force through which humans create meaning by using one element of experience to understand another.”

Even familiar concepts that have long since passed into common parlance have metaphorical origins. The idea of “organisation” is a metaphor based on the Greek for tool or instrument. The concept of “management” itself is based on an image drawn from horsemanship.

The weakness of metaphor arises as a result of its great strength – the removal of distinguishing detail from the item under comparison. Morgan notes that because of this metaphor will always create distortions:

“…metaphor frames our understanding…in a distinct yet partial way – partial, because metaphor always produces a one-sided insight. In highlighting certain interpretations, it forces others into a background role.”

In this understanding of metaphor lies an important contradiction – the insights generated by a metaphor must be balanced by the inevitable acceptance that the metaphor or theory has its own blindspots which may lead to misunderstanding or biased interpretations – “the way of seeing created though a metaphor becomes a way of not seeing.”

What this understanding of metaphor means is that we are driven to accept that no one theory or metaphor is capable of describing reality in an accurate manner.

The acceptance of multiple metaphors to describe anything reveals the enormous complementarity that can exist between metaphors. This approach can lead to complexity and diversity – different features of divergent metaphors may have a simultaneous presence within the organisation oir concept under discussion. However, ironically, the complexity that arises from such a viewpoint actually makes the point – life is complex despite the panacea that "simplifying" metaphors seem to offer at first blush!

Which is why metaphors break down. It's also why long debates focused on that point of breakdown are largely a waste of time!


Anonymous said...


Do you think language itself would be described as ultimately metaphorical?

BJ said...

Maybe not ultimately, but definitely formatively. But do you think the use of metaphor as a metaphor for language is metaphorical? ;)

Anonymous said...

oh for sure! :o)