James Geary's playful, accessible I Is an Other: the Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World (Harper), comes burdened with such an atrocious title. The line is a literal translation of one of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud's most famous lines, better translated by Lydia Davis as "I am someone else." No matter. Ignore the title. Think of Geary, even at his glibbest, as the bridge between the burgeoning field of metaphor studies and the man and woman in the street.Geary announces his high regard for metaphor at his book's outset:
Metaphorical thinking—our instinct not just for describing but for comprehending one thing in terms of another—shapes our view of the world, and is essential to how we communicate, learn, discover and invent. ... Our understanding of metaphor is in the midst of a metamorphosis. For centuries, metaphor has been seen as a kind of cognitive frill, a pleasant but essentially useless embellishment to 'normal' thought. Now, the frill is gone. New research in the social and cognitive sciences makes it increasingly plain that metaphorical thinking influences our attitudes, beliefs, and actions in surprising, hidden, and often oddball ways.Geary further unpacks metaphor's influence in his foreword:
Metaphor conditions our interpretations of the stock market and, through advertising, it surreptitiously infiltrates our purchasing decisions. In the mouths of politicians, metaphor subtly nudges public opinion; in the minds of businesspeople, it spurs creativity and innovation. In science, metaphor is the preferred nomenclature for new theories and new discoveries; in psychology, it is the natural language of human relationships and emotions.All true, though Geary occasionally makes it sound as if the importance of metaphor to human language, knowledge, and comprehension is a recent discovery. (At other times, he gives deserved credit to early champions of metaphor such as the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, who was born in the late 17th century.) In fact, many modern thinkers and scholars have agreed that all language is at root metaphorical. Rousseau argued that man's ''first expressions were tropes''; modern analysts such as Nelson Goodman recognized that metaphor still ''permeates all discourse''; and continental theorists like Derrida concurred (''Abstract notions always hide a sensory figure''). Fontanier, the great French theorist of tropes, pointed out that even so abstract an idea as ''idea'' grew from the Greek eido, ''to see.''