You are currently viewing Lecture 1: Metaphors in the Mèngzi for Moral Cultivation and Governance

Lecture 1: Metaphors in the Mèngzi for Moral Cultivation and Governance

Lecture 1: Metaphors in the Mèngzi for Moral Cultivation and Governance

Metaphor is not just a poetic or literary device that serves to express what we are already thinking, but shapes what we think things are like, how they function, and what their relationships are to other things in the world.  Use of this method is especially vivid and sustained in the Chinese tradition, but it is fundamental to human thought. A literally false identification of two things is a metaphor if it invokes a comparison between them that is meant to identify or highlight a shared characteristic. An analogy, on the other hand, proposes or explores an inference about a thing or explains what it is like through its sharing a characteristic with another thing.  We can use metaphors to present analogies. To say that we use what is near to know the far (Analects 6.30) is revealing of the nature of analogy as an explanatory method: it is using what is most familiar to shed light on what is not familiar. It often proceeds from the concrete or that of which one has direct experience, such as one’s body and actions in the world, one’s own emotions and desires and aims, to that of others. Call what is familiar, its various characteristics and relationships, the “source domain.” Call the domain to be illuminated the “target domain.” Ways of understanding the target domain may get formulated as metaphors such as plant growth from the source domain. This is the most basic model of how metaphor and analogy are used.

In this lecture I begin to make the case that the use of metaphor and analogy is more complex, dynamic, and productive, even within the Chinese tradition, than it has commonly been recognized to be. For one thing, the direction of analogy is often two-way rather than one-way.  Applying metaphors derived from the source to the target might raise questions, problems and directions for further development of the understanding that may prompt us to go back to the source domain and revise or reconstrue our understanding of the relevant metaphors, or we may be moved to search for other metaphors in the source domain to cover gaps in understanding we encounter. The metaphors used in analogies are often polysemous, malleable and indeterminate in meaning, such that their precise ways of resonating with the target domain provide room for adjustment and further specification and revision as we discover limitations or complexities in the ways we have previously deployed them.

If one implication we have drawn from a metaphor to characterize the target turns out not to be accurate or productive, it may be possible to find another implication in the source domain that better fits, and this in turn amplifies our understanding of the source domain. In effect, it is possible for the source and target domains to alternately switch places as a result of our inquiry into what makes the most sense of the phenomena to be explained or conceptually ordered. What we come to learn about the target domain as a result of analogical inference from the source domain may serve as impetus to investigate and further our understanding of the source domain. What we thought was familiar enough may through our use of it become puzzling or in need of further investigation. This more complex use of metaphor and analogy, I shall argue, can be well integrated with more literal and empirical inquiry, which amplifies its explanatory power.

      I begin discussion of this method with reference to the metaphor of plant growth for moral development, illustrating how it gives rise to back-and-forth movement between the source and target domains. I discuss how this movement can now be integrated with a considerable body of studies and higher-level scientific theory that accords with the Mèngzǐan idea that there are inborn dispositions that underlie other-directed concern. I then proceed to discuss how, in early Confucian texts such as the Mèngzǐ (孟子) and Xúnzǐ 荀子, metaphors derived from thinking of the way that society and state should be organized are used to think about the way a person or body should be organized, and the other way around. In Lecture 1 I discuss these metaphors as they appear in the Mèngzǐ, and in Lecture 2, in the Xúnzǐ.