To think beyond the most primitive of urges, we need language: mental symbols that stand for things in the world. We need tools to manipulate those symbols. And especially we need metaphors --- surprising, fertile, powerful links among disparate concepts. How can we enrich our minds' vocabularies and learn to think better thoughts? Where must we seek for new metaphors?

The first source historically is simple: conversation with family, friends, and colleagues. Amongst the dull and repetitive daily drone, gems of insight surface and are shared around the dining room table or the (metaphorical!) office water cooler. Most of these gems are badly flawed. They're chuckled over and then quickly forgotten, deservedly so, as minor word play. But some fortuitous metaphors persist, and spread to other conversational circles. The total volume of global chit-chat is huge, while barriers to entry are low --- and so mere banter can be a major contributor to human metaphorical invention.

Listening to active and energetic conversation is also an infinite source of learning for children, to whom all is new and wonderful. Adults who open their minds, like children, to what's actually being said --- instead of tuning out based on what they expect to hear --- can find hidden jewels in mere gossip. And then there are those critical-mass conjunctions of ideas with people who, through simply talking together, trigger explosions of mutual creativity. Witness extraordinary artistic salons, scientific symposia, literary circles, and revolutionary political gatherings.

Conversation was surely the most productive vector for metaphoric creation and transmission until recent decades. But who has time to talk any more? Exhausted from work, we collapse on a couch, turn on a TV, turn off our critical faculties, and let words and images wash over us. Mass electronic media, for most people in the wealthier parts of the globe, have become the dominant source of language input every day. But television and radio are a one-way channel aimed at passive receivers. That's not a path to enhancing human creativity and critical thought. The media can only afford to offer what an audience will pay to hear --- and the costs of production, even for a local program, are high enough that with few exceptions only the least-common-denominator can make it to the air. Not much hope for new, powerful metaphors there. Movies are even more cost-constrained as idea sources. They're too few, too slow, too single-threaded.

But if conversation is localized and narrow, and mass media are unproductively broad and shallow, where should a prospector for rich metaphorical ore dig nowadays? There's an obvious mother lode --- so ubiquitous that, like air, it's often overlooked. Symbols for thought come alive in the mind, but they can be stored and retrieved as scratches on stones, impressions on clay tablets, pigment on canvas, ink on paper, magnetic domains on ferric coatings, charges on capacitors, and pits on optical surfaces (so we're back to scratches on stones again!).

Writing is the one best source for building and sharing serious, mature metaphors. Writing can be conversational --- as we correspond with kindred spirits, in a slower-paced and more reflective mode than hallway chatter, with time enough to find and arrange the beautiful words needed to express beautiful ideas. Writing can teach --- as we re-read and study difficult passages, struggle to understand, and succeed. And writing can endure --- as we hear today words echoing down the centuries from the great minds of the past.

Tuesday, September 28, 1999 at 01:51:24 (EDT) = 1999-09-28

TopicThinking - TopicWriting - TopicLanguage

(correlates: LowProfile, SuspensionOfDisbelief, StirTheStonesToSong, ...)