Metaphors and counterterrorism

The Intelligence Advanced Research ProjectsActivity (IARPA) has a call out for proposals to develop a system that will extract metaphors from text. The assumption is that the metaphors that are used in a document, or a community, reflect a way of viewing and organizing the world that can provide a higher-level way to understand other (sub)cultures. This seems like a very difficult challenge, which is exactly what these funding agencies derived from DARPA are supposed to do.

I remember reading a paper that Charles Williams presented to the Inklings (the Oxford society that included C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and other high fliers) in which he talked about just how difficult it is to understand what a metaphor does (I haven’t been able to find either paper or reference). Similes are (by comparison) straightforward; when we say “A is like B” we draw attention to or highlight some aspect of B that is similar to that of A, and therefore emphasize some aspect of A, perhaps one that isn’t obvious.

A metaphor is a much more difficult object. When we say “A is B” we could take the view that this is just a more obscure kind of simile, in which the reader/hearer is invited to conceive of the possible similarity without a hint from the writer/speaker. But Williams argues, and I agree, that more is going on here. For a start, metaphors are not symmetric: if I say “A is B” it’s often nonsense to say “B is A” whereas similes usually are symmetric. Often there is no obvious and straightforward way to reduce a metaphor to a simile, that is there is no small set of properties common to A and B. And yet metaphors can be powerful.

There is a little relevant work in psychology, most of it associated with Judy DeLoache and what’s called the Dual Representation Hypothesis. Roughly speaking, the idea is that brains are well-equipped to represent symbols and the things they denote and to map computations on the symbols to computations on the denoted things in usable ways (apologies to psychologists for this mangled and computational perspective).  This goes some way to explain abstract reasoning, with some very nice experiments with young children showing when various levels of sophistication kick in; but it might also provide some explanatory power for metaphors. Unfortunately, there is some evidence that the more black-box the symbol, the more usable it is, which is evidence against this being a useful explanation for metaphors.

I won’t be applying for funding to work on this — but I’ll be watching the results with interest.

And Williams’ conclusion — that metaphors are something like a legal fiction; which I didn’t find very convincing at the time I read the article and still don’t.

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