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Metaphor and the Problem of Epistemological Relativism: A Response to Tony Stigliano's Comments

by C. A. Bowers - 1981

The author responds to Stigliano’s criticisms. Stigliano addresses several substantive issues. The substantive issues relate to the epistemological implications of metaphorical thinking, and to the question of whether social criticism and reform can be reconciled with a theory of culture that recognizes the existence of “multiple realities.” The author first deals with a series of misrepresentations that he believes distort his analysis of metaphorical thinking.

Tony Stigliano’s reading of my article dealing with how metaphors reproduce the ideological frameworks from which they are borrowed demonstrates the very point he wants to argue against, namely, that our thinking is influenced by the codes underlying our language frameworks. His own language framework suggests that he is suffering the current intellectual malady of a paradigm shift where he wants to claim that there is objective knowledge (basic to his criticism of relativism) while also claiming that the “‘worlds’ we live in and the languages we use are creations of human beings” (his acceptance of a relativistic world?). As his dilemma is shared by many intellectuals today, I want to address several substantive issues raised by his comments on my article. The substantive issues relate to the epistemological implications of metaphorical thinking, and to the question of whether social criticism and reform can be reconciled with a theory of culture that recognizes the existence of “multiple realities.” Before taking up these issues I want to deal with a series of misrepresentations that seriously distort my analysis of metaphorical thinking.

Although I am puzzled by what Stigliano’s reference to “ideological misuse of metaphor” could possibly mean, I am more concerned with setting the record straight on the question of how an understanding of metaphorical thinking influences how we think about the legitimacy of social reform efforts. Stigliano correctly lists a number of concerns that I raise about the reform proposals of Apple and other neo-Marxist educational critics who share similar views. But he implies that my analysis of their use of metaphors like inequality, hierarchy, and hegemony as a basis for arguing for structural reform of society leads me to adopt a pessimistic (he also identifies it as an indifferent attitude) stance toward social reform. An example of the distortion of my position is in his statement: “Bowers can only conclude that we ‘live’ in a symbolic, poetical nonworld without a past, a future, or a meaningful present, except insofar as people use such terms in their symbolism.” Stigliano has obviously not read what I have written on technicism as a form of cultural domination or what I have said about the need to develop an approach to schooling that fosters the students’ ability to “read” the epistemic codes that support a natural attitude toward a commodity-technicist culture. As my own position, as well as the implications of my analysis of metaphor, leads to the exact opposite of the position he attributes to me I have serious doubts about his reading of the article on metaphor. Later, after I have addressed the issue of relativism that he associates with my analysis of metaphor, I will elaborate the implications that a theory of metaphor has for how we view social justice issues and social reform strategies.

Stigliano’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s statement also deserves a brief comment, particularly since he uses his interpretation of Nietzsche to build the case that taking seriously the nature of metaphorical thinking leads to pernicious foolishness. Stigliano’s question “Is speech the metaphor of an electrical impulse?” and his criticism that Nietzsche’s position leads to viewing the “transformation of sensory input into electrical discharge that becomes speech resulting from neuron discharges” as a metaphor misses entirely the point Nietzsche was making about how we think symbolically about the stimuli we experience. The relation between stimulus and neurological response is not metaphorical, but how it is represented by our patterns of thinking is an example of metaphor. Stigliano’s reference to “electrical discharge” and “sensory input” are examples of his dependence on symbolic (metaphorical) representations of the physiological domain. His statements reflect the use of metaphors that appear to be derived from a paradigm (root metaphor) that invites us to think of physiological processes as being like the wiring in a machine. This is exactly the point Nietzsche was making, namely that thinking involves using images that suggest comparisons, similarities, resemblances, between a new element in experience and what we are already familiar with. By saying that “In our thought, the essential feature is fitting new material into old schemas, . . . making equal what is new,” Nietzsche is not saying that the new is the same as the old (that the “nerve-stimulus” is the same as the thought), but that thinking involves a shift in frameworks where we try to think about and explain something in terms of images borrowed from another frame of reference. The use of metaphor (images borrowed from other frameworks for the purpose of suggesting similarities, resemblances, comparisons) also involves introducing the epistemological categories (“old schemas”) that may or may not be appropriate to deepening our understanding of new phenomena.

Before taking up the issues relating to epistemological relativism and social reform, I want to comment on how Stigliano obfuscates the discussion of metaphor through a series of charges that are immediately followed by qualifications and self-contradictory statements. The reader is told, for example, that “Bowers’s description of the lived world is such that it makes any mainstream or otherwise empirical social science virtually impossible.” Apparently my analysis of metaphor reflects a “social ontology . . . so sui generis” that all intellectual activity will have to be dismissed as ideological. This is followed by Stigliano’s admission that we must recognize that languages are human constructions, and that a number of people are “busily dissolving the literalist ontology and epistemology taken for granted by social and natural scientists.” He also tells us that we can no longer use terms like “variable,” “data,” or “rationality” without attending “to their underlying ontology and epistemology.” As this is the position that my analysis supports, the reader can only wonder whether Stigliano is aware that he contradicted his original criticism about everything being dismissed as ideological.

Another example of his intellectual uncertainty arises when he tells the reader that the “extreme relativism” (a position that I would reject) of my position is not found in Marx. As evidence of a counter position to that ascribed to me, Stigliano writes that “Marx argues, falsely perhaps, that rationality is a product of human action.” In another place the reader encounters a similar example of criticism that reflects Stigliano’s uncertainty: " . . . unless Bowers can show—as Marx tried, and perhaps failed (in the complexity of the effort), to do—that metaphor making, or world making, has a particular structure . . . .” Were Marx’s efforts successful or not? If they were not, why make that kind of judgmental comparison? What is the point Stigliano wants to make? If he had understood the relationship between metaphors and the reproduction of thought patterns (ideological frameworks—in Geertz’s sense) he would have recognized that I was talking about the structure and continuities of the symbolic dimension of the life world. I personally think that Marx succeeded in helping us to understand the social origins of our patterns of thought, though I would disagree with the tendency of some Marxists to overemphasize ideology as an expression of false consciousness. But that is a complex issue that has already been dealt with by others.

The last example of intellectual uncertainty is reflected in his assertion that my analysis of Apple is trivial, which is followed in the next paragraph by the statement that his (Stigliano’s) questions about my paper “have an analogy in the debate between H. G. Gadamer and Jurgen Habermas.” While I think it exceedingly pretentious to compare our exchange with that of Gadamer and Habermas (which of us is playing the title role?), I find myself asking how the analysis can be dismissed in one paragraph as trivial and in the next elevated to comparable status with Gadamer and Habermas. Stigliano’s discussion of Habermas’s view on language, labor, and political authority tempts me to engage in a further discussion of his intellectual confusion: Can language be separated from labor and political authority? Does hierarchy retain power or do people use hierarchical forms of organization to retain power? But if we are to move on to the more substantive issues the temptation shall have to be resisted.

The issue to be addressed has to do with how a theory of metaphor helps us understand our own thought process, and more particularly how Apple and other Marxist educational critics think about the nature of educational and social reform. Stigliano’s obsession with the pitfalls of “extreme relativism” (he seems to be willing to accept relativism in its milder forms) effectively obscures this question. Given the historical development of our conceptual framework, as well as the segmenting effects of our cultural activities (religious and theoretical frameworks, technology of production, leisure activities, etc.), understanding how we borrow images from one area of activity for purposes of thinking about some other area of activity seems to be fundamentally important. For example, we think about politics in terms of images (metaphors) borrowed from the world of sports, and about education in terms of images borrowed from industrial production. To examine this process of metaphorical thinking does not mean necessarily that everything is dissolved into a meaningless relativism. This process, it would seem, leads to a clearer understanding of what the issues are, as well as a better sense of what is to be gained by thinking of one area of activity in terms of images borrowed from another area.

A basic epistemological issue that underlies every twist and turn in Stigliano’s analysis is the relativism that he sees accompanying the acceptance of the idea that thought is metaphorical. Like the sense of guilt that K experiences but never analyzes in The Trial, Stigliano never really confronts the issue directly. He is content to list the conceptual disorders that befall anyone who begins to explore the social-cultural and epistemological implications of metaphorical thinking. As he sees relativism reducing knowledge claims and social justice issues to “just another ripple in a banal ‘phenomenology,'“ I think it is necessary to counter the solipsism he ascribes to my position by putting into focus what I see as the relationship between metaphorical thinking and the knowledge claims that are made as people negotiate their common sense understandings of everyday life. The position will be familiar to anyone who has read Dewey, Marx, Schutz, or any one of a number of other thinkers who have taken seriously the epistemological implications of different language frameworks, and the “reality sets” that reflect different cultures and historical periods. My attempt to show how the thinking of Apple and other Marxists working in the sociology of school knowledge tends to reproduce historically and culturally specific metaphorical images as though they were culture-free was based on the widely held position that recognizes that we think within conceptual frameworks. In acquiring the language that makes membership in a social group possible, we also acquire the codes or cultural grammars that will shape our perceptions and the everyday understanding of our social-physical environment. People who are members of language communities based on fundamentally different cultural grammars will have different life worlds, and would find it difficult (at times impossible) to enter the life world of others. As an example of cultural relativism I invite Stigliano to read Ronald and Suzanne Scollon’s account of the differences between the “bush consciousness” of the Chipewayan of Northern Alberta and the “modern consciousness” of the dominant North American culture. The Chipewayan view of individualism is fundamentally different from our view; whereas our sense of individualism leads us to take direct action affecting the lives of others, their sense of individualism leads them to adopt noninterventionist strategies that we see as irresponsible and culturally backward. Our “reality set” leads us to deal with knowledge in the abstract, while their approach to knowledge is experiential and context specific.1 The point here is that differences in cultural frameworks introduce the issue of relativism when members of different cultures interact. Relativism thus is not introduced into the world by wild-eyed and irresponsible theorists. As we escape our ethnocentrism we encounter cultural relativism.

But if we come to accept this as an intellectually defensible position, as well as any number of variations on the thesis that the relationship between thought and external reality is mediated by a complex interplay of societal forces, language frameworks, and intentionality, it is important to recognize that we seldom experience the Kafkaesque sense of relativity that Stigliano suggests. Through the symbolic interaction that sustains the routines of everyday life we experience the most fundamental codes underlying our mental maps as the taken-for-granted reality. Even the acquisition of a language code that conditions us to think of change as progressive, and that we are self-determining and rationally directed individuals, is experienced as our natural attitude. The nature of the natural attitude, which Husserl and Schutz have done so much to help us understand, provides the sense of order and inevitability, even when the pattern of belief contradicts what is actually happening. Here I am referring to the contradiction between the epistemic code underlying the natural attitude toward individualism and freedom, and the reality of historically rooted patterns of thought transmitted and reproduced through the language that enables us to experience as natural the view of freedom and individualism so essential to our anthropocentric world.

This example brings me back to the basic issue raised by Stigliano’s comments on my interpretation of metaphor. We are able to suspend the natural attitude toward parts of our life world, and in these moments recognize intellectually the relativity that exists between the reality sets of different cultures. But the development of a theoretical understanding of the differences between conceptual frameworks restricts the question of relativism to our theoretical understanding of the symbolic frameworks that we construct to make sense of the external world. Our understanding of the external world is not the same as the event or reality, it is simply an interpretation of it. But what we can understand about the external world and the choices we see as possible is, in part, dictated by the codes shared by members of our language community. Contrary to what Stigliano suggests, the theory of metaphor does not expand relativism beyond what we already understand about cultural differences in patterns of thought. If we limit the discussion of relativism to our own conceptual framework, we can easily identify canons of critical thought that have as their primary purpose the overturning of dogma, the relativizing of traditional belief, and the exposure of taken-for-granted attitudes. If one is concerned about “extreme relativism” one should examine the purpose of the intellectual process as it is practiced in the academic community, and take a candid look at its effects on traditional culture. But that is another task that would require both risk and a degree of reflexive thought that few of us in the academic world possess. A theory of metaphor that can be integrated into a sociology of knowledge framework, either of the Marxist variety or of the Schutz, Berger, and Luckmann tradition, is consistent with the purpose of critical intelligence.

In showing how metaphorical thinking reproduces elements of the pattern of thought, along with the deep-structure assumptions of the “mind set” from which the image is borrowed, I identified a number of specific examples in terms of the writings of Apple and other Marxists concerned with educational issues. While the question of relativism is an important issue, it would have been useful if Stigliano had addressed more directly my analysis of Apple’s proposals. Is their appeal for reforming society along nonhierarchical, egalitarian lines based on images (“equality,” “classless society,” “beyond hegemony”) that reproduce in their analysis the deep-structure assumptions about individual freedom, rationality, and social progress that characterized the Enlightenment? If their metaphors are not culturally specific it might be reasonable to move on to the next stage (which they have avoided) of asking how to translate their analysis into new social relationships more in harmony with their image of a free and equal society. In the West, we have a long history of viewing other cultural groups that have hierarchical relationships, and strong commitments to traditional forms of authority, as either reactionary or unenlightened, and in need of being educated to the progressive principles of the new social order espoused by Apple and the other Marxists. But if we accept that the metaphors that are to serve as moral guides to the construction of a new social order are in fact culturally specific to a particular period (and to a particular social class) within Western culture, we face the more fundamental question of how to bring about reform without engaging in new forms of cultural domination. I stated a case for viewing metaphors as carriers of traditional patterns of thought that are used to understand new situations (which reflects our tendency to understand the new in terms of what we are already familiar with) and then raised a series of specific policy issues: How do we achieve equality in our social relationships without forcing all minority cultural groups (and other cultures if we view the Marxist agenda on an international scale) to adopt the language code that Apple and the others use to speak of individual freedom, social equality, and rationally directed progress? How can hierarchical relationships beeliminated without dismantling our form of technological activity, traditional patterns of organizing and transmitting knowledge, and all traditional cultures? How can we educate others without exercising some form of hegemonic control? The policy questions that I directed at Apple and the other like-minded theorists are not really addressed by Stigliano. He preferred instead to suggest that my position leads to a form of relativism so extreme that the discussion of social reform becomes utterly pointless, and then he restates the importance of taking seriously Apple’s class analysis of education. The invitation to think about specific reform proposals in terms of a conceptual framework that takes seriously the fact that our language framework has a history and a specific cultural origin was simply set aside because it did not mesh well with the orthodox Marxist sociological paradigm of social class, and with the messianic need to be an agent on the right side of social progress. If Stigliano had explored the implications of thinking about social justice issues within a framework that has a well-developed theory of culture, he might have been led to acknowledge that the problem of relativism is something more than a figment of my misdirected thinking.

In closing, I want to thank Stigliano for taking up the issue of relativism. I think he took the discussion in a direction that obscured both my own position and the educational policy issues that deserve more serious attention. His analysis clearly demonstrates the need to deal with questions of metaphor, relativism, and social reform in terms of a multicultural world. My analysis of metaphorical thinking also involved an examination of how to apply Apple’s theory of social and educational change in the real world where people think and act in terms of different language frameworks. This exchange will have served a useful discussion to this level of social reality.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 83 Number 2, 1981, p. 292-299
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 733, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 10:32:01 AM

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About the Author
  • C. Bowers
    University of Oregon
    C.A. Bowers teaches education and social thought at the University of Oregon, Eugene. His publications include several books, among them,Cultural Literacy for Freedom (1974).
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