Metaphors in Philosophy and Science

Metaphors in Philosophy and Science

Something happens when scientific hypotheses and observations are converted (or translated) from the logico-deductive mode to the narrative mode of language. Many philosophers and scientists reach for metaphors, to help their readers get a handle on abstract concepts. Colourful metaphors appeal to the imagination, then take on a life of their own.

Here is a list I have thrown together. I originally developed it while doing my graduate studies in the History and Philosophy of Science at McGill University. I have more or less organized the list in chronological order.

The Earth Mother (a personification of Nature continuing to this day, and going back well before philosophy and science, at least as far as the Venus of Willendorf circa 30,000 BC – also known more recently as Mother Nature), the microcosm (possibly Pythagoras, 6th century BC & Democritus, 5th century BC, but certainly Plato, 4th century BC); Life is a Fountain of Fire, an ever-living Flame, kindled in due measure, and in like measure extinguished (Heraclitus, 6th century BC); life the Great Chain of Being (Plato, 4th century BC); the Prime Mover & the Ladder of Nature (Aristotle, 4th century BC); Machina mundi or the machine-like system of the universe (Johannes de Sacrobosco, 13th century AD); man the machine (Leonardo da Vinci, Andreas Vesalius et al., 16th century AD); the fabric of the human body (in this context, fabric means workshop not woven cloth: Andreas Vesalius, 16th century); the heart as mechanical pump (William Harvey, 17th century); clockwork Nature (René Descartes, 17th century); God as master-craftsman (16th-17th centuries AD); monads as the indivisible, spiritualized building-blocks of Nature (Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, 17th century); the human as a clock-like mechanism (Baron d’Holbach, 18th century); Charles Darwin’s tree of life and his hierarchy of races (19th century); heat as a fluid (James Prescott Joule, mid-19th century); the phylogenic tree (post-Darwin, the term phylogeny goes back to Ernst Haeckel in 1866); the human as an impersonal cog in an automated State (Karl Marx, 1860s-1870s); the human as a biological machine (H. G. Wells, 1920s); the white dwarf (Willem Leuten, 1922); dark matter (Fritz Zwicky, 1933); Schrödinger’s cat (Erwin Schrödinger, 1935); the mind as machine Alan Turing (also the brain as computer & the Turing machine, mid-20th century AD); the black hole, quantum foam & wormhole (John A. Wheeler, mid-20th century); the Big Bang (Fred Hoyle, 1949); spaceship Earth (Buckminster Fuller, 1964); the Gaia hypothesis (named after a Greek goddess by James Lovelock, 1970s); the Earth as a live creature, full of information, marvelously skilled in handling the sun (Lewis Thomas, 1974); the Blind Watchmaker (Richard Dawkins, 1986); the computer as an intelligent machine and as a spiritual machine (Ray Kurzweil, 1990s); the ecological footprint (Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, 1996); the human genome as the blueprint of humanity (Sir John Sulston et al., late 20th and early 21st centuries)….

I may return to this subject at a later date….

Thanks to Peter Butler, for developing the image of the brass telescope above, which is actually part of an animation appearing in my film The Blinding Sea

 

 

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