Monday, 2 July 2012

The iron is hot when the plowshare finds its hammer

'Strike when the iron is hot' is a metaphor- a good one.
'The iron is only truly hot when the hammer knows it will create a plowshare rather than a sword' is also a metaphor- a jumbled up and bad one.  In fact, it is a meta-metaphor based not on an observation of the real world- in this case, the blacksmith at work- but on a purely verbal conceit. A dead metaphor has been taken for fact and a second metaphor, itself to be taken as fact, has been erected upon it. Imperative logic- consider Ross's paradox- gains a sort of extra persuasive force or dogmatic power by meta-metaphorical thinking. That, by itself, would be a good reason to condemn its use.

Is there any Alethic context of circumstance where a meta-metaphor- such as the one that is the subject of this post- is any thing other than an example of how not to think, how not to speak, how not to communicate?

Let us suppose that I'm the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I receive a call from Professor Steven Hawking. He tells me that he has taken up the study of Economics and found a way of solving the current Global crisis.
I rush over but just as I arrive, the lizard people from the Andromeda Galaxy teleport him away to help them sort out their own financial meltdown.
The only clue to Hawking's discovery is the enigmatic sentence on his computer- 'the iron is only truly hot when the hammer knows it will create a plowshare'
I promptly call in the smartest people in the country to puzzle out what Hawking's theory might be.

Let us suppose the metallurgist says -The iron is hot when a phase shift in its crystalline structure occurs. What Hawking is saying is there is a mathematical way to describe the economic situation such that you can identify the correct time for an intervention. Now Hawking has used the metaphor of the hammer to indicate that policy instruments should not deform.' Thus, using the sort of maths developed in our field will help identify the correct set of policy instruments and intervention points.'
The quantum physicist says - 'there is a backward causation aspect to the notion that the 'true right time is when the hammer knows it will create a plowshare not a sword' This involves Einstein Rosen, or the QZeno effect, or something of that sort. We need to think how we can use that insight in this context.'

I let the geniuses get on with their job.
 Even if they discover Hawking was wrong, chances are something useful will come out of it. Thus, in this case, the meta-metaphor proved highly meaningful. It may well be that there was no other sentence of similar length that Prof. Hawking could have used to communicate his discovery. In other words, this sentence may go down in History as an example of excellence in language use.

But, the truth is great Scientists don't use meta-metaphors. They try to write as clearly as possible using vivid images drawn from real life. Still, for any given meta-metaphor, we can imagine a world where a great thinker might be compelled to use it. What does this imply for meta-metaphors used by bad writers, muddled thinkers, relentless self-publicists? Is there any a priori, or indeed objective, method of demarcating stupidity from sense when meta-metaphoricity raises its ugly head?

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