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Universal history is the history of a few metaphors. ~ Jorge Luis Borges

Metaphors are literary figures of speech which use images, stories or tangible things to represent less tangible things or intangible qualities or ideas; unlike analogies, specific interpretations are not given explicitly, but both metaphor and analogy can employ symbols, or be used to develop them. Studies of how metaphors are used and develop are a major aspect of the discipline of semiotics.

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When you told me you used to chase tornados I always thought it was a metaphor! ~ Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin, in Twister
Everything which distinguishes man from the animals depends upon this ability to volatilize perceptual metaphors in a schema, and thus to dissolve an image into a concept. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche
The drive toward the formation of metaphors is the fundamental human drive, which one cannot for a single instant dispense with in thought, for one would thereby dispense with man himself. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Universal history is the history of a few metaphors.
  • Metaphors and Similes are the beginning of the democratic system of envy.
  • The symbol and the metaphor are as necessary to science as to poetry. We are as helpless today to define mass, fundamentally, as Newton was. But we do not therefore think, and neither did he, that the equations which contain mass as an unknown are mere rules of thumb.
  • All metaphors, at least such of them that are best chosen, are applied to the senses, especially the seeing, which of all senses is the most exquisite. Thus when we say, the tincture of politeness, the softness of good-breeding, the murmer of waters, and sweetness of language; these metaphors are all taken from the other senses. But the metaphors taken from the sense of seeing are much more striking, because they place in the eye of the imagination objects... otherwise... impossible for us to see or comprehend. For there is nothing in nature but what we may adapt its name to signify something else; and every object from which a likeness may be raised, as it may from all objects, if metaphorically applied...
    • Cicero (55 BC) De Oratore: Or, His Three Dialogues Upon the Character and Qualifications of an Orator (1822) Tr. William Guthrie, Book III, Ch. XL, p. 274.
  • In the interpretation of figurative passages, let the following canon be observed. If the passage be preceptive, either forbidding some flagitious deed and some heinous crime, or commanding something useful and beneficent: then such passage is not figurative. But, if the passage seems, either to command some flagitious deed and some heinous crime, or to forbid something useful and beneficent: then such passage is figurative. Thus, for example, Christ says: Unless ye shall eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood; ye shall have no life in you. Now, in these words, he seems to command a heinous crime or a flagitious deed. Therefore the passage is a figure, enjoining us to communicate in the passion of our Lord, and admonishing us to lay it up sweetly and usefully in our memory because, for us, his flesh was crucified and wounded. On the other hand, Scripture says: If thy enemy shall hunger, give him food; if he shall thirst, give him drink. Here, without all doubt, an act of beneficence is enjoined.
    • George Stanley Faber, Christ's Discourse at Capernaum: Fatal to the Doctrine of Transubstantiation (1840), pp. 147-149.


  • Metaphors hide in plain sight, and their influence is largely unconscious. We should mind our metaphors, though, because metaphors make up our minds.
    • James Geary, American journalist and author, in "Metaphors in Mind", at The Macmillan Dictionary blog (11 April 2011).
  • The progress of science requires more than new data; it needs novel frameworks and contexts. And where do these fundamentally new views of the world arise? They are not simply discovered by pure observation; they require new modes of thought. And where can we find them, if old modes do not even include the right metaphors? The nature of true genius must lie in the elusive capacity to construct these new modes from apparent darkness. The basic chanciness and unpredictability of science must also reside in the inherent difficulty of such a task.
    • Stephen Jay Gould in "False Premise, Good Science", in The Flamingo's Smile (1985) p. 138.
  • We often think, naïvely, that missing data are the primary impediments to intellectual progress — just find the right facts and all problems will dissipate. But barriers are often deeper and more abstract in thought. We must have access to the right metaphor, not only to the requisite information. Revolutionary thinkers are not, primarily, gatherers of facts, but weavers of new intellectual structures.
    • Stephen Jay Gould in "For Want of a Metaphor", in The Flamingo's Smile (1985) p. 151.
  • The facts of nature are what they are, but we can only view them through the spectacles of our mind. Our mind works largely by metaphor and comparison, not always (or often) by relentless logic. When we are caught in conceptual traps, the best exit is often a change in metaphor — not because the new guideline will be truer to nature (for neither the old nor the new metaphor lies “out there” in the woods), but because we need a shift to more fruitful perspectives, and metaphor is often the best agent of conceptual transition.
    • Stephen Jay Gould in "Glow, Big Glowworm", in Bully for Brontosaurus (1991) p. 264.
  • To reassert the reign of beauty, Copernicus goes back to what he had once called "the first principles of uniform motion." He rejects non-uniformities and inconsistancies of motion - his "mind shudders" at the very consideration of them - and even at the cost of setting the earth in motion, he arrives at a system that has all the earmarks of divine handicraft; the equants are gone, the phenomena are saved; the whole system has symmetry, parsimony, necessity. ...
    The device of uniform motion in a circle was not forced by the data; and as Kepler's ellipses showed later, it was not even the most functional device from the mathematical point of view. Yet the metaphor of uniform circular motion as the divine key... - even as in antiquity - had infected the thinking from which the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century came. ...the function of a metaphor ..."can be a restructuring of the world," in the words of Sir Ernst Gombrich.
    • Gerald Holton, The Advancement of Science, and Its Burdens (1986) pp. 231-232, quoting Ernst Gombrich, Symbolic Images: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance (1972) p. 166.
  • In the work of the active scientist there are not merely occasions for using metaphor, but necessities for doing so, as when trying to remove an unbearable gap or monstrous fault. I now turn... to... the necessity built into the process of scientific rationality itself, an epistemological necessity... It is simply the limitation of induction. Where logic fails, analogic continues. The bridge is now made no longer of steel but of gossamer. It breaks often, but sometimes it carries us across the gulf... there is nothing else that will.
    • Gerald Holton, The Advancement of Science, and Its Burdens (1986) p. 236.
  • Subjective conscious mind is an analog of what is called the real world. It is built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world.
    • Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976).
  • The divine kingdom to be regained is psychological not physical. It is metaphorical not literal. It is "within" not in extenso.
    • Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976).


  • We do not think good metaphors are anything very important, but I think that a good metaphor is something even the police should keep an eye on.
  • All reflection, thought and criticism began in comparison, analogy and metaphor. Faust was wrong: in the beginning was not the act. St. John was right: in the beginning was the word. We are concerned with man, and the world can only exist for man as man knows or imagines it. Metaphor is the route of reason, science and art.
    • Donald G. MacRae, "The Body and Social Metaphor," The Body as a Medium of Expression (1975) ed. Jonathan Benthall, Ted Polhemus, p. 59, as quoted by Gerald Holton, The Advancement of Science, and Its Burdens (1986) p. 229.
  • If we are to understand the body as metaphor, and as source of metaphors derivable directly from it, we must remember that our own experience of our bodies is prescientific.
    • Donald G. MacRae, "The Body and Social Metaphor," The Body as a Medium of Expression (1975) ed. Jonathan Benthall, Ted Polhemus, p. 67, as quoted by Gerald Holton, The Advancement of Science, and Its Burdens (1986) p. 239.
  • A metaphor is a word used in an unfamiliar context to give us a new insight; a good metaphor moves us to see our ordinary world in an extraordinary way.
  • A man's reach must exceed his grasp or what's a metaphor?
    • Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (1964), p. 7. A play on famous lines in Robert Browning's poem "Andrea del Sarto":
      Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
      Or what's a heaven for?
  • All words, in every language, are metaphors.
  • What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions — they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.


  • The metaphor is perhaps one of man's most fruitful potentialities. Its efficacy verges on magic, and it seems a tool for creation which God forgot [and left behind] inside one of His creatures when He made him.
  • In order to understand, in the case of miracles, what actually took place, we ought to be familiar with Jewish phrases and metaphors; anyone who did not make sufficient allowance for these, would be continually seeing miracles in Scripture where nothing of the kind is intended by the writer; he would thus miss the knowledge not only of what actually happened, but also of the mind of the writers of the sacred text.
  • [The mechanical philosophy is] a case of being victimized by metaphor. I choose Descartes and Newton as excellent examples of metaphysicians of mechanism malgré eux, that is to say, as unconscious victims of the metaphor of the great machine. Together they have founded a church, more powerful than that founded by Peter and Paul, whose dogmas are now so entrenched that anyone who tries to reallocate the facts is guilty of more than heresy...

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