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The Highlighting Function of Metaphor

As shown in the above discussion of god is father, metaphors are much more than synonyms for common expressions: to the contrary, a metaphor’s source domain serves to highlight specific features of a target domain while concealing others (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Consider the source—path-goal schema that underlies our conceptualization of undertakings as journeys. Huang and Aaker (2019), based on a series of experiments, show that metaphor’s highlighting function guides the construal of a target domain in ways that have significant behavioral consequences. They led participants to think of an achieved goal in a nonmetaphorical manner, as a destination, or as part of a journey. They found that those who were guided to adopt a metaphorical construal of a journey were more likely to continue goal-related behaviors (e.g., dieting) than those who were guided to adopt a nonmetaphorical or destination orientation.

The highlighting function is of paramount importance for understanding the potentially powerful effects of metaphor in religious discourse. But at a more finegrained level of analysis, it must also be noted that there can be differences in how various cultures and discourse communities exploit the repertoire of potential highlighting effects of a specific metaphorical mapping. As an example, consider the numerous journey metaphors that occur in the Confucian Analects.

Fingarette (1972) claims that while the Analects abounds in path metaphors, some of the common forms (e.g., “crossroads”) are oddly unexploited. As he explains:

Indeed the image of the crossroads is so natural and even insistently available as an element of any richly elaborated path-imagery that only the most profound commitment to the idea of the cosmos as basically unambiguous, as a single, definite order, could make it possible to ignore in the metaphor the image of the crossroads as a challenge to the traveler on the Way.

(p. 20)

Fingarette’s comments are based on his own astute reading of the text and presumably not on any linguistic analysis.To test his claim, we conducted a small study on the first 10 (out of 20) chapters of the Analects. These were selected as they are generally thought to be the older core of the Analects, which is thought to have formed slowly in the centuries after the death of Confucius (Brooks & Brooks, 2001). Since the research focus was on the thought of Confucius as represented by the original text and since translations often render metaphor into nonfigurative expressions (while occasionally introducing figurative language absent from the original), MIP was applied to the original classic Chinese text.

The analysis revealed 124 metaphors and 3 similes related to the source-path- goal schema, with over half of these coming from Chapters 7, 8, and 9 and none from Chapter 10. The metaphors were then classified into six general categories based on mappings within the journey domain: (1) the spiritual life is a path;

(2) ESTABLISHMENT IN SPIRITUAL PRACTICE IS STANDING OR BEGINNING; (3) LIVING A SPIRITUAL LIFE IS TRAVELING; (4) DISCERNING THE CORRECT SPIRITUAL COURSE IS CHOOSING WHICH WAY TO GO; (5) PROBLEMS IN THE SPIRITUAL LIFE ARE PROBLEMS ON A journey; and (6) SPIRITUAL ATTAINMENT is arriving at one’s DESTINATION. These have been described as “conceptual keys” (Charteris-Black, 2004), as they explain how particular conceptual metaphors are related. They are discussed each in turn to determine the aspects of the journey metaphor that tend to receive emphasis in core passages of the Analects.

By far the most highlighted element of the Analects’s source—path-goal schema is the path itself, often translated into English as “the Way’’.The 35 appearances of the character for path (dao) can be further divided into three categories. In most instances (24), the character appears to represent what Fingarette (1972) calls “a single, definite order” (p. 20). In ten instances, the Way is associated with a moral exemplar (e.g., Heaven/God, the former kings of ancient times, the wise, and Confucius). One possible interpretation is that the path of these spiritual exemplars is identical to the single and definite order that guides the sacred Confucian social order. In two instances (actually, in the same passage which occurs in both 1:11

and 4:20), a filial son is advised to not veer from the path of his father for three years after his father passes away. Since there’s no guarantee that fathers are all sages, this stands out as a somewhat atypical use within the Analects of the source domain of path to simply refer to an individual’s life path, and as such it has perplexed some traditional commentators (e.g.,YiTun, as cited in Slingerland, 2003, p. 5). In another instance (9:27), Confucius derisively refers to “the Way” of one of his disciples, who keeps repeating Confucius’s former praise of his behavior; however, the passage is so saturated with sarcasm and inuendo that it fails to provide a clear counterexample to Fingarette’s argument that the Way tends to be singular.

Though only tenuously associated with a journey, five metaphors are associated with beginning, and four of these tokens (in 6:30 and 9:30) involve standing (or helping others to stand). There’s also a simile (6:17) in which the beginning of the Way is expressed as a door. In addition, there are several metaphors related to traveling on a journey. Two passages (2:22 and 5:7) mention essential parts of vehicles (the linchpin of a yoke of a horse-drawn cart and the timbers of a raft) to refer to virtues and good character, with the entailment that certain virtues are required to make spiritual progress. In the passage referring to the raft (5:7), wordplay is involved. Confucius, lamenting people’s failure to practice the Way, threatens to set off in a raft with his brave but sometimes rash disciple Zilu.The passage ends with his quip, “Where shall I find the material?”, leaving it unclear whether he’s referring to material for the raft or disciples with suitable moral dispositions.

The Analects includes a diverse range of metaphors for discerning the path. Especially prominent is the source domain of following, which is often associated with emulating the virtues of others (7:22 and 7:28) or prescribed cultural practices (3:14).There are also many references to drawing near to (e.g., 1:14, 5:21, and 8:4) or moving far from (1:13 and 8:4) desirable or undesirable people or moral intentions. In addition, there are several references to failure, difficulty (often involving the difficulties are a burden metaphor), and deviations from the appropriate path by overstepping appropriate bounds (2:4) or taking a shortcut. Finally, there are ten instances in which the concept of arrival is used to refer to attainment of virtue or realization of the Way.

This analysis provides some tentative support for Fingarette’s argument that the notion of individual moral choice and moral ambiguity is downplayed in the Analects, resulting in the under-exploitation of specific choice-related mappings in the source—path-goal schema.The teachings in the text and its selective neglect of certain mappings may reflect insights into human nature alluded to in the Huang and Aaker (2019) study: namely, the insight that a path metaphor, and especially one that focuses on the journey and its inherent difficulties instead of the destination, may be highly motivating and thus may facilitate sustained effort among adherents to a spiritual tradition.

In this chapter, different patterns in metaphor and religious language have shown that consistencies in talking about the spiritual life and the divine can be described and analyzed in terms of cross-domain mappings between source and target domains. These mappings, however, are not necessarily static or universal, and differences in metaphorical ways of talking about the supernatural and moral striving show the importance of culture and context on the production and interpretation of metaphors. As will be discussed in later chapters, metaphorical language need not be limited to a simple one-to-one relationship between two domains, and many researchers working in metaphor now recognize the need to conceive of metaphor in language and thought in alternative ways. Even so, Lakoff and Johnson’s (1980) framework has remained the most influential approach within conceptual metaphor theory and has exerted a pervasive influence on much of the current work focusing on religious language.

Discussion Questions

  • 1. List some potential conceptual metaphors that you think are present in a religious tradition with which you’re familiar.
  • 2. Looking at your list of metaphors, what might be said about how the religious tradition understands the position of humans in the world and their relationship to the divine or supernatural?
  • 3. What conceptual metaphors are shared across different religions that you’re familiar with? What embodied or cultural basis might there be for those metaphors?
  • 4. Think of how the source-path-goal schema appears in a religious tradition with which you’re familiar. Which aspects of the schema tend to be highlighted?
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