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On metaphor’s persuasive power


A metaphor, arguably rhetoric’s most powerful trope, is a use of language that asserts a nonexistent identity:  love is blue, his love was an ocean.  We know that metaphors resonate with audiences and often move them, but discovering the power of this trope has been hotly debated by rhetorical scholars for centuries now.

At the regional speech communication conference I’m attending this weekend, these issues were elaborated at a panel exploring the work of Michael Osborn, and in a manner that has me interested to reread his major essays on this subject.

Osborn, an eminent professor of speech communication at the University of Memphis (and co-author of the best selling public speaking textbook on the market today), has long argued that metaphors exert their social force by connecting a local cause to the deeper psychological experiences that characterize the human condition.  Metaphors that explicitly connect to the universal experiences of birth, death, journey, illness, light, water, fire, and so on he has described as archetypal.  The idea is that beyond the local contingencies of a particular persuasive claim, ideas can be made more persuasive for their audiences if a speaker can connect it to forces that can be immediately understood and cognitively accessed by listeners.  His award winning essays on this subject include examinations of the widespread power of light/dark metaphors and on the continuing cultural potency of metaphors connecting to the sea, among many others that had rightly lasting import for rhetorical studies.

At a panel discussion in Savannah this afternoon, Osborn talked his audience through the thought processes that led him to first conclude, and then nuance, his early claim that such archetypal metaphors are (as he had famously put it) “immune to change.”  As one might imagine, this totalizing a claim attracted a lot of controversial reaction, especially since theories stressing the ideological and social functions of language have gained such salience in the academy.  For those committed to the idea that our thoughts do not derive from innate experiences but from perceptions radically changeable by processes of social interaction, Osborn’s claim on behalf of metaphor seemed a reach too far.  But for a long time he has largely stuck to his guns on this point, his thinking grounded as it has been in the theoretical scholarship relating to depth psychology and forms of aesthetic analysis that see their characteristic and most enduring forms as derived from universal experiences.

At this stage Osborn is willing to modify his earlier claim, even to partly draw it back, but only to come extent.  While still endorsing the idea that metaphorical force mainly connects to the deepest and most resonant human experiences, he is now willing to concede that these human conditions are not always innate.  Some experiences, such as war, are dominated by socially constructed perceptions and a people’s self understanding can be modified by traumatic events that realign perceptions in a dramatic way (he’s currently exploring this idea by researching the cultural power of disease metaphors).

Even here, however, the modification is not a total concession to those emphasizing the controlling force of ideological influences, for Osborn sees these cultural impositions on our symbolic order as still having to vie with underlying cognitive and perceptual forces that push back, and sometimes with a vengeance.  The result is that while our conceptual architecture can be modified by serious or traumatic human events, they do not wholly displace underlying universal categories of human understanding.  So metaphors are sometimes supplemented, made richer and more complicated, by the ongoing understanding of a culture’s life, but old archetypes lurk beneath the surface of these convulsions.  And thus, for example, just as humans start to think that their cleverness has mastered the seas, and critics start to expect that the power of the metaphorical idea of the sea as place of dread and terror ought to be receding, the metaphor returns:  Titanic, the Perfect Storm, Jaws.

It has always seemed to me that Osborn’s account is complicated by a broader examination of metaphorical power, and to illustrate this I want to use a simple example that connects to the Revolutionary War image I’m using to illustrate this blog entry, the famous visual depiction expressing the idea that the colonies must “join or die.”  The potential nation is depicted as a serpent which unless whole, possesses no fierce coalescent power.  The image was unquestionably influential.

But what is the source of the metaphor’s (“states united” = “snake”) persuasiveness?

I assume (and I might be wrong about this) that Osborn’s answer would be that the persuasive force of the metaphor rests in its invocation of a powerful symbol of savage nature.  While the snake is not quite an archetypal symbol, and is certainly differently understood in varying cultural contexts (in some cultures snakes evoke feelings of dread and terror, in others mystery and cunning), the image produces an immediately powerful association for colonists settling a new land.

An alternative, one I think consistent with certain significant traditions of rhetorical scholarship, is to say that the power of this or any metaphor rests not in the referential force of the second term (“snake”) but rather, in the juxtaposition of tenor and vehicle.  When one suggests that the colonies might be snake-like, one invites the audience by the juxtaposition to consider potential similarities and differences between colonies and serpents.  This maneuver converts audiences into active meaning makers (in a related and similar approach, Aristotle argued that the power of the enthymeme resides in its capacity to induce audience participation in the meaning-making; the missing or truncated element of what would otherwise be a fully elaborated syllogism invites the listener to “fill in” the missing information).

One might thus say that if one wants to understand the persuasive efficacy of the “states united = snake” metaphor one would do better to concentrate on the thought process induced by the juxtaposition of these different ideas, rather than on the cultural or cognitive power of “snakeness.”

This observation does not undo or even deny Osborn’s argument, although as I say it may produce complications.  For example, one might say that the power of any given metaphor connects to how mundane or conventional it is for its audience.  Perhaps mundane metaphors (e.g., “that talk was enlightening”) derive their power from their connections to universal depth experiences, since they are unlikely to sound mysterious or puzzling to their listeners and because of their everydayness will fail to induce audience involvement.  Perhaps more unique metaphors (by which I don’t mean necessarily interesting metaphors, but simply those that are less commonly used) derive their force from the demands they make on their audiences since they first land on the ears or eyes as puzzles to be solved.

This account still concedes Osborn’s starting point:  his claim that metaphors are potent because they can so dramatically assist a speaker who wants to control the perceptions of her listeners.  But it might subordinate the emphasis in his account on the archetypal, treating those usages as significant but not always controlling given the sometimes stronger tropal force of symbolic juxtaposition.

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