Metaphorically Thinking: Arguments

May 3, 2011 — Leave a comment

3e5b793509a0039d9b644110.LYesterday, I asked what metaphor we might use to conceptually structure our idea of arguments.

With a little reflection, the answer should be clear:

Argument is war.

Pulling from Metaphors We Live By, consider how we tend to talk about arguments:

  • Your claims are indefensible
  • He attacked every weak point in my argument
  • His criticisms were right on target
  • I demolished his argument
  • I’ve never won an argument with him
  • You disagree? Okay, shoot!
  • If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out
  • He shot down all of my arguments

It’s not just the way we talk about arguments, many of the things we do in arguing are at least partially structured by the concept of war. The battle, rather than being physical, is verbal, but the conceptualization of it all is just as combative. This emerges in both the shape our rhetoric takes and the actions we perform when arguing.

In some ways, there isn’t anything particularly wrong about this. That is, unless you are a pacifist and you still unknowingly conceive of arguments in this way. To the extent a pacifist uses words maliciously, to that same extent he hasn’t completely embraced pacifism. Ironically, in arguing ardently for pacifism, one may self-deceptively still be practicing the art of war, the combat is just verbal rather than physical.

Some of this may be unavoidable. We have to conceptualize arguments in some concrete way, and certainly conceiving of them as battles sheds lights on certain aspects of the concept. But unfortunately it will tend to obscure others.

Remember from yesterday the metaphor time is money. When you consider that someone arguing with you is taking time to do so, a cooperative aspect of arguing is revealed that should move you to value the other person’s contributions to the discussion rather than just looking at them as an opponent to dismantle.

This should be especially true in Christian theological discourse. The person disagreeing with you is actively investing the valuable commodity of their time into the discussion. To dismiss their position as trivial, or to beat them up with words is communicating that their sacrifice of time is not worth your response. Sometimes, this may be the case, like when the person is more or less seeking to stir the pot and create controversy. But in situations where both people are interested in mutual understanding, perhaps a better metaphor than argument is war is apt.

As Lakoff and Johnson suggest:

Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently (pg. 5, emphasis added)

Try imaging that for a moment.

Think also of some of the implications, especially with reference to the recent arguments about Love Wins in the evangelical world. In reference to some of the arguments swirling around Bell’s book, Eugene Peterson said in an interview that he thinks brothers and sisters in the kingdom of God should not fight because it “bad family manners.” Arguing though is not fighting. It may be conceived of metaphorically as fighting, but that is one’s metaphorical conception, not necessarily the actuality of it. Fighting entails physical violence and enmity, neither of which are present in the many prominent discussions of Bell’s book. Peterson makes a transference mistake, as have many defenders of Bell.

To be fair, many have attacked Bell in an unfair manner and are clearly thinking of  an argument as war. How differently this all might have played out if in the evangelical world he had a different ethic of argumentation and a different conceptual architecture to the way we think about disagreements. We unfortunately have a very deeply embedded discourse form structured in terms of battle and it will take some doing to restructure it.

I think it is worth trying though. Doing so may take some more metaphorical rethinking, but that’s where we’re going in this series.

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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