In the 3rd chapter of Metaphors We Live By, we learn that while metaphors can illuminate our understanding of things, they can also obscure it as well. To illustrate, Lakoff and Johnson present the conduit metaphor:
- Ideas (or meanings) are objects
- Linguistic expressions are containers
- Communication is sending
This is certainly a helpful metaphor, and anyone familiar with the field of biblical studies can see how this is immediately useful. Translation of biblical texts depends on such an understanding. The prospective Bible translator looks at containers in another language, discerns the ideas inside them, and then repackages those ideas in a new linguistic container. Only then can the ideas of Scripture be communicated to a 21st century audience.
The leg-work comes in trying to decipher the ideas inside the linguistic containers. This is especially troublesome when dealing with idiomatic expressions. Much the same could be said for even straight forward expressions that are heavily dependent on context to understand. While sometimes we may be tempted to think that meaning of the ideas is just “right there in the containers,” more often than not, this isn’t the case.
The meaning is not right there in the sentence – it matters a lot who is saying or listening to the sentence and what his social and political attitudes are. The Conduit metaphor does not fit cases where context is required to determine whether the sentence has any meaning at all and, if so, what meaning it has. (pg. 12)
In other words, all biblical interpretation, in considering the context, moves beyond a simple conduit metaphor of communicating ideas. Words are like containers that carry meaning, but they are not exactly equivalent to containers carrying meaning. Sometimes the ideas are much larger than the words would seem to allow. Other times the meaning of a sentence relies completely on context. The example often used, and true in my experience, is when my wife says while we are laying in bed, “I’m hot,” which means, “Can you turn on the fan?” Nothing in the words “I’m hot” conveys the precise meaning or action of turning on the fan, but the words are being used in that context to make such a request.
Speech act theory has gone a long way to improve our understanding of language and makes a great complement to the conduit metaphor. In the example above, it does a great deal to explain what is happening in the interchange between me and Ali. We’ll explore that further in some future posts in this series. In the meantime, think about how the conduit metaphor influences your understanding of biblical texts, or even just everyday speech.