The fate of the imagination in modernity

'A mere metaphor', 'an empty symbol', 'just a myth' are phrases that we often hear in conversation, journalism or political rhetoric. They signal the hostility of public discourse in our culture to imaginative truth. These tell-tale phrases disparage the figurative aspects of language and suggest that they are furthest removed from its truth-bearing aspects. They seem to imply that there is an alternative linguistic repertoire available to us—a more correct, more precise and somehow 'straight' kind of language. This supposed alternative is sometimes called 'the literal truth', 'the honest truth', 'plain prose' or 'factual language'. With wearisome monotony politicians insist that their policies are 'perfectly clear'—and we know that the more politicians protest that they have made it perfectly clear, are making it perfectly clear and will continue to make it perfectly clear, the more completely opaque and indeed dubiously murky 'it' really is.

The prejudice against the figurative is by no means confined to colloquial or popular culture. That merely takes its cue, long in arrears, from the discourse of academic disciplines such as philosophy and the natural and social sciences. In this approach the supposed literal use of language is taken as the norm from which figurative use is a deviation. 'Literal' language carries greater moral prestige; figurative language is regarded as somehow lightweight, frivolous and lacking in moral gravitas. If, without resorting to figurative language—to metaphor, symbol and myth, and in the process becoming hazy, imprecise and unclear—we cannot address the 'higher' realm, of which theology, metaphysics, ethics and aesthetics aspire to speak, so much the worse for these disciplines.

Modern philosophy in the analytical tradition was obsessed with the search for a precise, disciplined, stripped-down language, purged of ambiguity and without fuzzy edges, that would correspond as directly as possible to what is actually the case in the real world. Wittgenstein memorably began his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus of 1922 with the definition: 'The world is all that is the case.' His early logical atomism represents, perhaps, the ultimate quest for a pure relation between words and things. Wittgenstein is exploring the conditions for a logically perfect language. The first requirement of such a language is that there should be strict correlation between word and thing—one name for every irreducible piece of information, so that to each fact is allocated one name and to each name only one fact corresponds. Because it is concerned with this relation between words and things, names and facts, logical atomism does not stand alone but corresponds to and in a sense depends on ontological atomism. Wittgenstein postulated irreducible, 'simple' (i.e. not complex) objects which could be named, which form the constituents of complex atomic facts or 'states of affairs'. Together all the atomic facts or states of affairs comprise all that is the case—the world. Objects in states of affairs are the way in which we represent logically the reality of things in situations. When we attempt to describe these basic units of reality as accurately as possible (i.e. scientifically), we need a correspondingly basic language. 'Atomic facts' are articulated in 'elementary propositions'. 'To states of affairs which are concatenations of simple objects there correspond elementary propositions which assert the existence of states of affairs; elementary propositions are concatenations of names for simple objects' (Kenny, 1975, p.85). The totality of true propositions is by definition identical with the whole body of knowledge of the natural sciences.

The relationship between a proposition and the reality it expresses cannot be expressed in propositions. To put it another way, alluding to Wittgenstein's 'picture theory of language', a picture cannot depict its pictorial form but can only display it. The common structure that must pertain between thought and fact, language and reality, the logical and the ontological, Wittgenstein calls 'the mystical'. He excluded the 'mystical' from the realm of philosophically correct discourse: the 'mystical' was 'inexpressible' and could only 'show' itself. The precise language of science was incapable of expressing the mystical. 'There are, indeed, things [sic] that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical' (Wittgenstein, 1961, p.73:6.522). As Wittgenstein famously concluded: 'What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence' (ibid., p.74:7). For Wittgenstein there can be no genuine propositions of a metaphysical nature—to do with ultimate values and religious truth. No proposition can express the meaning of life or the point of the world, for all propositions are contingent since they refer to contingent states of affairs. 'How things are in the world is a matter of complete indifference for what is higher. God does not reveal himself in the world. The [contingent] facts all contribute only to setting the problem, not to its solution' (ibid., p.73:6.432, 6.4321).

If philosophy cannot state the mystical and science cannot describe it, that shows the limitations of philosophy and science. There are undoubtedly experiences, thoughts, hopes, aspirations, longings and insights that are not exhausted by philosophical analysis or capable of being scientifically verified. Wittgenstein suggests that we can climb beyond him, throwing away the ladder after us: the reader who understands 'must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright' (Wittgenstein, 1961, p.74:6.54). Is it a permissible extrapolation from Wittgenstein to suggest that once we have left behind the ladder of logical analysis, we can be helped to mount further by means of the ladder of metaphorical insight? Wittgenstein is not himself shy of figurative language. The Tractatus and other writings are full of it and it flashes illumination on the argument as it is meant to do: 'logical space', 'substance of the world', 'objects are colourless' and (from Philosophical Investigations, 1968) 'language games'. We wonder whether, for Wittgenstein, metaphor can transcend the contingent and trigger insight into 'the mystical'. His own metaphor of the ladder suggests that it can and that while the mystical cannot be stated logically, it can be signalled metaphorically.

To view the world sub specie aeterni is to view it as a whole—a limited whole.

Feeling the world as a limited whole—it is this that is mystical.

(Wittgenstein, 1961, p.73:6.45)

Wittgenstein's early views reflected, amongst other influences, the empiricist tradition of

Bacon, Hobbes and Locke. His immediate predecessor on the Continent was Rudolf Carnap, the author of the notorious 'verification principle' which tests the propositions of physical science against immediate sense experience and simple relationships, expressed in 'protocol sentences'. Wittgenstein's legatee in English philosophy, A.J.Ayer, took the argument a crucial step further. By applying the 'verification principle' to all kinds of statements, he was able to claim that propositions which were neither analytic and tautologous (such as the symbols of logic and mathematics), nor synthetic and descriptive of the world (and therefore derived from sense experience), were strictly meaningless— sense-less.

Clearly the logical empiricist approach, of which Carnap, the early Wittgenstein and Ayer are representatives, takes its cue from certain presuppositions about the methods of the physical sciences. It is widely assumed within this tradition that the proper language of science is one that is literal, factual and precise. Science, it is claimed, presents facts rather than interpretations, realities rather than illusions, objectivity rather than subjectivity, precision rather than broad generalisations, descriptions rather than suggestive models.

Pierre Duhem (1861-1916) was a noted proponent of this view. For Duhem, scientific descriptions should shun images in favour of abstract formulae. Louis de Broglie wrote of Duhem:

Essentially a systematic mind, he was attracted by axiomatic methods which lay down exact postulates in order to derive by rigorous reasoning unassailable conclusions; he prized their solidity and rigour, and was far from repulsed by their dryness and exactness.

All theories based on images were vague and unstable; only hypotheses that could be expressed algebraically were pure and reliable (ibid., p.vii). Duhem was able to adopt this scornful attitude to symbolic descriptions in science because he held that it was not the business of science to venture beyond phenomena and to attempt to provide ultimate explanations—where, it seems, symbolic statements are the best that we can hope for.

The literary critic D.J.James, though presumably an amateur in this field, contends that all scientific language must 'abhor metaphor'. Scientific language is literal; poetic language is metaphorical. His view rests on the assumption that the task of science is to provide information, that of poetry to express states of mind. So James asserts:

Poetry in its pure secular nature ...advances no statements and propounds no doctrine... Poetry.affirms nothing in its great play of symbolism; it stakes, or utters, no claim—it does not put itself out for knowledge; it only shows how it imagines things.

James is driven to make the implausible assertion that 'philosophical poems', such as Lucretius' De Rerum Naturae, Wordsworth's The Prelude and Tennyson's In Memoriam (and what about Dante's La Divina Commedia?), are less poetical than purely lyrical poems and fall short of the poetic ideal (James, 1949, p.102).

The foundations of the social sciences are infected with the same prejudice. In his classic work in the sociology of religion, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Durkheim argued that religious language needed to be translated into the rigorous conceptualities of science: 'Logical thinking is always impersonal thinking, and is also thought sub specie aeternitatis—as though for all time. Impersonality and stability are the two characteristics of truth' (Durkheim, 1915, p.436). Disciplines such as theology, philosophy, ethics and metaphysics that are inimical to such disciplined speech are looked upon as belonging to a lower order of discourse—as dealing in opinion rather than knowledge, values rather than facts, subjective preference rather than objective entities.

As our argument develops, we will challenge this interpretation of science. We shall see that thinking in images is essential to scientific exploration and that broad, illuminating symbols are needed to interpret data. We shall also question the assumption that poetry makes no statement about the nature of reality and is purely non-cognitive. This will enable us to see an affinity between the perceptions expressed in poetry and the language of religious belief. Science, poetry and religion are all energised by the imagination and all tell us something about reality, appropriate to their various methods.

Metaphor, symbol and myth are the main constituents of figurative language and are therefore regarded by those influenced by this caricature of science as the prime culprits in the debasement of language. The terms metaphor, symbol and myth are commonly used in a pejorative and reductionist sense. The implication is that when we want to say something important, true and real we naturally shun metaphor, symbol or myth and speak plainly. They are deemed to carry a 'logical taint', to borrow Middleton Murray's phrase (Murray, 1937, 2nd series, pp.1ff.).

Some theologians, captivated by the prestige of the physical sciences, are suspicious of figurative language. T.F.Torrance, for example, has argued consistently for the primacy of aural over visual models of revelation and its reception. Torrance has claimed that thinking in images should be regarded as strictly subordinate to thinking in concepts, the word (logos), rational discourse, to guard against as a prophylactic for idolatry (Torrance, 1965, pp.20f., 50f., 87f.; 1969, pp.17ff.).

At the other extreme there are theologians who exploit the figurative forms of metaphor, symbol and myth, but take them in a non-cognitive or non-realist sense. For example, it is not clear to me that Sallie McFague in Metaphorical Theology believes that the metaphors or images that she advocates so persuasively do actually refer in the real world to a transcendent 'object' or whether she is 'bracketing out' the question of realism and working purely immanently with expressions of human subjectivity. On the one hand she speaks acceptably of 'dominant, founding metaphors as true but not literal', while on the other hand she insists that in theological language we are not dealing with 'reality as it is' but solely with perspectives on reality (McFague, 1982, pp.28, 134). The 'heavily projectionist' tenor of McFague's view of theological metaphors has been usefully exposed by Colin Gunton (in Kimel, ed., 1992).

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