I Is an Other:

The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World


Metaphor is most familiar as the literary device through which we describe one thing in terms of another, as when Shakespeare has Romeo say: “Juliet is the sun.” But metaphor is much more than a mere literary device employed by love-struck poets when they refer to their girlfriends as interstellar masses of incandescent gas. Metaphor is intensely yet inconspicuously present in everything from economics and advertising to politics and business to science and psychology. We utter about one metaphor for every 10 to 25 words, or about six metaphors a minute.


Metaphor lives a secret life all around us. It conditions our interpretations of the stock market and, through advertising, it surreptitiously infiltrates our purchasing decisions. In the mouths of politicians, metaphor subtly nudges public opinion; in the minds of businesspeople, it spurs creativity and innovation. In science, metaphor is the preferred nomenclature for new theories and new discoveries; in psychology, it is the natural language of human relationships and emotions. Metaphor is a way of thought long before it is a way with words.


In I Is an Other, [http://www.amazon.com/Other-Secret-Metaphor-Shapes-World/dp/0061710288/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1280664480&sr=1-1] James Geary takes readers from Aristotle’s investigation of metaphor right up to the latest neuroscientific insights on how metaphor works in the brain. He explains why new research in the social and cognitive sciences makes it increasingly plain that metaphor influences our attitudes, beliefs, and actions in surprising, hidden, and often oddball ways. He details how metaphor has finally leapt off the page and landed with a mighty splash right in the middle of our stream of consciousness.


Advance reviews for I Is an Other


“This is perhaps the very best book on metaphor ever written!”

—Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr., professor of psychology, University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of The Poetics of Mind: Figurative Thought, Language, and Understanding


“Geary vividly shows the poetry, the science, and the power of metaphor in every aspect of our lives. From anthropology to behavioral economics to social psychology to cognitive psychology to neuroscience, he gets the science right. A first-rate achievement.”

—Sam Glucksberg, professor of psychology, Princeton University


“Metaphors are not just for poets anymore. As Geary’s wonderful book shows, metaphors are a major way we communicate with each other and even a major way your own body communicates with your brain! Geary shows us that once you look for them, metaphors are everywhere, like water to a fish, which might explain why we have taken them for granted for so long and therefore missed their important clues about the basic architecture of the mind.”

—John A. Bargh, professor of psychology and cognitive science, Yale University


“Sherlock Holmes could glance at a bowler hat and tell that its owner’s wife had ceased to love him. In this brilliant book, James Geary is no less astonishing, as he deciphers the subtle implications embedded in advertising slogans, familiar slang, and government double-talk. After all, human beings don’t just use language; language uses us. Whether a man refers to his wife as the ‘light of his life’ or his ‘old ball and chain’ says a mouthful about their marriage. Linguistic theory, brain research, Asperger’s syndrome, childhood education—Geary covers all these with a crack reporter’s eye for the humanizing detail and an easy-going essayist’s light touch. You’ll learn an immense amount about metaphor from I is an Other, but you’ll also have more fun than a barrel of monkeys or a ride on a Ferris wheel or a trip to the moon on gossamer wings.”

—Michael Dirda, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and author of Book by Book and Classics for Pleasure

“There are books that are in themselves a whole library of wit and wisdom: James Geary’s I Is an Other is one of them. This is a distillation of distillations, a core collection of core pronouncements, the crème de la crème de la crème.”

—Alberto Manguel, author of The Library at Night and A History of Reading

“This book is for everyone interested in the subtle operations of language and thought. James Geary brings into play an astonishing range of thinking on the matter—literary, commercial, scientific. His examples and anecdotes are compelling. In all, he’s a marvelous teacher, with his own unique gifts of expression. I is an Other is one of those ‘must-read’ books for this year, for any year. It deserves a wide audience, and it will find one.”

—Jay Parini, Professor of English and Creative Writing, Middlebury College and author of Promised Land: Thirteen Books that Changed America


An Extract from the book:


Why I Is an Other


In later life, Arthur Rimbaud was an anarchist, businessman, arms dealer, financier, and explorer. But as a teenager, all he wanted to be was a poet. In May of 1871, the 16-year-old Rimbaud wrote two letters, one to Georges Izambard, his former teacher, and one to Paul Demeny, a publisher he was keen to impress.

Rimbaud waited around for Izambard every day, palely loitering outside the school gates, eager to show the young professor his most recent verse. He also peppered Demeny with copies of his work, accompanied by notes in which he effused about his poems and dropped heavy hints that he would not be at all averse to seeing them in print.

In these two missives, known together as the Seer Letters, Rimbaud outlined his vision for a new kind of poetry. “A Poet makes himself a visionary,” he lectured Demeny, “through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses.” Only that, Rimbaud argued, could create a language that “will include everything: perfumes, sounds, colors, thought grappling with thought.”

Rimbaud’s poetic program involved upsetting conventional orders of perception, deranging habitual ways of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting, and re-arranging them in novel combinations. Fresh, vivid, sometimes shocking images resulted when sense impression jostled sense impression, when thought grappled with thought.

“I got used to elementary hallucination,” Rimbaud wrote in A Season in Hell. “I could very precisely see a mosque instead of a factory, a drum corps of angels, horse carts on the highways of the sky, a drawing room at the bottom of a lake.”

To achieve this systematized disorder, Rimbaud believed the poet needed to see similarity in difference and difference in similarity. Things are never just things in themselves; a visionary company of associations, correspondences, semblances always attends them. Everything can be seen—and, for Rimbaud, everything should be seen—as something else.

Rimbaud summarized his poetic mission, and his working method, in the phrase:


I is an other.


“I is an other” is more than just the Seer Letters’ grandest dictum. It is metaphor’s defining maxim, its secret formula, and principal equation. Metaphor systematically disorganizes the common sense of things—jumbling together the abstract with the concrete, the physical with the psychological, the like with the unlike—and re-organizes it into uncommon combinations.

Metaphor is most familiar as the literary device through which we describe one thing in terms of another, as when the author of the Old Testament “Song of Songs” describes a lover’s navel as “a round goblet never lacking mixed wine” or when medieval Muslim rhetorician Abdalqahir Al-Jurjani pines, “The gazelle has stolen its eyes from my beloved.”

Yet metaphor is much, much more than this. Metaphor is not just confined to art and literature but is at work in all fields of human endeavour, from economics and advertising to politics and business to science and psychology.

Metaphor conditions our interpretations of the stock market and, through advertising, it surreptitiously infiltrates our purchasing decisions. In the mouths of politicians, metaphor subtly nudges public opinion; in the minds of businesspeople, it spurs creativity and innovation. In science, metaphor is the preferred nomenclature for new theories and new discoveries; in psychology, it is the natural language of human relationships and emotions.

These are just some of the ways metaphor pervades our daily lives and daily minds. But there is no aspect of our experience not molded in some way by metaphor’s almost imperceptible touch. Once you twig to metaphor’s modus operandi, you’ll find its fingerprints on absolutely everything.

Metaphorical thinking—our instinct not just for describing but for comprehending one thing in terms of another, for equating I with an other—shapes our view of the world, and is essential to how we communicate, learn, discover, and invent.

Metaphor is a way of thought long before it is a way with words.

Our understanding of metaphor is in the midst of a metamorphosis. For centuries, metaphor has been seen as a kind of cognitive frill, a pleasant but essentially useless embellishment to ‘normal’ thought. Now, the frill is gone. New research in the social and cognitive sciences makes it increasingly plain that metaphorical thinking influences our attitudes, beliefs, and actions in surprising, hidden, and often oddball ways.

Metaphor has finally leapt off the page and landed with a mighty splash right in the middle of our stream of consciousness. The waves rippling out from that impact are only just beginning to reach us.

Edouard Claparède, a Swiss neurologist and early investigator of memory who died in 1940, studied individuals with brain lesions and other neurological damage that affected their abilities to create new memories and recall old ones. One of his patients was a woman who had no short-term memory whatsoever. She perfectly remembered the more distant past, including her childhood, but the recent past was a total blank. Unable to form any new memories, this woman saw Claparède every day at his clinic yet had no recollection of ever meeting him. Each time they met, it was as if for the very first time.

Claparède wanted to test whether some part of this woman’s brain did indeed remember him. So one day he concealed a pin in his hand and, when the woman arrived for her next session, he shook her hand. The woman cried out in pain and withdrew her hand.

The following day, the woman arrived as usual for her appointment and, as usual, professed never before to have seen Claparède. But when Claparède proffered his hand to shake, she hesitated, fearing another jab.

The experiment proved that, on some unconscious level, the woman recalled the physical pain associated with Claparède’s handshake. Therefore, Claparède concluded, some vestige of her short-term memory was still at work.

Like Claparède’s handshake, metaphor slips a pin into the quotidian. By mixing the foreign with the familiar, the marvellous with the mundane, metaphor makes the world sting and tingle. Though we encounter metaphor every day, we typically fail to recognize it. Its influence is profound, but takes place mostly outside our conscious awareness. Yet once metaphor has us in its grasp it never lets us go, and we can never forget it.