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Metaphors we argue by

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In our professional lives we often come across people who have opinions  that differ from ours. If our views matter to us, we may attempt to influence such people by presenting reasons why we think our positions are better than theirs.  In response they will do the same, and so we have an argument: a debate or a discussion involving differing points of view.  The point of disagreement could be just about anything –a design, a business decision or even a company dinner menu.  In this post I  explore the idea that the dictionary meanings of the word “argument” do  not tell the whole story about what an argument actually is. In their classic work on conceptual metaphors, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson show how metaphors  influence the way we view and understand human experiences (such as arguments).  Below, I look at a few metaphors for argument and discuss how they influence our attitudes  to the act of arguing.

Argument as war

In the very first chapter of their book, Lakoff and Johnson use the metaphor argument is war to illustrate how arguments are often viewed, practiced and experienced. Consider the following statements:

  1. He attacked my idea.
  2. I defended my position.
  3. He countered my argument.
  4. I won the argument.

These statements – and others similar to them – are often used to describe the experience of arguing. They highlight the essentially adversarial nature of debate in our society. Lakoff and Johnson suggest that this metaphor colours the way we think about and approach arguments. This makes sense – just think about the negative emotions and confrontational attitudes that people bring to meetings in which contentious matters are discussed.

However,  it doesn’t have to be that way. Consider the following metaphor…

Argument as art

In a  post on collaborative knowledge creation, I discussed how a specific kind of argument – design discussion – can be seen as a act of collaborative knowledge creation. Al Selvin uses the term knowledge art to refer to this form of argument.  As he sees it, knowledge art is a marriage of the two forms of discourse that make up the term. On the one hand, we have knowledge which, “… in an organizational setting, can be thought of as what is needed to perform work; the tacit and explicit concepts, relationships, and rules that allow us to know how to do what we do.” On the other, we have art which “… is concerned with heightened expression, metaphor, crafting, emotion, nuance, creativity, meaning, purpose, beauty, rhythm, timbre, tone, immediacy, and connection.”

Design discussions can be no less contentious than other arguments – in fact often they are even more so.   Nevertheless, if participants view the process as one of creation, then their emphasis is on working together to craft an aesthetically pleasing and functional design. They would then be less concerned about being right (or proving the other wrong) than about contributing what they know to make the design better. Of course, the right environment has to be in place for people to be able to work together (and that is another story in itself!), but the important point here is that there are non-adversarial metaphors for arguments, which can lead to productive rather than point-scoring debates.

Note that this metaphor does not just apply to design discussions.  Consider the following statements, which could be used in the context of any kind of argument:

  1. His words were well crafted.
  2. His ideas gave us a new perspective.
  3. He expressed his views clearly.

Among other things these statements emphasise that arguments can be conducted in a respectful and non-confrontational manner.

Argument as cooperation

One of the features of productive arguments is the way in which participants work together to make contributions that make a coherent whole. Consider the following statements:

  1. His contribution was important.
  2. His ideas complemented mine.
  3. The discussion helped us reach a shared understanding of the issue.
  4. The discussion helped us achieve a consensus.

Although this metaphor is almost the opposite of the “argument as war,” it is not hard to see that, given the right conditions and environment, arguments can actually work this way. But even if the conditions are not right, use of words that allude to cooperation can itself have a positive effect on how the argument is viewed by participants. In this sense the metaphor we use to describe the act of arguing actually influences the way we argue.

Argument as journey

This metaphor, also from Lakoff and Johnson, draws on the similarities between a journey and a debate. Consider the following statements:

  1. He outlined his arguments step-by-step.
  2. I didn’t know where he was going with that idea.
  3. We are going around in circles.

Use of the “argument as journey” metaphor, sets the tone for gradual elaboration / understanding of issues as the argument unfolds. The emphasis here is on progress, as in a journey. Note that this metaphor complements the “argument as art” and “argument as cooperation” metaphors – creating a work of art can be likened to a journey and cooperation can be viewed as a collective journey. These are examples of what Lakoff and Johnson call coherent metaphors.

Argument as quest

In my view, the “argument as quest” metaphor is perhaps a particularly useful one, especially for collaborative design discussions. Consider the following statements:

  1. We explored our options.
  2. We looked for the best approach.
  3. We examined our assumptions.

This metaphor, together with the  one that views argument as as a cooperative process, capture the essence of what collaborative design should be.

In summary

The most common metaphor for argument is the first one – argument as war. It is no surprise, then, that arguments are generally viewed in a negative way. To see that this is so, one only has to look up synonyms for the word – some of these are: disagreement, bickering, fighting, altercation etc. Positive synonyms are harder to come by – exchange was the best I could find, but even that has a negative connotation in this context (an exchange of words rather than ideas).

In their book, Lakoff and Johnson speculate what the metaphor argument as dance might entail. Here’s what they have to say:

Imagine a culture where 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.

They conclude that we may not even see what they are doing as “arguing.” They would simply have a different mode of discourse from our  adversarial one.

Lakoff and Johnson tell us that metaphors influence the way we conceptualise and structure our experiences, attitudes and actions.  In this post I have discussed how different metaphors for the term argument lead to different views of and attitudes toward the act of arguing.  Now, I’m no philosopher nor am I a linguist, but it seems reasonable to me that the metaphors people use when talking about the act of arguing tell us quite a bit about the attitudes will assume in deliberations.

In short: the metaphors we argue by matter because they influence the way we argue.

Written by K

March 22, 2011 at 10:17 pm

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