Figuring out a scientific understanding

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Abstract

This article attempts to place analogy and metaphor within the wider context of all figurative language, and to trace the relationship between that kind of expression and the supposedly literal and direct accounts of nature that scientists have built up.

I explore the functions of figures of speech in the development of new scientific ideas, and trace how they fade or die as each area of scientific knowledge matures. What we then take to be the literal words of scientific description are in effect the remnants of old figures of speech that have grown so familiar that their earlier metaphorical quality is easily overlooked. The conventional separation of figurative and literal cannot be sustained, and a new understanding of their relationship is needed.

The practical implications of this analysis are to do with how we can reactivate the dormant metaphors in ordinary scientific language, so that learners may hear again the human voice of scientists who developed the ways of talking we now take for granted. To reactivate the system of thought behind any established way of talking, we must be able to get the learners to understand that language works as a medium of interpretation and persuasion, and not simply a system of descriptive labeling. These two views of language are compared and contrasted.

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