Bacteria Thoughts

essay on metaphoric versus rational thinking

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Location: Taipei, Taiwan

Sunday, August 11, 2002

Bacteria Thoughts

an essay on metaphoric thinking by Rolf-Peter Wille

Thinking, we are told, is analysis. Thinking, we are told, is rational, is understanding. Order in our mind, we believe, is like order in space. Our living space is ordered to scientific standards, unless we live in Bohemian or piggish circumstances. The sofa goes in the living-room, the refrigerator in the kitchen and not vice versa. Likewise in a good sentence the noun stands at the beginning, the verb in the middle, and the object at the end: "I play the piano." and not "The piano play I."

Since Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, our mind is thought to be a catalogue: mammals are mammals, reptiles are reptiles and fish is fish. All those belong to the family of vertebrates and they are not to be mixed up with the family of bacteria, for example. The word "family" is misleading in this connection, because it reminds us of a cozy—or maybe not so cozy—home. But sorry: We are not supposed to be reminded of anything, except: Vertebrates into the living-room, bacteria into the kitchen!

Do you have to laugh now? How come? Wait a moment. Actually we have been thinking, I insist. But not in a rational manner. We have mixed two examples: the "sofa/living-room is not refrigerator/kitchen" example on the one hand, and on the other hand the "vertebrates is not bacteria" example. I have projected the second example onto the first one, the vertebrates replaced the sofa (or maybe they are just sitting on it) and the bacteria went to freeze in the refrigerator (they deserve it, of course). We can go on and on now. We can invent a story, how the bacteria managed to get out of the refrigerator, for example. Maybe there was a black-out because our story unfolds in Taiwan. The vertebrates, let’s say they are crocodiles, fell asleep on the sofa. The bacteria started to invade. This is quite interesting: Actually the ideas are invading my (crocodile) mind right now like bacteria. I have been injected by the bacteria of inspiration. How did that happen? Well, we just projected one event onto the other. It may be called "metaphoric projection." The second example "bacteria against vertebrates" was the metaphor thrown onto our "living-room against kitchen" target. This, indeed, is like an invasion. The metaphor invades the target, our imagination is injected by the bacteria of new possibilities. And this…, is it not thinking?

But what happens with our poor rational understanding? Let me use a metaphor. Let us compare our mind to our stomach: The metaphoric, or creative, thinking would be the food. The nourishment. The calories. The vitamins. Rational understanding and reflection in this analogue would resemble the digestive apparatus. Bacteria again, but those bacteria that digest the food. We may have swallowed a not so fresh metaphor, for example. The bacteria of reflection will brake it up, divide it into harmless components. Rational thinking and reflection, thus, do not really create, but they help us defend our thinking, free it from the enslavement of metaphor.

Enslavement of metaphor? Yes. Most metaphors are only fresh and cute at the moment of their conception. Some of them, when they grow old, become either crocodiles or violent bacteria. Are you bored already with my crocodile and bacteria examples? Yes, of course. These examples are no longer fresh. I have cooked them again and again in this essay. I stop here and you start to think and cook your own metaphors. Bon appétit!

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