I is an Other: A book review by Bob Morris

I is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World
James Geary
Harper/An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers (2011)

How and why the metaphor “lives a secret life all around us”

Sometimes especially helpful information about a book’s purposes and structure is provided near its conclusion and that is certainly true of this one as James Geary cites, in the final chapter, what Hart Crane characterizes as “the logic of metaphor” which Geary believes is the logic of human lives. “Metaphor impinges on everything, allowing us – poets and non-poets alike – to experience and think about the world in fluid, unusual ways. Metaphor is the bridge we fling between the utterly strange and the utterly familiar, between dice and drowned men’s bones, between I and an other.” (Page 226). The book’s title refers to Arthur Rimbaud’s summary explanation of his working method, “I is an other.” (Note: Rimbaud’s most famous poem is Le bateau ivreThe Drunken Boat.) Geary views Rimbaud’s concept as “Metaphor’s defining maxim, its secret formula, and its principal equation” and wrote this book in which he explains how and why metaphors are explicit comparisons of perceived realities.


Here in Dallas, there is a Farmer’s Market near the downtown area at which several merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as sample. In that spirit, I now offer a representative selection of brief excerpts from the narrative that suggest the thrust and flavor of Geary’s thinking.

o  Metaphor “is at work in all fields of human endeavor, from economic and advertising, to politics and business, to science and psychology…Metaphorical thinking — our instinct not just for describing but for [begin italics] comprehending [end italics] 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.” (Page 3)

o  “The ability to mind-read enables us to understand that what people do is not always what they think; how people act is not always how they feel; and what people mean is nit always what they say, a process akin to pretend play; another activity in which people with ASD [Asperger’s Syndrome] have difficulty engaging.” (50)

o  “Priming experiments are case studies in the vitality of metaphorical language. A metaphor occurs when someone apprehends previously unapprehended relations between things. The metaphor perpetuates this fresh apprehension until, through time, core associations form. These associations cling fast to words themselves, eventually becoming so routine that they continue to appear long after the original relation has ceased to be consciously apprehended.” (115)

o  “Parables and proverbs feature so prominently in folk wisdom and religious scripture because there is no way to convey spiritual truths other than to set them side by side with natural truths. The numinous is the nitty gritty. I is an other.” (196)

o  “Synectics consultants use metaphor to spur business innovation; psychotherapists James Lawley and Penny Tompkins use it to inspire psychological insight. Through a process called symbolic modeling, they help clients create and explore metaphors around crucial emotions or personal dilemmas.” (208)

Until reading this book, I was unaware of the fact that, as Geary describes it, metaphor “lives a secret life all around us.” For example, we utter about one metaphor for every 10-15 words or about six metaphors a minute. I agree with Geary that gaining an understanding of the nature and extent of metaphor’s presence in our lives (invoking a simile) is “like reading a book about that process.” How important is it to gain that understanding? According to Aristotle, the mastery of metaphorical thinking is “a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.” The reader, for example, and another reader….

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