The power of metaphors

Interconnected webs of meaning.

Mike Brownnutt
Re-Assembling Reality
16 min readJul 14, 2023


Re-Assembling Reality #32, by Mike Brownnutt and David A. Palmer

If you have ever been pushed to think about metaphors, it was probably in an English class.

“When Shakespeare wrote that ‘all the world’s a stage,’
what did he really mean?”

You probably didn’t learn anything very significant from the answer to this. But you probably learned several significant things from the question:

—The meaning of a metaphor can be expressed in some non-metaphorical way.
— The non-metaphorical meaning is the real meaning.
— Metaphors have a place in English literature.
— Metaphors have no place in scientific literature.

To learn such things in the classroom is unfortunate, not least because they are all wrong.

If your schooling involved Religious Education, you may have also come across metaphors in this context.

“When the Psalmist wrote that ‘The Lord is my Shepherd,’
what did he really mean?”

Although the details of acting and shepherding are different, you learned the same basic lessons in Religious Education classes as you learned in English class. And they were still wrong.

When the psalmist wrote “The LORD is my shepherd,” he meant something. But what? (Credit: FreeSVG.)

This essay considers metaphors, the necessary role they play in making meaning, and the space they create for the necessary engagement of scientific and religious thought and practice.

Metaphors and meaning

We often assume that a word “means” what the dictionary says its definition is, and when our brains “make meaning of a word” we are connecting the word (like ‘stage’) to the definition of the word (‘a raised platform’).

However, as discussed in Essay 28d, that is neither how language works, nor how the human brain works.

We understand things in terms of connections with other things. If someone says “stage,” our brain immediately connects it to a host of other ideas: acting, theater, audiences, applause, heckling, Broadway, fame, insecurity. If someone saysplatform,” our brains form connections with other ideas: public speaking, lectern, prominence, advocacy.

Even when the literal meanings are incredibly close, the different connections we draw with a swirling cloud of related ideas brings radically different meanings to the statements, “The stage is all yours” and “You have been given a platform.” As an actor on a stage, I can use other people’s words to further my own prospects. As an advocate on a platform, I must use my own words to further other people’s prospects.

We cannot help ourselves. Our minds consciously and subconsciously create these webs, and the implicit connections with all of those diverse ideas bleed through into the meaning that we make. As Neil Postman puts it,

A metaphor is not an ornament, it is an organ of perception.
Through metaphors we see the world as one thing or another. [1]

What is a mind like?

The skeptic may push back: we know a stage and a platform are different, and come with different associations. We know that they provoke us to different courses of action. That is why the stage metaphor and the platform metaphor are used in two different contexts.

Maybe so. But what happens when we use different metaphors for one and the same activity? And what happens when the different metaphors for the same activity pull us in very different directions? Are we able to rise above the metaphors to objectively see what the world is “really, literally like”?

As most people only ever encounter metaphors in school, let us turn the spotlight on metaphors for education itself. What is the mind like, and what, then, is the task of the educator?

What is a mind like? Is it something you cultivate? Shape? Fill? Plumb? Exercise? or Illuminate? Does it filter ideas? or absorb them?

— The mind is like a garden. It needs cultivating.
If the teacher provides a nurturing environment, the student will blossom in their time.

— The mind is like a lump of clay. It needs shaping.
The student will sit there inert unless the teacher gets involved and applies pressure. And the student changes exactly and only when and where pressure is applied.

— The mind is like a vessel. It needs filling.
The role of the teacher is to pour knowledge from the world outside the student into the student’s otherwise empty mind.

— The mind is like a well. It needs drawing out.
The student’s mind contains many ideas. The role of the teacher is to draw up to the outside world that which the student already has inside. [2]

— The mind is like a muscle. It needs exercising.
A weak mind can be strengthened with use. The teacher shouts instructions regarding how to use it well.

— The mind is like a dark space. It needs illuminating.
The ideas are already there, hidden. The teacher must simply shine light on them, so they can be seen.

— The mind is like a strainer. It keeps what is good and lets go of the bad.
Provide the student an internet connection and they will learn all they need.

— The mind is like a sponge. It just soaks everything up.
Please — for the love of all that is good — do not leave this student alone with an internet connection!

Each metaphor suggests an entirely different situation in the real world. Entirely different things are expected of the student, the teacher, and the interactions between them. Many aspects of educational theory seem obvious when viewed with one metaphor, but can appear nonsensical or actively counter-productive in light of a different metaphor. A potter would apply firm pressure to the clay, and if there was no immediate change, they would apply more pressure. A gardener would never dream of applying pressure to the tender bud of a rose, lest they utterly destroy all they have worked for.

Let us consider a number of areas in which different metaphors about education suggest entirely different ways of thinking and acting.

“Growth mindset” or “fixed mindset”

Psychologists have noticed that people with a “growth mindset” — those who believe that abilities can be developed — do better in a variety of ways than those with a “fixed mindset” — who believe that abilities are essentially static [3]. The educational metaphors we use strongly shape our attitudes regarding growth against fixity.

A vessel metaphor tends towards a fixed mindset. Vessels typically have a fixed size. A vessel can be empty or full, but once they have been filled to the brim, there is nothing more to be done. One simply moves on to the next student, and hopes that they have a large “mental capacity.” By contrast, a well metaphor tends towards a growth mindset: there is almost no end to the amount of water one can extract. If you “plumb the depths” of the student’s thinking until no more ideas “bubble up” or “pour forth”, you can always “dig a little deeper.”

The garden metaphor, obviously, leans towards the idea that a mind can develop, just as a tree grows. Still, the development is within strict bounds: what started out a rose bush will become a bigger rose bush; never an apple tree. Bad luck to anyone who wants to change discipline; from being a physicist, say, to being a philosopher. By contrast, a clay metaphor provides exactly the opposite idea. The intellect never grows; you have at the end just as much as you started with. But it is infinitely re-moldable; at one moment formed into a figurine, the next re-formed into a vase. Until, presumably, it is baked and remains set in that final form for ever.

What we give and what we get

Each metaphor includes some notion of what the teacher gives to the educational activity, and what the student gets from the educational activity. And these vary wildly between metaphors.

In the vessel metaphor there is a direct relationship between what the teacher gives and what the student gets. If you want your student to be full of maths, you had better put lots of maths in. Likewise in the clay metaphor, if you want to effect a change in a particular place, that is exactly the place you need to push. Moreover, teaching and learning happen at the same time: the clay moves while you are pushing, and you keep pushing until the clay has moved to where you want it.

By contrast, in the garden metaphor, the input of the teacher and the output of the student are significantly disconnected. The input and output are different in type: the teacher adds water, the student brings forth flowers. The input and output are different in place: the teacher tends the roots, the student extends their branches. And the input and output are different in time: the teacher tends the soil today, with apparently no effect for months or years; the student, takes it in, stores it up and then, when the time is right, blossoms. A potter will keep pressing until the clay is in the desired shape, but a gardener would never simply keep watering until the flowers bloom!

The metaphors even vary with respect to what the student and the teacher can take credit for. In a vessel metaphor, the student’s capacity for knowledge is nothing to do with the teacher. The teacher takes credit for what knowledge the student has, but can take no blame for a student of limited capacity. In a gardening metaphor, the teacher can take credit for nurturing the intellect to become larger than it would have been able to grow in less-fertile soil. However, while the teacher may take credit for the prize-winning roses, they cannot take credit for the roses per se:, as the student would have bloomed eventually on their own, even without the teacher.

Does the teacher need to know anything?

In a vessel metaphor, the teacher had better have some knowledge to impart. You cannot fill a vessel with what you do not have. This is why we train maths teachers by teaching them maths, so that they can put maths into their students.

In a well metaphor, the teacher does not need to start with any water. The student will provide that. The teacher turns the handle on the pulley to draw the water out. This is why a person doesn’t need a degree in optics to teach an optics lab-course. As long as the teacher knows how an oscilloscope works, a few probing questions can get the students to work the rest out for themselves.

In a dark space metaphor, the teacher does not even go equipped to find a particular thing; they just shine the light into the recesses of the student’s mind and hope they will recognize something interesting when they see it. This is one of the (much underestimated) strengths of a liberal-arts education: you are given a breadth of understanding to recognize something significant when you see it.

Conceptual domains: Education as plague

When we consider “All the world’s a stage” as our archetypical metaphor, we imagine that the metaphor can be reasonably well contained, and that each part of the metaphor can be stated and explained. We are glad that Shakespeare (through the character Jaques) explained to us that “all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.”

However, when we want to express an idea, and are looking around for words, phrases, concepts, understandings, frames, and metaphors to use, it is hardly surprising that things which fit the existing metaphor often feel appropriate. Thus, once a metaphor has started, it does not stay neatly contained, but snowballs.

As soon as people found that a gardening metaphor provided fertile soil in which the seeds of new ideas could be planted, the metaphor itself started to grow. After initial nurturing, it firmly took root in our thinking, with new inspiration sprouting forth, branching out in different directions. Even ideas from elsewhere could be grafted in. Many branches of discourse which stemmed from this have flourished, blossomed, and borne fruit. If, however, the metaphor is not cultivated it may ultimately whither and die.

This expanding web of interconnections holds for metaphors of which we are conscious. But it also works at a subconscious level. Even when there is no explicit metaphor, the effect can be seen by looking at the conceptual domain of the words we use. If there is a word that we already use (like “catch”) and our brain connects it — by whatever route, in whatever context, for what ever reason — to another word (like “contagious”) then it is only a small leap to add “contagious” as an adjective for thinking about things we “catch”.

A methodical, rational brain might reasonably object and say, “Hang on, that is not what they were talking about. This new connection is totally irrelevant!” But we do not have methodical rational brains. We have brains that grab the new metaphor and run with it. Look:

Metaphor #1: Ideas are objects to be held

I’m going to drop a new idea into the conversation.
See what you can pick up.
Let me throw some suggestions at you.
Did you catch anything I said?

And my brain, with the attention span of a squirrel on coffee beans, says “Ooh! You can ‘catch’ an idea!”

Metaphor #2: Ideas as plague

I caught everything you said.
Your conviction is contagious.
I can see these ideas spreading.
They could go viral.

After the examination, the test results showed I hadn’t caught anything the teacher had said.

And before you object (correctly) that this is ridiculous and (incorrectly) that this is never going to have any serious influence on the way we think about education, consider the following conversation between two students on their way to class:

“I’ve got statistics now.”
“I thought you’d had that already.”

Is statistics like flu? Does “having it” before protect you from “getting it” again? Do we have to “take a course of statistics,” like we “take a course of medicine”? Is that why you have to take a new maths course each year, like some booster shot, because the inoculation doesn’t last?

When I go to the doctor I am given a medical examination which, once he has seen my test results, he tells me I have passed, and gives me a medical certificate to prove it.

Maybe the plague metaphor is the reason we crowd students into poorly ventilated lecture halls. Maybe we fear that fresh air and sunlight will break the chain of transmission?

Surely, you think, this point is made in jest! It is a pun, a play on words. It is absurd. It cannot be serious.

But it is incredibly serious. And it is all the more serious because it is so powerful and we don’t even notice it.

We spend so much time, money, and effort on education, there is surely a motivation to improve it. We think we make decisions on how to do education because of evidence-based research, or sound pedagogical theory, or on some other reasonable, rational basis. And yet all attempts at changing education are interpreted and adopted or rejected through the landscape of the metaphors we use.

“No educational reform, or increase in funding, or modernisation of assessment will impact education as much as changing the metaphors we use.” [4]

When the metaphor is driving

If education is a plague, we would give students tests and examinations, just as we do with sick people. But, surely, we do not do this because of the metaphor. Surely it is obvious that, having educated a person, we should examine them to see what they have learned? What else could we do?

By changing the metaphor, alternatives move from being unimaginable to obvious. And once a new metaphor is adopted, the changes are not just obvious but necessary.

What if education was like athletics? This is surely a reasonable idea. Why else would we speak of learning as “training” and give students “exercises”?

We do not examine athletes. We let them compete.
A person does not
pass a competition, they win it.
You do not give athletes a
certificate, you give them a medal.
The successful athlete is the one who
tops the rankings.

Now you know why we have Maths Olympiads. With competitions, and winners, and medals, and rankings.

If education is like medicine, then we need exams, which people can pass, and receive a certificate. Then people pass on what has been learned. If education is like athletics, then we need a competition, which people can win, and receive a medal. Then people rank what has been learned.

If students are athletes and education is a competition, rankings make sense. Ranking is now so ubiquitous in education that we can barely imagine an education system without it. But it is worth taking a step back and realising that education as competition is a very recent metaphor. And it has done very strange things to our thinking; things which would be utterly absurd under other metaphors.

Ranking makes no sense in medicine for example. For as long as we view education as medicine, rankings would be ridiculous.

If I have heart disease, why should I care that I nonetheless have the healthiest heart on my ward? That is utterly irrelevant. I care, rather, that I have heart disease! And if I don’t properly understand calculus, why should I be glad that I am nonetheless top of my class? That is utterly irrelevant. I should care, rather, that I don’t properly understand calculus.

When I am discharged after heart surgery, why should I care whether my heart is as good as that of the guy next to me? I do not! I care, rather, that my heart is now healthy enough to let me live my life. And when I graduate from university, why should I care if my GPA is in the top 10%? I should not! I should care, rather, that I have learned what I need to live my life.

When I leave hospital, do I boast about the hospital; that it has the best surgery outcomes in the country? Or am I simply glad that, in my case, I had successful surgery? And when I leave university, do I boast about the university; that it is the best educational establishment in the country? Or am I simply glad that, in my case, I had a good education? And by “good education” I surely cannot mean that I got a GPA in the top 10% of my class. I mean that it was good enough that I can now live my life.

The rise of the education as competition metaphor has transformed how we do education, as have the medicine, vessel, and well metaphors in their time. In some sense these transformations should be both surprising and alarming.

We always connect ideas — winning, racing, measuring, comparing, ranking. We cannot help ourselves; no idea exists in isolation. But when we connect such ideas in an educational context, we do not do so because the connections exist in the educational domain, but because they exist in the competitive domain. When we attach the competition metaphor to education, we do not then shape the metaphor to fit the way education works, so much as we shape the way education works to align with the metaphor.

It should be obvious from this that a poorly chosen metaphor can have exceptionally wide-ranging and destructive implications, just as an opportune metaphor can have exceptionally wide-ranging and fruitful implications. And most metaphors, not so much chosen as spaffed, provide a mixed bag of unintended consequences beyond both our wildest dreams and wildest nightmares.

Can we rise above metaphors?

No, we cannot.

Neil Postman asserted, as we quoted earlier, that “a metaphor is not an ornament, it is an organ of perception. Through metaphors we see the world as one thing or another.”

The questions we were asked in English classes about Shakespeare and the world being a stage assumed that the meaning of any metaphorical statement is rooted in some set of literal statements. We now find the exact opposite: the meaning of any literal statement is rooted in some set of metaphorical statements. This is simply how human beings make meaning. We could not do it differently if we tried.

It is not that the “true meaning” of a metaphor is rooted in literal statements.

Rather, the “true meaning” of a literal statement is rooted in metaphors.

To some extent we can choose between one set of metaphors and another. We can develop a tendency to think of the mind in terms of a garden, for example, rather than in terms of a vessel. Our best efforts at choosing metaphors will, however, be frustrated. Sometimes our language will tie our hands and make this difficult. What gardening expression can one use to substitute common idioms like “I have an idea in my mind”? There may be similar idioms (such as “an idea has taken root in my mind”) but even then, they take us in different directions. (To simply “put an idea out of your mind” seems much easier than having to “uproot an idea.”) Sometimes our institutions will stubbornly persist in adhering to policies arising from metaphors we ourselves reject, and there is nothing we can do to change them. (Nothing kills a dark space metaphor, where the teacher explores the students’ understanding, faster than the need to provide, in advance, an hour-by-hour lesson plan of what the students will learn.)

Regardless of how effective or futile our efforts may be to choose or change the metaphors we live by, the one thing we cannot do is rise above them. We cannot live a metaphor-free life. We cannot say what education is “really like” without drawing on metaphors. We cannot say anything without drawing on metaphors.

The trick, then, is not to do away with them but, to some reasonable degree, be aware of them. To notice what they do to our thinking. To follow where such connections may be helpful, and be critically aware of where they may not be.

It’s not just education

This essay has discussed metaphors in education. It has not said much — at least not directly — about science or religion. Still, in setting out some initial ideas about metaphors, it has raised issues which must be taken very seriously in science, in religion, and in understanding the interrelationships between science and religion.

One similarity between science and religion is that some people think that their claims should be taken simply at face value:
— “Science simply makes objective factual statements,” or
— “The Bible should simply be interpreted literally.”

Another similarity between science and religion is that such sentiments — in either field — should raise large red flags. We cannot say anything without drawing on metaphors.

Specific examples in science and religion will be unpacked in the next essay.

Further reading

This essay has attempted to shift the conception of metaphors: Rather than thinking that metaphors find their real meaning in terms of literal statements, literal statements find their real meaning in terms of metaphors. Two key people in making this shift are George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. They wrote a book called Metaphors We Live By (1980) and you can watch a summary of it here:


[1] Neil Postman, The End of Education (1995).

[2] As progressive as this well metaphor sounds, it is incredibly old. The word educate entered English 600 years ago, and comes from the Latin educere, meaning ‘to draw out’.

[3] Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2007).

[4] Neil Postman, The End of Education (1995).



Mike Brownnutt
Re-Assembling Reality

I have a Master's in theology and a PhD in physics. I am employed in social work to do philosophy. Sometimes I pretend that's not a bit weird.