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The Need For Metaphor: A Shift from Machine to Nature

June 30, 2014

The metaphorical use of words is vitally important for the transformational times we live in.  Why? Why can’t the explicit meaning of words themselves suffice?

biomimetic leadership 1

Metaphor originates from the Greek word meta meaning ‘across’ and pherein meaning ‘to carry’. Metaphor allows us to bring forth or carry over a deeper context which words on face-value can lack. As the writer Iain McGilchrist has explored, metaphor embodies thought and places it in a living context.

‘Metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world, because it is the only way in which understanding can reach outside the system of signs to life itself. It is what links language to life.’ – Iain McGilchrist

Let’s take a step back and explore the advent of the written word as a ‘system of signs of life’ in order to understand its limitations which metaphor may help transcend.

Originally language was not a code of representation but rather a generative creativity where the act of speaking was a participatory embodiment of the speaker within the lived-in environment; content as a participatory expression within context.

nature trees in trees

The phonemic singing of language still evident in many indigenous cultures today seems to have its roots in music. The pictographic ideograms and hieroglyphics found in Egypt some 3,000 BC, in China some 1,500 BC and in Mesoamerica around 600 BC enabled language to shift from purely oral to written and with that came a shift in sensory perception away from voice tones and body gestures very much within the sensory realm of the body to images.

Through syllables, concepts are represented in a way that the metaphoric essence of what is being expressed is relayed. These images portrayed the lived-in environment yet became more abstract in forming pictographic puns which invoked images that sound like the written explanation; the phonetic sound morphed into the written symbol. The sounds became transcribed as abstract content rather than the image of the content within its contextual meaning. The Hebrews and Phoenicians adopted the alphabet and in time so did the ancient Greeks.

The advent of the alphabet, hand-in-hand with the rise of rational logic as a tool to define reality, had a profound impact on our way of attending to life. No longer did images relate to their animate context, the words had become abstract re-presentations. The alphabet granted a new autonomy and permanence to abstract concepts enabling us to define things in an unchanging objectified way. This timeless yet abstract quality of the written word gives a sense of independence from the ever-changing corporeal realm. Yet, as Ralph Waldo Emerson explains when discussing words, ‘They cannot cover the dimensions of what is truth. They break, chop, and impoverish it.’

Metaphor helps re-immerse the content within its lived-in context, an abstract perspective within its deeper real-life context; re-embodying and so rejuvenating the impoverishing effect Emerson speaks of.

Eco-literacy specialist and world-renowned scientist Fritjof Capra speaks of the need for a new metaphor: a transformation from the metaphor of the machine to the metaphor of life – the network and self-organising system. Likewise, in business transformation, organisational change, management and leadership, we need new metaphors which deepen our engagement with reality beyond the metaphors of yesterday’s logic – those of the mechanistic, hierarchic, command-and-control, Neo-Darwinist organisation.

Nature as a word, Nature as a metaphor, Nature as so much more can inspire new ways of operating in helping us reach beyond restrictive mind-sets in understanding the depths of the world far beyond the limitations of the current paradigm. For instance, ‘the forest floor’ is a metaphor the Association of Sustainability Practitioners is developing to encompass a cultural way of collaborating, engaging and embodying sustainability service provision. Business ‘ecosystem’ is another metaphor increasingly being used to help shift the mind-set of ‘supply chain management’ and ‘customer relationship management’ of old into a way of inter-relating that fosters a wide variety of diverse stakeholders where the web of relations are understood beyond the point-to-point ‘chains’ of old. ‘Soil’ can be a metaphor for helping convey the importance of a fertile organisational culture, for instance where ‘failure becomes the compost for success’ and where creativity, innovation, growth, networking, re-configuration and release are all valued.


Nature as metaphor in business and beyond can powerfully help us see beyond the confines of yesterday’s logic while also opening us up to the Nature deep within and all around us. After all, true sustainability means being in harmony with Nature, anything less is, ultimately, unsustainable.


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View a short video clip on business inspired by nature here

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 2, 2014 7:22 pm

    I’m curious if you’ve been following the George Monbiot “price on nature” debate on the Guardian? Since you have referenced Iain McGilchrist, you are no doubt aware of George Lakoff’s work and how it fits within the world of cognitive linguistics and psychology and the disagreements Lakoff has had with well known Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker in the past. Ecosystem services and natural capital are also words the Biomimicry Institute still likes to use, not the mention the dreadful meme metaphor.

    • August 3, 2014 11:20 am

      Thanks for the comment. I will check up on The Guardian/Monbiot conversation on the price of nature. We seem so very much inured by the mindset of quantification and capitalisation that we are wedded to its language, logic and methods….change the mindset then we might get somewhere, beyond destroying everything we turn our attention to :- )

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