The Significance of Metaphors for the Language of Science


In the recent years, the emergence of metaphors on the pages of scientific papers is not as surprising as it was several decades ago since they are woven into the fabric of the language of science quite organically. At the same time, a metaphor was primarily perceived as a figure of embellishment that is suitable only for the aesthetic understanding of reality. It is natural to assume that it is admissible in creative texts (poems, verses) but can be rather misleading in any serious work. However, like everything in this world, science does not stand still, and the new ideas, which it generates, have resulted in the formation of the new methodological orientations on the features and operation of laws of the scientific language. As a result, the role of metaphor in the development of the language of science cannot be overemphasized. As the use of the word in a figurative sense and the transfer of the name of one object to another, it has ceased to be a simple tool of the linguistic expression of similarity. The metaphor has affected the content of the concepts of scientific knowledge and truth, which means that its significance should be rethought. Therefore, metaphor must receive the VIP status in the language of science instead of its current position of persona non grata because it is a specific way of cognition, without which scientific discoveries and popularization of science are virtually impossible.



Metaphor and Science: The Definition

In order to understand the significance of metaphors in the scientific language, it is necessary to establish a connection between the first and science as a whole. It is possible to say that science is a specific form of human activity that provides the production of new knowledge. In this regard, one may ask about the nature of knowledge that is produces – in other words, the object of science. It may include such concepts as time, space or history. Taking into account that the primary goal of science is to understand the world as an objective reality, it is possible to say that its main task is the identification of the universe’s causal relationships and laws. Moreover, the knowledge of them is obtained in a heuristic way, i.e., in the course of experiments. This approach was considered traditional for many centuries. Under such conditions, the scientists had to state their thoughts objectively and precisely. On the other hand, metaphor is an expression that is used in a figurative sense being based on the unnamed comparison of the objects on the basis of their common feature. As a result, one can assume that these concepts have nothing in common but such statement is far from being true.

Metaphor as a Driving Force of the Progress

One can argue that metaphors are among the driving forces of progress since they ensure the better understanding of scientific concepts by common people popularizing the science. Indeed, in the language of science, many metaphors have a support function, i.e., they provide the necessary explanation to a listener or reader by creating the so-called verbal images. The idea of inferiority of imagery in scientific style can be considered obsolete. Albert Einstein who has lived in the first half of the 20th century has noted that an individual cannot achieve a sufficient level of mental development without verbal guidance, which the environment provides. In this regard, metaphors are more efficient than dry facts since they make it possible to associate the scientific laws, rules, and concepts with one’s personal experiences. In turn, one can understand and memorize them easily.

The scientific language can be perceived as a tool for learning while metaphor becomes one of the mechanisms of thinking. The use of metaphors is a process of such interaction, which entities and operations offer, that leads to the new knowledge about the world. The addition of already cognized reality to the new concept accompanies metaphorization, and the latter is expressed in the form of transfer of features of one object to another due to the presence of similar characteristics. At the same time, the presence of the certain level of mental development is a necessary condition for understanding a metaphor (i.e., its adequate interpretation). As it was mentioned before, it can be achieved with the help of verbal guidance, i.e., the other metaphors. The described processes occur in the course of language practice that deals not with the real things and phenomena but with their reflections in the human mind. Therefore, to understand the metaphor, one must follow the path of its creation, which requires certain efforts aimed at the overcoming of the incompatibility of values and building of semantic harmony. Such activity provides deeper understanding of the subject potentially increasing the amount of people involved in science (for example, the future inventors and researchers). Moreover, they are likely to be more successful in life being better adapted to the realities of technocratic society, which ensures an increase of their numbers as well as the further improvement of their knowledges and skills. In turn, they will become the driving force of the scientific progress.

Metaphor as a Necessity

One might think that as a figure of embellishment that is suitable for the aesthetic understanding of reality, a metaphor is not appropriate to science. However, it is possible to say that any idea including the one, which a particular scientist presents, is metaphoric in its nature. The scientific language, in contrast to the one, which people use in the everyday life, is considered formalized. In particular, each concept is designed to have a precise definition, and it seems that metaphor with its uncertainty and semantic diffuseness cannot and should not be placed in the clear, evidence-based world of science. However, such statement is far from being true as it will be demonstrated further.

In the 20th century the situation has changed. The various branches of science became intertwined resulting in collaboration between different specialists. In particular, Albert Einstein has noted that modern scientific concepts are the results of cooperative efforts of the best minds of the world. He has also stated that they are to serve as the guides for people so they could learn the truth behind the foundations of the world. At the same time, for the mentioned concepts to be trustworthy, the knowledge scientists exchange must be understandable to them. In other words, they must convert the existing knowledge into a model for the construction of new methods, theories, and scientific disciplines. It is impossible without methodological thinking, which uses the known methods, theories, and scientific disciplines as examples. The call for such methodological exchange can be considered an offer to people to theorize metaphorically as the examples mentioned above can be presented in the form of metaphors in order to increase their accessibility. In turn, the minds of the researchers move from one metaphor to another creating the new installations with each step. Methodological sciences association at the present stage is becoming more productive through recourse to metaphor.

At the same time, apart from the collaboration between the representatives of its different branches, it became known that the science is more mythological than people have thought. It is possible to refer to the works of Kurt Gödel, the creator of the famous theories of the incompleteness of formal systems and the impossibility of proving the consistency of a formal system. According to them, the intellectual procedures always work in the same way as every theory is based on a certain set of dogmas meaning that the attempts to build an ideal formalized language system are doomed to failure. In other words, scientific descriptions of objects cannot provide their comprehensive definition. In case there is no solution within a particular system, it is necessary to go beyond its borders, i.e., to use metaphors. As a result, any apparent disharmony between the experimental facts can be eliminated through the proper expansion of the system of concepts. Niels Bohr who has formulated the principle of metaphorization as applied to physical objects expressed the similar point of view. According to him, it can be perceived in the sense that both aspects (for example, the light being a wave and a particle at the same time) reflect equally important properties of the phenomena, which cannot enter the conflict with each other. This principle has become fundamental with the scientists of various disciplines turning to this concept. As a result, they deal with a rational development of their ways to classify and understand the new facts, which by their nature do not find a place in the framework of causal description. It is common knowledge that in order to obtain better understanding of something, it is necessary to go either one step forward or one step back to see it from the perspective view. The other branch of science, the concepts, images, and paradigms of which are being understood metaphorically, often play the role of such perspective.

As a result, this collaboration has become a driving force of the scientific revolution resulting in the intense generation of the new knowledge. There is an urgent need for the radical restructuring of the semantic field of the terms. Albert Einstein notes that it is often difficult to find words to describe concepts and their combinations even in case the connection between the components is clear. In other words, the new information causes a state of wonder rendering the researcher speechless and requiring a new language to describe it – the language of novelty. Such situation is a complex process of realization of the insolvency of the old language in terms of cognizing and describing the new concepts as well as understanding of the need to develop a new metaphorical language.

There is a genetic link between metaphors and novelty since something new can be expressed only through the metaphor while each metaphor presents something new. Therefore, metaphor invites the scientist to make a discovery. The process of creative metaphorization can be perceived as a small discovery by itself. Without it, there can be no breakthrough into the unknown. Such articulation of the new knowledge represents an essential role of metaphor in science. The development of any language including the scientific one is unthinkable without the work of its main functions in the metaphorical mode. In the personal exchange by new information, metaphor becomes the so-called quantum of communication. In other words, in case the researchers sought to express something new they have discovered but the available means of scientific language do not allow them to do so, they often resort to the use of a metaphor. At the initial stage of any discovery, it is important to verbalize the new knowledge in a figurative way to express the author's thoughts about it, and it is metaphor that successfully fulfills this task.

Thus, the use of metaphors is inevitable in any area of cognition since the humanity's desire for knowledge often exceeds its possibilities of acquiring the new information. In this regard, metaphor becomes one of the best cognitive tools since metaphorization is a means for representing a particular system with the help of concepts from another sphere of experience where its elements are more obvious and easier to measure and assess. For example, when describing his model of the atom, Niels Bohr compared it to the structure of the solar system, thus, comparing something that cannot even be seen to a well-researched object. As a result, the science is not an example of literal language as it was previously thought. Moreover, metaphor, which is vividly present in the modeling process, ensures the development of science.

Counterargument: Metaphor as a Persona Non Grata

At the same time, there is no doubt that many scientists consider the use of metaphors in scientific language inappropriate. As it was mentioned before, it differs from the one used in the everyday life being more complex and precise. One should understand that metaphors, on the other hand, bring the elements of the individual’s personal perception to it, which means that the same scientific concept can be described differently depending on the experience, knowledge, and imagination of a person. As a result, the information will be distorted, which may have disastrous consequences either in the short- or the long-term perspective. The fact that scientists especially the prominent ones have high prestige, i.e., their words usually have significant weight even for the non-scientific society exacerbates the problem of the use of metaphors in the scientific language. One can only imagine the consequences of their inappropriate interpretation. In this regard, it is possible to provide the polemics around the northern snakeheads – the Asian species of fish that have recently appeared in the U.S. Being labeled Frankenfishes due to their unusual anatomy and high survivability, these creatures have become the primary targets of the common people and authorities alike. Naturally, the reasons for such behavior were quite serious – the snakeheads have unexpectedly appeared in the country with the local fish fauna being unable to resist the new predators. It was necessary to take action.

At the same time, it should be noted that the described problem is of a temporary nature meaning that the ecological balance is likely to be restored soon enough. However, one may assume that the name Frankenfish will be associated with snakeheads for a long time resulting in the respective attitude towards these creatures since metaphors especially the ones coming from scientists can easily become concrete objects. In the long-term perspective, they may be exterminated completely, which may disrupt the natural balance and even lead to the extinction of some other species.

One can say that it is best to refrain from the use of metaphors in the language of science since the consequences of their using may be rather unpredictable. However, sound as it may be, this argument can still be countered. At the same time, it is possible to note that even nowadays, in the age of technological and scientific progress, many people continue to deny science. This denial comes not from the desire to remain in the dark and uneducated environment but rather from fear of something that people do not understand. It is a natural reaction, which can be described through the use of metaphors. In particular, whenever a person attempts to get involved in something risky, he or she looks forward and thinks that the way is shrouded in the dense fog. As a result, one can see only the objects that are close to him/her with everything else remaining unseen. A person does not know in which direction it is better to start making way, which, in turn, contributes to the development of the feeling of fear. Such situation is quite common for many people that awake early in the morning, see a thick fog, and think that that in such circumstances it is simply impossible to use the car. However, they still get in it and step on the accelerator refuting the assertion provided above. The fog, which seemed so thick and dense from the windows of one’s house, is, in fact, quite thin. As a result, when one starts moving forward, it becomes possible to understand that many objects that were hidden before can be seen in detail now. In this regard, the use of metaphors that provide the description of the complex concepts in layman’s terms can be compared to the turning on the fog lights, which increase one’s field of vision, since they provide more detailed description of a particular scientific concept, paradigm or problem.

In case the necessary information is difficult to perceive (i.e., it is not metaphorized), people may turn to the different sources (for example, the media). In this regard, the movies will be especially popular since they usually present the information that is already processed and is ready for consumption. Not all of them are trustworthy. For example, Lorenzo’s Oil depicts scientists as immoral individuals, which do not contribute to the reduction of the people’s fear before the science. In turn, the society as a whole may become less developed and more dependent on the outside sources of information, which is not very beneficial to its prosperity. One should note that the use of metaphors in the language of science is quite important since they provide the common people with the means of its understanding.


In conclusion, it is possible to say that despite the criticism of the members of the scientific community, metaphors have become a necessity in the language of science. They contribute to the collaboration between its different branches and help the scientists to express their thoughts figuratively, which the example of Niels Bohr has demonstrated. Moreover, they make science more accessible to the common people reducing their fear before it, contributing to their mental development, and, therefore, ensuring the prosperity of the society as a whole. Finally, they serve as powerful stimuli for the researchers urging them to make the new discoveries and look on the well-studied concepts from completely new perspectives. They are also among the driving forces of science and must be considered its inseparable components. Without metaphorization, the scientific language would have been shallow with the people being unable to express their thoughts on the newly discovered phenomena. In turn, their incentive for moving forward would have been far lower. At the same time, it is required to remember that despite their usefulness, metaphors can be utilized to a disastrous effect especially in case they come from a respected scientist. It is imperative to weigh one’s words especially when addressing wide public because a carelessly tossed phrase or poor comparison may have unpredictable consequences that can affect the society as a whole.

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Aug 28, 2020 in Research Essay Samples