It’s Metaphors All the Way Down

  • Jeffery Donaldson (Author)
    Missing Link: The Evolution of Metaphor and the Metaphor of Evolution. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at
  • Vinciane Despret (Author) and Brett Buchanan (Translator)
    What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions?. University of Minnesota Press (purchase at

Each of these otherwise unique studies examines the tropological nature of reality. Jeffery Donaldson argues that metaphor and metaphorical thinking are not just features of language, but properties of the material universe that have been present since the Big Bang and, thus, “precede their expression in language.” His ambitious, 494-page tour de force pursues this thesis with reference to works of literature, criticism, philosophy, and science across the centuries, from Aristotle to Daniel Dennett. For Donaldson, all of the “relational energies” of the universe are homologous with metaphor. We are acquainted with metaphor in poetry, where the juxtaposition of a familiar thing with a less familiar thing both conveys and creates meaning. Although Donaldson rightly insists that material realities are not metaphors, he contends that the “universe came into being in and as the phenomenon of things standing apart from, and in relation to, one another.” The Big Bang produced electrons in relation to nuclei; eventually, there was DNA, strands of chemicals that—in relation to other strands—give rise to new and diverse material realities. The process of evolution itself, Donaldson contends, is metaphorical. Like verbal metaphor that opens and informs imaginative space between vehicle and tenor, the evolving, “metaphorical” material universe is an expansive, endless process of becoming.

Developing his notion of the metaphorical universe in various contexts—chemistry, DNA, culture, cognition, evolution, literature, language—Donaldson challenges conventional boundaries between intellectual disciplines, especially between the sciences and the humanities, by explaining how metaphorical thinking is a constitutive property of consciousness itself. The primordial, relational energies giving rise to the conscious mind were present in the origin of matter. We think metaphorically because the universe that evolved our consciousness proceeds metaphorically. In fourteen substantive chapters, Donaldson examines these “relational energies” that define fields of human inquiry.

Donaldson appropriately concludes his volume with remarks on Walt Whitman’s Transcendentalist poem, “A Noiseless Patient Spider.” A spider spinning a web is Whitman’s trope for the spirit, repeatedly throwing out “filaments”—thoughts flung into the unknown that the poet hopes will reach a “ductile anchor” in some transcendent place that the evolving spirit has envisioned. Transcendentalists such as Whitman spoke of the soul, but forever dodged teleological questions; a kind of latter-day Transcendentalist himself, Donaldson is likewise ready to admit spirituality without teleology. As a firm believer in evolutionary biology who posits a universe devoid of intentional or “intelligent design,” he sees instead the human experience of the transcendent as an aspect of creative expression. Much like Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, he entertains a notion of the universe that is fundamentally semiotic.

In a different kind of venture into the tropological complexities of existence, Vinciane Despret insists that humans ask ourselves what we imagine we know about nonhuman animals. How might we learn to see them anew, outside the illusory, constraining boundaries of our cultural and scientific narratives about them? In the Foreword, Bruno Latour calls Despret an “additive empiricist,” one who values objectivity but who is also willing to look at unconventional evidence, such as traditionally maligned (by science) anecdotal evidence. Unconventional evidence helps us think about such questions as the one posed by philosopher Thomas Nagel in 1974 when he asked, “What is it like to be a bat?” Despret’s whimsically designed, but philosophically weighty, abecedary insists that attempts to answer such a question require us to shed our stubborn preconceptions—particularly our scientific dread of anthropomorphism and the outmoded requirement that animals be studied in laboratories, under the most unnatural circumstances. Each chapter forces us to consider, again and again: what would animals reveal to us if only we stopped explaining their behavior always with reference to our own motives and cognitive priorities? And how should we—how would we—treat them if we knew?

Despret presents us with animal scenarios that Latour in the Foreword compares to the fables of La Fontaine, but her instructive anecdotes are also firmly grounded in contemporary ethology. In “V for Versions: Do chimpanzees die like we do?” Despret introduces us to chimpanzees in a sanctuary who seem to grieve their dead. Their conduct provokes a variety of speculations, ranging from confident assertions that chimpanzees mourn much like we do, to skeptical surmises that the chimps have merely learned a performance from their human attendants. Perhaps the humans have actually taught the animals to feel “grief” they had not felt before. Despret urges us to formulate better questions. Do not ask whether or not the animals display real grief; figure out instead what is required to understand them without merely reflecting back to ourselves our own preconceptions. Indeed, what might the chimpanzees themselves think they are doing, and what does it mean to them?

In “A for Artists: Stupid like a painter?” the author upbraids humans for their “killjoy” failure to recognize the truly extraordinary in animals who seem to be artists. Referring to popular videos of elephants at work with paint and easels, Despret concedes that we cannot insert the elephant-painter into our semiotic category, “artist”; nor can we assume the elephant’s actions are unaffected by the mahout’s. However, we are nevertheless witnessing astonishing animal behavior—what Despret calls “agencement,” a complex interaction between a human and a nonhuman agent that seems voluntary and satisfying for both.

All the way from A to Z, Despret’s book will delight readers who have ever wondered how to free themselves of culturally, historically prefabricated notions about our other-than-human companions on the earth. Like Donaldson, Despret invites us to embrace the challenges and confront the obstacles of a semiotically constructed universe, where, apparently, it’s metaphors all the way down.

This review “It’s Metaphors All the Way Down” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 5 May. 2017. Web.

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