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The Myth of the Literal: Reflections on the Metaphorical Nature Of All Language and Human Knowledge

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By Adam J. Pearson (2021)

After years of reflection on this bizarre mystery posing as a self-evident truth, I’ve come to conclude that there’s no such thing as “literal language;” it seems to be metaphors all the way down, like the “turtles all the way down” of the traditional proverb. The word “literal” itself appears to be a metaphor, a myth.

I have come to use the term “the Myth of the Literal” to describe this strange and paradoxical idea which, when grasped, can open up new vistas of perception and stun the mind into silence.

Although this idea might seem radical and even obviously false at first, I would invite you, dear Reader, to consider the strange idea that all language may be figurative in nature. All speech is figures of speech.

When people hear this odd idea for the first time, the first question thqt comes to mind is often “aren’t objects literal? What about the subjects that perceive them?

However, I would suggest that even objects and alleged subjects are metaphors and, furthermore, that the the whole human experience itself is metaphorical.

What we call “objective,” “subjective,” “intersubjective” and “interobjective” are just metaphorical modes of rendering raw experience into conceptual schemas that the human brain can get a rough handle on.

Our conceptual models, meta-metaphors for the metaphorical content of perception, cognition, and emotion, are useful insofar as they map onto the physical world and help human beings thrive within it. They never arrive at “literal truth,” only at best at models of our most educated metaphorical guesses at what is.

Cognitive Scientist Dr. Donald D. Hoffman (2010), in his fascinating Multimodal User Interface (MUI) Theory, suggests “that “perceptual experiences do not match or approximate properties of the objective world, but instead provide a simplified, species-specific, user interface to that world.” Hoffman argues that conscious beings have not evolved to perceive the world as it actually is but have evolved to perceive the world in a way that maximizes “fitness payoffs”. Hoffman uses the metaphor of a computer desktop and icons – the icons of a computer desktop provide a functional interface so that the user does not have to deal with the underlying programming and electronics in order to use the computer efficiently. Similarly, objects that we perceive in time and space are metaphorical icons which act as our interface to the world and enable us to function as efficiently as possible without having to deal with the overwhelming amount of data underlying reality.”

Viewed in this way, even “matter” and “force” and “laws of nature” are pragmatic metaphorical ways of understanding, modeling, and speaking about what “is,” what “exists” based on the most sophisticated human concepts we have collectively been able to formulate at the present stage of human and cosmic evolution.

What the physical universe is like beyond and prior to consciousness and the intervening instruments of human experience, technology and conceptualization, we do not and cannot know; we can only model and approximate it through best-guessing from the most advanced data and mathematical tools at out disposal.

However, the metaphors of metatheory and mathematical modelling never make the quantum leap from metaphor to “literal truth,” just as the visual of a file icon on a desktop never reaches beyond itself to its underlying coding and the hardware beyond it.

The contents of our consciousness are like the file icons, useful representations in the operating system of the human experience. Concepts and language cannot escape the metaphorical loops that give them their very form and structure.

Even our metaphors for “building blocks” of reality and “everyday things,” electrons, photons, superstrings, cells, people, cultures, and so on are all metaphorical ways of speaking/being/conceiving that are borne out of conceptual and perceptual representations projected out of biopsychosocial human interfaces.

The names of all things should technically be written in quotation marks, because our names for phenomena only at best approximate the realities at which they reach.

Indeed, the best of our scientific understandings is our collective best approximation at what is and how it works based on how the pre-conscious, pre-perceptual, pre-conceivable “reality” is filtered through the metaphorical experiential structures of human consciousness. Metaphors that “work” pragmatically in the metaphorical domain of four-dimensional space-time become the basis for technologies and human lives, which are also metaphorical.

Even what we call “our bodies” are metaphors for mental metarepresentations of compounded sensory expressions projected in the matrix of consciousness. Personal identity is the ultimate metaphor for the vast nothingness that transiently dances as the beauty of a spatiotemporal trajectory from a cradle to a grave.

Even consciousness itself is an ever-shifting metaphor in which the streams of all the other metaphors unfold as its impermanent modes of expression.

Scientists speak in powerful metaphors; mathematical concepts and measurements are metaphors too. Indeed, all sensations and experiences are metaphors, simulations of experience projected out of the electrochemical activity of vast networks of neurons inferring reality from scant signals like molecules, photons, and air pressure waves.

What’s beyond all the metaphors? What are we beyond all the metaphorical arrays projected in human consciousness? What is their literal meaning?

What is the literal meaning of the metaphor of the universe as experienced through the metaphorical matrix of human experience? We might say nothing at all, but this, too, is conceptual and therefore, metaphorical. What is beyond all the metaphors cannot even be called “something,” just as it cannot be called “nothing.” To say either would be to invoke another metaphor, another symbol, another signifier.

This question points us beyond all thought and language, what French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan called “the Symbolic” and towards what he called “the Real.”

Despite our most sophisticated efforts, we simply cannot get behind the metaphors of all conscious experiences, contexts, and content using language or concepts, which are cognition’s best, most advanced, and powerful metaphorical tools; the metaphors just point to other metaphors in an infinite sliding network of interdependently-interconnected signifiers and signifieds.

Our so-called “reality of everyday life” is nothing more than a set of signposts pointing to other signposts, like dictionary definitions pointing to other definitions; we can’t get beyond the phenomena, the human biopsychosocial interface, and the mediating consciousness that renders them all to reach beyond the metaphors.

When we leave the domain of concepts and language altogether and plunge blindly into the dimension beyond even the notions of “beyond” and “dimension,” the mind is rendered utterly speechless and the entire field of consciousness itself and the world it displays are revealed to be mere simulations borne out of nothingness.

None of the content of the simulations–not the human mind, not consciousness, not thought, emotion, culture, or any mode of experience whatsoever–can escape the simulation; the metaphors are all inextricably embedded in one another.

The interdependent relationships that compose the metaphors we call “objects” are the very constitutive factors that enable their recognizability and storage in the cognitive-biological networks of memory. Outside of the networks of interconnected metaphors that constellate human cognition, perception, emotion, and intuition, nothing at all can be remembered, spoken, experienced, thought, felt, or known in any way.

Thus, the reality of what we and all things fundamentally are, beyond all notions, concepts, and metaphors, beyond even those of “humanness” and “consciousness” is so utterly unfathomable that it utterly boggles and confounds all actual and possible minds. It cuts absolutely everything–all metaphorical conceptualizations of “things””–off into utter inconceivability and unspeakability and leaves nothing at all in its wake.

Even “the Absolute,” “time,” “space,” “existence,” “reality,” and “matter” dissolve into meaningless in the realmless “realm” beyond all actual and possible meaning, as certainly does the shifting metaphorical dream of personal identity.

That which transcends all of the metaphors that constitute the entire field of consciousness is so baffling, so utterly staggering that it silences even the notion of silence, empties everything of apparent somethingness and leaves absolutely nothing to replace it.

Not even emptiness remains beyond the conceptual metaphor of “emptiness.” That is the utter oblivion of “reality” stripped of all conceptual veneers, the “ultimate” nature of both we human beings and all so-called physical objects, places, events, times, and locations beyond the metaphorical modes of their fleeting spatiotemporal appearances as viewed through the prism of human consciousness.

And all of this… is only metaphor….

Read More from Adam Pearson at


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