The main title of James Geary’s new book, I Is An Other: The Secret Life Of Metaphor And How It Shapes The Way We See The World, is borrowed from French poet Arthur Rimbaud. That’s an apt choice for a book about metaphor, but Geary might as well have drawn from Carl Jung or Stephen Hawking: I Is An Other is more concerned with the power of associative thought than the power of flowery language. Indeed, Geary argues that metaphorical thinking—long considered a “cognitive frill”—is, in fact, essential to almost all forms of human pursuit, from childhood play to scientific innovation: “There is no aspect of our experience not molded in some way by metaphor’s almost imperceptible touch,” he writes.
The most compelling sections in I Is An Other outline the surprising importance of metaphor in seemingly concrete disciplines, like economics and physics. Geary discusses the evolutionary origins of synesthetic metaphors, in which one sense is used to describe another (e.g. “Silence is sweet.”) Elsewhere, he emphasizes the usefulness, as well as the potential danger, of metaphors in scientific research.
Geary argues that there is metaphorical meaning “entombed in even the simplest words”; it turns out even the word “literal” stems from a metaphor. Geary’s broad definition of the term—which he expands to include similes, puns, parables, aphorisms, and allegories—may rankle purists, but there’s little doubt that I Is An Other will appeal primarily to linguists and word-lovers.
Geary has clearly done his research: His bibliography alone accounts for 30 pages of this 289-page book, which he’s jammed with cocktail-party statistics: There are some 1,700 sports metaphors currently in use in the English language; the British use three times as many gardening metaphors as the French. In some respects, this trivia is the great strength of I Is An Other, but also its weakness. Geary’s multidisciplinary approach sometimes feels overly diffuse. He’s done a marvelous job of collating and condensing heaps of information, but the book lacks a compelling unifying thesis, short of “metaphors are everywhere.” Likewise, many subjects—like the role of metaphor in politics—are complex enough to fill numerous volumes on their own.
Geary’s work might be described as “Gladwellian,” in the sense that he knows how to distill specialized research and give it a sexy spin. He cites dozens of psychological and neuroscientific studies, most of which reiterate the same conclusion: Humans are astonishingly susceptible to figurative language and suggestive imagery. At times, though, it seems that Geary is hiding behind the research, that he’s spent a great deal of time gathering evidence, and not enough forming his own argument.