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Metaphoric Revolution

In quest of a manifesto for governance through metaphor (Part #1)

Paper prepared for the 10th World Conference (Beijing, Sept 1988) of the World Futures Studies Federation (WFSF) (Group 8: Changing political institutions) under the auspices of the China Association for Science and Technology [searchable PDF version]

1. Introduction
2. Contemporary crisis of governance

3. Metaphor and its relevance

4. Governance through metaphor

5. Governing sustainable development: the future

6. Metaphoric revolution

7. Policy implications

Annex I: Sustainable Cycles of Policies: crop rotation as a metaphor


1. Introduction
Contemporary crisis of governance
Fourfold principle of uncertainty in governance
Sustaining development: the epistemological challenge of governance
Metaphor and its relevance
Governance through metaphor
Governing sustainable development: the future
Metaphoric revolution
Policy implications
Sustainable Cycles of Policies: Crop Rotation as a Metaphor

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1. Introduction

The basic point of this paper is the individual and collective need to respond creatively to the apparently fragmented reality of society, whether within or between cultures. In the light of recent historical trends it is very difficult to sustain the prevailing assumption that people and groups can (or should) all be persuaded -- within the foreseeable future -- to subscribe to any one particular paradigm, belief system or form of sustainable development (or the institutions and policies they engender). Rather than placing all hope in the possibility of finding this one magical 'mega-answer', through which all ills are to be finally dispelled, a radical alternative can be usefully explored.

Conventional approaches to social transformation tend to be based on changes to material conditions (as well as to social and attitudinal structures) recommended as necessary and desirable by some group in power in the light of advice by some elite group of experts. Such 'mono-perspective' approaches tend to respect the views and needs of the majority in any territory, possibly with compromises to take account of minorities. It is extremely difficult for such changes to be implemented so as fully to meet the perceived needs of all on a socially and culturally diverse planet. This is a major reason for the fragmentation of conceptual and belief systems and their associated institutions. A contrasting approach would be one in which such epistemological divergence was encouraged -- moving with the process of fragmentation rather than attempting vainly to oppose it. This is in accord with a fundamental principle of Eastern martial arts. The integration and consensus so desperately sought is then achieved in a more subtle and elegant manner.

The 'epistemological diaspora' advocated here is already a reality of increasing significance -- although it may be said to have commenced with the diversification of man's first reflections on the universe. The use of metaphor as advocated here could however result in a metaphoric revolution which would dramatically encourage such epistemological divergence in the interests of those who engage in it.

Such a revolution would encourage and enable people and groups to select, adapt or design their own conceptual frameworks and manner of perceiving their environment as well as their own way of comprehending and communicating about their action on it. Whilst they might at any one time use frameworks favoured or advocated by others, they would in no way feel obliged to continue to use them.

The emphasis would shift from the present situation of dependence on specialists, experts and political leaders putting forward 'ultimate' explanations, models and developmental policy recommendations. The implication that such explanations should be accepted in preference to all previous ones would then become questionable. Earlier explanations, no longer need necessarily be rejected as reflecting various levels of misunderstanding or downright stupidity -- irrespective of any fundamental disagreement amongst the elites responsible for them. Such a shift in emphasis honours the complexity and variety of peoples needs and the increasing difficulty for the average person to even remotely comprehend the justification of such explanations. These they are therefore expected to take on trust -- but which they often simply ignore.

In a condition of continuous metaphoric revolution an explanation loses its character of permanence as the authoritative pattern of reference. Rather people select between alternative explanations according to their circumstances and immediate needs -- shifting to other explanations as the circumstances change. This does not preclude the possibility of staying permanently with one explanation -- but continuously shifting between explanations becomes a meaningful alternative.

Under such circumstances the value of an explanation to the user comes as much from the consciousness of having chosen it -- however temporarily -- as from its intrinsic merits. This is equivalent to the value attached by a climber to the particular branches of a tree or ledges on a mountain -- they are of value as part of the climbing process in providing temporary security and a foundation for further progress. But equally, staying on any one ledge may offer a satisfactory view of the world which reduces any need to continue climbing.

It might be considered strange that in a rapidly changing world, considerable effort should be made to incarcerate comprehension of society in particular explanations. In a context of planned obsolescence, changing priorities and shifting fashions, such explanations do not last long. It would seem to be more appropriate to open up the possibility of shifting explanations, thus freeing people to explore the many dimensions of comprehension and the opportunities to which they give rise.

The major objection to the acceptance of such 'epistemological chaos' is the seeming loss of permanence and order which have been the object of so much effort in the past -- and what of the various 'bodies of knowledge' so painfully built up ? How could society function under such circumstances? Can development be sustained in such a turbulent epistemological context ? The argument of this paper is that to a large extent is already, but by attempting to avoid such seeming chaos, policies and institutions are designed which are inadequate to the real challenge of sustainable development.

This paper explores the relevance of governance through metaphor and some of the questions to which this perspective gives rise. The paper follows on earlier work on metaphors published in the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential (1). The first sections recap some arguments presented in two subsequent papers on Comprehension of Appropriateness (2) and on Governance through Metaphor (3), both produced through the United Nations University project on Economic Aspects of Human Development. (Extracts from the second paper have recently been circulated in the newsletter of the US Club of Rome (4)).

the second paper have recently been circulated in the newsletter of the US Club of Rome (4)).

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