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16 April 2004 | Draft

Configuring Conceptual Polarities in Questing

metaphoric pointers to self-reflexive coherence

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Metaphoric pointers
Processes of reflection and "insight capture"
Self-reflexive coherence through metaphor


The following exercise in thinking about thinking is an effort to identify a higher degree of order in the set of papers produced by the author in the period from 1962-2004 (as discussed separately in Self-reflexive Learnings from Writing, 2004). As a preliminary, the papers have been separately ordered by a set of value polarities which they may implicitly address (see Distinguishing Emergent Conceptual Polarities: experimental ordering of a collection of research papers, 2004)

This is seen as suggesting a methodology that could be applied to other bodies of work. The set of polarities is explored here, as a challenge to comprehension, through a set of complementary metaphors that may usefully point to the nature of that higher order. The metaphors are then used to clarify the nature and intent of the writing process itself.

Metaphoric pointers

The set of polarities identified (see Distinguishing Emergent Conceptual Polarities: experimental ordering of a collection of research papers, 2004) raises the question of whether there is any useful way of understanding their significance as a set, notably through the use of metaphor. In the light of arguments elsewhere, it is assumed that no single metaphor is sufficient and that what is required is a set of complementary metaphors that can together point to various forms of coherence that may order the set of polarities. It is also assumed here that the set of metaphors should be of requisite variety.

As a set, or progression, the above metaphors might be considered as primitive equivalent to the renowned Zen ox-herding pictures -- as exemplifying the evolving relationship of containment and identity. Such metaphors point towards processes of insight capture (discussed below) as suggested by:

Processes of reflection and "insight capture"

In the light of the above, the processes and intentions of reflection may be explored in the light of different clusters of metaphor. In a knowledge-oriented society, these metaphors are especially relevant in relation to information organization and processes.

Building metaphors, where the focus is on conceptual constructs and protection from the elements:

Agricultural "development" metaphors, where the focus is on provision of sustenance:

Journeying metaphors, where the focus is on displacement:

Relationship metaphors, where the focus is on how design features relate to one another:

Self-reflexive coherence through metaphor

The intention here is to explore how the above metaphoric perspectives might be used to (re)frame the set of conceptual polarities identified earlier.

A classic approach -- notably in the East -- to self-reflexive coherence is through the circle, or wheel, as a metaphor. In such a case the polarities are held by the linear spokes which collectively define a curved circumference. Much can be made of the conceptual significance of any "emptiness" at the hub of such a wheel -- as in the classic quotation from Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching): "Thirty spokes share the wheel's hub. It is the centre hole that makes it useful...Therefore profit comes from what is there; usefulness from what is not there".

In such a case, the spokes as polarities are not "observables". They are psychodynamic tensions of dilemmas, experienced from within (or participated in). Chuang Tzu, in another Chinese classic, makes the point that:

The wise man therefore... sees that on both sides of every argument there is both right and wrong. He also sees that in the end they are reducible to the same thing, once they are related to the pivot of Tao. When the wise man grasps this pivot, he is the canter of the circle, and there he stands while "Yes" and "No" pursue each other around the circumference" (The Way of Chuang Tzu, interpreted by Thomas Merton, 1970)

There are other dynamics associated with such a form:

There are other considerations relating to this wheel-based metaphor:

"Stretching a metaphor": In making extensive use of metaphor above, the question this raises is the extent to which any metaphor has been "stretched" beyond a "breaking point." This question is especially interesting in relation to polarities (typically represented by linear rods) -- especially when they are collectively used to define a wheel. The question is given focus in the above discussion of the transition in metaphoric construction from using straight rods (cages, stockades, etc) to the deliberate bending of such rods as a basis for other types of construction (boats, airplanes). It might be argued that the degree of curvature that a rod can tolerate in construction, without breaking, suggests a way of thinking about the degree of stretching to which a metaphor may itself be subjected. The degree of curvature is also relevant to reflection on self-reflexive conceptualization. The curvature of the rod, and the tension under which it is maintained, may be understood as being sustained by associations "tied" to the ends of polarities (simply illustrated in the case of an archer's bow). Such end connections are effectively "associative knots" -- possibly to be understood like hypotheses or theories.


In response to the initial preoccupation regarding thanking about thinking in the writing process over a period of decades, the exploration above suggests that the process might be understood through the interrelationships between the following metaphors :

The recognition of polarities, and the avoidance of being trapped within (or by) any one of them, is an attitude traditionally articulated in Buddhism as the Middle Way: "Too tight, and it'll break. Too slack, and it'll be loose. Neither tight nor slack, and it will turn out right". Characteristically -- as in the polarities of walking -- this avoids avoidance, seeking a balance between attachment and detachment. (see Victor Mansfield. Time and Impermanence in Middle Way Buddhism and Modern Physics, 1998; Classic Buddhist Texts on the Middle Way). This balance has been explored elsewhere through the dynamics of alternation (Metaphors of Alternation: their significance for development policy-making, 1984). Responding to the constraining configuration of polarities points to another mode of being.

Whatever the defining metaphor, the stages in the conceptual process may be fruitfully viewed as stepping stones -- models only capable of bearing weight temporarily as part of the dynamic of crossing the river of change. Progress through the above text could also be understood as following the notes in a musical score -- "plucking" or "bonging" (as on a child's xylophone) at each point!

The future may come to think of the conceptual activity in the thinking process over decades as somewhat akin to playing on the many keyboards of a conceptual organ. In this sense, and following Varela's enactivist articulation of "laying down a path in walking", the future is then composed and played into being -- offering far richer dimensions to the meaning of organ-ization (see also Future Generation through Global Conversation: in quest of collective well-being through conversation in the present moment, 1997). Varela's phrase might be reworded as "laying down a score in thinking".


Christopher Alexander. Notes on the Synthesis of Form. Harvard University Press 1964

Paul Demiéville. The Mirror of the Mind. In: Peter N Gregory (Ed) Sudden and Gradual; approaches to enlightenment in Chinese Thought. Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, 1991

W. T. Jones. The Romantic Syndrome: Toward a New Method in Cultural Anthropology and History of Ideas. Martinus Nijhoff, 1961

Anthony Judge:

Orrin Klapp. Opening and Closing; strategies of information adaptation in society. Cambridge University Press, 1978

Mark Pendergrast. Mirror, Mirror: a history of the human love affair with reflection. Basic Books, 2004 [review]

Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. The Embodied Mind. MIT Press, Cambridge, 1991

Francisco Varela. Laying Down a Path in Walking. In: W I Thompson (Ed). Gaia: A Way of Knowing Massachusetts, Lindisfarne Press, 1987

Francisco Varela. Laying Down a Path in Walking: essays on enactive cognition. Zone Books/MIT Press, 1997

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