The Value of Metaphor
Posted in Philosophy 3 min read
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The Value of Metaphor 

Understanding of the world is achieved through many different processes, like for example: belief, the scientific process, reasoning, experimentation, luck, how much Skinner dropped in our bowl or how much water was sprayed on our ancestors, when they tried to climb the ladder. The one you do not frequently hear, is the “metaphor”; a word or phrase which describes something through resemblance or an analogy.

When we create models of the world around us, we use our existing knowledge to describe something new or break a complex idea down into manageable parts, and we rely on metaphors from our existing knowledge. Once the new model or concept is well understood, the need for the old metaphor falls away and in turn, the new understanding becomes the metaphor for the next idea or observation we want to understand.

Why are metaphors so valuable? We use metaphors frequently in our daily lives; in situations like convincing your colleague of an unfamilar perspective on how to solve a problem, conveying the value of your tools instead of just actions (sharpening the blade) and many other phrases we frequently throw around.

Quite often the limitation to our understanding of the unexplained, through whichever process we follow, is limited by our lack of metaphors and not by our intelligence. The King asked Archimedes if he could determine if his crown was solid gold or if the goldsmith cheated by using silver. The challenge was that gold and silver weighted the same. When Archimedes climbed into a bath, he noticed the water displaced by his body. He then applied this metaphor to his knowledge of gold and silver, which weighed the same but had different volume properties.

“Our progress is not limited by our lack of intelligence, but by our lack of metaphor.”

The idea of changing software into a service does not require an extreme level of intelligence, unlike for example doing a PhD in Physics. It requires a willingness to think outside your current view of the world and change the metaphor you apply to it. Disruptions in various industries frequently happen due to the change of the metaphor for interpreting or presenting a service or product1. Once that disruption happens, people use the new metaphor for other products. “It is Uber, but for…” It is Netflix, but for…”

To cultivate your metaphors or play the “What if?” game, there are two requirements:

  1. Understand the patterns (structures, flows, influence, dependencies) in your field.
  2. Be interested in the patterns of other fields.

Now play the game.


  1. Christopher Lochhead’s framework of being a “Category Pirate” is a great example of playing with metaphors, in order to discover a new category for your startup business.

Intelligence Metaphor Patterns

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