Metaphor and Thought
28 January 2023

Recommended Innovation Articles (and Commentary) 5: Generative Metaphor: A Perspective on Problem-Setting in Social Policy (Donald Schön)

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Original post can be found here:

Okay, so for this one, it is not an article. I got this as a PDF and it is a chapter in the book pictured above. Donald Schön is amazing and anything he wrote I digest and use, including random chapters like this one. His is Chapter 9 from pp. 137–165, at least the second edition version I have a copy of. The chapter can be accessed here online, but there is a library paywall that some will be able to get past, and others may need to pick up the book used online.

So, today’s offering is from the great sociologist, organizational theorist and designer Donald Schön. This comes from a chapter he contributed to a book, and Schön focuses on metaphor. First, he unpacks how humans use metaphor to create meaning, enable language (all language is metaphoric, whether we are witting or unwitting to the words we are choosing)… and then he takes on innovation and novelty. How do humans generate new ideas, articulate them, and curate knowledge so that we are empowered to do things differently? It is in part due to metaphoric processes that are occurring at that hazy point where we are conceptualizing, but we are above and outside of concrete words/terminology because new things cannot be understood using legacy concepts. This is ‘generative metaphor’, and this chapter really covers Schön’s theory on how this works in reality.

Why is this of interest to militaries? Consider ‘center of gravity’, ‘levels of war’, ‘spectrum of warfare’ (popular through 2008 and was in FM 5–0 that year, but now has fallen out of favor), ‘the gray zone’, ‘line of effort’, ‘measures of performance/effectiveness’ and virtually every other construct and model used in modern decision-making. These all are models that draw from theories and use terminology selected through metaphoric devices that link the word to the idea to make the theory and model support a chosen methodology (like JPP, MDMP, NATO-OPP, etc). We hardly consider this- we tend to believe these things are “real” in the world when they are entirely socially constructed.

Both NATO-OPP and JPP methodologies follow the form of various conceptual models that provide military leaders, planners, and analysists some arrangement of ideas on various military activities/tasks across time and space so that the underpinning theories create similarity or familiarity to what the military organization is receiving in data or experience upon executing the methods (NATO-OPP/JPP in execution). The words that we use as well as the words we do not consider are equally important for deconstructing the methodology, so that the metaphoric devices operating above the words themselves come into view. NATO-OPP/JPP metaphors such as ‘center of gravity’, ‘desired end state’, ‘line of effort’, ‘levels of war’, ‘principles of war’, ‘elements of operational art’, ‘strengths and weaknesses’, ‘shaping’, ‘enabling’, and many more link shared DoD language to models and military theories. Military metaphors represent not just some necessary cultural idioms or colloquialisms to boost shared understanding across a diverse military force. The metaphors employed in military language reveal the structural underpinnings of the modern military frame for warfare. All language is metaphoric, and through consideration of military language found within NATO-OPP/JPP we can examine the deeper relationships between theories, models, and methods.

These metaphors will link to those conceptual models and reinforce theories, in turn supporting our collective belief systems and rendering the NATO-OPP/JPP methodologies as they currently express in practice. If our model employs an ‘ends-ways-means’ framework, this is important to realize. If we rationalize: ‘design problem is linked with a potential creative solution’ with a scientific theoretical approach of forming informed hypotheses, this also links back to the ‘ends-ways-means’ logic. When we take those hypotheses and test them through rationalized analysis, and subsequently seek patterns to explore potential fundamental rules or laws, this again is of great importance. In such introspection, we might realize that our efforts in reducing complex systems into smaller, more manageable chunks, the very language and metaphors we select will reinforce all these choices, often in a manner that diverts our attention to the inputs and outputs of the process and not of the framework designing our acceptance of such concepts.[1] Within this modern war frame, the NATO-OPP/JPP terminology remains exclusively physics-oriented, with a proliferation of Newtonian metaphors, classical mechanics epistemology,[2] as well as engineering language and analytic constructs supporting objective expectations on reality.[3] Yet complexity theory, systems theory, and other competing theories concerning defense, security affairs and warfare differ with the dominant synthetic frame for war and are currently not available within the military’s choice of methodology, language, or conceptual models for performing and synchronizing warfighter activities.[4]

This chapter by Donald Schön is a great source for thinking about the way we construct a social reality with metaphoric devices that generate meaning and symbolism in the words we use. Militaries rarely spend any time beyond attempting to be adherent to whatever the latest doctrinal terminology or changes in definition are, and need to instead reflectively consider why do we assume the metaphors we use to understand what was is, and the warfare we attempt to exercise within that construction are articulated as they are.

Thanks for reading, and check out more in this series for other article recommendations.

[1] Kelly and Brennan, “Alien: How Operational Art Devoured Strategy,” 8–11; Tsoukas, “The Missing Link: A Transformational View of Metaphors in Organizational Science”; Paparone, “On Metaphors We Are Led By.”

[2] Epistemology is how we define the origin of knowledge within our discipline, field or community of practice. It addresses how we know how knowledge functions as well as the limits of what we believe it to be. See: Hazlett, McAdam, and Gallagher, “Theory Building in Knowledge Management: In Search of Paradigms,” 32.

[3] Paparone, “On Metaphors We Are Led By”; Paparone and Davis Jr., “Exploring Outside the Tropics of Clausewitz: Our Slavish Anchoring to an Archaic Metaphor”; Hatch and Yanow, “Methodology by Metaphor: Ways of Seeing in Painting and Research.”

[4] Advocates of contemporary doctrine might argue ‘complexity theory and systems thinking was clearly incorporated into NATO-OPP and JPP in the last two decades. As this monograph will explain, the military prefers to assimilate certain terms and language from outside concepts but then removes the theoretical and modular constructs so that the borrowed language complies with the existing (and unaltered) legacy frame.

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