Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Apt metaphors can make visible aspects of human experience.

Nietzsche observed that all language, and therefore all truth and error, is metaphoric in origin. Virtually every word we utter originally derives from some image, thereby betraying its metaphoric genesis. So it is not surprising perhaps that metaphoric expressions are often suggestive of phenomenological insights. For example, when Ricoeur argues that all human experiences and all human actions can actually be regarded as “texts” then he not only makes a case for the narrative and linguistic nature of human life, he also suggests that human experiences and actions therefore require interpretive analysis just like any other text. In a related manner Ricoeur suggested that we experience memories of personal life as stories. As we retell our lives and change the stories our memories change.

And yet, belaboring a metaphor may ultimately lead us away from a better understanding of human phenomena. This is even true for Ricoeur’s metaphor of human action as text. If we take the metaphor too literally we may forget that there is still a difference between life as text and a book as text. We may forget, in other words, that there remain important differences between actions or experiences and texts.

If we were to study the phenomenology of secrecy we would immediately notice how much metaphor is involved in the human experience of secrecy. The secret has become the metaphor of the nature of human mystery, of inner life and hidden treasures, as the source of desire, as magic knowledge, as power, as insider privilege, a hidden truth, and so forth. Enigmas, puzzles, riddles, mysteries are all associated with the phenomenon of secrecy. According to Klein’s Etymological Dictionary, the term “mystery” derives from early Greek, meaning “secret rite.” The Greek root word meant literally “to be shut or closed,” said especially of the lips and eyes. Folktales, legends, and myths abound with tales of secrecy. For example, there is the interesting character of Momus, the Greek god of censure and mockery. He requested of Jupiter that he place a mirror in the hearts of humans and that he make a little door in their breast, in such a way, that their true dispositions and secret thoughts would be visible to all.