When I was a sociology student, the conventional wisdom in the profession was that the paradigm known as “functionalism,” which had predominated until a generation or so earlier, had failed by too-closely linking our understanding of society with an organic metaphor, that of a body with organs that served functions. Many of the critics failed to see the genuine insight embedded in the metaphor, but they were right about the problems: A society is composed of competing interests, and the “organs” in this case (social institutions) function to favor some interests over others, not merely to perpetuate the survival of the organism.

But trying to divorce our understanding of anything from metaphorical thinking either relegates it to the realm of mathematical esoteria (which is itself rooted in metaphorical thought), or simply leaves it flailing for a handhold, something to grab hold of to provide it with cognitive stability. Society is like an organism, and it is like an ecosystem, and it is like a complex multilateral strategic game. But it isn’t quite any of these. We need to build our understandings through complex, multifaceted metaphors, without shackling our understanding to any one of those metaphors.

The October 18 issue of Time Magazine, in the “Briefing” section, has a short report on “induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells,” which are skin cells transformed into stem cells by use of “viruses to ferry new genes into the cell’s genome.” I’m not sure yet what it is, but I’m sure that there’s a valuable metaphor for society, and how to address some of the challenges that we face, embedded in there somewhere.

The challenge with human thought is to balance recognition of similarity and difference, and to understand differences by means of similarities, and similarities by means of differences. For instance, if I explained that if you enlarged a billiard ball to the size of the Earth, it would have deeper canyons and taller mountains than the Earth has, you would understand how smooth the Earth is, because of both its similarity to a billiard ball (it’s essentially a ball), and it’s difference (it’s much larger).

Our challenge is to find metaphors that help us to understand our world –the dynamics by which it functions, the challenges and opportunities embedded within it, the potential ways to most effectively confront those challenges and opportunities– without be seduced into confusing the differences for similarities. We have to apply a bit of formal logic: Just because two sets intersect (similarities) does not mean they are identical (lack differences). The Tea Party mantra that “government spending is always tyranny” is based on the logical fallacy that because tyranny involves centralized government, any centralization of government must be tyranny. The frustration is that anything so transparently fallacious can continue to have such a potent force over our lives.

There are other metaphors we can use to understand that hierarchical centralized organization can be beneficial to those so organized: Corporations, or, inviting more ideologically motivated misinterpretation, species such as bees and ants that thrive through hierarchical organization. Or we can go deeper, and discuss the interplay of centripedal and centrifugal forces, the interplay of that which disintegrates us and that which integrates us, and how the combination of these forces, rather than either one in isolation, is what grants us our vitality, our liberty, our humanity.

What most threatens our liberty is the tyranny of monolithic metaphors, one-sided evaluations of what serves the good and what doesn’t. We don’t want to reduce our understanding of society to the metaphor of an organism, because the health of an organism depends on avoiding any revolutionary changes in its form and function, whereas the health of a society depends on occasionally midwifing such threshold paradigm shifts. And we don’t want to reduce our understanding of society to the metaphor that equates institutional disintegration with individual liberty, because our liberty depends on wisely using our agents of collective action rather than zealously destroying their efficacy.

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