Open Thinkering


Tag: metaphors

TB871: Systemic and unsystemic metaphors

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category

An image of a hand grasping what looks like flowers, but which are actually books

Some metaphors that we use in everyday discourse are reductionist, static, and imply linear thinking. When I asked GPT-4o for a list of 10 of these it came up with:

  1. Chain of Command: Implies a linear and hierarchical structure.
  2. Assembly Line: Suggests a step-by-step, linear process.
  3. Building Blocks: Indicates individual, separate components that form a whole.
  4. Blueprint: A detailed plan implying a static, fixed outcome.
  5. Machine: Each part has a specific, unchanging role within the system.
  6. Recipe: Following exact steps to achieve a predictable outcome.
  7. Tree Diagram: Hierarchical structure with clear, linear branches.
  8. Domino Effect: A sequential, cause-and-effect relationship.
  9. Ladder of Success: Implies a linear progression from one step to the next.
  10. Puzzle Pieces: Each piece fits into a predetermined spot to form a complete picture.

Other metaphors that we may choose to use, especially as systems thinkers are more focused on growth, learning, and complexity. Again, when I asked GPT-4o it came up with:

  1. Web of Life: Emphasizes interconnectedness and interdependence.
  2. Ecosystem: Highlights complex interactions and mutual dependencies.
  3. Network: A dynamic system with nodes and connections.
  4. Feedback Loop: A process where outputs are fed back into the system as inputs.
  5. Rhizome: A non-hierarchical structure with multiple entry and exit points.
  6. Flowing River: Represents continuous change and adaptation.
  7. Spider Web: Delicate balance and interconnectedness, sensitive to changes.
  8. Cloud: A dynamic, ever-changing system without fixed boundaries.
  9. Complex Adaptive System: A system that evolves and adapts in response to changes.
  10. Living Organism: Emphasizes growth, adaptation, and interdependent processes.

The danger is thinking that just because you’re using a metaphor such as an ecosystem that you’re doing so systemically:

It can be valuable to keep in mind some of the ways in which situations of complexity are framed in an overtly unsystemic way. But it is important to recognise that there are potential traps in the use of metaphors which cannot provide ‘answers’ in themselves. It is possible to use an apparently systemic metaphor in a very reductionist way. Equally, it is possible to use a reductionist metaphor in a way that widens understanding of connection, invites perspectives and encourages reflective discussion on boundaries.

(The Open University, 2020)

Metaphors can be powerful tools to reframe situations, but we need to be careful that we don’t use them unthinkingly. Also, using the same metaphor multiple times might mean that it loses its explanatory power, so looking for new things to use as a metaphor for others helps keep us ‘on our toes’ (as it were).


Illustration(s) from

TB871: Sending people off on the wrong plane

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category

Here are the front pages of some newspapers published in England this morning, with most of them covering the 80th anniversary of ‘D-Day’:

As you can see, metaphorical language abounds: “grasp,” “flinch,” “ditches,” “bails out,” “pressure on,” and of course “going down of the sun.” As a football fan, the photo of a face next to the words “JACK OUT” conveys quickly and succinctly that Jack Grealish hasn’t made “the cut” for the England squad to play in the upcoming EURO 2024 Championships.

There are many metaphors that have evolved over time to become such a part of everyday language that the roots are lost. Some of these lost conceptual metaphors are deeply embedded in our embodied experiences. For instance, why do people talk of being ‘in’ time, ‘in’ position, ‘out of’ favour, ‘out of’ luck, or ‘in’ love? These all use what Lakoff and Johnson (1980) call the container metaphor. Love, luck, favour, and position in space or time are states, and states are often described as if they were, metaphorically speaking, containers which someone can be inside or outside. The very notion of ‘being inside’ or ‘being outside’ has potentially much deeper roots in our embodied experiences, such as that of being inside the womb rather than outside of it.


We live embodied lives and so metaphors that involve tangible objects can be quite helpful in making sense of that physicality.


However, for situations where information plays a significant but often unclear role in the ways that people think, feel, perceive and judge, it may be problematic to rely on physical metaphors. There are situations where perception, sense-making and emotion, and not physical movement, are of prime concern. And, following Gregory Bateson (1972)… not everything that we might want to communicate is accessible to the conscious mind. Is it possible that in such situations, physical metaphors may lack the variety to deal with the phenomenon of interest? Could they be misleading and sending people off, as it were, on the wrong plane?

(The Open University, 2020)

This is really interesting to me, especially as we start to interact with un-embodied ‘consciousnesses’ such as AI. Reflecting on my interactions with LLMs such as ChatGPT, when I ask for a metaphor the most common examples tend to be one of a garden, the solar system, or an orchestra. Even though LLMs are trained on data created by humans, because they are not embodied, I suppose they’re less likely to use physical metaphors.

Given the above quotation, I’m not sure if this will be more or less useful in terms of human development? If we use physical metaphors unthinkingly, then perhaps being more intentional about them could be useful. Or will using fewer physical metaphors make things feel less human?


TB871: Happiness is a warm gun

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category

It was my dad who introduced me to the music of The Beatles. There was one song that I never really understood as a child, though, entitled Happiness Is a Warm Gun. Why was the gun warm, I wondered? Surely John Lennon isn’t suggesting that shooting things makes you happy?

Lennon derived the title of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” from an article in the May 1968 issue of American Rifleman. The magazine belonged to George Martin, the Beatles’ producer, who had brought it with him to the recording studio. Lennon recalled his reaction to the phrase: “I just thought it was a fantastic, insane thing to say. A warm gun means you just shot something.” Written by Warren W. Herlihy, the article told the story of how Herlihy had introduced his teenage son to shooting and how much the young man had come to enjoy the sport. The magazine had adapted the headline from the title of the bestselling book by Peanuts cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, Happiness is a Warm Puppy.


As the module materials (The Open University, 2020) point out, there are some concepts that have a plurality of metaphors attached to them, such as happiness:

The words 'HAPPINESS is' in the centre with examples of metaphors radiating out from lines (e.g. 'being off the ground', 'a pleasurable physical sensation')
A list of 13 conceptual metaphors discovered by an analysis by Kövecses (2002), and cited in The Open University (2020)

Like the module author, and I assume lots of people before hitting puberty, reading stories where people fall in love and use all kinds of metaphors seems completely unrelatable. That is, of course, until you have the experience yourself and then all of the song lyrics and descriptions in books start to make sense.

This is an important point when it comes to explaining things to other people. You can only use resonant metaphors if people have shared experiences. Otherwise, those metaphors are likely to be lost on them.