The Energy Metaphor – Can You Feel It?

A Planarian Original Article

by G. Lee Young, PhD

Science has established a literal meaning for the concept of energy. In physics, energy is literally “the capacity to do work, such as the capacity to move an object by force.” Forms of energy include electrical, mechanical, chemical, thermal, and nuclear; and energy can be transferred from one form to another. Without a doubt, physics understands energy to be a real, measurable phenomenon that fits in predictable ways with a variety of other physical phenomena.

But in everyday language, and in spiritual explanation, the concept of energy finds further, if metaphorical, application. People, animals, objects, spaces, situations, etc., are all said to have energies that don’t clearly correspond to the scientifically recognized forms. What we have in mind when we say, for example, that a cathedral has a special energy, is the effect the place has on those who experience it. Presumably, that effect is not the result of electrical, mechanical or other kind of work the cathedral is performing on an observer, so is it legitimate to speak of energy at all here?

Put another way, if metaphor is a generally acceptable use of language, then why not in this case? Metaphor is popularly viewed as an aesthetic augmentation of linguistic expression, making poetic what would otherwise be dry description, but use of figurative language like metaphor causes discomfort for the science-minded when it goes beyond the poetic and aesthetic to the practical and cognitive. It’s fine to call a brave man “lion-hearted” if it’s clear no one will mistake this for literal description of the man’s vital organ, but reference to “qi energy” that flows throughout the body is enough to make the hard-minded squirm.

Recent theory on metaphor suggests, however, that metaphor plays an indispensable cognitive function in human conceptual life, and that this function of metaphor is more common, and more essential, than its poetic use. With their earliest publication Metaphors We Live By (1980), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson launched a research program that has exploded into an all-out re-visioning of human language and the human mind. They claim that even logical and scientific thought are understood metaphorically by logicians and scientists, but the metaphorical conceptualizations are performed so unconsciously and automatically that it goes unnoticed.

According to Lakoff and his research colleagues, metaphors are especially useful for cognition of phenomena that are otherwise hard to “grasp.” Take this last metaphor for instance – that Understanding is Grasping. What is understanding? What is this mental act or state? For that matter, what is the mind? The mind and its abilities are certainly realities we need to be able to talk about in intuitive ways, but what literally is the mind? Lacking a “concrete” way to refer to the mind, we resort to all kinds of metaphors that bring the topic of the mind within more comfortable cognitive reach. Of course, these metaphors can be taken only so far in normal use – saying that the mind can “grasp” is one thing, but to then begin talking about the mind’s five fingers would be more of a stretch, perhaps the stuff of poetry.

The Lakoff team (or, at this point, army) has undertaken an immense excavation project of all the unconscious metaphors we use in both everyday and specialized language. Included in their cataloguing of metaphors is the use of concepts like energy to describe phenomena that it’s a bit tougher to talk about directly or literally. For instance, take the metaphor that Emotions are Electromagnetic Forces, which gives us expressions like “She felt charged up with anxiety,” “I can feel the good vibrations,” and “He’s got a lot of negative energy.” Is there something unacceptable in talking metaphorically about “good vibes” and “negative energy”?

One concern might be that, since “energy” is a well-established scientific term, and the experience of literal energy is very much like the experience of what’s metaphorically described as energy, a pseudo-science will develop around the metaphorical use, so that the experience of “good vibes” and “negative [emotional] energy” will be thought consistent physically with literal energy, as if they are just another measurable transference of the real thing. This confusion is not as likely with the Understanding is Grasping metaphor – the mind is not mistaken even by the most gullible as really being just another kind of hand.

In everyday speak, “negative energy” can be used rather innocently with no deep theoretical claims being asserted, but in certain forms of New Age, paranormal, or occult explanation (“spiritual” explanation), the concept of “energy” gets brought into more exotic metaphysical frameworks to explain – not just metaphorically describe – hauntings, ESP, mental and physical health, auras, and the spiritual properties of people, places and objects, and so on.

Has the innocent metaphorical use of a scientific concept gotten out of control, or do these spiritualists have just as much license as scientists and poets to use the term as they see fit? And are we so certain spiritualists aren’t literally describing energy phenomena? If not, what’s wrong with imagining energy to be involved anyway, especially if there are no better concepts available? Or should we follow the commonly assumed rednering of Wittgenstein’s dictum: “Whereof one cannot [literally] speak, thereof one must be silent”? A thorough, balanced consideration of these and related questions might just be worth the energy.

For a less sympathetic view on the use of the concept of energy outside of established physics, follow the links beginning at Skeptic’s Dictionary online:


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