Category Archives: Science

I am a circle, I am a square: Astrology as ontological metaphor

You’re in there somewhere

We are physical beings, bounded and set off from the rest of the world by the surface of our skins, and we experience the rest of the world as existing outside us. Each of us is a container, with a bounding surface and an in-out orientation. We project our own in-out orientation onto other physical objects that are bounded by surfaces. Thus we also view them as containers with an inside and an outside.

… [E]ven when there is no natural physical boundary that can be viewed as defining a container, we impose boundaries—marking off territory so that it has an inside and a bounding surface—whether a wall, a fence, or an abstract line or plane. There are few human instincts more basic than territoriality. Human purposes typically require us to impose artificial boundaries that make physical phenomena discrete just as we are : entities bounded by a surface. — Metaphors We Live By (Lakoff and Johnson, p. 25). 

We begin from this premise: that we can understand ourselves through astrology. We begin, therefore, with the idea that astrology explains us, that the chart ‘contains’ information about us, about who we are. Our ‘self’ can be found within the boundaries of the square or circle we erect to hold heavenly data. Except for a few glaring (and important) gaps of information—education, social status, religious convictions—virtually anything we can think of will be revealed to us via the symbols and mathematical constraints of an astrological chart. This is the theory, anyway.

The sun as the center of it all is a fitting metaphor for self-importance

We look up in the sky, and to the ephemeris, and place all the information we can possibly glean from the heavens into this container. Then we call the container an astrological chart and equate this construction with the self. That there are limitations to this system is something we should discuss, but for the moment, we are inside the circle, we are inside the square. We are locatable, astrologically-speaking.

To understand anything that is otherwise inexplicable, we have to find a way to describe it. When it comes to ourselves, (possibly the least-easily understood thing we will ever encounter other than the vastness of space), we rely on any number of metaphors to explain our perceptions.

Metaphors make sense of our experience by providing coherent structure, “highlighting some things and hiding others” (139). One of the metaphors we employ in astrology is to say that the chart represents us. It does not, of course; it’s a set of squiggles and glyphs that we have, over the millennia, imbued with meaning, but it gives us a way to sum ourselves up, a kind of shorthand to help explain us to us.

However, we rely heavily on metaphor; without it, we flounder, since language is so very abstract, and getting our heads around concepts becomes much easier when we have something we already understand to attach the concept to (just try to explain what ‘red’ means without aligning it to something like an apple, for example). “A metaphor works when it satisfies a purpose, namely, understanding an aspect of the concept” (97).

Astrology, as metaphor, works; we cannot understand ourselves without some kind of map to guide us and give us direction, even if the map is abstract when we are embodied; even if the map is to who we already are. 

The master in the emblem points his compass from circle to circle, or as it has been interpreted, from square to circle, demonstrating the squaring of the circle, the quintessential symbol of the marriage of heaven and earth. This puzzle was originally posed by the Delphic Oracle, to construct a square with a perimeter equal to the circumference of a circle.

 

What concept(s) do we need to understand about ourselves that the metaphor of astrology helps us conceptualize and understand? The intertwined concepts of ‘life’ and ‘self,’ which are both abstract and conceptual, are not experienced as ‘concepts’ to us; they’re real, yet we hardly notice the ways in which we create those realities through the use of metaphor, which we arrive at via our language choices.

Metaphors hide as much as they reveal, and it’s in this process of elision that we encounter real problems, because when we start to ignore details that contradict the metaphor, we are treading on dangerous epistemological ground.

Once we identify our experiences “as entities or substances, categorize them, group them and quantify them” (25) we pick out parts of these experiences and use these parts to explain ourselves—”I’m an Aries, I’m a Cancer, this is how I am, this is how I feel.” During this process, we come to understand ourselves better, we hope. However, this process forces us to ignore and reject everything that does not fit into our categories.

Our conventional ways of talking about ourselves presuppose metaphors we’re usually not conscious of. The metaphor is not merely in the words we use—it is in our very concept of ourselves. When we compare ourselves to a container, for example, we’re using language we believe conveys something crucial—and true—about what we are.

However, it wouldn’t matter what we called ourselves or how we thought of ourselves if we didn’t then act upon our words. We begin to believe that we “are” something, and then we act upon our belief, and then we live out our values through our beliefs. In this way, I believe we let language limit us, because we create our reality based on what we believe. Therefore, there are very real consequences for describing ourselves as something and giving it a name that relies on personification.

The danger exists that we will then act on the belief that underlies the reason we’re using the ontological metaphor of personification in the first place—in this way, we can easily justify our behaviors, good or bad, right or wrong. To compare ourselves to something that is not human allows us to comprehend a “wide variety of experiences with nonhuman entities in terms of human motivations, characteristics, and activities” (33) but it also determines how we will behave. What if you don’t want to behave like a typical [fill in the blank] today? Where is our free will, if we have any? 

 

In the beginning, there was Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs