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THEORIA: TRAVEL AS PARAPHOR; Part 1 - From Metaphor to Paraphor

There is an ancient connection between history, sightseeing and the guided tour dating to the fifth century BCE, when history and method emerge from a textual adaptation of an older cultural tradition of travel programmed as sightseeing. Theoria originally implied a kind of active observation, combining perception with asking questions and listening to local stories and myths (Walter 1992, 18). The practice of theoria features movement through space as an integral component of intellectual activity, implying a closer relation between movement and thought than that provided by the commonplace structures of metaphor or motif of travel.

Discussion of the links between movement in space and intellection treads on the territory of the obvious. As put by Georges Van Den Abbeele in the introduction to his book on the subject, Travel as Metaphor:

Despite its association with the interesting or the innovative, the motif of the voyage counts among the most manifestly banal in Western letters. From Homer and Virgil, through Dante and Cervantes, Defoe and Goethe, Melville and Conrad, Proust and Céline, Nabokov and Butor, and on up through the most ‘postmodern’ writers, one can scarcely mention a piece of literature in which the theme of the voyage does not play some role. (Van Den Abbeele 1992, xiii)

Humans move; they travel. Van Den Abbeele’s observation is a warning against mounting inquiry into the commonplace. He continues:

the question that needs to be raised is whether the commonplace quality of the metaphor of travel does not at some point constitute a limit to the freedom of critical thought.

…What if the critique of a system were itself encoded as an institutionalized part of the system? … Should one conclude pessimistically, then, that critical thought can never escape its entrapment by that which it supposedly criticizes? The hypothesis this study … attempts to support is that the critical gesture is always entrapped in some ways and liberated or liberating in others. (ibid, xiv)

The commonplaces of historical research, its tropes, tacit values and traditions, should be carefully noted as we attempt to identify gaps between established practices. Travel and its formative effects on authors and their work is not one of these gaps, it is widely discussed, and always has been. What is not so commonly discussed however is travel as a format for conveying information: travel appearing in discourse not as a metaphor but as both source and goal of discourse, or travel and discourse carried one alongside the other as a context for intellection. This is travel as paraphor. This neologism underscores ambiguities in the relationship between travel and thought: the suffix para- attached to Greek verbs, meaning “alongside”, “beyond”, or “past”; and -phor from the Greek phoros and pherein, “to bear”. Travel as a paraphor for thought leaves the position of bearers uncertain while noting their mutual presence in a common context. In a paraphoric relationship, changes in the specifications of one party will induce changes in other related parties at a high enough level of abstraction to make causality and direction irrelevant. Thus recognizing a paraphoric relationship between members allows inquiry to continue despite uncertainties or circularities in causality, or the "entrapment" of discourse described by Van Den Abbeele. Entrapment is replaced by the possibility for mutual development, a symmetrical relationship between travel and discourse that is present in the founding cultural practices of both terms by the Ancient Greeks.


  • Van Den Abbeele, Georges. 1992. Travel as Metaphor: From Montaign to Rousseau. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Walter, Eugene. 1992. Placeways: A Theory of the Human Environment. Chapel Hill, NC:University of North Carolina Press.

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