Reasoning on Metaphorical Foundations

13Sep14

A review of the book Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

Just how important are metaphors? Many linguists, certainly if you asked them before 1980, would have told you something like this. Metaphors are a nice feature language, important to poets, but of little importance to ordinary language use, the mind or society.  But then Lakoff and Johnson, composed a thorough defense of the opposite thesis. They argued that metaphors shape our understanding of the world, and our action in it. To them human thinking and social action is deeply metaphorical in nature. In this post I will critically examine their book.

Lakoff and Johnson introduce the idea that metaphors are a building blocks of our conceptual thinking with the example argument is war. There are many sentences which fit this metaphor: “Your claims are indefensible. He attacked the weak points in my argument. I never won an argument with him”. Are these, Lakoff and Johnson ask, exotic poetic ways of taking about arguments, or are these sentences linguistic evidence for the fact that we use the concept of war to understand and reason about the concept of argument? If the last explanation holds true, an analysis of the way metaphors are used in everyday language, can tell us a lot about the way our conceptual system works. Clearly, this is the program they unfold in the rest of the book.

Metaphors can transfer the structure of one concept to another. Our understanding of arguments borrows the ideas of struggling parties, an all-or-nothing struggle, attacks and defenses from the concept of war. In time is money, the idea of a limited, valuable resource is projected on the concept of time: “Is that worth your time? You are running out of time.” This comes at a cost though. If we use a metaphor to understand a concept it highlights certain aspects of the concept we use it for and hides others. Time, seen as money, highlights its value within our culture but it hides its indefinite flowing, which is in turn highlighted by time is a river. According to Lakoff and Johnson, metaphorical structuring is partial:  we can apply multiple metaphors to a single concept to highlight different aspects of it. This is particularly clear with concepts such as love (as chaos, as journey, as magic, etc.) and ideas (as containers, as resources, as fashions) which typically take structures from multiple donors. Metaphorical understanding has coherence though:  the concept which receives a structure needs to do so in a way consistent with its donor. Although the practice of metaphorical structuring is universal, the specific metaphors are culturally bound.

There are two special types of metaphors, which appear to be so foundational that Lakoff and Johnson assign special status to them. One is the class of orientational metaphors such as in-out, up-down, front-back and so on. These are used to structure many other concepts: “happy is up, sad is down; conscious is up, unconscious is down; health is up, sickness is down; more is up, less is down; and so on”. Another class is that of the ontological metaphors.  Ontological metaphors allow us to grab concepts as (physical) substances and objects. The gradual rising of prices, is seen as the entity inflation in: “we need to combat inflation; inflation makes me sick”. Ontological metaphors allow us to quantify, identify aspects, express causation, setting goals and motivate actions among others. Lakoff and Johnson claim spatial and ontological metaphors are grounded in our (early) physical experience, and allow us to use this experience to grasp much more abstract ideas which we face later.

So metaphors are not a linguistic fringe at all. We use metaphors all the time to make sense of the world around us. We create meaning through metaphor. We systematically understand and structure new concepts in terms of older, more concrete, concepts. The most fundamental concepts are the orientation and ontological metaphors which structure most of our thinking. Because metaphorical thinking is so natural to us, most of us go unnoticed. This makes it a powerful weapon of speech. Declaring war on drugs frames drugs as a an entity, which must be defeated, in a win or lose situation, drug dealers become enemies, policemen allies, there will be a struggle with wins and losses, which may take long and take sacrifices and so on. Almost without noticing the metaphor structures our thinking and our actions.

Metaphors We Live By builds a strong case for the ubiquity and importance of metaphors. Lakoff and Johnson’s core insights have an intuitive appeal and are supported by a lot of examples. The book has two main weaknesses. First: Lakoff and Johnson act as if only building block of our conceptual system. All is metaphor. This seems unlikely. Are, for example, orientation and ontological metaphors really metaphors in the same way as structural metaphors are? This is hard to assess with linguistic evidence alone, which is the second major weakness of the book. Take referring.  We learn to refer to physical entities. Later we refer to abstract concepts such as inflation. Lakoff and Johnson claim we understand inflation as a physical object so we can refer to it, which makes it metaphorical in nature. But this circular as Lakoff and Johnson present the fact that we refer to inflation as evidence for our understanding it as a physical entity. Until a lot of psychological experimentation has proved the truth value and reach of metaphorical understanding, it will be hard to assess the true importance of metaphors for our mind and society. Until then it remains an intriguing theory which is certainly worth reading the book.

P.S. In the book Lakoff and Johnson give an account of the consequences of their theory for the philosophical notions of subjectivism and objectivism. As I found this the least interesting part of the book, I took the liberty of skipping it.

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One Response to “Reasoning on Metaphorical Foundations”


  1. 1 Metaforen voor het leven | Kennis in Actie

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