Metaphors We Live By

by katystreet

By George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

I read this book at the suggestion of two different computer science professors as I went through my grad school visits. It’s from 1980 and is a linguistics/philosophy book. It claims that metaphors are not just the poetic devices we hear in Shakespeare’s sonnets, but rather our primary tool for understanding and sometimes even defining abstract concepts.

The primary example used throughout the book is the metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR. Think of how we talk about arguments: ‘He defended his point.’ ‘I attacked his position.’ ‘She held her ground.’ It is hard to think of how we talk about argument that doesn’t use the language of war. But it is not true that this is the only metaphor a language or culture could use. Perhaps another metaphor could be ARGUMENT IS DANCE or ARGUMENT IS EXERCISE. These metaphors would change the way we talk about argument, but also change the way we think about argument.

More examples:

IDEAS ARE PLANTS. Her ideas have come to fruition. She has a fertile imagination.
IDEAS ARE PEOPLE. He is the father of modern biology. Who’s brainchild is that?
IDEAS ARE FOOD. Those are half-baked ideas. I can’t digest all this at once. His idea smells fishy.
UNDERSTANDING IS SEEING. I see what your saying. I understand your viewpoint. That was a brilliant remark. She’s got the whole picture.
LIFE IS A CONTAINER. She’s brimming with life. I’ve had a full life. There’s not much life left in him.

They break down how metaphors are tools to map disparate concepts onto each other. A metaphor is a partial overlap that highlights some similarities and hides others. If two concepts are too similar, it is not a metaphor but rather a subcategorization. CAT IS PET is not a metaphor, for instance. Poetic metaphors are unusual ones, either ones that are rarely made in society or take a normal metaphor to lesser-known parts of the overlap. Another common metaphor for argument is AN ARGUMENT IS A BUILDING: ‘I’m constructing my argument.’ ‘She laid the foundation for her argument.’ ‘It’s a flimsy argument.’ A poet might say: ‘Her argument was made of cheap stucco.’ This is fundamentally the AN ARGUMENT IS A BUILDING metaphor but takes it to a more precise place of overlap that is uncommon.

Lakoff and Johnson are experientialists. They argue this lies somewhere between subjectivity and objectivity, where we create our meaning from physical experiences we have. Our metaphors are all based from experiences we have of gravity (up, down,) our posture (vertical,) our view frame (front, back,) our existence as beings separate from others (containers.) They argue that saying THE CLOUDS ARE IN FRONT OF THE MOUNTAINS requires a huge amount of abstract thought because mountains and clouds are not clearly delineated objects, nor do they have an inherent front/back. Instead we shared assumptions about how clouds and mountains can be contained by boundaries (like us) and have front/back (like us.) Or most basic metaphors are based in these experiences we have. GOOD THINGS ARE UP because being physically healthy raises us above the ground. Then follows HIGH STATUS IS UP and FUTURE IS UP. Again, part of this is cultural, not innate.

They also touch on categorization and the concept that we create prototypes for categories and certain aspects of those prototypes can be highlighted or hidden. (Look! An UNDERSTANDING IS SEEING metaphor.) Similarly metaphors, especially more abstract ones like LOVE IS MADNESS or LOVE IS CREATING A WORK OF ART, highlight and hide certain aspects of the concept.

The biggest take aways for me were:

  • Lots of our everyday language is metaphorical and those metaphors frame our definitions for abstract concepts.
  • Metaphors require partial overlap; too much overlap and it is simply categorization, too little and they don’t aid in understanding.
  • New metaphors are how we understand new concepts or ideas.