Lakoff & Johnson's Metaphors We Live By

Paper 6, by Zach Tomaszewski

for CIS 701, Spring 2003, taught by Dr. Majid Tehranian

In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson put forth the thesis that metaphor is not simply a matter of language, but a matter of thought. They claim that metaphor is rife in language and that much of out conceptual structure is actually metaphorical in nature.

George Lakoff has been a Professor of Linguistics at UC-Berkley since 1972. His interests are generative semantics, cognitive science, and philosophy. Early in his career he lost faith in Chomsky and syntactic deep structures. Instead, he has focused his work on connecting mental representations to physical human experience. He is also the author of Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind, which deals with prototypes, radial categories, and other fuzzy membership sets. He has his own DMOZ category.

Mark Johnson hails from the department of Philosophy at University of Oregon. He too believes that thinking arises from embodied experience. He has been largely influenced by Kant, and is very interested in the field of aesthetics.

Lakoff and Johnson begin their book by explaining that they believe language to be an indicator of the nature of our conceptual system. Based on that evidence, it seems that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical since metaphor is so pervasive in language, though it is usually not recognized as such. They give the example of ARGUMENT IS WAR. When we speak normally and literally about arguments, we use the language of war: we take positions to defend; we attack our opponent; we either fortify or abandon weak positions; we choose different strategies and lines of attack; we eventually win or lose.

Metaphors are a systematic, partial structuring of one concept in terms of another. It is partial since complete equivalency would mean that the two concepts are identical. Metaphors are coherent, though not necessarily consistent, in our conceptual system. That is, different metaphorical structurings of the same concept will usually overlap in a logical way (coherence) or form subsets of a more general metaphor. But metaphors for a single concept rarely form a single image (consistency). For example, love is thought of a journey. But this can be a car trip (a long, bumpy road; spinning our wheels in this relationships), a train trip (been derailed), or a sea voyage (we're on the rocks; foundering). These three images are coherent in that they are all journeys, but they are not the same consistent image.

When we comprehend one concept in terms of another, the metaphor highlights some aspects, while downplaying or completely hiding others. For instance, when we think of arguments as conflicts, we downplay the cooperative aspects necessary to have any kind of conversation, such as speaking in turn or working together towards a common resolution.

Lakoff and Johnson differentiate three types of metaphors: structural, orientational, and ontological. Structural are metaphors of the type we've examined so far--conceiving of one concept in terms of another.

Orientational metaphors are those that organize a whole system of concepts in terms of physical orientation. For example, happiness is up (boosted or high spirits, raise morale) while sadness is down (depressed, down in the dumps, feeling low). Similarly, health, consciousness, having control, more, good, virtue, and rational are all up, while sickness, unconsciousness, being controlled, less, bad, depravity, and emotional thinking are all generally down. Not all orientational metaphors are up-down. Future and past are ahead and behind (though which is which depends on the culture).

Ontological metaphors give incorporeal things a sense of boundary and substance, allowing us to speak of them as objects or bounded spaces. Doing so allows us to refer to a concept as an agent (inflation is taking its toll), to quantify it (a lot of patience), to identify aspects of it (brutality of war), or to identify causes or goals (this heat is driving me mad; off to seek his fortune). We also view events, actions, activities and states as containers--such as getting into or out of trouble, being in a race, getting satisfaction out of doing something. Ontological metaphors can be extended by giving the object or substance certain characteristics. A common example is thinking of something as a person or similar agent.

Lakoff and Johnson explain the difference between metaphor and metonymy. Metaphor structures understanding, while metonymy merely serves a referential function by designating one thing in terms of another experientially related thing. An example of metonymy is "The White House had no comment", where White House refers to the people residing there. Metaphors and metonymy are both systematic.

Chapter 10 sheds some light on how pervasive conceptual metaphor is by giving a number of examples. I won't reproduce them all here.

New, figurative metaphors are usually generated in three ways. One is by extending the used part of an existing, conventualized metaphor. For example, "These facts are the bricks and mortar of my theory" uses the metaphor THEORIES ARE BUILDINGS and extends the mapping between structural sturdiness and theoretical soundness. Another way is to extend the unused part of an existing metaphor: "His theory is filled with little rooms and long, winding corridors." In THEORIES ARE BUILDINGS, the interior of the building is not usually mapped to any feature of theories. Finally, new metaphors can be completely novel. An example is "Quit revving your theory" as an instance of the novel THEORIES ARE AUTOMOBILES.

In the second third of the book, Lakoff and Johnson explore what the pervasiveness of metaphor implies about our conceptual system. They believe that the coherent structure of conceptual metaphor is grounded in human, physical experiences. Orientational metaphors are a prime example of how our embodied nature imparts physical orientations to otherwise immaterial concepts. Lakoff and Johnson point out that they are not saying that physical experiences are more basic, but that they are more clearly delineated. We can interact and directly perceive physical objects more sharply than we can emotions, abstractions, or social organizations. Thus, these later concepts are frequently conceptualized in terms of the more concrete physical entities and processes.

Some metaphors, such as the orientational metaphors, seem to emerge from experiential co-occurrence. For example, when we are healthy we spend more time vertical and mobile than when we are ill, leading to the metaphor HEALTHY IS UP. Yet others emerge indirectly from more abstract metaphors, such as THEORIES ARE BUILDINGS arising from a notion that STRUCTURAL INTEGRITY IS REMAINING ERECT. Some metaphors are both directly and metaphorically emergent.

Lakoff and Johnson explore in some detail how seemingly disjointed metaphors for the same concept can coherently overlap. Because of the complexity of experience and the partial structuring of metaphors, multiple metaphors are needed to structure a single concept. The authors explore opposing views of metaphor and some of their deficiencies.

In the last third of the book, Lakoff and Johnson explore how their theory of metaphor influences epistemology and our interaction with the world. A metaphor is not a definition (which purports to characterize an entity in terms of its inherent properties), but it is a way of understanding a concept. This understanding is through "natural kinds of experience", in terms of interactional properties, arranged in prototypical and radial categories--all consequences of our embodied, human experiences.

Metaphors affect how we relate with the world. They highlight some features while downplaying others. This highlighting selects very specific aspects of an experience. By focusing our attention, a new metaphor can give new meaning to an experience. It can sanction actions, justify behavior, and help us set goals. Metaphors are partially culturally defined and partly based on personal experiences, which means it may not affect everyone in exactly the same way. In short, by shaping our conceptual system, metaphors shape our reality by affecting how we perceive the world and how we act on those perceptions.

By highlighting certain aspects, metaphors can create a perceived similarity between two things. Those in power usually get to impose their metaphors on others. While the "truth" of metaphors are rarely debated directly, the inferences and actions that follow are. For example, the "war on drugs" is rarely discussed in terms of the aptness of the metaphor itself--whether reducing the rate of illegal drug use in society is a "war". Instead, arguments about truth or falsity are often in terms of the metaphor--whether the latest program or plan of attack will be effective or not, whether there is sufficient public support for the "war", and whether we are winning or losing.

Lakoff and Johnson put forth an experientialist theory of truth: a statement is true when our understanding of the statement closely enough matches our understanding of the situation. Meaning depends on understanding. Meaning is always meaning to someone; there is no disembodied, objective meaning. This means that truth depends on the context and is relevant to our conceptual system. This is not an objective view, since truth relies on a human thinker. However, it is not purely subjective either, since our conceptual systems are shaped by interactions with the world. Additionally, there can be some objectivity within a cultural system by factoring out individual bias. Lakoff and Johnson explore the assumptions of both objectivism and subjectivism and their inadequacies. If there is to be a synthesis of these two approaches, an experientialist approach in which meaning and truth is based on understanding may be the solution.

They believe such an approach would provide a richer understanding of such things as communication, self-understanding, ritual, and politics. Communication across cultures is rarely an example of the CONDUIT metaphor [basically, Shannon and Weaver's model] in which an objective meaning is transferred from one person to another; instead, understanding is negotiated by the two parties. Self-understanding involves finding coherence in our life, frequently through a number of different metaphors. Ritual and politics are often couched in metonymy and metaphorical terms.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Though it is easy to read and avoids technical terms or excessive verbiage, it is well written, clearly argued, and quite insightful. It certainly opened my eyes to the pervasiveness of metaphor, and how important it is for our understanding of the world.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.