Metaphors We Live By

Shortly after we met, we decided to collaborate on what we thought would be a brief paper giving some linguistic evidence to point up shortcomings in recent theories of meaning. Within a week we discovered that certain assumptions of contemporary philosophy and linguistics that have been taken for granted within the Western tradition since the Greeks precluded us from even raising the kind of issues we wanted to address. The problem was not one of extending or patching up some existing theory of meaning but of revising central assumptions in the Western philosophical tradition. In particular, this meant rejecting the possibility of any objective or absolute truth and a host of related assumptions.

Moreover, this is the ordinary way of having an argument and talking about one. The normal way for us to talk about attacking a position is to use the words “attack a position.” Our conventional ways of talking about arguments presuppose a metaphor we are hardly ever conscious of.

The metaphor is not merely in the words we use—it is in our very concept of an argument. The language of argument is not poetic, fanciful, or rhetorical; it is literal. We talk about arguments that way because we conceive of them that way—and we act according to the way we conceive of things.

In our culture TIME IS MONEY in many ways: telephone message units, hourly wages, hotel room rates, yearly budgets, interest on loans, and paying your debt to society by “serving time.”

The very systematicity that allows us to comprehend one aspect of a concept in terms of another (e.g., comprehending an aspect of arguing in terms of battle) will necessarily hide other aspects of the concept. In allowing us to focus on one aspect of a concept (e.g., the battling aspects of arguing), a metaphorical concept can keep us from focusing on other aspects of the concept that are inconsistent with that metaphor.

—In some cases spatialization is so essential a part of a concept that it is difficult for us to imagine any alternative metaphor that might structure the concept. In our society “high status” is such a concept.

The intuitive appeal of a scientific theory has to do with how well its metaphors fit one’s experience.

These are values deeply embedded in our culture. “The future will be better” is a statement of the concept of progress. “There will be more in the future” has as special cases the accumulation of goods and wage inflation. “Your status should be higher in the future” is a statement of careerism. These are coherent with our present spatialization metaphors; their opposites would not be. So it seems that our values are not independent but must form a coherent system with the metaphorical concepts we live by. We are not claiming that all cultural values coherent with a metaphorical system actually exist, only that those that do exist and are deeply entrenched are consistent with the metaphorical system.

The values listed above hold in our culture generally—all things being equal. But because things are usually not equal, there are often conflicts among these values and hence conflicts among the metaphors associated with them.

There was a time (before inflation and the energy crisis) when owning a small car had a high status within the subculture where VIRTUE IS UP and SAVING RESOURCES IS VIRTUOUS took priority over BIGGER IS BETTER.

When things are not clearly discrete or bounded, we still categorize them as such, e.g., mountains, street corners, hedges, etc. Such ways of viewing physical phenomena are needed to satisfy certain purposes that we have: locating mountains, meeting at street corners, trimming hedges.

Human purposes typically require us to impose artificial boundaries that make physical phenomena discrete just as we are: entities bounded by a surface.

In these cases, viewing inflation as an entity allows us to refer to it, quantify it, identify a particular aspect of it, see it as a cause, act with respect to it, and perhaps even believe that we understand it.

Ontological metaphors like this are necessary for even attempting to deal rationally with our experiences.

Ontological metaphors like these are so natural and so pervasive in our thought that they are usually taken as self-evident, direct descriptions of mental phenomena. The fact that they are metaphorical never occurs to most of us.

activities are viewed as containers for the actions and other activities that make them up.

Here inflation is personified, but the metaphor is not merely INFLATION IS A PERSON. It is much more specific, namely, INFLATION IS AN ADVERSARY.

Metonymic concepts allow us to conceptualize one thing by means of its relation to something else.

When we think of a Picasso, we are not just thinking of a work of art alone, in and of itself. We think of it in terms of its relation to the artist, that is, his conception of art, his technique, his role in art history, etc. We act with reverence toward a Picasso, even a sketch he made as a teen-ager, because of its relation to the artist.





UNDERSTANDING IS SEEING; IDEAS ARE LIGHT-SOURCES; DISCOURSE IS A LIGHT-MEDIUM I see what you’re saying. It looks different from my point of view. What is your outlook on that? I view it differently.

WEALTH IS A HIDDEN OBJECT He’s seeking his fortune. He’s flaunting his new-found wealth. He’s a fortune-hunter. She’s a gold-digger. He lost his fortune. He’s searching for wealth.

In this last group of examples we have a collection of what are called “speech formulas,” or “fixed-form expressions,” or “phrasal lexical items.” These function in many ways like single words, and the language has thousands of them.

In the examples given, a set of such phrasal lexical items is coherently structured by a single metaphorical concept. Although each of them is an instance of the LIFE IS A GAMBLING GAME metaphor, they are typically used to speak of life, not of gambling situations. They are normal ways of talking about life situations, just as using the word “construct” is a normal way of talking about theories.

The parts of the concept BUILDING that are used to structure the concept THEORY are the foundation and the outer shell. The roof, internal rooms, staircases, and hallways are parts of a building not used as part of the concept THEORY. Thus the metaphor THEORIES ARE BUILDINGS has a “used” part (foundation and outer shell) and an “unused” part (rooms, staircases, etc.).

Are there any concepts at all that are understood directly, without metaphor? If not, how can we understand anything at all?

The second is an instance of the SOCIAL GROUPS ARE CONTAINERS metaphor, in terms of which the concept of a social group is structured. This metaphor allows us to “get a handle on” the concept of a social group by means of a spatialization.

Part of being a rational animal, however, involves getting what you want without subjecting yourself to the dangers of actual physical conflict.

Even if you have never fought a fistfight in you life, much less a war, but have been arguing from the time you began to talk, you still conceive of arguments, and execute them, according to the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor because the metaphor is built into the conceptual system of the culture in which you live.

We experience them as a gestalt; that is, the complex of properties occurring together is more basic to our experience than their separate occurrence.

The concept is stable because we continue to function successfully in terms of it.

We conceptualize changes of this kind—from one state into another, having a new form and function—in terms of the metaphor THE OBJECT COMES OUT OF THE SUBSTANCE. This is why the expression out of is used in the above examples:

The concept of LOVE has a core that is minimally structured by the subcategorization LOVE IS AN EMOTION and by links to other emotions, e.g., liking. This is typical of emotional concepts, which are not clearly delineated in our experience in any direct fashion and therefore must be comprehended primarily indirectly, via metaphor.

The abstract topological concept of a surface which forms the overlap between these two metaphors is not concrete enough to form an image. In general when metaphors are coherent but not consistent, we should not expect them to form consistent images.

The reason we need two metaphors is because there is no one metaphor that will do the job—there is no one metaphor that will allow us to get a handle simultaneously on both the direction of the argument and the content of the argument.

there is always more in the defining concept than is carried over to the defined concept. Take IDEAS ARE FOOD. We may have raw facts and half-baked ideas, but there are no sautéed, broiled, or poached ideas.

“Your theory is constructed out of cheap stucco”

“His theories are Gothic and covered with gargoyles.” Since

Although virtually all homonymy theorists espouse the weak version, in practice there seem to be only strong homonymy theories, since no one has attempted to provide the detailed account of similarity necessary to maintain the weak version of the theory.

there is a good reason why no attempt has been made to give such a detailed account of the kinds of examples we have been discussing. The reason is that such an account would require one to address the issue of how we comprehend and understand areas of experience that are not well-defined in their own terms and must be grasped in terms of other areas of experience. In general, philosophers and linguists have not been concerned with such questions.

if you look in a dictionary under “love,” you find entries that mention affection, fondness, devotion, infatuation, and even sexual desire, but there is no mention of the way in which we comprehend love by means of metaphors like LOVE IS A JOURNEY, LOVE IS MADNESS, LOVE IS WAR, etc.

If we take expressions like “Look how far we’ve come” or “Where are we now?” there would be no way to tell from a standard dictionary or any other standard account of meaning that these expressions are normal ways of talking about the experience of love in our culture.

Definitions for a concept are seen as characterizing the things that are inherent in the concept itself. We, on the other hand, are concerned with how human beings get a handle on the concept—how they understand it and function in terms of it. Madness and journeys give us handles on the concept of love, and food gives us a handle on the concept of an idea.

We have found that metaphors allow us to understand one domain of experience in terms of another. This suggests that understanding takes place in terms of entire domains of experience and not in terms of isolated concepts.

Thus the metaphors TIME IS A SUBSTANCE and LABOR IS A SUBSTANCE allow us to conceive of time and labor as similar in our culture, since both can be quantified, assigned a value per unit, seen as serving a purposeful end, and used up progressively. Since these metaphors play a part in defining what is real for us in this culture, the similarity between time and labor is both based on metaphor and real for our culture.

These food concepts give us a way of understanding psychological processes that we have no direct and well-defined way of conceptualizing.

is it ideal to conceive of ideas the opposite of thhis. ie see real life as special cases of general metaphors...

As Charlotte Linde (in conversation) has observed, whether in national politics or in everyday interaction, people in power get to impose their metaphors.

Suppose Carter announces that his administration has won a major energy battle. Is this claim true or false? Even to address oneself to the question requires accepting at least the central parts of the metaphor. If you do not accept the existence of an external enemy, if you think there is no external threat, if you recognize no field of battle, no targets, no clearly defined competing forces, then the issue of objective truth or falsity cannot arise.

Focusing on one set of properties shifts our attention away from others. When we give everyday descriptions, for example, we are using categorizations to focus on certain properties that fit our purposes.

We understand a statement as being true in a given situation when our understanding of the statement fits our understanding of the situation closely enough for our purposes.