Saturday, February 17, 2001


The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor by George Lakoff

"In classical theories of language, metaphor was seen as a matter of language not thought. Metaphorical expressions were assumed to be mutually exclusive with the realm of ordinary everyday language: everyday language had no metaphor, and metaphor used mechanisms outside the realm of everyday conventional language. The classical theory was taken so much for granted over the centuries that many people didn't realize that it was just a theory. The theory was not merely taken to be true, but came to be taken as definitional. The word metaphor was defined as a novel or poetic linguistic expression where one or more words for a concept are used outside of its normal conventional meaning to express a similar concept. But such issues are not matters for definitions; they are empirical questions. As a cognitive scientist and a linguist, one asks: What are the generalizations governing the linguistic expressions referred to classically as poetic metaphors? When this question is answered rigorously, the classical theory turns out to be false. The generalizations governing poetic metaphorical expressions are not in language, but in thought: They are general mappings across conceptual domains. Moreover, these general principles which take the form of conceptual mappings, apply not just to novel poetic expressions, but to much of ordinary everyday language. In short, the locus of metaphor is not in language at all, but in the way we conceptualize one mental domain in terms of another. The general theory of metaphor is given by characterizing such cross-domain mappings. And in the process, everyday abstract concepts like time, states, change, causation, and purpose also turn out to be metaphorical. The result is that metaphor (that is, cross-domain mapping) is absolutely central to ordinary natural language semantics, and that the study of literary metaphor is an extension of the study of everyday metaphor."

Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust by George Lakoff

"We may not always know it, but we think in metaphor. A large proportion of our most commonplace thoughts make use of an extensive, but unconscious, system of metaphorical concepts, that is, concepts from a typically concrete realm of thought that are used to comprehend another, completely different domain. Such concepts are often reflected in everyday language, but their most dramatic effect comes in ordinary reasoning. Because so much of our social and political reasoning makes use of this system of metaphorical concepts, any adequate appreciation of even the most mundane social and political thought requires an understanding of this system. But unless one knows that the system exists, one may miss it altogether and be mystified by its effects.

For me, one of the most poignant effects of the ignorance of metaphorical thought is the mystification of liberals concerning the recent electoral successes of conservatives. Conservatives regularly chide liberals for not understanding them, and they are right. Liberals don't understand how anti-abortion "right-to-life" activists can favor the death penalty and oppose reducing infant morality through prenatal care programs. They don't understand why budget-cutting conservatives should spare no public expense to build prison after prison to house even non-violent offenders, or why they are willing to spend extra money to take children away from their mothers and put them in orphanages --- in the name of family values. They don't understand why conservatives attack violence in the media while promoting the right to own machine guns. Liberals tend not to understand the logic of conservatism; they don't understand what form of morality makes conservative positions moral or what conservative family values have to do with the rest of conservative politics. The reason at bottom is that liberals do not understand the form of metaphorical thought that unifies and makes sense of the full range of conservative values."

Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things : What Categories Reveal About the Mind
Metaphors We Live by (with Mark Johnson)
Philosophy in the Flesh : The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (with Mark Johnson)
Moral Politics : What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don't
Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being (with Rafael Nunez)

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