Thinking, Literally and Metaphorically (but mostly metaphorically)

Cover: Metaphors We Live ByIt’s easy to forget that linguists have significant insight into how the human mind works. Normally we think of psychologists when the topic of how our minds work comes up. Grudginly, we might also acknowledge that marketers too know what makes us tick. Linguistics does not normally make the list though. However, it is perhaps only linguists that have a level of understanding about the human mind on par with psychologists. To study human language is to study how we think. After all, we think in our languages – anyone who’s learned a language as an adult can knows this all too well.

One of the greatest insights into the workings of human mind came in the late seventies through work conducted on the pervasiveness of metaphor in not just language, but conceptualization.

The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities.

That statement comes from George Lakoff‘s landmark book, The Metaphors We Live By, written with Mark Johnson. It seems obvious enough, no? How we think about things matters. This is the very essence of, for example, marketing and political spin. What Lakoff and others discovered is that we think metaphorically more than anyone ever guessed. A lot more.

It seems that outside of how we talk about our immediate physical interactions and bodies, we are almost always speaking metaphorically and, thus, thinking metaphorically. This is, perhaps, fairly obvious in the case of abstract topics such as debates, ideas, love and time. These things are not buildings (but we use terms used to describe buildings to talk about arguments we make in a debate), food (ditto, ideas), journeys (love), or money (time). And yet we talk about ideas being half-baked and fermenting, the foundations and framework of arguments, wasting and spending time, and how far we come and how bumpy a road our romantic relationships. Indeed, it’s difficult not to use these metaphors when discussing such topics.

Lakoff and Johnson show that it’s not the case that these words we give double-duty to have multiple definitions. Instead they are an indication of the underlying metaphor we use to understand and think about love, ideas and so on. This has consequences that go beyond simple language use. The metaphors we use highlight and obscure different aspects of the subject at hand.

As an example, in English at least, we conceptualize debates in terms of war/battle. There are attacks and defenses, flanking and parrying, and so on. Immediately this casts the other participant in the debate as an adversary to be overcome, perhaps destroyed. The topics and subtopics involved become ground and territory to be attacked, defended and surrendered. At the same time, the war metaphor obscures the cooperative aspects of debate. Now imagine how we might approach debates if we conceptualized them instead as, for example, tending a garden or making a map. It’s difficult, right? This is because these conceptual metaphors are so basic and ingrained that few even consider them metaphorical. But if you can do it, you would not simply be using different words, you would be thinking about debates in a different way.

To say that these consequences are far-reaching is an understatement. How we think touches on nearly every aspect of the human experience. In particular, fields like psychology, politics and philosophy are turned on their ears by this.

“Metaphors” was first published in 1980 and research in the ensuing decades has strengthened the theories put forth in it. The edition published in 2003 includes a new afterword that covers some of this research and the impact of the book. While some aspects have been honed or clarified, nothing has out-and-out contradicted the basic idea. However, despite three decades of validation, not everyone has embraced the ideas. Given how it challenges so many long-held assumptions about how we think and the consequences thereof this is unsurprising.

Above all, the key sticking point is the existence of conceptual metaphor. If conceptual metaphors are real, then all literalist and objectivist views of meaning and knowledge are false. We can no longer pretend to build an account of concepts and knowledge on objective, literal foundations. This constitutes a profound challenge to many of the traditional ways of thinking about what it means to be human, about how the mind works, and about our nature as social and cultural creatures.

Consider about what it means to judge the truth of a statement when we are speaking metaphorically. Even if the other person accepts the metaphor, they may not necessarily conceptualize the same way. Language, culture, and personal experience all play into our thoughts. What sort of road do you think of for love? What sort of building for a theory? The examples and accompanying pitfalls are endless. Small wonder Lakoff’s ideas haven’t been warmly embraced by everyone. (And small wonder we object have trouble making ourselves understood.)

This is a must-read for anyone interested in how we think or how language works. There is even evidence that understanding these metaphors helps learners of foreign language. I think that anyone with an interest in science and scientific discoveries would enjoy this book. Beyond the discovery described and supported in the book, the book is well-written and under 300 pages long. It’s an enjoyable read about a fascinating subject that won’t take you forever to get through.

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