Lakoff and Johnson: Metaphors We Live By

[Readings] (08.09.08, 9:18 am)


Lakoff and Johnson use metaphor as a means for cognition. Use of metaphor involves adoption of certain cognitive models associated with the models of what is being compared. They argue against the philosophical objective and subjective truths, and instead push to look for an embodied and situated means of truth that operates in accordance to our understanding.

Ultimately, the authors aim to dethrone objective reasoning as viable for understanding the world. Rather, a metaphorical view of statements is more tenable. The authors do not go so far as Rumelheart in On Metaphor and claim that there is no such thing as literal meaning, (although Lakoff did attend that conference before the publication of this book), rather they allow for it in certain situations, such as mathematics. A contemporary alternative would also be programming. While they spend a great deal of time in criticizing Noam Chomsky, their criticism is that Chomsky’s purely formal languages do not relate to the real world.

We can play on this a little bit, conjecturing that objective analysis may be sufficient within a mathematical domain, but in order to apply that knowledge, we must relate it to the real world, which requires metaphor.


Metaphor is pervasive in thought and action: “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. If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we thinks what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.”

Metaphor is a vehicle for exposing our conceptual system. “The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.”

The dilemma that arises here is a matter of reflection and infinite regress. If we are to believe our embodiment advocates, what happens at the lowest level is somatic perception.

Lakoff and Johnson use everyday, conventional examples to uncover common meanings: Argument is war, time is money, etc.

A common metaphorical concept is the conduit metaphor: “The speaker puts ideas (objects) into words (containers) and sends them (along a conduit) to a bearer who takes the idea/objects out of the word/containers.” This follows through to relate to communication and information theory very closely. Conduit metaphors are meta-metaphors, which describe language as a conduit.

Lakoff and Johnson make an interesting point about the experience of metaphor, though, which ties things back into phenomenology: “In actuality we feel that no metaphor can ever be comprehended or even adequately represented independently of its experiential basis.” This implies an operation of common experiential interaction that applies to both pairs of concepts being compared.

Oppositional binary metaphors are laid out in terms of up and down. Analogical metaphors occur when two pairs of metaphors relate to the same binary base: “more is better” is coherent with “more is up” and “good is up”. These types of underlying metaphors are culturally embedded.

Ontological metaphors anthropomorphize concepts or equate them to other types of entities. “He broke down” works with “The mind is a machine”.

On truth: Metaphor has a function of categorization. Furthermore, it prioritizes certain categories over others.

For truth to exist, there is needed an experiential gestalt with several categories: (p. 167) Participants, Parts, Stages, Causation, Purpose. This is detailed in the example of “John fired the gun at Harry”

We understand truths in the relation to prototypical examples via categories: perceptual, motor, functional, and purpose. These can vary, of course, but the low level perceptions and prototypes are the foundations of how this metaphorical extension and contextual knowledge may be developed.

Direct Immediate Understanding: Entity structure, orientational structure, dimensions of experience, experiential gestalts, background, highlighting, interactional properties, prototypes. These means of breaking down experience apply to both direct understanding and indirect understanding. Truth is based on understanding: “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.”

Both objectivism and subjectivism are myths. Objectivism leads to disembodiment of meaning, and implies that humans are not necessary for there to be truth or language. “Objectivism permits ontological relativity without human understanding.” Meaning is composed from other meanings. This standpoint resembles very closely GOFAI. Metaphor undercuts the objectivist myth.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorLakoff, George and Johnson, Mark
TitleMetaphors We Live By
Tagsdms, semiotics, linguistics
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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