Metaphors We Live By. September 2, 2020

The main thesis of Metaphors We Live By is that metaphor, rather than being a matter of language to be used to provide style and aid rhetoric, is a key element in thought and understanding. Consider the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor: we talk of winning or losing an argument, as well as attacking positions and devising argument strategies. These are not just stylistic choices; they’re how we understand the concept of an argument. You can imagine a culture where arguments are not understood in terms of a struggle that could be won or lost, where perhaps the goal of the argument is to reach mutual understanding, but then someone from our culture would probably not perceive it as an argument at all.

The book then goes on to establish the notion of conceptual metaphor and give several more examples (such as TIME IS MONEY, MORE IS UP and IDEAS ARE FOOD). I’ve found the idea of conceptual metaphors to be very enlightening and it made me realize how much of the way we think about our everyday life is full of metaphors. Later in the book, the authors develop a whole theory using metaphors as a base, suggesting that we generally understand the world through metaphor, the reason being that they are the way to understand more abstract things in terms of more concrete things. I’m curious how well their theory fits into more recent cognitive science research.

In the last few chapters of the book, the authors propose a new theory of knowledge which they call experientialism, and which posits that truth is always relative to a conceptual system based on metaphor. They contrast it with Kantian objectivism and also more subjectivist views such as phenomenology. I found the discussion a bit vague, but as I understand it, there’s a more detailed exploration in the later book Philosophy in the Flesh.

Some more things I found lacking: I wish they talked a bit more about how conceptual metaphors play out in different languages. All of their examples are in English and a lot of them don’t translate to other languages. Given that the main point of the book is that metaphors are fundamental to thought rather than being a mere matter of language, I was surprised at the short treatment given to other languages and cultures here.

There’s also little written about the mechanism for metaphors, that is, how they might have initially been formed. I understand that this would probably have to be a bit speculative but it’s important for corroborating their thesis. In the 2003 afterword, they issue a correction to the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor. They talk about the fact that the metaphors is dubious because most people learn about war only after they experience arguments. The correct metaphor, they say, is ARGUMENT IS STRUGGLE. They explain that early in life, we experience struggle in conflicts with our parents and that’s also when the first arguments in our life take place, and that’s when the metaphor is established. I’d have liked to see more examples like that.