Sep 9, 2015
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric the podcast for beginners and outsiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. Send us feedback or suggestions at email@example.com if you’d like, or go on iTunes and give us a rating—hopefullly a good one, but whatever you do... I’m Mary Hedengren and I was an English major.
We English majors are always being accused of loving metaphors. “We write clearly,” our science friends say smugly. “We don’t use any of that flowery language.” We, because we love our science friends, refrain from pointing out that “clear” writing and “flowery language” are, in fact, metaphors. Metaphors are often seen as deliberate and poetic in the hands of our greatest literary minds: from “It is the east and Juliet is the sun”, to “Love is a battle field” we think that metaphors are purposeful and avoidable and exclusively for poets or English majors.
Not so! Say conceptual metaphor scholars George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. In Lakoff and Johnson’s highly influential 1980 text Metaphors We Live By, they argue that Metaphors used by poets are just reformulations of conventional conceptual metaphors (267). We discover the power of metaphors in all kinds of language in this book, not just “clear” writing and “flowery language,” but even daily greetings like “what’s up?” or “What do you have going on?” These metaphors are grounded in everyday life and make abstract ideas concrete.
Think about it: abstract thought is largely metaphorical, and the more abstract, the more we try to ground it (and there’s another metaphor). If you want to talk about abstracts, you almost always fall into metaphorical thought. It’s unavoidable and unconscious. In this sense, the title of the book Metaphors we Live By demonstrates how pervasive these patterns of thinking really are. Metaphors rely on understanding the world through the experience from “the perspective of man as part of his environment” (229).
It’s granted though, that “part of a metaphorical concept does not and cannot fit” (13). Love may be a battlefield because of the high stakes and opposition, but it certainly isn’t a battlefield because there are canons, bayonets and eventually historical markers. Lakoff and Johnson acknowledge the limits of the metaphor because “when we say that a concept is structure by a metaphor, we mean that it is partially structure and that it can be extended in someways but not in others” (13). Exactly what it is that does get highlighted points out something about the author or community that created the metaphor. The phrase “love is a battlefield” is shocking and expressive because it highlights the violence and pain of love. Saying love is like a red, red rose highlights another aspect of love. The metaphor of love as a gift highlights something else. Love as a tyrant highlights get another thing. Love as a shock, as magic, as a hole into which one falls, or an armed, naked child all fit and don’t fit love and they all highlight some aspect of what the author or community is trying to say about love. The structure of a metaphor highlights somethings and hide others. The structure extends beyond a single metaphor, though, to families of metaphors.
Lakoff and Johnson point out that there are some general metaphors that connect many smaller metaphors into a big, over arching metaphor. Some of these master metaphors include social groups as plants or life as a journey. Think about it: We might have a friend who has “lost all direction” and is “wandering” and “stalled out,” while another is a “go-getter” who is always on the “fast track” “getting ahead” along a “career path.” We ourselves talk about “back when I was in high school” or “I’m looking forward to Tuesday,” or say “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it” like life is a path that takes us from one physical spot to another. All of these little one-word metaphors belong under the larger umbrella of “life is a journey.” Similarly, we might say the same thing about LOVE IS WAR: We speak of romantic conquests, misalliences, being won over and fighting for a beloved’s affection. They all circle around this idea of war, which our culture has connected, weirdly, with romance.
And when these metaphors become part of our lives, we begin to extrapolate that the metaphors we’ve used in our society begin to have an impact back on our society again. If our society is invested in the idea that life is a journey, we may see the past as distant and unapproachable, something you can’t return to, once you’ve left. The metaphor comes from our culture and the metaphor comes back and changes our metaphor. It’s a process that reinforces itself so that cultural assumptions are backed up by tiny language choices. We can see this easily in overtly sexist, racist or ablest metaphors in language: “man up,” “red-headed stepchild,” “strong argument,” “a black day,” “lame idea.” People are used to using the pejorative metaphors so much that they seem natural and innocuous, while they reinforce ideas of which groups are powerful and which are subjected. It’s not just minority groups that are kept in subjection by the pervasive use of unexamined metaphoric language. An entire culture can be limited from seeing alternative narratives of power because of a block of metaphors that reinforces one perspective.
Let me give an example that Lakoff and Johnson give. We often use war metaphors to talk about discussions and debate. We say that we will either “win” or “lose” an argument. That we argue “against” an “opponent.” We can “attack a weak argument” or “make a good point” and if we do, they might respond, “touché.” Or an idea might “lose ground” or be “indefensible.” What if, instead, we thought of discussions as dances instead? Suddenly our opponents become “partners” and we move through a discussion in a non-combative sense.
You may point out, “Sometimes arguments are dances—what about when we ‘dance around’ an idea?” You’re absolutely right. While metaphors used to reason about concepts may be inconsistent, we live our lives on the basis of inferences we derive via metaphor (272-3).
Because metaphors are both formed by a society and influence the society, Lakoff and Johnson argue that they provides a philosophical middle ground between objective and subjective myths (184-225). This understanding is situated in neither an objective world outside of human experience nor in an entirely internal state; metaphors are constructed culturally in “the way we understand the world through our interactions with it” (194). These ideas mean that much of the history of thought is actually a history of trying to come up with better metaphors. Lakoff has written about how metaphors have influenced decisions like who to vote for and whether to go to war, with the assumption that this influence was, in some way, a tainting of rational thought. I’m not sure what correct thought would look like, partially because I have a hard time imagining anything breaking away from metaphorical conceptualization.
This book has had lasting influence since it was published more than 40 years ago. Look it up on Google Scholar and you’ll find it cited well over 30,000 times in everything from business to linguistics to computer programming. For instance, Peter Novig has pointed out how useful this kind of thinking may be for those in AI. Because those robots are always so literal—I’m looking at you, Data!
If you have a favorite metaphor, why not drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org? And don’t forget, whether you’re an airy poet or the most hard-nosed scientist, there’s no escaping the power of metaphors.