Metaphors We Live By is one of those books that I'm pretty sure I understood before I ever knew it existed. Some of the ideas and arguments it presents about metaphors and their role in how we relate to the world around us seem almost second-nature to me.

Of course, that's easy for me to say, more than forty years after the book was written. So, I'm glad that I spent the time to actually read this book. The argument's more subtle than the version that's trickled down to me, and it's worth considering. After all, metaphors are powerful. If nothing else, Metaphors We Live By reminds of that—and of the power of words, and language, in general.

What is a metaphor, anyway?

You more than likely remember metaphors from English classes. The standard definition goes something like "a figure of speech that makes a comparison by relating one thing to some other unrelate thing." In other words, metaphor means describing one thing in terms of another. We use them all the time. People are early birds, or night owls. We need to blow off some steam. Love is a battlefield. Life is a journey. That kind of thing.

Metaphors can be explicit like those ones, but they can also be very subtle. Sometimes, a metaphor becomes so deeply embedded into our psyche that we're unaware that we're using a metaphor at all.

Metaphors constitute coherent systems: when a concept is described using different metaphors, they usually fit together in some kind of logical way. For instance, we talk about arguments like they're warfare. We cede points like they're territory, regroup, and try to reinforce our position with some new ammo (that is, evidence). Our arguments themselves, meanwhile, are structures. They have a solid foundation, or sit on shaky ground. Hopefully they're not full of holes.

Metaphors structure our interpretation of the world

But metaphors are much more than flowery description. Lakoff and Johnson argue that metaphors are endemic to our cognition and structure how we interpret ideas and concepts. Metaphors construct they ways in which we experience and comprehend the world around us. They therefore shape our perspective and influence our behaviour and responses. Metaphors "work" when they help us understand some aspect of what they describe. Metaphors help us determine what is real, what is important, and how we relate to the world around us. They help us interpret partially what we can't understand totally.

Metaphors allow us to organize and manage our experiences, and, by extension, reason about them. In fact, we need metaphors in order to rationally understand complex, abstract concepts. Generally, we use concrete metaphors to describe and structure less clearly delineated, nonphysical things.

Structure metaphors reveal and conceal different aspects of what they describe

Structural metaphors emphasize some aspects of experience but hide others. For example, using martial terms to discuss argument occludes argument as a potentially cooperative activity. Metaphors can never capture the full aspect of what they are used to describe; therefore, they shape our perspective of what they describe. They reveal and conceal. In so doing, they may sanction or prohibit different inferences and actions by implying an appropriate relation to what is being described.

Some examples of structural metaphors:

  • Arguments are battles

  • Ideas are objects

  • Expressions are containers

  • Communication is sending

Orientational metaphors organize concepts relationally

Orientational metaphors organize concepts in relation to one another, typically using spatial orientations. Orientational metaphors are especially useful for conceptualizing emotions, which typically lack a clearly defined conceptual structure in and of themselves. For instance, "happy" is up while "sad" is down. These are structured in large part from deep-seated cultural values.

Novel metaphors create new ways of thinking

Imaginative or novel metaphors offer new ways of thinking about familiar ideas or concepts. They either extend existing metaphors, develop previously unused parts of an existing metaphor, or provide a completely new metaphor and, therefore, way of looking at something. In other words, "new metaphors have the power to create a new reality" insofar as they provide new ways to interpret to interpret, and then respond to, experiences. They may further help us create new similarities between previously unlike ideas, concepts, or objects. Metaphorical shifts, therefore, can even inspire cultural and social change.

Objectivism, subjectivism, and experimentalism

Metaphors We Live By is remembered most, I think, for what it says about metaphors; but, Lakoff and Johnson use that discussion to introduce another important new idea: experientialism.

Experientialism is positioned as an alternative to two other theories of "truth," objectivism and subjectivism.

"Objectivism" assumes that the world comprises concrete, knowable objects that are classified in terms of inherent properties. According to objectivism, there is an objective reality; but, because humans are prone to making errors, we cannot trust their subjective judgment. Therefore, we turn to science to provide us with a methodology for evaluating what is true. Objectivity is a fundamental good, and only objective knowledge is true knowledge. Objectivism has come to be the predominant perspective in Western society today. It offers the comfort of consistency and clarity.

"Subjectivism" suggests that our senses, emotions, and intuition are our best guides for action; only art, poetry, and figurative thinking and language can connect us to or help us express our experiences. Subjectivism is wary of objectivism insofar as it ignores important aspects of experience.

The experientialist approach provides a "third way" between objectivism and subjectivism. It acknowledges that no vantage point provides us with the objective truth of or experiences. However, it rejects the idea that there is no truth. Instead, it positions truth as being relative to our conceptual system, something that is constantly tested and re-evaluated through our experiences and interactions with others and with the world around us. Objectivity is relative to how a culture conceives of reality. In other words, in the words of Lakoff and Johnson, "we understand the world through our interactions with it." Truth derives from understanding.