Friday, May 04, 2012

Metaphors are the tip of the mind's iceberg.

An essay by Benjamin Bergen does a nice summary of the importance of ideas in Lakoff and Johnson's 1980 book, "Metaphors We Live By."  (I remember being completely awed and fascinated by this book when it appeared.) They established the point that metaphor is not linguistic window-dressing, it reveals fundamental operations of mind.

...Lakoff and Johnson observed that real metaphorical language as actually used isn't haphazard at all. Instead, it's systematic and coherent...Metaphor is unidirectional, from concrete to abstract.(You can't reverse metaphors. While you can say "He's clean" to mean he has no criminal record, you can't say "He's moral" to mean that he bathed recently.)
Metaphorical expressions are coherent with one another. Take the example of understanding and seeing. ...You always describe the understander as the seer, the understood idea as the seen object, the act of understanding as seeing, the understandability of the idea as the visibility of the object, and so on. In other words, the aspects of seeing you use to talk about aspects of understanding stand in a fixed mapping to one another.

These observations led Lakoff and Johnson to propose that there was something going on with metaphor that was deeper than just the words. They argued that the metaphorical expressions in language are really only surface phenomena, organized and generated by mappings in people's minds. For them, the reason metaphorical language exists and the reason why it's systematic and coherent is that people think metaphorically. You don't just talk about understanding as seeing; you think about understanding as seeing. You don't just talk about morality as cleanliness; you think about morality as cleanliness. And it's because you think metaphorically—because you systematically map certain concepts onto others in your mind—that you talk metaphorically. The metaphorical expressions are merely the visible tip of the iceberg.

As explanations go, this one covers all the bases. It's elegant in that it explains messy and complicated phenomena (the various metaphorical expressions we have that describe understanding as seeing, for instance) in terms of something much simpler—a structured mapping between the two conceptual domains in people's minds. It's powerful in that it explains things other than metaphorical language—recent work in cognitive psychology shows that people think metaphorically even in the absence of metaphorical language; affection as warmth, morality as cleanliness. As a result, the conceptual metaphor explanation helps to explain how it is that we understand abstract concepts like affection or morality at all—by metaphorically mapping them onto more concrete ones.

...the conceptual metaphor explanation is transformative—it flies in the face of the accepted idea that metaphor is just a linguistic device based on similarity. In an instant, it made us rethink 2000 years of received wisdom.

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