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
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