Lakoff and Johnson's Metaphors We Live By

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Print.

Lakoff and Johnson show that our conceptual systems are metaphorical; that our metaphors are systematic; and that all metaphors veil other truths by speaking in terms of prior experience (3; 7; 10).

Lakoff and Johnson discuss the orientational metaphor of time, where “foreseeable future events are up (and ahead)” (16). They note that metaphors have “cultural coherence” and represent the values of the group experiencing them (22). They give examples of ontological metaphors as “inflation is an entity” and “the mind is a machine” (25-28). They give examples of container and substance metaphors, such as “visual field” and activities as containers (30-31).

Lakoff and Johnson discuss metonymic metaphors such as “the part of the whole” and “the place for the institution,” and note that these metaphors structure our language and thought, as they become fundamental to our experience, given that we make associations naturally (38-40).

In Chapter 9, “Challenges to Metaphorical Coherence,” Lakoff and Johnson consider Charles Fillmore’s observation that we have an apparent contradiction with the opposing metaphors to describe time in the English language (41-45). Our language shows a difference between how we move with respect to time in phrases like “'time flies” versus “we’re approaching the end of the year” (Lakoff 41-44).

Additional examples include “ideas are cutting instruments” (how would that relate to the cloth metaphor?) (Lakoff 48).  I may also further consider the “time is a resource” metaphor (Lakoff 65-66).

As Lakoff and Johnson discuss metaphorical prototypes, direct manipulation and causation, they use examples of concepts of birds, and the process of creating something (Lakoff 69-76). 

Lakoff and Johnson examine the “argument is a journey” and explore the concepts of paths and surfaces that arise in discussing an argument’s progress, not its content; when discussing content, a container metaphor often prevails (87-96).

Lakoff and Johnson argue that metaphors can function with “complex coherences across metaphors” so that entailments of the metaphors overlap (97-105). Lakoff and Johnson prefer this view of overlapping metaphors structuring our conceptual system over other available theories such as abstraction and homonymy, both of which have inadequacies, including limitations in accounting for “external systematicity” (106-114).

Lakoff and Johnson write that while metaphors structure our understanding based on our experiences, definitions tend to describe inherent qualities of concepts more than how we interact the concepts, supposing objectivity (115-120).  They give an example of how we conceptualize differently “black gun” and “fake gun” in terms of the item’s history, function, and conditions—and these categorizations happen because of the ways we have interacted in the world (120-1). Lakoff and Johnson defining things in terms of interactions and relations to prototypes (125).

They discuss the “spatialization of language” and how form becomes content, showing that syntax has a function in the creation of meaning by using “closeness is strength of effect”—an idea similar to gravity—to show the potency of tight contact in emphasizing or downplaying meanings (Lakoff 127-131). They discuss the Copper and Ross (1975) and the “Me-First Orientation: up, front, active, good here, and now” (Lakoff 132).

“Similarly, the use of spatial words like in and at for time expressions . . . makes sense given that time is metaphorically conceptualized in terms of space” (Lakoff 135).

They discuss how new metaphors can create new meanings that can change how we interact in the world (Lakoff 139-146). They give an example of a new metaphor: “Love is a collaborative work of art” and suggest “it is work that requires that special balance of control and letting-go that is appropriate to artistic creation” (Lakoff 141). Lakoff and Johnson suggest that as people interact with such metaphors in daily life, “the metaphor can have a feedback effect, guiding our future actions in accordance with the metaphor” (142). A second example they give is the chemical metaphor for problems, rather than the puzzle metaphor (Lakoff 143-146).  These new metaphors can create similarities, rather than merely be used to compare existing similarities (147-155). New metaphors can help move people to action, and should be considered carefully, as “people in power get to impose their metaphors” and they could be dangerous (156-159).

At this point, Lakoff and Johnson have started examining the idea of objectivity rather closely, and as they dive into the nature of truth and understanding, they determine that objectivity is a myth—and the myth of subjectivity is just as bad, as an escape from the dominating myth of objectivity (160; 185). They instead argue that meaning is only based on experience and conceptualized through metaphor, so truth is always relative and never absolute (159).

For example, in considering a clearing in the woods as a container one can go into or out of, Lakoff and Johnson note the way the metaphor uses projection to create truth: “Being a container is not an inherent property of that place in the woods where the trees are less dense; it is a property that we project onto it relative to the way we function with respect to it” (Lakoff 161). A second example would be the way we project boundaries as concepts onto shorelines or clouds, where no clear boundaries exist (162). Because of the way language demonstrates a prioritization of concepts, truth always involves highlighting certain aspects of a concepts while veiling others, for a particular purpose (Lakoff 163).

Lakoff and Johnson discuss metaphors for physics, including wave-particle duality and conceptualizations of subatomic particles, noting that it shows that “truth depends on the categorization” (165).

Lakoff and Johnson look at the “life is a story” metaphor as they consider the desire for metaphorical coherence, as we create truth based on our understanding, which is based on experience (174-5). They note that understanding can be direct or indirect, but either way, it involves eight aspects: “entity structure,” “orientational structure,” “dimensions of experience,” “experiential gestalts,” “background,” “highlighting,” “interactional properties,” and “prototypes” (Lakoff 176-7). Meaning and truth are both based on understanding, and “have little to do with objective reality, if there is such a thing” (Lakoff 184).

Lakoff and Johnson examine the myths of objectivism and subjectivism, looking at how ideas of truth in the Western tradition have been handled as objects, even as compositional “building blocks” (185-209). They suggest we look at how interactions are relative as they structure experience and form gestalts (Lakoff 210).

In Chapter 29, Lakoff and Johnson talk about the responsibility of scientists as they seek truth, and the fact that understanding is always partial (227). While objectivity is externally focused, and subjectivity is internally focused, an experiential view, to Lakoff and Johnson shows an interdependence, with “mas as part of his environment” as a continual process of “mutual change” (230).