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Conceptual metaphor

Conceptual metaphor: In cognitive linguistics metaphor is defined as understanding one conceptual domain in terms of another conceptual domain, e.g. one person's life experience versus another's. A conceptual domain is any coherent organization of experience.

This idea and detailed examination of the underlying processes was first explored in detail by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors we live by

Table of contents
1 Mappings
2 Language and culture as mappings
3 Propaganda
4 Family roles and ethics
5 Linguistics and politics
6 References
7 External links


A conceptual metaphor consists of two conceptual domains, in which one domain is understood in terms of another. Metaphorical linguistic expressions are words or other linguistic expressions that come from the language or terminology of the more concrete conceptual domain. Conceptual metaphors underlie the metaphorical expressions. They tend to be pre-linguistic and make basic assumptions regarding space, time, moving, counting, controlling, and other core elements of human experience.

Source domain: the conceptual domain from which we draw metaphorical expressions.

Target domain: the conceptual domain that we try to understand.

Conceptual metaphors typically employ a more abstract concept as target and a more concrete or physical concept as their source. For instance, metaphors such as 'the days (the more abstract or target concept) ahead' or 'giving my time' rely on more concrete concepts, thus expressing time as a (more concrete) path into physical space or as a substance (that can be handled and offered as a gift). Different conceptual metaphors tend to be invoked when the speaker is trying to make a case for a certain point of view or course of action. For instance, we associate 'the days ahead' more with leadership, and 'giving my time' more with bargaining (if time is a substance, clearly, it should be traded for things of substance, and this metaphor makes that more obvious than the path metaphor). Selection of such metaphors tends to be directed by a subconscious or implicit purpose, in the mind of s/he who chooses them.

The principle of unidirectionality states that the metaphorical process typically goes from the more concrete to the more abstract but not the other way around. Accordingly, abstract concepts are understood in terms of prototype concrete processes. An extreme version of this view is expressed in the cognitive science of mathematics, where it is proposed that mathematics itself, the most widely accepted means of abstraction in the human community, itself reflects a cognitive bias unique to humans, and prototype processes, e.g. counting, moving along a path, that are understood by all human beings through their experiences.

A mapping is the systematic set of correspondences that exist between constituent elements of the source and the target domain. Many elements of target concepts come from source domains and are not preexisting. To know a conceptual metaphor is to know the set of mappings that applies to a given source-target pairing.

Language and culture as mappings

This knowledge is presumed to be largely unconscious and to emerge in language acquisition. Quine and others influential in the recent philosophy of mathematics have argued that each natural human language reflects an assumed ontology which makes certain conceptual metaphors easy to employ, and others more difficult or complex, and thereby less convincing. If so, each natural language becomes one 'mapping' from the concrete experience of early human life to the more abstract and socially-prescribed 'source domain' of culture. A consequence of this would be great difficulty in learning a new natural language in adult life, which does seem to be the case.

Some basic conceptual metaphors discussed in Lakoff, Johnson, 1980, are:

Each of these invokes certain assumptions about concrete experience and requires the reader or listener to apply them to the much more abstract concepts of love or organizing in order to understand the sentence in which the conceptual metaphor is used.

There are numerous ways in which this process of assuming and applying metaphors have been said to manipulate human perception and communication, especially in mass media and in public policy:


Noam Chomsky, another linguist, proposed (with Edward S. Herman) a propaganda model consisting of media filters which prevent news or opinions that violate the basic conceptual metaphors of the listeners from being heard in the public arena at all. In his view, the basic human capacity to acquire language and believe metaphor is abused by restricting, in the mass media, the range and type of metaphors to which the citizen is exposed.

Specifically, mappings that emphasize the security of property or the fear of conflict with authority would tend to be emphasized in a private-corporate-controlled mass media, and mappings that tended to emphasize the risk of conflict over resources or fairness would tend to be de-emphasized, or censored altogether.

Family roles and ethics

A less extreme but similar claim is that made by George Lakoff (in 'Moral Politics') that the public political arena necessarily reflects a basic conceptual metaphor of 'the family', and accordingly 'right wing authority' father figures and 'left wing nurturing' mother figures are only to be expected, and cannot be fundamentally altered by any direct opposition or struggle. Two basic views of political economy arise from the desire to see the nation-state act 'more like a father' or 'more like a mother'.

The urban theorist and ethicist Jane Jacobs made this distinction in less gender-driven terms by differentiating between a 'Guardian Ethic' and a 'Trader Ethic'. Guarding and trading being two concrete activities that a human being tended to learn to apply metaphorically to all choices in later life. In a society where guarding children was the primary female duty, and trading in a market economy was the primary male duty, Lakoff's two supposed roles would come into being, and be assigned to mother and to father respectively, in the child's own cognition.

Both of these theories suggest that there may be a great deal of social conditioning and pressure to form specific cognitive bias. Anthropologists observe that all societies tend to have roles assigned by age and gender, which is evidence for this view.

Linguistics and politics

Lakoff, Chomsky, and Jacobs all devote a high proportion of their time to current affairs and political theory, which suggests that there is at least a tendency for respected linguists or theorists of conceptual metaphor to act out on these beliefs as activists. Indeed, if conceptual metaphors are as basic as all of them seem to think, they may literally have no choice in doing so.

Critics of this ethics-driven approach to language tend to accept that idiom reflects conceptual metaphors strongly, but actual grammar much less so (a claim that Chomsky accepts), and more basic cross-cultural concepts of scientific method and mathematical practice tend to minimize the impact of metaphors (a claim that Chomsky has strongly rejected). Such critics tend to see Lakoff and Chomsky and Jacobs as 'left wing figures', and would not accept their politics as any kind of crusade against an ontology embedded in language and culture, but rather, as an idiosyncratic pastime, not part of the science of linguistics nor of much use.

Partly in response to such criticisms, Lakoff and Raphael Nunez, in 2000, proposed a cognitive science of mathematics that would explain mathematics as a consequence of, not an alternative to, the human reliance conceptual metaphor to understand abstraction in terms of basic experiential concretes.

See also: metaphor, propaganda, ontology, cognitive science of mathematics, language acquisition, consensus


External links