Buy Metaphors We Live By on Amazon
An Iranian student who moved to the U.S. to study chemistry. He noticed that he kept hearing people talking about the “solution of my problems.”
Being a chemist, he understood the word “solution” to mean a liquid chemical solution, the kind you would have in a lab. The “solution of my problems,” as he understood it, was like a test tube that bubbled and smoke with all the complexity of your problems inside.
You could heat it up and cool it down. You could add other chemicals to it and this might make the problems stronger or weaker. However, the solution would never completely go away, it was just an always changing composition.
This stuck him as an elegant and thoughtful way to talk about problems: everyone has problems in their life. Sometimes more, sometimes fewer, and of different intensities, but problems are a normal part of life that we all deal with every day.
Of course, this is not actually what the phrase “solution of my problems” means to most people. We use a very different metaphor.
The metaphor we’re actually using when we refer to the “solution” is thinking of problems in terms of a puzzle.
We try to “solve” our problems. Having a problem is like having an uncompleted puzzle, it’s something that is not right and needs to be fixed.
Unlike the liquid chemical solution metaphor that the young Iranian student understood, the puzzle metaphor suggests that problems are something that can be definitively fixed. Once it’s fixed, the problem is gone and never needs to be re-addressed, just like a completed puzzle requires no more work once it’s done.
A problem is not a puzzle, nor is it a chemical solution. The idea of a “problem” is an abstract concept that isn’t rooted in a specific physical reality.
Thinking about abstract concepts is hard and so we tend to rely on metaphors to process them and root them in our natural experience.
We use metaphors to think about all the most important things in our life: love, time, ideas, arguments, labor, happiness, health, and morality are all abstract concepts that we think about in terms of metaphors rooted in our day-to-day experience.
These concepts require metaphorical definition, since they are not clearly enough delineated in their own terms to satisfy the purposes of our day-to-day functioning.
However, as the “solution of my problems” examples show: the metaphor you use has a really big impact on how you relate to that concept and how it guides your behavior.
I have problems. Everyone has problems. The puzzle metaphor we use for problems suggests that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. Therefore we should be stressed about it and work to “solve” it.
If we use a chemical solution metaphor, however, problems simply become the nature of life, and—while we can, and should, do things to address those problems and try and make the solution better—they’ll never completely go away; they will merely change over time and that’s ok.
Neither of these metaphors can be proven to be “right” or “wrong” in any meaningful way. They are equally valid. However, I think most of us would agree that thinking of our problems as chemical solutions is probably a healthier way of thinking about them that would be less stressful than seeing them as unsolvable puzzles.
Metaphors are almost like a human operating system, affecting how we deal with reality. in a very subtle and profound way.
Consider the concept of “argument” as another example. In modern society, the default metaphor for argument is war.
- Your claims are indefensible.
- They attacked the weak point in my argument.
- Their criticisms were right on target.
- I always win an argument.
All the words we use to talk about arguing are also words we use to talk about war. Once we start seeing ourselves as in an argument, we have framed our behavior to act as if we are at war.
We see the person as an opponent who we want to triumph over. When someone opens an argument with us, we feel like we are being assaulted. We attack their positions and gain or lose ground as the argument goes on.
This is not something happening consciously, but is a by product of how all humans relate to and use metaphors. Once you are in that metaphor, it shapes your behavior and thinking in ways that are incredibly subtle and powerful.
Imagine, instead, the metaphor for argument was dancing. A point of contention would be a particularly dramatic moment in the dance. Your partner (not opponent) would step towards you, not to attack, but to work with you to create a movement that was beautiful, elegant, and true. One partner moving backward wouldn’t be seen as losing, but letting the other partner lead when they were stronger at this particular dance — a logical thing to do when you’re dancing, but not when you are at war.
If both people in an argument thought of it as a dance instead of a war, the purpose would be to have give and take with the ultimate goal of making something true and beautiful.
This is a much more pragmatic way of approaching an argument. You’ll learn more and arrive at something closer to the truth.
In general, the metaphors we use around particular concepts tend to be very culturally rooted and so it’s often better to just use other words. I tend to avoid arguments and try to frame them as discussions, which have a much more give-and-take association without a clear goal of winning or losing.
The important insight here is that the words and metaphors we use are not merely describing reality. They are creating it.
If you have a one-hour meeting scheduled with someone and you name it an “argument”, that meeting will go very differently than if you call it a “discussion”.
Metaphors have traditionally been viewed as a matter of language rather than primarily as a means of structuring our conceptual system and how we behave on a day-to-day basis.
It may seem weird to say that words change reality. But, they do. Words change our conceptual system which changes how we perceive the world and how we act upon those perceptions.
Philosopher Bertrand Russell made a similar observation that words have two different components:
- The factual content of the word or phrase.
- The emotional content of the construction.
Russell discussed this by putting three such presentations of a common underlying fact in the form in which a verb is typically conjugated. For example, here are three phrases that describe the exact same person.
- I am firm. [Positive]
- You are obstinate. [Neutral to mildly negative]
- He/She/They is pigheaded. [Very negative]
However, which of these words is used impacts how we perceive the person. When someone is described as firm, that is positive: they are standing up for what they believe in.
When someone is described as pigheaded, that is negative: they are uncompromising and won’t change their mind in light of new information.
Many commentators like to say that we are living in a “post-truth” society and insist on “fact-checking”, but this whole premise belies that there is one objectively correct way of interpreting reality. There’s not. There never was.
Once we accept that we have to reason through metaphors, we also have to accept that there is no absolute standpoint from which to obtain objective truths about the world. This does not mean that there are no truths. It means that truth is relative to our conceptual system, which is grounded in our experiences and those of other members of our culture in our daily interactions with other people and with our physical and cultural environments.
As Lakoff says:
Though there is no absolute objectivity, there can be a kind of objectivity relative to the conceptual system of a culture. The point of impartiality and fairness in social matters is to rise above relevant individual biases. The point of objectivity in scientific experimentation is to factor out the effects of individual illusion and error. This is not to say that we can always, or even ever, be completely successful in factoring out individual biases to achieve complete objectivity relative to a conceptual system and a cultural set of values.
Though we tend to think about “memes” as funny things that people post on Instagram, they are far more than that. They are how we negotiate and alter the conceptual system of our culture.
In Europe during the Middle Ages, the dominant metaphor for life was Fortune’s Wheel. The Wheel which plunged down the mighty and (more rarely) raised, the lowly. The metaphor of Fortune’s Wheel implied that progress, moral or material, was not expected during this life on earth.
Since then, Western culture has evolved the notion of “progress” and it has become rooted in our metaphors. History “marches” on, implying that it is leading somewhere, not just spinning around.
People talk about the “right side of history”, a phrase that makes no sense if you think of history as a wheel spinning in circles. How can one be on the “right” side of a wheel?
We would all benefit from becoming more aware of our existing metaphors and choosing them carefully.
Developing an awareness of the metaphors we live by and an awareness of where they enter into our everyday lives, we can start to be more mindful about which metaphors are serving us and which are not.
When we start to alter our language, we also start to alter how we and those around us interact with reality. I never say I am arguing with someone because it isn’t productive and it doesn’t really serve me (or them).
New metaphors are capable of creating new understandings and, therefore, new realities. Over the long run, the pen really is mightier than the sword.
- The concept is metaphorically structured, the activity is metaphorically structured, and, consequently, the language is metaphorically structured. Moreover, this is the ordinary way of having an argument and talking about one. The normal way for us to talk about attacking a position is to use the words “attack a position”.
- Note: So many parallels with work.
- How metaphorical expressions in everyday language can give us insight into the metaphorical nature of the concepts that structure our everyday activities.
- Note: Change your metaphor, change your life.
- HIGH STATUS IS UP; LOW STATUS IS DOWN He has a lofty position. She’ll rise to the top. He’s at the peak of his career. He’s climbing the ladder. He has little upward mobility. He’s at the bottom of the social hierarchy. She fell in status.
- Note: This is the one you can rewrite.
- In general, which values are given priority is partly a matter of the subculture one lives in and partly a matter of personal values. The various subcultures of a mainstream culture share basic values but give them different priorities.
- Note: Pick the right subculture!
- When things are not clearly discrete or bounded, we still categorize them as such, e.g., mountains, street corners, hedges, etc. Such ways of viewing physical phenomena are needed to satisfy certain purposes that we have: locating mountains, meeting at street corners, trimming hedges. Human purposes typically require us to impose artificial boundaries that make physical phenomena discrete just as we are: entities bounded by a surface.
- Note: But they aren’t. We make shades of grey into black and white.
- What of the linguistic expressions that reflect the “unused” part of a metaphor like THEORIES ARE BUILDINGS? Here are four examples: His theory has thousands of little rooms and long, winding corridors. His theories are Bauhaus in their pseudo functional simplicity. He prefers massive Gothic theories covered with gargoyles. Complex theories usually have problems with the plumbing.
- Note: You can extend the metaphor and that’s how you think.
- For example, the concepts OBJECT, SUBSTANCE, and CONTAINER emerge directly. We experience ourselves as entities, separate from the rest of the world—as containers with an inside and an outside.
- Note: Yes, this metaphor is why we separate ourselves from the universe.
- LABOR IS A RESOURCE and TIME IS A RESOURCE are by no means universal. They emerged naturally in our culture because of the way we view work, our passion for quantification, and our obsession with purposeful ends. These metaphors highlight those aspects of labor and time that are centrally important in our culture. In doing this, they also deemphasize or hide certain aspects of labor and time. We can see what both metaphors hide by examining what they focus on. In viewing labor as a kind of activity, the metaphor assumes that labor can be clearly identified and distinguished from things that are not labor. It makes the assumptions that we can tell work from play and productive activity from nonproductive activity. These assumptions obviously fail to fit reality much of the time, except perhaps on assembly lines, chain gangs, etc. The view of labor as merely a kind of activity, independent of who performs it, how he experiences it, and what it means in his life, hides the issues of whether the work is personally meaningful, satisfying, and humane. The quantification of labor in terms of time, together with the view of time as serving a purposeful end, induces a notion of LEISURE TIME, which is parallel to the concept LABOR TIME. In a society like ours, where inactivity is not considered a purposeful end, a whole industry devoted to leisure activity has evolved. As a result, LEISURE TIME becomes a RESOURCE too—to be spent productively, used wisely, saved up, budgeted, wasted, lost, etc. What is hidden by the RESOURCE metaphors for labor and time is the way our concepts of LABOR and TIME affect our concept of LEISURE, turning it into something remarkably like LABOR. The RESOURCE metaphors for labor and time hide all sorts of possible conceptions of labor and time that exist in other cultures and in some subcultures of our own society: the idea that work can be play, that inactivity can be productive, that much of what we classify as LABOR serves either no clear purpose or no worthwhile purpose.
- The abstraction hypothesis assumes, in the case of LOVE IS A JOURNEY, for example, that there is a set of abstract concepts, neutral with respect to love and journeys, that can “fit” or “apply to” both of them. But in order for such abstract concepts to “fit” or “apply to” love, the concept LOVE must be independently structured so that there can be such a “fit.” As we will show, LOVE is not a concept that has a clearly delineated structure; whatever structure it has it gets only via metaphors.
- Note: There is no love in absolute or abstract terms. it only exists in metaphor.
- We have seen that metaphor pervades our normal conceptual system. Because so many of the concepts that are important to us are either abstract or not clearly delineated in our experience (the emotions, ideas, time, etc.), we need to get a grasp on them by means of other concepts that we understand in clearer terms (spatial orientations, objects, etc.). This need leads to the metaphorical definition in our conceptual system.
- Students of meaning and dictionary makers have not found it important to try to give a general account of how people understand normal concepts in terms of systematic metaphors like LOVE IS A JOURNEY, ARGUMENT IS WAR, TIME IS MONEY, etc. For example, if you look in a dictionary under “love,” you find entries that mention affection, fondness, devotion, infatuation, and even sexual desire, but there is no mention of the way in which we comprehend love by means of metaphors like LOVE IS A JOURNEY, LOVE IS MADNESS, LOVE IS WAR, etc. If we take expressions like “Look how far we’ve come” or “Where are we now?” there would be no way to tell from a standard dictionary or any other standard account of meaning that these expressions are normal ways of talking about the experience of love in our culture.
- Note: Yes, we want to understand things as abstractions when they are all really understood as metaphors.
- We are proposing that the concepts that occur in metaphorical definitions are those that correspond to natural kinds of experience. Judging by the concepts that are defined by the metaphors we have uncovered so far, the following would be examples of concepts for natural kinds of experience in our culture: LOVE, TIME, IDEAS, UNDERSTANDING, ARGUMENTS, LABOR, HAPPINESS, HEALTH, CONTROL, STATUS, MORALITY, etc. These are concepts that require metaphorical definition since they are not clearly enough delineated in their own terms to satisfy the purposes of our day-to-day functioning.
- Take, for example, the fact that questions typically end in what we perceive as a “rising” intonation, while statements typically end in what we perceive as a “falling” intonation. This is coherent with the orientational metaphor UNKNOWN IS UP; KNOWN IS DOWN.
- Note: Keep your voice deep when you answer a question to confirm it is known.
- Another example of how a metaphor can create new meaning for us came about by accident. An Iranian student, shortly after his arrival in Berkeley, took a seminar on metaphor from one of us. Among the wondrous things that he found in Berkeley was an expression that he heard over and over and understood as a beautifully sane metaphor. The expression was “the solution of my problems”—which he took to be a large volume of liquid, bubbling and smoking, containing all of your problems, either dissolved or in the form of precipitates, with catalysts constantly dissolving some problems (for the time being) and precipitating out others. He was terribly disillusioned to find that the residents of Berkeley had no such chemical metaphor in mind. And well he might be, for the chemical metaphor is both beautiful and insightful. It gives us a view of problems as things that never disappear utterly and that cannot be solved once and for all. All of your problems are always present, only they may be dissolved and in solution, or they may be in solid form. The best you can hope for is to find a catalyst that will make one problem dissolve without making another one precipitate out. And since you do not have complete control over what goes into the solution, you are constantly finding old and new problems precipitating out and present problems dissolving, partly because of your efforts and partly despite anything you do. The CHEMICAL metaphor gives us a new view of human problems. It is appropriate to the experience of finding that problems which we once thought were “solved” turn up again and again. The CHEMICAL metaphor says that problems are not the kind of things that can be made to disappear forever. To treat them as things that can be “solved” once and for all is pointless. To live by the CHEMICAL metaphor would be to accept it as a fact that no problem ever disappears forever. Rather than direct your energies toward solving your problems once and for all, you would direct your energies toward finding out what catalysts will dissolve your most pressing problems for the longest time without precipitating out worse ones. The reappearance of a problem is viewed as a natural occurrence rather than a failure on your part to find “the right way to solve it.” To live by the CHEMICAL metaphor would mean that your problems have a different kind of reality for you. A temporary solution would be an accomplishment rather than a failure. Problems would be part of the natural order of things rather than disorders to be “cured.” The way you would understand your everyday life and the way you would act in it would be different if you lived by the CHEMCAL metaphor. We see this as a clear case of the power of metaphor to create a reality rather than simply to give us a way of conceptualizing a preexisting reality.
- Note: Great bit on power/nature of metaphor.
- As we saw in the case of the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor, there are natural kinds of activity (e.g., arguing) that are metaphorical in nature. What the CHEMICAL metaphor reveals is that our current way of dealing with problems is another kind of metaphorical activity. At present most of us deal with problems according to what we might call the PUZZLE metaphor, in which problems are PUZZLES for which, typically, there is a correct solution—and, once solved, they are solved forever. The PROBLEMS ARE PUZZLES metaphor characterizes our present reality. A shift to the CHEMICAL metaphor would characterize a new reality.
- Note: Change your metaphor, change your life.
- Much of cultural change arises from the introduction of new metaphorical concepts and the loss of old ones. For example, the Westernization of cultures throughout the world is partly a matter of introducing the TIME IS MONEY metaphor into those cultures.
- The idea that metaphors can create realities goes against most traditional views of metaphor. The reason is that metaphor has traditionally been viewed as a matter of mere language rather than primarily as a means of structuring our conceptual system and the kinds of everyday activities we perform. It is reasonable enough to assume that words alone don’t change reality. But changes in our conceptual system do change what is real for us and affect how we perceive the world and act upon those perceptions.
- Since we see similarities in terms of the categories of our conceptual system and in terms of the natural kinds of experiences we have (both of which may be metaphorical), it follows that many of the similarities that we perceive are a result of conventional metaphors that are part of our conceptual system. We have already seen this in the case of orientational metaphors. For example, the orientations MORE IS UP and HAPPY IS UP induce a similarity that we perceive between MORE and HAPPY that we do not see between LESS and HAPPY.
- Note: Because we both associate more and happy with up, we intuitively think that more will make us happy.
- Whether in national politics or in everyday interaction, people in power get to impose their metaphors.
- We do not believe that there is such a thing as objective (absolute and unconditional) truth, though it has been a long-standing theme in Western culture that there is. We do believe that there are truths but think that the idea of truth need not be tied to the objectivist view. We believe that the idea that there is absolute objective truth is not only mistaken but socially and politically dangerous. As we have seen, truth is always relative to a conceptual system that is defined in large part by metaphor.
- #[[metaphorical truth]] #nebulosity
- We do not believe that there is such a thing as absolute truth, and we think that it is pointless to try to give a theory of it.
- The standard theories assume that it is possible to give an account of truth in itself, free of human understanding and that the theory of meaning will be based on such a theory of truth. We see no possibility for any such program to work and think that the only answer is to base both the theory of meaning and the theory of truth on a theory of understanding.
- There is no absolute standpoint from which to obtain absolute objective truths about the world. This does not mean that there are no truths; it means only that truth is relative to our conceptual system, which is grounded in, and constantly tested by, our experiences and those of other members of our culture in our daily interactions with other people and with our physical and cultural environments. Though there is no absolute objectivity, there can be a kind of objectivity relative to the conceptual system of a culture. The point of impartiality and fairness in social matters is to rise above relevant individual biases. The point of objectivity in scientific experimentation is to factor out the effects of individual illusion and error. This is not to say that we can always, or even ever, be completely successful in factoring out individual biases to achieve complete objectivity relative to a conceptual system and a cultural set of values.
- Note: That’s big. choose your [[culture]] carefully.
- The experientialist myth takes the perspective of man as part of his environment, not as separate from it. It focuses on constant interaction with the physical environment and with other people. It views this interaction with the environment as involving mutual change. You cannot function within the environment without changing it or being changed by it.
- Note: What defines a system are the interactions.
- The experientialist approach to the process of self-understanding involves: Developing an awareness of the metaphors we live by and an awareness of where they enter into our everyday lives and where they do not. Having experiences that can form the basis of alternative metaphors Developing an “experiential flexibility” Engaging in an unending process of viewing your life through new alternative metaphors.
- We suggest that the metaphors we live by, whether cultural or personal, are partially preserved in ritual. Cultural metaphors, and the values entailed by them, are propagated by ritual. Ritual forms an indispensable part of the experiential basis for our cultural metaphorical systems. There can be no culture without ritual.
- Note: You have to redefine the metaphor of work to change the ritual.
- New metaphors are capable of creating new understandings and, therefore, new realities.
- Political debate typically is concerned with issues of freedom and economics. But one can be both free and economically secure while leading a totally meaningless and empty existence. We see the metaphorical concepts of FREEDOM, EQUALITY, SAFETY, ECONOMIC INDEPENDENCE, POWER, etc., as being different ways of getting indirectly at issues of meaningful existence. They are all necessary aspects of an adequate discussion of the issue, but, to our knowledge, no political ideology addresses the main issue head-on. In fact, many ideologies argue that matters of personal or cultural meaningfulness are secondary or to be addressed later. Any such ideology is dehumanizing.
Last Updated on May 20, 2021 by Taylor Pearson