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Metaphors We Live By: Conceptualizing Through Metaphor

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Metaphor as a term is rarely taken out of the context of rhetorical and figurative language, and is overwhelmingly viewed as a product of language, an imaginative linguistic output. In Metaphors We live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson provide a rebuttal of this two-thousand-year-old fallacy, and argue that the use of metaphor is inherent in cognition and perception, and that the nature of our conceptual system is entirely metaphorical.

            Our conceptual system structures what and how we perceive the world, life, and reality. The theory of a metaphorical conceptual system thus entails that our perceptions, experiences, and actions are also completely metaphorical. Lakoff and Johnson use linguistic evidence to study conceptual metaphors and the metaphorical character of our experiences, stating that “metaphors as linguistic expressions are possible precisely because there are metaphors in a person’s conceptual system” (6). Take, for example, the concept of TIME, and a conceptual metaphor that structures how it is perceived, TIME IS MONEY. Common linguistic expressions reflect this metaphor and demonstrate the use of the metaphor not only in the way we speak about TIME but the way we conceptualize it:



You’re wasting my time.

This gadget will save you hours.

I don’t have the time to give you.


How do you spend your time these days?

That flat tire cost me an hour.

I’ve invested a lot of time in her.

I don’t have enough time to spare for that.

You’re running out of time.

You need to budget your time.

Put aside some time for ping pong.

Is that worth your while?

Do you have much time left?

He’s living on borrowed time.

You don’t use your time profitably.

I lost a lot of time when I got sick.

Thank you for your time (7-8).


These “metaphorical linguistics expressions” are used in everyday language and are considered neither figurative nor metaphorical by most English speakers. However, the phrasal lexicon associated with money plainly illustrates the metaphorical way in which we think and speak about time. These expressions are conventionally fixed within the English lexicon, and are reflective of the systematic metaphorical concepts that structure the way we experience time.

            In our culture, time, like money, is a very valued commodity. When we are employed, we are most often paid by the amount of time spent working; we pay taxi cabs and hotel bills for the time we use them; a prisoner pays his debt to society by serving time. In Western culture, TIME IS MONEY is the most common way to conceptualize time, and that metaphor entails another metaphor through which we conceive of time: TIME IS A LIMITED RESOURCE, which entails that TIME IS A VALUABLE COMMODITY. These entailments are also expressed linguistically: “of the expressions listed under the TIME IS MONEY metaphor, some refer specifically to money (spend, invest, budget, profitably, cost), other to limited resources (use, use up, have enough of, run out of), and still other to valuable commodities (have, give, lose, thank you for)” (9). The metaphor and metaphorical entailments create a coherent structure in our conceptual system through which we perceive and experience time.

            Metaphorical systematicity causes us to understand one aspect of a concept in terms of another: if TIME IS MONEY is a part of your conceptual system, you comprehend TIME through the lens with which you comprehend MONEY. The metaphorical lens of MONEY, however, is not entirely (metaphorically) clear, and MONEY will inevitably obscure some aspects of TIME while highlighting others. Lakoff and Johnson give the following examples: you can’t “get your time back” if you spend time on something; one can “give you a lot of their time, but you can’t give the same time back” (13).

            Many cultures do not conceptualize time in terms of money, and thus experience time very differently—it is not necessarily understood as MONEY, a VALUABLE COMMODITY, or a LIMITED RESOURCE, but perhaps as a continuous, infinite occurrence and not something to be wasted, lost, or used wisely. Many conceptual metaphors are universal, but discrepancies between metaphors in different cultures are very common and are to be expected. Spatial metaphors such as CONSCIOUS IS UP and UNCONSCIOUS IS DOWN (“Get up. Wake up. I’m up already. He rises early in the morning. He fell asleep. He dropped off to sleep. He’s under hypnosis. He sank into a coma”) are often universal because of the common physical body and orientation humans share (15). There is a “physical basis” for these metaphors: when humans are asleep or unconscious, they are horizontal, and we stand up once we awaken. Experiences that are less physical and more cultural are conceptually structured by metaphors that are much more specific to every individual culture and society. The qualifier are crucial, though: our spatial concepts are structured by our continuous spatial experience and interactions, and thus emerge from constant motor functions associated with being UP or DOWN within our particular gravitational field. There is no “direct physical experience,” as every experience occurs within “a vast background of cultural presuppositions.” The authors gave the hypothetical example of a spherical organism living outside of a gravitational field without knowledge of any other experience, and asked, “What could UP possibly mean to such a being?” The answer can not be solely based on its physiology, but also on its culture.

“It can be misleading, therefore, to speak of direct physical experience as though there were some core of immediate experience which we then ‘interpret’ in terms of our conceptual system ... It would be more correct to say that all experience is cultural through and through, that we experience our ‘world’ in such a way that our culture is already present in the very experience itself” (57).

            Lakoff and Johnson ask, “Are there any concepts at all that are understood directly, without metaphor? If not, how can we understand anything at all (56)?” An answer is never explicitly provided, but the passage above begins the transition to considering conceptual metaphor as the means with which to examine the existence of “truth” within the our conceptual system. Objectivism and subjectivism are culturally assumed to be the only two accounts of truth, and experiences are supposed to be based on either an absolute reality (that corresponds with empirical data, rationale, and reasoning) or completely subjective perceptions (which are governed by emotion and imagination and are unconstrained by external stimuli). Conceptual metaphor illuminates another choice—experientialism. Metaphor fuses imagination with reason: imagination “involves seeing one kind of thing in terms of another thing,” which is metaphorical thought, and reason, “at the very least, involves categorization, entailment, and inference.” Concepts are shaped by categories, entailments, and inferences within the conceptual system that are principally metaphorical. Metaphors are entirely reasonable by nature, and can thus be referred to as “imaginative rationality.” What does this mean for an objective or subjective “truth”? According to the authors, “it means only 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” (193). There is no absolute truth or objectivity, but there can be relative to a cultural or individual conceptual system.

            However polarized, objectivism and subjectivism have stood very firmly since Plato, and it is clear that each depend of the other for survival. Their longevity indicates that both understandings are functional, reasonable, and are partially founded in our cultural conceptual system. Experientialism preserves elements of objectivism and subjectivism: experientialism retains the emphasis on the existence of real, external, independent things that constrain our interactions with and comprehensions of them, while asserting that truth can never be objective because it is always qualified by an individual understanding that is grounded in a nonuniversal conceptual system. Objectivity “is always relative to a conceptual system and a set of cultural values” (227).

            Metaphors We Live By was published in 1980, and is just as radical today as when it was first printed. A new afterward was added in 2003, and Lakoff and Johnson refine their argument, report on new research that defines a neural basis of metaphorical thought, and survey the impact of their theory of conceptual metaphor. They also express disappointment in the refusal of many to recognize the validity of their findings because of “age-old, a priori philosophical views.” Objectivists and subjectivists have obvious qualms, and “many readers” are too blinded by the common fallacy that metaphors are mere linguistic expressions to readily accept the relatively ground-breaking concepts (245).

“It is not surprising that someone raised with the traditional view would continue to deny or ignore this evidence, since to accept it would require large-scale revisions of the way he or she understands not only metaphor but concepts, meaning, language, knowledge, and truth as well... these fallacies about metaphor are difficult to eliminate...The fact that they are wrong is no small matter. It has implications for all aspects of our lives, including war and peace, the environment, health, and other political and social issues. It bears directly on how we understand our own personal lives, and it bears directly on intellectual disciplines like philosophy, mathematics, and literary studies, all of which ultimately have important cultural effects” (245-6).

Understanding your conceptual system is inevitably radical and controversial, as new knowledge will inevitably threaten old perspectives. However, in this culture, empiricism conceptually prevails, and given more research and authorship, the fallacies surrounding metaphor will be vanquished.


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