Shared Experience, Shared Language: A Review of Lakoff and Johnson on Metaphor

Each of my efforts to write about George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By uncannily comprises a demonstration of its thesis.

As I started to plan my review, I wrote, I am late to the dance—referring to the fact that the book was published in 1980. As I began this very sentence, I was tempted to refer to the book I discovered only this summer. Previous drafts have included the idea that I devoured in two large gulps Lakoff and Johnson’s brilliant tour de force. However, as each phrase and clause entered my mind [does it ever stop?], I became aware that I was simply providing more and more evidence of the intricate arguments in the book.

Lakoff and Johnson denote the metaphors we live by in small caps; lacking those, I will use boldface. I clearly cannot express my admiration for their book without myself using metaphorical language, much of which fits their thesis about conceptual metaphors—i.e. that we think and communicate only via a consistent network of conventional metaphors grounded in our physical experience. In the italicized passages above, I have used the following metaphors, which we all share:

  • The scholarly conversation is a dance.
  • The written word is a hidden treasure.
  • Ideas are food.
  • Thoughts are light.
  • Argument is war.

The last of these provides one of the central metaphors in the book that inspired audible expressions of comprehension (aha!) and agreement (yesss!) as I read and scurried to underline and annotate passages that provided nourishment to this soul starved for intellectual engagement. I will discontinue the use of unconventional fonts to denote metaphoric language; to do otherwise, I should simply change the font of the entire document.

As I wrote It Quacks Like a Duck, my effort to lament the lack of metaphorical thinking in our benighted age, I realized that I had no clear understanding of the philosophy or the linguistics of metaphor. Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, which I ordered as a major part of my effort to remedy that deficit, begins with an exposition of the conceptual metaphor Argument is war, through which they reveal not only that we describe arguments in terms of combat, but that we understand and carry out arguments in terms of that metaphor. The remainder of the book lists numerous similar metaphors, which fall into several categories (orientational metaphors and ontological metaphors, to name only two) and which are systematic, coherent, and grounded. Lakoff and Johnson also discuss how metaphor structures our experience and enables us to understand and define abstract concepts. They complete their book by placing it firmly outside both classical and postmodern thinking about truth and meaning, suggesting that their “experientialist myth” provides an epistemological compromise between the myths of objectivism and subjectivism while preserving the insights of both.

The book provided me sufficient fodder for notes that now inhabit not only the margins of about 75% of the pages, but also both flyleaves. The authors’ insights have enabled me to understand language and meaning in ways and to depths that I had never approached in a lifetime of passion for language and meaning. More important, application of these insights conforms closely not only with my experience of the world, but also with my beliefs about how we operate in it. For example, the thorough discussion of the metaphors Time is money and Labor is a resource prompted me not once, but twice (pp. 8 and 67), to note in the margin a piece about Houman Harouni and mathematics education that I recently heard on NPR; Lakoff and Johnson’s explanations both confirm and amplify Harouni’s suggestion that we study math the way we do (5 + 4 = 9) because of the origin of math education in the medieval mercantile schools. I had written “wow!” and other profound comments so many times by the time I got to the explanation of why we ask yes-no questions with rising intonation that I summed up my commentary thus: “This book (not 42) is the answer to the ultimate question of life.” Yes, I did include a handwritten smiley face.

Despite that unqualified endorsement, I do have a few questions and quibbles, some of which may have been answered in the 36 years since Metaphors We Live By was published. The 2003 afterword suggests that the scholarly acceptance of the book has been mixed, but Lakoff and Johnson certainly set the parameters for the conversation.

One glaring omission, in my view, is their complete silence on the metaphors of light/dark, white/black that continue to pervade not only our culture, but many cultures around the world. Since Winthrop Jordan published White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812, historians of American slavery have understood the ancient metaphoric associations of blackness that allowed Westerners to practice race-based chattel slavery and still think they believed in justice and equality for all. Lakoff and Johnson’s focus is clearly on the English language and, almost as clearly, on American culture; therefore, it was incumbent on them to discuss this central and seemingly intractable metaphor as it relates to race relations in our still fractured country.

Given the cultural underpinnings of their argument, I also wonder if these or subsequent authors have applied Deborah Tannen’s insights about the cross-cultural aspects communication between the sexes to the metaphors relating to discourse mentioned throughout the book. In my experience, women’s arguments are less agonistic than those of men.

Another concern is not with the evidence itself, but with what Lakoff and Johnson claim to be the underlying premise of their thesis. They posit that their argument is incompatible with—they might even say their book demolishes—a belief in “such a thing as objective (absolute and unconditional) truth” (p. 159 and throughout). Certainly they demonstrate again and again that what we experience as the truth, what we view as meaningful, is grounded firmly on our human nature and our physical interactions with each other and the world. However, despite the insistence of the authors, I perceive no inconsistency with a concomitant belief in objective truth—only with the belief that we can ever find or know what I call capital-T truth. I would also argue that Lakoff and Johnson ignore the valuational element that distinguishes truth from fact—indeed, that they occasionally confuse fact and truth.

I have studied and pondered these problems frequently over the last quarter century, first and most thoroughly in my 1992 master’s thesis “The Gift from Language to Mankind”: The Souls of Bartleby, Kurtz, and Gatsby. There, I use three exemplars of the observer-hero narrative to argue that this literary subgenre provides a substrate for the authors’ tentative faith that language offers our always fallible but only possible means of expressing the ineffable. Inspired by Lakoff and Johnson, I actually plan to return to those and other narratives (including, perhaps, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet) and examine their narrators’ use of metaphor, both conventional and original, and how it relates to their portrayals of the larger-than-life heroes whose stories they seek to tell. On a related note, I teach a freshman composition class in writing across the curriculum, in which I spend a great deal of time (and ample reference to The Structures of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn) discussing the supposed objectivity of the sciences and the obvious subjectivity of the Smiley-Face Pain Scale in order to suggest that we can be only subjective, but that we should strive for objectivity—both premises with which I am sure Lakoff and Johnson would agree. I certainly plan to use some of their insights in my classes this semester.

These few concerns are mere cavils in an otherwise hearty recommendation that you read this book. You will be challenged (Learning is a contest), you will see language in a new way (Knowledge is visual), and you will gain a valuable new perspective on your place in the world (I’m sure you know where this is going!).

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2 Responses to Shared Experience, Shared Language: A Review of Lakoff and Johnson on Metaphor

  1. Pingback: Shared Experience, Shared Language: A Review of Layoff and Johnson on Metaphor | Just(e) Words

  2. Christie Frandsen says:

    My eyes have been opened- I am ordering the book today! This review is brilliant. The publishers should pay you a lot of money for this eloquent endorsement (smiley face).

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