One day in the late winter of 1981, while perusing a book, I read: “TIME IS MONEY: You’re wasting my time. This gadget will save you hours. How do you spend your time these days? You need to budget your time. . . .
“IDEAS ARE FOOD: What he said left a bad taste in my mouth. There are too many facts here for me to digest them all. I just can’t swallow that claim. That’s food for thought. . . .
“LOVE IS A PATIENT: This is a sick relationship. They have a strong, healthy marriage. The marriage is dead–it can’t be revived. Their marriage is on its last legs. It’s a tired affair. . . .”
The book, Metaphors We Live By, by linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson, persuasively argued that in order to talk–or even think–about almost anything, it is necessary to use metaphors. Metaphors, it asserted, are not mere rhetorical ornaments used to spice up language. Rather, our thinking about the world, indeed what we take the world to be, is strongly shaped by metaphorical understandings in which one thing is partially understood in terms of another. We sometimes understand time in terms of money, ideas in terms of food, and love as a patient. Moreover, we do this effortlessly and without being conscious of the consequences of our metaphors. In making these arguments, Lakoff and Johnson presented an abundance of interesting examples that both charmed and intrigued me.
I bought the book, and within a matter of weeks was seeing metaphors everywhere. I remember listening to a baseball game on the radio and being stunned by how often the announcer dramatized the game in terms of death. “Putting a man out” was clearly killing, and “getting put out” dying. Runners were gunned down, cut down, picked off, or sitting ducks caught dead at the plate after trying a suicide squeeze. Or a batter might be safe at first, or still alive at the plate, or hanging on for dear life after fouling off four balls in a row. I wondered how much of the game’s excitement might have to do with evoking the symbolic threat of death.
I noticed that my girlfriend and I had different metaphors for our relationship that led us to talk past each other. I often spoke of it as a partnership or contract and would complain that I had rights she wasn’t respecting, or that she wasn’t living up to her end of the bargain. She, in turn, viewed our relationship as a journey. She complained that we were drifting apart, or stuck, or in a bad place.
At the time, I was writing a book on men’s attitudes about rape and was busy interviewing all manner of men on the subject. I was trying to understand a distressing tendency on the part of many men to justify rape as a form of revenge against women for their capacity to arouse. All too many men seemed to respond to sexy women by wanting to degrade them. I also found that metaphors for attractive women often portray them as something dangerous and threatening. They are bombshells, knockouts, dressed to kill, stunning, striking, ravishing, femmes fatales, or devastating. What the men in my interviews had been expressing was apparently deeply rooted in our understanding of sexual desire as a physical force imposed from the outside.
As I began to explore more deeply the meaning of these metaphors, I sought out George Lakoff’s help. I found him warm, generous, and possessed of a remarkable ability to get inside language and unearth hidden, at times startling, assumptions.
Lakoff, now 47, has been a controversial figure in linguistics for nearly 25 years. As an MIT undergraduate, he studied with Roman Jakobson and was one of the first generation of Noam Chomsky’s students. After getting his PhD at Indiana University, Lakoff landed a job at Harvard in 1965 and became one of the principal developers of Chomsky’s ideas. In the process he discovered what he saw as a major flaw in Chomsky’s theory, and suggested a way to remedy it. Chomsky argued that language could be understood strictly in terms of grammatical structures, independent of meaning. Lakoff argued that grammar depended upon the meaning of language in many ways, and proposed an alternative theory, generative semantics, that allowed most of what Chomsky had said to be preserved. Lakoff convinced many of Chomsky’s most prominent followers that he was right.
He didn’t, however, convince Chomsky, who launched an attack against his former student that shook the linguistics world and brought Lakoff international attention at the tender age of 26. Some of the attention was welcome, some of it not. Since Lakoff and his coworkers had intended their ideas to be a friendly extension of Chomsky’s work, they were taken aback by what they regarded as a mean and petty assault.
Looking for a more open intellectual environment than the Cambridge linguistics scene permitted, Lakoff left Harvard in 1969, moving first to the University of Michigan, then on to Stanford’s Institute for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in 1971, and finally landing at the University of California at Berkeley a year later as a full professor. He was 31.
Over the next decade and a half, he expanded his linguistics research into other areas. He helped establish Berkeley’s cognitive-science program, and has made major contributions to that field. Currently he’s working on integrating neural-network research with contemporary linguistics.
Over the years, Lakoff has also taken an active interest in the arts. He studied performance art and served as a linguist and dramaturge for the National Endowment for the Arts’ Visual Arts Division, and he has been an outspoken advocate of language poetry, in which the poet plays so freely with language that the reader must collaborate on the poem’s meaning.
Metaphors We Live By, which came out in 1980, has already been translated into seven languages and is fast becoming something of a classic. A couple of years ago, Lakoff published Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, a monster of a book drawing on linguistics, anthropology, biology, psychology, mathematics, and logic, and challenging the notion that the categories of language objectively fit the world.
More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor, a book Lakoff authored with University of Chicago literary critic Mark Turner, came out recently. In it, Lakoff and Turner argue that the use of metaphor in poetry is usually a creative application of metaphors already common to everyday speech and thought.
Lakoff, who is short, dark, and bearded, has a gentleness of manner that contrasts interestingly with his powerful, at times disconcertingly acute mind. What follows is an edited transcript of an interview conducted in his office.
Timothy Beneke: Why should we care about metaphor?
George Lakoff: Because metaphor is not just a matter of words. It is a major mode of thought. We understand much of reality in terms of metaphor. To a large extent we think using metaphor, frame political and social issues in metaphorical terms, draw conclusions about how to live our lives on the basis of metaphor, and act on those conclusions. Most of the time we are not even aware we are doing it, since most metaphorical thought is automatic and below the level of consciousness.
If we are to understand why we think and act as we do, we had better understand the metaphors on which our conclusions and actions are based. And since our metaphors often hide important aspects of reality, we need to know what they are. Especially when they affect interpersonal relations and foreign policy. Many of our most profound ideas are products of metaphor, as are many of our most dangerous and silly ideas. Without metaphor, most everyday thought wouldn’t be possible. Metaphorical thought in itself is neither good nor bad, it just is. What is important is awareness of the metaphors we are using, their limitations, and when we are basing actions on them.
TB: How did you come to notice the pervasiveness of metaphor in everyday thought and speech?
GL: I got involved in performance art in the 70s, and decided in 1978 to teach an undergraduate seminar on the subject. In the class we were reading and thinking about metaphor. It was a class of about five or six undergraduates, and we knew each other very well. One day, one of the women came to the class visibly upset. She said, “I’m sorry, I just can’t think about the class right now. I’ve got a problem with metaphor. Maybe you guys can help me.”
Because it was 1978 and we were in Berkeley, the class said, “OK, tell us your problem with metaphor.” She said, “My boyfriend just told me that our relationship has hit a dead-end street. I’m very upset about it. I don’t understand what it means. I don’t even know why I’m so upset.”
So we thought about it for a while and decided that if the relationship has hit a dead-end street, it has to have been going somewhere. If you’ve hit a dead-end street, you can’t keep going where you’re going and you have to turn back. It occurred to us there were a great many expressions in English that viewed love as a journey, and this was just one of them. For example, you can say things like, “Look how far we’ve come,” or “The relationship is on the rocks” or “off the tracks,” or “We’re spinning our wheels” or “out of gas.” You can say, “We’re at a crossroads” and “We’ll have to go our separate ways.”
As we tried to understand this metaphor, I realized that what we were discovering was inconsistent with classical theories of both metaphor and meaning. Classical theories of metaphor assume that the metaphor is in the words and that each particular linguistic expression is a different metaphor. We had found a single metaphorical way of understanding what love is: love is a journey. The traveler in the journey corresponded to the lovers. The relationship corresponded to the vehicle–a car spinning its wheels or a ship caught on the rocks. And there was a path toward shared destinations or goals.
We realized that the metaphor was not in the individual words but in the way we understood what love was; it was in our conceptual structure. Metaphors were not about mere words but about how we conceive of reality. And metaphors were clearly not merely poetic but were part of our ordinary speech and understanding. I realized that we had a major counterexample to all sorts of theories. And here we were in an undergraduate performance-arts class talking about one of the students’ problems with her boyfriend.
TB: Was there a classic “aha” moment when you realized all this?
GL: Was there! I said, “Oh my God!” I said to the class, “Wait a minute. Do you realize what we’re doing here?” It was a radical shift in our understanding of metaphor. We started looking for other metaphors for love and found an interesting range.
Love can be a physical force: you can feel the electricity between you, give off sparks, be magnetically drawn to each other; the relationship can be charged. It can be a kind of a patient: the relationship can be sick; a marriage can be strong and healthy, or on its last legs, or revived; you can have a tired affair. Love can be viewed as madness. You can be crazy or mad or insane about someone; they can drive you out of your mind. A lot of songs view love as magic: that old black magic, bewitched, she’s cast a spell on me, etc.
What is interesting about all these metaphors for love is the one thing they have in common: they all share the view that the lover is helpless. In the journey metaphor, the lovers are not in control of where they’re going, or may suddenly stop going anywhere–a common complaint. The lovers are riders.
TB: I once shouted at a lover, “You’re taking me for a ride!”
GL: Exactly. In the other metaphors for love, you’re also helpless. When love is a physical force, one can’t resist the gravitational or electromagnetic force at work on you. If it’s seen as magic–or hypnosis–then you have no will. When love is seen as a patient, the lover is again passive, as a patient is supposed to be, since we mostly understand illness in America as something that comes from the outside and gets you. And of course when love is madness, you’re out of control.
Since we understand control as being oriented up (“I have control over you”) and lack of control as down (“I am under your control”), we speak of “falling in love.” This whole collection of metaphors views love as something that makes the lover helpless. They’re deeply cultural; by no means is love like this in other parts of the world.
TB: You hope to put together a metaphorical dictionary that would define concepts in terms of our metaphorical understanding of them.
GL: It’s a long-term project that a few graduate students and I are working on; I think it’s an important project. If you look up “love” in the dictionary, you’ll see it defined in terms of very rough synonyms like “fondness” or “affection.” This tells you nothing about how we understand love in terms of concepts like madness, journeys, magic, illness, etc. A metaphorical dictionary would spell out how concepts interact with each other and give examples, like we did with love. It would offer us a great deal of insight as to how we make sense of our experience. But it would take an immense amount of time and energy and money to do such a project.
TB: Can you give me a more concrete sense of how metaphors affect our lives?
GL: Sure. I had an Iranian student who misunderstood the phrase “a solution for your problems.” He thought it was a chemical metaphor in which there was a large vat filled with problems in a liquid solution. The problems kept going in and out of solution, at times dissolving and at other times becoming solid and precipitating out. He thought this was a very nice metaphor because the problems never really went away; they just dissolved at times and at other times reappeared when they became solid. That’s when you noticed them. He thought the citizens of America must have a very enlightened view of life; he was shocked to discover that they didn’t have this understanding at all.
If we really understood problems in this way, we might have a different attitude toward them. Problems would be seen as a natural part of life, and would be expected to recur. Instead of trying to make them disappear forever, we would try to dissolve them for a while. Instead, we use a mathematical-puzzle metaphor in which problems once solved are solved forever.
In my classes I try to get students to think about the metaphors they act on. What is most poignant in their responses is that mere awareness is not enough to make a change. I’ve had students who’ve observed that they conduct their personal lives in terms of the love-as-journey metaphor, and see the pitfalls of it, but then have said that they just can’t conceive of love as anything else.
The time-is-money metaphor is built into our society and is tough to avoid. We often view time as a valuable moneylike resource, something to spend or invest or save or budget, something you don’t want to waste or run out of, because it is precious–so much so that we go around thanking people for their time. When a metaphor is built into the practices of a culture, it can create truths: if I operate by the time-is-money metaphor, then someone really can waste my time.
There are cultures where time is not understood this way. Betsy Brandt, an anthropologist who studies the Pueblo Indians, has observed that it seems to be absent in that culture. It doesn’t make sense to ask there, “Did you have enough time to do that?” or, “Don’t spend too much time on that.” There are no excuses like, “There wasn’t enough time.” You can say, “My path didn’t take me there,” or “I couldn’t find the path to that.” When time is not understood as money, or a valued resource, people behave very differently. When Pueblo Indians raised in tribal situations are employed by white men, the white men think they’re lazy because the Indians don’t know how to budget their time.
Attempts to industrialize third-world countries involve imposing a time-is-money metaphor so people will learn to be paid by the hour, meet quotas, and so forth. The time-is-money metaphor can be as socialist as it is capitalist. When I first wrote about the time-is-money metaphor, I sent a copy to a friend who is a distinguished linguist in an Eastern bloc country and a theoretical Marxist. He wrote back a long letter, arguing that “time is money” is not a metaphor but would rather be true of a just Marxist society. Workers, he argued, should be paid strictly by the amount of time they work. If there is anything but a one-to-one correlation between time worked and money received, then the society is unjust. “Time is money,” he said, is a moral truth to strive for.
TB: In places like Berkeley, there exists a noble tradition of people rebelling against the time-is-money metaphor. I think of people sitting around stoned exploring the virtues of purposelessness, not knowing where the conversation will lead or where time will “bring them.”
GL: The counterculture rebelled against a number of metaphors. Perhaps the central one is the idea of a purposeful life, the idea that life is a journey and careerism is a journey upward in which you climb the ladder and claw your way to the top. This movement has had difficulty surviving.
GL: It can be difficult to avoid living by the metaphors that the society at large imposes on you. It takes work and a sense of purpose to promote and maintain a counterculture. But if the idea of a purposeful life is what you are trying to avoid, then you have a paradox: you have to have a purposeful life in order to avoid having a purposeful life.
TB: Is there research showing how metaphors affect the way people live their lives?
GL: Naomi Quinn, an anthropologist at Duke, has done extensive research on how couples conceive of their marriages. There seem to be a wide range of metaphors. Marriage can be a partnership, or a means for growth, or a journey through life together, or a struggle, or a safe haven. She found that a few basic concepts underlie the metaphors for marriage in America: it’s supposed to be a kind of union, to last, to be mutually beneficial, and is expected to be difficult. Most Americans understand marriage in a way that fits this basic structure.
Different metaphors lead to different problems in marriage. If it’s viewed as a partnership, then people have to live up to their rights and obligations for it to work. If the marriage is understood as a journey through life together, then problems arise when the spouses sense a lack of progress or want to go in different directions.
Quinn found that the spouses in the marriages she studied had different metaphorical understandings of the marriage. Problems often arise when two people are living out different metaphors and expect their spouse to be functioning by their metaphor.
TB: Can you give me some examples?
GL: Sure. There was a couple who were both 19. The man saw their marriage as a journey through life along separate paths. The paths should never be too close together or too far apart; there was a certain optimal distance they were supposed to keep. He was completely conscious of the metaphor and had developed a technique to determine how far apart the paths were at any time. He made decisions based upon their degree of closeness, so it was important information.
Each morning when he woke, he would turn on his radio to a rock station and keep turning it up till his wife complained and wanted him to shut it off. The degree of loudness his wife could tolerate revealed how close they were. If she could tolerate loud music, that meant they were close and it would be safe for him to go out bowling with his buddies that night. If, on the other hand, she asked him to turn it down when it was relatively soft, that meant they weren’t very close and he should stay home. His wife had no idea he had this method. She wanted to stay close at all times.
You can imagine a couple where the wife viewed the marriage as a means for growth that must never be allowed to stagnate. Suppose the husband saw it as a durable, structured object that they had to work on and build and make strong and stable and secure so it would not fall apart when burdens were placed on it. His idea of a successful marriage would be her idea of a failed one.
When metaphors are deep and effortless, it’s very difficult to change them. Becoming conscious of them doesn’t automatically help. We need lots of metaphors to think about any given subject matter and need to be fluid in our use of them. Different metaphors enable you to see different things. Psychologists Dedre and Don Gentner have done some fascinating work showing how people use two different metaphors to understand how electricity works. One metaphor views electricity as a flow of fluid; another sees it as something like a crowd of individual people swarming like ants, trying to get through narrow gates called resistors. Each metaphor helps you solve certain kinds of problems but not others. Students of electricity need to know when to apply each model.
TB: The classic example would be viewing light alternately as waves and particles.
GL: Right. In certain experiments light will act like a wave, in others like particles. What that means is that you can make sense of one experiment if you think of light as a wave, and make sense of another if you think of it as particles. In both cases you’re imposing metaphors to make sense of what’s going on. The wave/particle duality isn’t really a duality. It’s two different ways that we have of thinking about light.
It’s important to see that you can’t do science without using metaphors. Philosophers of science have come to recognize this. A lot of scientists still believe that they’re getting at the unique absolute truth and ignore the fact that their understanding is guided by a culture, a conceptual system, the fact that they’re human beings with a certain kind of body and brain.
TB: Can you give me some examples of how metaphors influence political action?
GL: Inflation is an interesting example. A linguist named Jaime Carbonell did a study on this. Jimmy Carter viewed inflation as an enemy, and as commander in chief, declared a war on inflation. He marshaled extraordinary powers to fight this war, such as fixing prices.
Carbonell is from Uruguay. In Uruguay, inflation is seen as a disease. Diseases there are seen as things that come at you from the outside and are pretty much out of your control. If you’re lucky, they’ll go away. Sometimes you can afford a doctor. Sometimes the doctor can cure you; sometimes he might just take the pain away. Inflation is seen as a disease from this perspective, and you might call in a few economists to take some measures to help take the pain away. But in Uruguay they don’t marshal their forces and declare war on inflation the way Americans have. It is important to see that different metaphors for inflation yield very different political consequences.
Some metaphors have little or no political importance, while others are very important. The “cities are people” metaphor is relatively unimportant. Basically cities are viewed as people with respect to their internal organs. We speak of the heart of the city, the roads are arteries that can get clogged, sick cities need to be revitalized, and so forth. Pretty dull stuff.
But the “countries are people” metaphor is of great consequence. Countries are viewed as people with respect to social life. For example, countries have friends, neighbors, enemies, and competitors. The landmass of the country is its home. One way we understand defense is as protecting our home. Mexico and Latin America is our backyard. You don’t want enemy missiles in your backyard.
TB: When countries are understood as people, are they men or women?
GL: It turns out to be both. Countries are also understood as parents to their citizens. So you have both fatherland and motherland. The country-is-a-person metaphor is different in different places. In India, the country is definitely a nurturant parent: Mother India. But there society is understood as a person and the whole caste system is based on a metaphor in which the higher castes are higher parts of the body. The Brahmans are the head, the soldier castes are the arms, the untouchables are the feet. The metaphor suggests that all of these are necessary for the body to function: the head makes decisions, the arms defend it, the feet hold it up, and so on. This is a horrible extension of the country-is-a-person metaphor.
We also have the notion that, since countries are people, some countries are more adult than others. So you have developing countries. If a country is underdeveloped, it’s immature. A “mature” country is understood as one that’s industrialized, has a strong economy and a large gross national product. Third-world countries are viewed more as children. They need to be protected, or they create mischief, or they aren’t quite responsible for themselves, or need to be told how to govern themselves.
A lot of our thinking about third-world countries is guided by this metaphor. We regard them as slow to develop, or not yet reaching maturity or coming along real well. If their leaders internalize these metaphors, they’re likely to accept certain policies. There are many countries that would probably be better off not following the Western model, not industrializing and cutting down all their trees and tearing out their jungles. The view of a country as a person imposes a certain notion of development on the third world. Notice: the third world. The first and second worlds are on top, and the third is placed at the bottom.
Another part of this metaphor is to see “health” as economic health. So a country is “not healthy” when it’s economically in bad shape. People talk about healthy, thriving economies, or about countries that are weak and debilitated. Health for a country is not the health of its citizens. It’s not artistic health. It’s not spiritual health. It’s not a sense of well-being, or any number of other things one might mention. It’s just economic health.
TB: I remember American reporters going to England a few years back when the country was said to be in a state of “economic devastation.” They would often remark how people seemed relatively content and were getting along with their lives. The reporters’ expectations were so dominated by the metaphor of economic health that they were shocked by the relative happiness they saw.
GL: The economic-health metaphor has a very strong hold on people’s minds. A further part of the country-is-a-person metaphor is the notion of a world community. If you’re part of a world community, what is your role in this community? Are you a peacekeeper? Are you a cop? Are you a terrorist nation? Once you have a world community, you can have a pariah nation. From different perspectives, Libya, Israel, Iran, and South Africa are all viewed as pariah nations. So is the U.S. in many parts of the world. But you can only have concepts like “pariah nations” because countries are being viewed as people and the world as a community. Once you have a world community, one thing that a person in a community does not want is to be ashamed of anything. People don’t want to be laughingstocks; they want to be proud members of the community.
TB: It’s quite striking that when Iranian students took American hostages at the U.S. embassy, lots of Americans felt humiliated and frustrated. Carter’s inability to get them out cost him dearly politically even though no one was killed. Yet when some 250 Marines were killed in Beirut, it didn’t seem to hurt Reagan much at all.
GL: Powerful countries don’t want to look powerless against small countries. Our policy is based on a desire to look strong in the world community. This metaphor is not a peculiarly American one. Many countries do look upon the U.S. as a helpless giant.
Another question the country-as-person metaphor invites is: “What kind of person is this country?” International-relations theory tends to assume that countries are rational actors. It uses a definition of “rational” that comes out of economics. It says that “acting rationally” is maximizing your own gain and minimizing your loss.
The country-as-person metaphor also assumes a country is a single unitary thing, as if there were not different communities within a country. Much is excluded by this metaphor. Multinational corporations, some of which are as powerful as small countries, aren’t taken into account. They don’t have landmasses, so they’re not part of the world community. Interest groups don’t exist in the metaphor. And the environment is outside the metaphor.
If a country is a person, where are the citizens in the metaphor? One version has the country as parents to its citizens. But then the citizens are children to be protected and kept in place; they’re not to make trouble. When a country is seen as a person, various metaphors for life become important, such as “life is a play.” You hear talk about actors on an international stage. There was a wonderful article in the New York Times recently about Japan trying to decide what role to play on the international stage.
Another important metaphor involved in all this is the “conduit” metaphor. It’s a major metaphor for communication that says ideas are in our heads; communication is putting them in containers called words and sending them to other people to take the ideas out. So we say the meaning is in the words. You put the ideas into words and then you can get the ideas across. The conduit metaphor hides the fact that speakers may have different conceptual systems, may speak different languages, may have different background experiences, different ways of framing their experiences, and so on. It assumes uniform cognition and rationality and experience among speakers. The conduit metaphor works fine if you’re talking about whether there is a book on the table, but it doesn’t work well in dealing with people of different cultures. Communication between countries is understood as communication between two different people who understand each other, who speak the same language and share the same conceptual system and so on. But that’s rarely the case.
Competition or war between countries uses another common metaphor: war is a game. We want to be number one.
TB: After the U.S. invasion of Grenada, I heard a man being interviewed proudly proclaim that “we finally won one,” as if it were a football game.
GL: Right. And you have cheerleaders, cheering the boys off to victory.
TB: It’s no accident that a lot of football coaches model themselves after generals and like to read military history.
GL: Or that generals talk about themselves as quarterbacks. Game theory has been important in the actual formulation of nuclear policy. In game theory, it is assumed that countries are rational actors in a game. The question then becomes: Is this a zero-sum game where if one person wins, the other loses? Or is it a game where no one can win? In Vietnam, the strategy that was imposed after a while was that Vietnam was not a zero-sum game that could be won. We were there to stay in the game and be viable and serve certain purposes. The far right prefers zero-sum games. They want war to be a game you play to win. So part of political debate involves asking what kind of a game war should be, not whether it should be at all.
If countries are seen as people and war is seen as a game, then war is a game between two people. What this hides, of course, is the citizenry, the real people who stand to die no matter which country/person wins. One person who took this metaphor with utmost seriousness was General Tommy Power. When he was deputy head of the Strategic Air Command, he once said in a discussion of nuclear war, “Look: at the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian left, we win!” The metaphors on which foreign policy is based are anything but amusing trivialities, or mere matters of words.
TB: Let’s talk a little about poetry. In your book on poetic metaphor, you conclude that most of the metaphors used by poets are creative extensions of metaphor common to everyday speech. In other words, poets seldom understand one kind of thing in terms of another in a wholly new way.
GL: Right. It’s pretty unusual. The poetic language you find in Shakespeare or Dylan Thomas uses the same conceptual mechanisms and the same metaphors we use automatically in everyday speech. Poets put metaphors together in ways we ordinarily wouldn’t, or extend them in interesting ways. They might make metaphors richer, and draw out implications we normally wouldn’t draw out. But their raw material includes our everyday metaphors.
TB: You regard the analysis of metaphor as a scientific enterprise.
GL: Yes. This is very important. Metaphor analysis is scientific in the way that all linguistics is scientific. What you try to do in linguistics is state general principles, or laws, based on the available evidence. In metaphor research, much of the evidence comes from polysemy–the phenomenon in which a single word or phrase has different but related meanings. So if I take something like “dead-end street” when talking about love, I take it from ordinary driving and apply the same words to love. What we noticed was that the extension from the domain of travel to the domain of love occurs in other expressions as well, like being on the rocks or spinning your wheels. All of these expressions could apply to both traveling and love. The point is that lots of different linguistic expressions can be seen as instances of a general metaphor, in this case “love is a journey.” And each metaphor can be thought of as a general law, a law of thought, which language obeys.
In doing metaphor analysis, we look at a very large range of data and try to formulate the generalizations characterizing the data. You make hypotheses and check them out and often make wrong guesses. But there’s very often enough clear evidence to guide your analysis. What this means is that linguistics offers us an analytic technique for investigating a major aspect of our mental life that was previously hidden from us.
TB: What do you think this will lead to?
GL: Mark Johnson, I, and others have begun to rethink the major issues in Western philosophy, not only on the basis of metaphor research but also on the basis of other findings in the cognitive sciences. Those findings appear not to be consistent with either Anglo-American or continental philosophy. They suggest a new direction in philosophy.
There was a time when philosophy viewed physics and biology as fit for a priori speculation. It was called “natural philosophy.” Today no philosopher would dare speculate about the physical universe or the nature of life without taking into account what has been discovered in physics and biology. Yet many philosophers today have no compunctions about speculating a priori about language and the mind, largely in ignorance of what has been discovered in linguistics and in the cognitive sciences.
Philosophic views about language and the mind form the basis for widespread theories of law, ethics, and politics. In these areas, philosophy matters in a big way. Johnson and I feel that a proper appreciation for what has been discovered about language and the mind will result in major changes in our views of law, ethics, and politics. There is a good reason why philosophers are writing a lot about metaphor these days. What is at stake is our understanding of social life.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Maggie Miller, illustration/John Zielinski.