Updated: Apr 13

“Primarily on the basis of linguistic evidence, we have found that most of our ordinary conceptual system is metaphorical in nature.”

-Lakaoff and Johnson (2017)

In “Metaphors We Live By,” Lakaoff and Johnson (2017) say that metaphorical patterns in language are reflections of the conceptual system that governs how we think and behave at a fundamental level, and therefore language can be investigated in the interest of understanding how the mind works: “If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we think, what we experience and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.” The most important claim they make “is that metaphor is not just a matter of language, that is, of mere words. We shall argue that, on the contrary, human thought processes are largely metaphorical.”

The authors point out that some metaphorical relations tend to take priority over others and some types of opposites are nonrandom, “sharply delineated,” systematic, and occur more cross-culturally than others (e.g., up—down, in—out, light—dark, warm—cold, central—peripheral, active—passive). These are many of the same dualities which idioms indicate are fundamental, with the important exceptions of fluidity versus solidness and disorder versus order.

Phenomena the authors show to be associated with upwardness, based on commonly used metaphors, several examples of which are given, include happiness, consciousness (being awake), life (herein referred to as a type of dynamism), dominance, “more,” (herein referred to as more, many or multiplicity), the future, high status, rationality and the male gender. Meanwhile sadness, sleep, death, submission, less (herein less, fewer or singularity), the past, low status, emotion and the female gender are down. That rationality is up and emotion down, as the authors propose, is probably incorrect; otherwise the author's conclusions are largely aligned with those reached here about up and downwardness, by a similar process, but assuming a different mechanism.

Lakoff and Johnson provide what they call a plausible “physical basis” for the widespread existence of each metaphor, consisting of ways in which each up-related phenomenon and its opposite could have been observed in the outside world to be related to the directions up and down. For instance they say it makes sense happy is up, because sad people slouch and happy people stand up straight. Since this is so generally true people may have observed the fact about ourselves and each other and casually built it into languages. More simply, though, universal relations between downwardness and sadness could be simultaneously responsible for sad downward bodily positioning, happy bodily upwardness, and the accordance of popular expressions to the metaphors, with the association itself predating both human language and body language.

The love metaphors “love is a journey,” "love is war,” “love is an electromagnetic phenomenon,” “love is madness” and “love is a game” are given to illustrate that no single abstract concept can encompass all of the things we relate to love. However, it’s notable that since journeys are outward, war is disorderly, light is bright, madness is disorderly, games are dynamic and fun, and outwardness, disorder, brightness, dynamism and fun are all more exciting than their opposites, love could therefore be associated with all of them by way of psychological excitement.

The potential physical basis given for “rational is up,” and “emotion is down,” that humans are rational, animals are not, and we see ourselves as above them is probably flawed because it does not explain why we would see ourselves as higher than other animals or how that relates closely enough to rationality to make sense. This seems counter to other evidence from language showing that we relate knowledge to downwardness and other unemotional (e.g., cold, collected and calculating) things, and that emotion would be down is contrary to “happy is up,” and also to “mundane reality is down (as in ‘down to earth’),” which they give as a basis for “low” in the scientific term “low-level phonology.” Curiously, most of the authors examples of how the basic metaphor “theories are buildings” can be used imaginatively, such as a theory with winding corridors, a baroque theory, one covered with gargoyles and one with a plumbing problem, involve adding fluidity to the building/theory.

Universal knowledge

Works Cited

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press, 2017.


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