Literary Theory: “Metaphors We Live By” (1980) by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

Artwork by Wake Felderman.

Artwork by Wake Felderman.

Are there any concepts at all that are understood directly, without metaphor? If not, how can we understand anything at all? (Lakoff and Johnson)

Before I start, we should clear this up first:

Metaphor: All the world’s a stage (one thing is the other thing).

Simile: All the world is like a stage (compare two things through a connective).

Metonymy: Referring to the U.S. government as “the White House” (designating one thing in terms of another experientially related thing).

Okay? Okay.

In 1980, George Lakoff (a linguist) and Mark Johnson (a philosopher) published the revolutionary Metaphors We Live By, which claimed that metaphor is not just a matter of language, but a matter of thought. Lakoff and Johnson believe that language is an indicator of the nature of our conceptual system, and metaphor is so pervasive in language that it actually structures how we make sense of and interact with the world around us (unlike, say, metonymies, which only serve a referential function). Hence the term ‘conceptual metaphor.’

For example, when we talk about arguments, we use the language of battle (as per the metaphor ‘argument is war’): we defend positions, attack opponents, choose strategies, and we win or lose in the end. Many things we do when we argue are influenced by our chosen metaphor, which is partially influenced by our culture and personal experiences:

Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently. But we would probably not view them as arguing at all: they would simply be doing something different.

The classical theory of metaphor says that the suggested similarity arises from objective similarity, but Lakoff and Johnson argue against this, claiming that metaphors do not just point out similarities that are objectively true, but create similarities. We create these similarities by downplaying certain aspects (cooperation, working towards a resolution) and highlighting others (battle). In doing so, we can give an experience a certain meaning, and thus metaphors shape our reality. They can justify our actions, influence popular opinions, and those in power can impose their chosen metaphors on others.

Lakoff and Johnson differentiate three types of conceptual metaphor: structural, orientational, and ontological. The structural metaphor is the metaphor I’ve talked about up until now (one thing conceived in terms of another thing). Orientational metaphors organize immaterial concepts in terms of physical orientation: happiness is up (high spirits) and sadness is down (feeling low), the future is ahead and the past behind. Ontological metaphors give incorporeal things a sense of substance so we can refer to an abstract concept in terms of quantity (a lot of patience), character (brutality of war), agency (love drove him mad), directionality (prices are rising), etcetera.

Metaphor is a way of understanding a concept, and according to Lakoff and Johnson, meaning and truth depend on understanding. Truth is not objective, but depends on context, it relies on a human thinker. Thus, metaphors structure what we perceive as truth (taking cultural specificity and individual bias into account). Finding coherence leads to understanding, and this could help in our discussions of politics, communication, and self-understanding. Lakoff and Johnson’s theory of the conceptual metaphor fuses two accounts of truth, objectivism (absolute reality, reason) and subjectivism (personal experience influenced by emotion and imagination), into a sort of “imaginative rationality.” As they put it,

[…] 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.

Metaphors We Live By was an absolutely groundbreaking work when it first came out  in 1980: the objectivism/subjectivism divide was one that had existed since the dawn of philosophy. The work is not without its flaws, but did introduce some fascinating new ideas about the power of language and how it influences the way we see the world.


Sontag, Susan. Illness As Metaphor (1978).

In this book, Sontag talks about disease metaphors and how harmful they can be to both patients and health care professionals. Read my post on it here!

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2 thoughts on “Literary Theory: “Metaphors We Live By” (1980) by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

  • December 12, 2014 at 2:13 pm

    This. Is. Fascinating!!! I’ve never read this work before and i am absolutely going to chase it down now. I love and completely believe in the way context can shape language, and this sounds right up my alley!

    • January 19, 2015 at 6:35 pm

      I am going to choose this view to metaphor as my thesis field, but I’m still a little vague; thanks to anyone who could help me enlighten my mind.


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