“The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor; it is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in the dissimilar.”
Aristotle, De Poetica

what is a metaphor?

For most people a metaphor is a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. “For this reason,” write Mark Johnson and George Lakoff in their book Metaphors We Live By, “most people think they can get along perfectly well without a metaphor.”

We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.

What governs our thought governs our functioning. “Our concepts (even something as simple as the word we use) structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people.”

Since communication is based on the same conceptual system that we use in thinking and acting, language is an important source of evidence for what the system is like.

Most of our ordinary conceptual system is metaphorical in nature.

To give some idea of what it could mean for a concept to be metaphorical and for such a concept to structure an everyday activity, let us start with the concept ARGUMENT and the conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR. This metaphor is reflected in our everyday language by a wide variety of expressions:


Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
I’ve never won an argument with him.
You disagree? Okay, shoot!
If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
He shot down all of my arguments.

It is important to see that we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan and use strategies. If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and take a new line of attack. Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war. Though there is no physical battle, there is a verbal battle, and the structure of an argument—attack, defense, counter-attack, etc.—reflects this. It is in this sense that the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture; its structures the actions we perform in arguing.

Try to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground. 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. It would seem strange even to call what they were doing “arguing.” In perhaps the most neutral way of describing this difference between their culture and ours would be to say that we have a discourse form structured in terms of battle and they have one structured in terms of dance.

This is an example of what it means for a metaphorical concept, namely, ARGUMENT IS WAR, to structure (at least in part) what we do and how we understand what we are doing when we argue. The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another. It is not that arguments are a subspecies of war. Arguments and wars are different kinds of things–verbal discourse and armed conflict–and the actions performed are different kinds of actions. But ARGUMENT is partially structured, understood, performed, and talked about in terms of WAR. The concept is metaphorically structured, the activity is metaphorically structured, and, consequently, the language is metaphorically structured.

In the Investing: The Last Liberal Art, Robert Hagstrom writes:

At the simplest level, a metaphor is a way to convey meaning using out-of-ordinary, nonliteral language. When we say that “work was a living hell,” we don’t really mean to say that we spent the day beating back fire and shoveling ashes, but rather we want to communicate, in no uncertain terms, that it was a hard day at the office. Used this way, a metaphor is a concise, memorable, and often colorful way to express emotions. In a deeper sense, metaphors represent not only language but also thought and action.

Metaphors are much more than a poetic imagination or rhetorical flourish. They can help us translate ideas into mental models and those models form the basis of worldly wisdom.

Many people contend that metaphors are necessary to stimulate new ideas. Hagstrom continues:

In the same way that a metaphor helps communicate one concept by comparing it to another concept that is widely understood, using a simple model to describe one idea can help us grasp the complexities of a similar idea. In both cases we are using one concept (the source) to better understand another (the target). Used this way, metaphors not only express existing ideas, they stimulate new ones.

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