The Poetics of Thought

Cognitive Metaphors

Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on September 9, 2009

The particular form that the human mind takes is the result of the parsimony of evolution and its demand for contingent solutions to immediate problems, and the immediate problems which shaped our bodies and minds for all those millenia whilst we were growing up in Africa were of survival and reproduction.   Our adaptive history has not prepared us for conceptual engagement with quarks, neutron stars, or the further reaches of quantum mechanics.  Nor are we constitutionally prepared or sensorially equipped to confront the abstractions of philosophy, religion, and the social sciences.  The mystery therefore is that, despite these evident limitations, we do indeed engage with such abstractions to a remarkable degree, and with an equally remarkable degree of success.

The question is therefore, as Stephen Pinker puts it in ‘The Stuff of Thought’, “How does a mind that evolved to think about rocks and plants and enemies think about love and physics and democracy?” (2005: front flap)

According to Cognitive Metaphor Theory (or sometimes Conceptual Metaphor Theory) the dominant strategy for this apprehension of abstract concepts is through the widespread and largely unconscious application of metaphor, such that we understand abstract concepts in terms of more concrete concepts.  As I hope to show, metaphor usage is ubiquitous in everyday speech, present in most sentences we utter, and yet for the most part goes unnoticed.  An expression is only apprehended consciously as a metaphor when it is particularly ‘flowery’, the so-called ‘literary’ metaphor.  It is important to keep in mind though, that in the emerging field of Cognitive Metaphor Theory, and cognate domains of knowledge including Experiential Realism, Cognitive Linguistics etc, metaphors are not additional to plain language, used only to clothe and communicate difficult ideas, but rather are the substance of ideas and thought itself.  As Tim Rohrer puts it; “(M)etaphors are a matter of cognition and conceptual structure rather than a matter of mere language” (2005: 32).

Developments in embodied cognition, grounded ultimately in evolutionary psychology, have demonstrated that our ability to conceptualise abstract concepts, including the concept of knowledge, requires the extensive, and largely unconscious, use of metaphor and related figurative devices. Moreover, the notion of metaphor as primarily a linguistic phenomenon is replaced with an understanding that considers it as present in all forms of expression; signs, gestures, behaviour etc.

Stephen Pinker traces the origins of metaphor use to an adaptation of existing cognitive mechanisms originally designed to allow the body to sense and negotiate its environment. As Pinker describes it, the structures of cognition which in early humans, as in other animals, originally evolved to deal with the problems of moving through a physical spatial environment; sensing objects and movements, experiencing force and resistance, at some point were copied into other parts of the brain such that they became “scaffolding whose slots are filled with symbols for more abstract concerns like states, possessions, ideas, and desires” (Pinker, 1997: 355).

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson identify a second mechanism by which the cognitive ‘scaffolding’ proposed by Pinker becomes populated with metaphorical associations.  They claim that in early childhood terms from the concrete ‘source’ domain of lived experience are fused with terms from the abstract ‘target’ domain through their repeated coincident occurrence.  So, for example, the experience of seeing the level of liquid in a container go up as more liquid is added to it leads to the association of MORE with UP (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999).

This association then becomes available as a metaphor to express the sense that some otherwise abstract concept is increasing or decreasing.  Lakoff  cites expressions such as “prices rose; his income went down; unemployment is up; exports are down; the number of homeless people is very high” (Lakoff in Ortony, 1979: 240);  to demonstrate this process. Working with the same metaphor, Zoltan Kovecses  (2001: 214) cites the example of sound intensity which is often identified as being ‘high’ in volume, and this can be reduced by turning the sound ‘down’.   Allied to this use of UP as a metaphor for MORE is an elaboration in which UP to GOOD this is beyond the reach of this posting but I will be coming back to this association later.

An important example of this ‘conflation’ is that which is argued as linking the concrete experience of seeing with the abstract concept of knowing, (as in when we say ‘I see what you mean’ when we mean ‘I know what you mean’). This metaphorical link is developed by Christopher Johnson  (1999), Joseph Grady (1997), and Lakoff and Johnson  (1981), and is claimed to be forged through the recurrent experience in which one ‘comes to see’ (something) at the same time as one ‘comes to know’ (that thing).  This example of a metaphorical association is significant to this  project  and I will be  discussing it in more detail later.

The conclusion of these various theories and developments is an understanding of the key role that metaphor plays in language and cognition. This is summed up by Lakoff and Johnson as follows:

“Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish–a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. For this reason, most people think they can get along perfectly well without 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…. But our conceptual system is not something we are normally aware of”  (Lakoff and Johnson, 1981: 6).


GRADY, J. (1997) Foundations of Meaning: Primary Metaphors and Primary Scenes. Berkeley, University of California.

JOHNSON, C. (1999) Metaphor vs. conflation in the acquisition of polysemy: the case of see. IN HIRAGA, M. K., SINHA, C. & WILCOX, S. (Eds.) Cultural, psychological and typological issues in Cognitive Linguistics: selected papers of the bi-annual ICLA meeting in Albuquerque July 1995. Amsterdam, John Benjamins.

KOVECSES, Z. (2001) Metaphor: a practical introduction, New York; Oxford, Oxford University Press.

LAKOFF, G. & JOHNSON, M. (1981) Metaphors we live by, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

LAKOFF, G. & JOHNSON, M. (1999) Philosophy in the flesh: the embodied mind and its challenge to western thought, New York, Basic Books.

ORTONY, A. (1979) Metaphor and thought, Cambridge (etc.), Cambridge University Press 1979.

PINKER, S. (1997) How the mind works, New York, Norton.

PINKER, S. (2007) The stuff of thought: language as a window into human nature, London, Allen Lane.

ROHRER, T. C. (2005) Embodiment and Experientialism, Chapter 2 in The Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics, GEERAERTS, D. and CUYCKENS, H. eds., Oxford University Press.


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