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From the April, 2005
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Reality . . . What a Concept! by Peter J. Leithart

Reality . . . What a Concept!

Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

University of Chicago Press, 2003
(256 pages; $14.00, paperback)

reviewed by Peter J. Leithart

For many moderns, metaphor is an ornament to “truth” that can easily be dispensed with. George Lakoff, a linguist from Berkeley, and Mark Johnson, Knight Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Oregon, beg to differ.

In Metaphors We Live By, an update of their 1980 volume of the same name, they argue that metaphors are not only fundamental to language but fundamental to thinking and acting. For instance, the metaphor “time is money” finds expression in our usage in all sorts of ways (“how do you spend your time?”; “don’t waste my time”; “he must learn to budget his time”) and shapes the way we think about, experience, and “invest” our time.

Another key example is “argument is war,” a base metaphor that is evident in much of our talk about arguments: “Phillip Johnson launched a counter-attack on the Darwinian establishment” and “Richard Dawkins responded by defending his position.” Believing that “argument is war” helps us perceive when we have moved from conversation to argument. This metaphor is not merely a fancy way of talking about argument, but actually defines what we mean by “argument” and what we experience in an argument.

Many metaphors are rooted in physical experience: “Up” usually connotes “more,” and more is usually good (but not always: no one wants to be “fed up”). This metaphorical correlation of “up” with “better” expresses physical experience; we actually do sink toward the ground when we’re “low in spirits” and stand up when our “spirits rise.”

Basic Metaphor

The authors’ key claim is that metaphor is not only basic to language, but basic to all conceiving and thinking. Metaphor is a “conceptual” category, and does not merely describe a literary device. We come to understand abstract ideas by forming metaphorical connections with physical and cultural realities, because we are not detached spirits but embodied minds in relationship with other embodied minds with whom we are engaged in various cultural practices.

The implications of this work are particularly evident in epistemology, the branch of philosophy devoted to the study of knowledge, asking how we can know what we know. Lakoff and Johnson point out that philosophers of knowledge tend in one of two directions: They are either objectivists or subjectivists.

Objectivists believe that things are true regardless of whether we believe that they are true, and they also believe that we can know and state what is true in a direct fashion. Subjectivists believe we never have direct access to the world because we are always looking at it through a set of assumptions, which are like a set of colored glasses glued to our faces. If my glasses are blue, the world looks blue to me; if yours are green, the world looks green to you. There is no way to tell what the world actually is like because we cannot take off the glasses.

This debate is not confined to the philosopher’s proverbial ivory tower. As the authors point out, one of the basic structures of modern civilization is the division between the realm of objective truth and that of subjective feelings. On the one hand, scientists are objectivists who claim that they can learn the truth about the world by the application of the scientific method. Anybody can learn that water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, whether he is a Melanesian Muslim, a pagan from Portland, or a Lynchburg fundamentalist. On the other hand, artists and writers are often subjectivists who emphasize the role of imagination and insist that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Lakoff and Johnson argue that these two philosophical and cultural positions are really more alike than they appear. Both, in particular, are united in their hostility to or their misunderstanding of metaphor. In fact, both share a common view of metaphor, one that separates metaphor from concerns of truth.

Unsatisfying Accounts

Objectivists claim that metaphor is purely literary; we can know and say things without metaphor, but metaphor gives us striking ways to say things. They fear that if thought is inherently metaphorical, we have no access to objective truth, since metaphor extends like a veil between the observer and the world he observes.

Subjectivists embrace the imaginative play of metaphor. For them as much as for objectivists, however, metaphor is not a necessary mode of knowing. Metaphor is imaginative, but for subjectivists as much as for objectivists, imagination is opposed to reason and objective truth.

Neither objectivism nor subjectivism gives a satisfying account of how we know and how we talk.

Objectivists, who believe that we can access objective truth in “literal” fashion without recourse to metaphor, have trouble explaining the pervasiveness and systematic character of metaphors in our language. Objectivists are also off base on the issue of “definition” of terms and categorization. They believe that things can be defined “in themselves,” apart from any consideration of how human beings interact with those things. For the authors, meaning and truth always depend on understanding. We cannot distill “meaning” from a statement by siphoning off the persons who mean, the persons to whom meaning is communicated, and the cultural circumstances that make the communication possible.

“Gun,” for example, is defined in terms of its inherent properties, and the category of “gun” applies to that set of objects that have those inherent properties. But this method crashes on the rocks of actual usage; what does “gun” mean in the phrase “fake gun”? Is the fake gun a gun, or is it something else? Lakoff and Johnson propose that definitions must take into account “interactional properties,” that is, the uses of a thing in its natural or cultural environment. The concept of “gun” is a gestalt, or complex of properties, that includes appearance, purpose, function, and history.

On the other hand, subjectivists believe that the world is jello and our minds the mold; that is, they believe that there is no natural structure to the world that constrains our beliefs about things. That is manifestly erroneous. As the writers point out, it is not arbitrary that “up” is associated with “happy” or that we think metaphorically of what we can see as a “field” of vision. Those metaphors are rooted in our bodies and in our experience of the physical world.

Lakoff and Johnson believe that a proper appreciation for metaphor will cut through the interminable conflict between objectivists and subjectivists, and they advocate an “experientialist” alternative that highlights the importance of metaphor in our thinking, language, and action. Where objectivists and subjectivists would both play imagination off against reason, and see metaphor in opposition to logic, Lakoff and Johnson propose metaphorical thought as “imaginative rationality.” In their view, rational thought is infused with metaphor, and our poetic imagination is rationally grounded.

Vast Implications

Metaphors We Live By is a challenging and wide-ranging book, and despite its philosophical sophistication highly readable. If Lakoff and Johnson are correct, their book holds vast implications not only for philosophy but also for education, for how dictionaries are constructed and languages are taught, for politics and economic policy, for the role and limitations of scientific “objectivity,” and for our understanding of how scientific theories are actually formulated.

For example, modern scientists are among the main proponents of the “objectivist myth.” In fact, much of the power of science depends on this myth. Scientists claim to be able to get to the “true truth” of things, and explain the world as it actually is. If the authors are correct, however, imagination, metaphor, play, and imagery are as fundamental to scientific knowledge as they are to painting. Were scientists to admit this, their scientific claims would be more modest, and the idolatry of science so prevalent in the modern world could not be sustained.

To take an example from the other direction: If the authors are correct, then poetry is not merely a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” as the Romantics claimed. Rather, poetry, with its explicit and self-conscious use of metaphor, is a form of rational discourse. Poetry, in short, gives us insight into the way things really are.

On some fundamental points, they are exactly right. Metaphor is inherent in thought, and it is basic to language. Christians should not be surprised at this, since for centuries theologians have recognized that our knowledge and language are “analogical.” I suspect that this fundamentally metaphorical character of language and thought is a reflection of the Triune character of God, in whom the Father and the Son both “are” and “are not” the same.

The writers are also correct to emphasize the importance of our bodies in our thought and experience of the world. It is difficult to understand how Christians, who believe in a good physical creation and the resurrection of the dead, could succumb to the anti-physical agenda of much of the Western philosophical tradition. But that has happened, and Lakoff and Johnson provide some of the ammunition necessary for attacking this form of gnosticism.

Disquieting & Important

There are some disquieting things in the book. The authors celebrate the culturally relativist implications of their position. They point out, for instance, that “time is money” makes no sense at all outside a modern economic system where time literally is measured and calculated in monetary terms, and thus imply that the metaphor is true in modern capitalist societies but not in tribal societies. But it is clear that they do not advocate an “anything goes” subjectivism.

Some of their conclusions would have to be revised if developed in a theological framework. For example, they deny that metaphor is based on perceived similarities in things. We do not first recognize a similarity between a bride and the church, and then point out the similarity; rather, metaphor enables us to see similarities we had not seen before. Once Paul has used the metaphor “the church is a bride,” we begin to notice the various ways they resemble one another.

That is certainly true, but on theological grounds I would argue that things and experiences are also inherently similar. Since the One God created all things, all things are alike at least in this respect, that they all reveal God. God created a world where all things shine with the light of his glory, and therefore shine that light on one another. So the church simply, objectively, is like a bride, and the righteous man simply and objectively is like a tree.

Whatever revisions are necessary, Metaphors We Live By is a stimulating and important book, and provides a starting point for working through basic philosophical and cultural issues.


Peter J. Leithart is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and the president of Trinity House Institute for Biblical, Liturgical & Cultural Studies in Birmingham, Alabama. His many books include Defending Constantine (InterVarsity), Between Babel and Beast (Cascade), and, most recently, Gratitude: An Intellectual History (Baylor University Press). His weblog can be found at www.leithart.com. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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