What is metaphor, and how does it work?


The concept of metaphor was established by Aristotle in his Rhetoric and Poetics as a feature of language which is used by all people, involves a cognitive process, and has a special role to play in effective speech and poetry. While the philosophical tradition subsequently focused more on ‘analogy’ as a related concept that did not inevitably involve language, the rhetorical tradition concentrated on elaborating the stylistic potential of metaphor, and it became associated above all with exceptionally poetic language. Since the mid twentieth century, there has been increasing interest in the conceptual aspect, with cognitive linguistics also foregrounding the fact that metaphor, far from being a matter just for poetic geniuses, is part of ordinary discourse.

The research project conducted in the context of Creative Multilingualism is designed to investigate metaphor as a phenomenon that is both cognitive and linguistic, and to engage with the movement between cognition and language that is involved in the production and reception of metaphor. Processes are harder to define than things, and a key challenge is that giving ‘cognition’ and ‘language’ separate names presupposes a division within the continuum that is at stake.

The concept of metaphor at the centre of this research project builds on an approach to the phenomenon that George Lakoff and Mark Johnson articulated in 1980 as follows, in a book programmatically entitled Metaphors We Live By:

            Metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. [...] 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. (G. Lakoff and M. Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, Chicago, 22003, p. 3)

Lakoff and Johnson later refined their concept of metaphor and took it in a rather different direction in Philosophy in the Flesh (New York, 1999). The linguistic aspect there moves into the background, as does action. Our approach is programmatically holistic, and crucially concerned with metaphor as a phenomenon that involves linguistic diversity and action in diverse cultural contexts.

Rather than defining what precisely metaphor is, the research is more concerned with the question of what it does, and how it does what it does. The key area of investigation is the interface between thought and language, their interplay, interaction and convergence.

A matter of discipline

Since ancient times, the interface between, and relative status of, thought and language have been a hotly contested issue, with philosophy and rhetoric being the key disciplines involved in the debate. While the philosophers – especially in the Platonic tradition – argued for the primacy of thought and ideally its independence from language and also the body, the rhetoricians have presupposed a connection between thought and language but focused especially on language in its stylistic manifestations, and its impact in the public sphere not least through bodily performance.

The conflict between philosophy and rhetoric marks out a crucial area for investigating metaphor, with poetics and literature having an important role to play that was already defined in classical times. For it is significant that Plato wanted poets to be expelled from the philosophy-led Republic, and Homer to be ousted from his position as the exemplar inspiring Greek education. Literature runs counter to the divisions Platonic philosophy promotes. It is by, about, and for human beings, and it presupposes a holistic concept of human life in which the emotions and the imagination are as important as ideas, and bodies are inseparable from minds. Metaphor flourishes in literature, not just because it is stylistically special, but because it there draws freely and often exuberantly on ideas and cultural contexts for its effect.

Once literature is brought into play, linguistic diversity moves centre stage, drawing in those disciplines that are language-led and language-specific: Philology in its different language-specific variants such as Classics, English, Modern and Oriental Languages and Literatures. In the twentieth century, other disciplines have joined the metaphoric fray. While Philosophy developed an interest through philosophy of language, Linguistics as the scientifically oriented discipline devoted to the study of language became involved especially through Cognitive Linguistics. Psychology opened up new areas of investigation, as did Neuroscience, with research on the brain giving insights for example into the impaired processing of metaphor by people who have impaired centres in the brain or severed hemispheres. Lakoff and Johnson’s summary of their early finding cited above indicates that the investigation of metaphor can be taken in different directions and focused on different aspects of the phenomenon, which means that it is highly beneficial to approach it from a wide range of disciplinary perspectives and with a wide range of methodologies.

To what extent is metaphor culturally widespread?

Cognitive linguistics has tended to privilege the conceptual system that underlies metaphorical expressions, and this has often entailed a lack of attention to the differences between languages. The project pursued here will draw on the entire team of researchers involved in investigating Creative Multilingualism in order to benefit from their linguistic expertise and generate a deeper understanding not only of how metaphor works in languages beyond English, but the extent to which it is culturally widespread or even universal, and what precisely might be universal about it.

The project is entitled ‘Embodying Ideas’, and the body will play an important part in researching the workings of metaphor and their implications for our ability to think abstractly, and imagine worlds that go beyond our physical experience. Here the research will build on Mark Johnson’s seminal study The Body in the Mind. The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason (Chicago, 1987). It is important not least because it brings to bear an approach by a philosopher who rejects the mind – body dichotomy on which the Platonic tradition is predicated and which rhetoric rejects, as Cicero makes clear when he criticises those ‘who separate words from thoughts as one might sever body from mind’ (Cicero, De oratore, III.vi.24).

The importance of the body as part of a holistic concept of the human being for the project lies not only in the prevalence and efficacy of images that are derived from body parts and bodily functions, but also in the fact that language involves parts of the body and bodily processes, with the body being a human universal. It can therefore serve as a useful point of reference as we investigate metaphors across different languages and cultures.



Is language really like toothpaste?

The challenges facing research on metaphor are manifold. At the very centre lies the fact that we cannot talk about metaphor without having recourse to metaphor, or the related phenomena of simile, metonymy and analogy, just as we cannot conceptualise either thought or language without involving thought and language – and metaphor.

Nevertheless – or perhaps because of this – basic words that refer to cognitive, linguistic or metaphorical processes can tell us something about how we conceptualise those processes. Words matter, and notwithstanding their arbitrariness in some respects, pursuing their metaphorical implications can give us glimpses of coherent conceptual systems.

One example must suffice here – the English expression ‘to express an idea’. What does it imply if we take it literally?

  • The word ‘to express’ is a verb, i.e. it refers to a process rather than an object. It is etymologically, semantically and phonologically related to the noun ‘expression’, which stands in a meaningful relation to it: the process of ‘expressing’ uses and/or produces an ‘expression’.
  • The verb presupposes that the idea has a prior existence inside a container (the body), and the linguistic process gives the idea an existence outside that container (in an open, potentially communal space beyond the body).
  • The process of moving the idea from the inside to the outside of the body is analogous to expressing a substance, rather like toothpaste from a tube – with the implication that our body is that tube. Imagining language in this way is compatible with our experience of a bodily function such as excretion, with the mouth being the orifice that is equivalent to the opening of the tube. While we primarily use our mouth to take substances into the body, we are also familiar with using the mouth to expel or ‘express’ substances such as pureed food.
  • Conceptualising the idea as gaining an independent spatial shape once it has been expressed implies that this makes it independent of the originator or source, accessible to other people, and capable of being shared and processed further. This is compatible with our conception of what can be done with an ‘expression’ – it can be picked up as a linguistic item by others, listed in a dictionary etc., and it can be taken in by others and integrated in their internal thoughts.
  • The concept and word ‘express’ used in this way raises questions about the nature of the ‘idea’ that is being given linguistic shape: Where within the bodily frame does it originate – in the head, brain, mind? Can it be conceived of as having an existence that precedes, and is independent of, the linguistic process necessary for its expression? If so, may that idea in some way share in a truth that lies beyond, perhaps above the individual mind?

Asking such literal-minded questions about language-specific words that concern universal processes may help to identify the role of metaphor in different languages, and how languages relate to each other in terms of the role metaphor plays in them.

Flowing river

Or is it perhaps a flowing river?

The fact that metaphors are not in fact literal opens up tremendous possibilities for creative variation both in the conceptualisation of what we want to talk about and in its linguistic framing. Language and speech can be compared to many things and many processes, each of which invites us to think of them in subtly different ways. We can resist that invitation, or go with the flow, here once again following Cicero as he defines eloquence with a metaphor that gains meaningful vividness from the very language in which he builds up to it:

            Eloquence is one, into whatever shores or realms of discourse it ranges. Whether its subject is the nature of the heavens or of the earth, the power of gods or men, whether it speaks from the well of the court or the floor of the house or from the bench or rostrum, whether its object is to move men to action or to instruct them or to deter them, to excite them or to curb them, to fire them or to calm them down, whether it be delivered to few or to many, among strangers or among friends or by oneself, the flow of language though running in different channels does not spring from different sources, and wherever it goes, the same supply of matter and equipment of style go with it. (Cicero, De oratore, III.vi.22f.)

Toothpaste image source: By Scott Ehardt (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Katrin Kohl is Professor of German Literature at the University of Oxford. She is Principal Investigator on the Creative Multilingualism research programme and leads the first strand: The Creative power of metaphor.

Where next?

Watch short documentaries about: Metaphor and Linguistic DiversityMetaphor and EmotionMetaphor and Communication, and Metaphor and Creativity.

The Creative Power of Metaphor conference: multimedia output (including films of keynote speakers and roundtables, plus short interviews with poster presenters).