Metaphors and Interpretation

This repost is the introduction of a conference paper I presented last year. It is a quick summary of the connection I see between conceptual metaphor theory and narrative interpretation. Much of what I post the next few Monday’s will unpack these ideas.

Since the works of Aristotle, the dominant Western theory of metaphors has been they are a linguistic devise useful for explaining something abstract by referring to something more concrete. Recent studies in the field of cognitive linguistics, however, have suggested that metaphors are mental operations capable of blending mental spaces to shape meaning. In other words, metaphors are not merely linguistic expressions but conceptual and thus capable of lending coherence and structure to thought.

These studies advance the case that an elaborate system of conceptual metaphors lies at the core of our human mind providing an underpinning for our imagining, knowing, acting, communicating, and creating.[1] This system of conceptual metaphors, grounded in physical and social experiences,[2] is a means by which we use our experiencing of one thing to not only explain something else, but to actually experience something else. In this way, metaphors shape our experiences and in so doing generate meaning through providing coherence and structure to our thought. A metaphorical structure of human thought suggests that metaphors are capable of providing new meaning to the past, to daily activity, and to what is hoped for in the future; metaphors have the ability to generate new realities.[3]

But a question remains, if metaphors are conceptual and capable of generating new realities how are they arranged or aligned so that they are useful? According to cognitive linguists, such as Mark Turner, story is the essential organizational principle of the mind. Much of our experience, our knowledge, and our thinking is organized in story because story is able to project one experience onto another in an effort to construct meaning.[4] At this point conceptual metaphor theory and literary hermeneutics merge, since story’s ability to project and thereby generate meaning is nourished by the system of conceptual metaphors from which it feeds. To borrow a phrase from Richard B. Hays, the system of conceptual metaphors is the substructure of story.[5] Story is the basic means of aligning the array of metaphors stored from past physical and social experiences to give significance to our present situations and experiences. In the terms of cognitive linguistics, story blends conceptual metaphors with our present situation resulting in the generation of new cognitive schemas that are able to give innovative meaning to past events and provide a new frame of reference for the present and future.[6]


[1] Fauconnier 1997.

[2] A conceptual metaphor’s grounding in physical and social experience is why some refer to this field as the “Embodied Mind.”

[3] Lakoff, Johnson 1980.

[4] Turner 1996.

[5] Hays 2002.

[6] Fauconnier, Turner 2002.

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