The Nature of Conceptual Metaphor: Embodiment

Part 6: Metaphor and Interpretation – Intro, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Enlightment

(This post adapted from doctoral seminar I led discussing two books – Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson; The Way We Think, Fauconnier and Turner. There are no footnotes or references, but majority of the material is drawn from these works.)

Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT) questions the dominant Western Theory of Metaphor (WTM) at the most basic level – the nature of metaphor. Is metaphor a matter of words (its nature to describe one thing in relation to another) or is metaphor a matter of thoughts and actions (its nature to understand and experience one thing in the terms of another)?

To recap, WTM says a metaphor is a linguistic devise useful for explaining something abstract by referring to something more concrete. Thus, a metaphor is a matter of language and in reality just a rhetorical flourish. On the other hand, CMT assumes a metaphor is conceptual or cognitive. Thus, a metaphor is able to produce thoughts and transform actions not just describe them.

To oversimplify, we act based upon our conceptual system, according to the way we conceive of things. This conceptual system is constructed upon cognitive concepts (will leave the science for another post) that govern how we think by structuring how we understand and relate to situations. CMT proposes metaphors are the basic cognitive concepts upon which our conceptual system is built. CMT advances 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. This system of conceptual metaphors, grounded in physical and social experiences, 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. Lakoff and Johnson labelled this phenomenon embodied metaphor because they influence the way we think and act.

Consider these examples: (how they are reflected in our language)

Time is Money

  • You are wasting my time
  • How do you spend your time these days?
  • Time is running out.
  • You need to budget your time.
  • Is it worth your while?

Love is a Journey

  • Look how far we have come.
  • Our relationship has gotten off track.
  • We need to go our separate ways.
  • We are at a crossroads.

Love is War

  • He pursued her relentlessly.
  • He won her hand in marriage.
  • She fought for him.
  • She enlisted the aid of her friends.

WTM states these examples are descriptions only whose sole purpose is to clarify ambiguous meanings. Time is not really money, nor do we actually treat it like money, we only use the common concept of money to help us understand time. CMT, however, proposes metaphors work at a deeper level. To think of love as a journey or war means it structures the way we envision being in love and go about trying to find love.

Imagine two people meeting and forming a relationship. One comes with the idea love is a journey and the other love is war. Does this only matter for how they describe their relationship or will it actually inform the manner in which they engage their relationship? This is the fundamental difference between WTM and CMT, WTM says a metaphor describes and CMT says a metaphor acts.

The next two posts will dig deeper in CMT by examining how different metaphors blend and how to map a metaphor.

Metaphor and The Enlightenment

The modern theory of metaphor is colored with Aristotelian ideas but filtered through the Enlightenment lens. The first four installments of this series on metaphor (1, 2, 3, 4) focused on Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquianas. Today’s offers a brief view of three figures (Hobbes, Nietzsche, Kant) from the Enlightenment to provide a snapshot of Enlightenment’s view of metaphor. In effect, Hobbes and Nietzsche represent the opposite ends of the spectrum while Kant gives a moderate perspective.


Thomas Hobbes – ‘Scientific’ thinkers of the Enlightenment struggled to see any use for metaphor. As Hobbes states, “Metaphors, and senslesse and amibguous words, are like ignes fatui…and their end, contention and sedition, or contempt” (Leviathan 1.5.22). According to his “literal-truth paradigm” (Mark Johnson), metaphor only confuses rational argument because it cannot add any meaning to what is already fully explained literally. Thus, metaphors are not simply rhetorical flourishes as other supposed they are actually harmful. While Hobbes view comes to different conclusions, it is still built upon Aristotelian foundation. The biggest difference is he does not agree with Aristotle’s view of metaphors as fitting or as useful for explaining the abstract.


Friedrich Nietzsche – Nietzsche represents the opposite end of the Enlightenment’s view of metaphor. Nietzsche questioned the existence of ‘literal-truth’ leading him to reassess the use of metaphors. He recognized metaphors as a cognitive process (meaning building) where meaning is socially constructed (not based on literal association). Metaphor, according to Nietzsche, has a ubiquitous quality and must not be examined as if tied to an external structure of truth, especially not a divine being. The differences between Nietzsche and Hobbes are obvious.


Immanuel Kant – Kant is a bridge between the two extreme views of Hobbes (solely tied to literal truth) and Nietzsche (entirely socially constructed). Kant recognized metaphor as a crucial piece of the human capacity for creativity. As a figurative expression, metaphor could help express and generate conceptual work thus serving as critical means for human reasoning. Metaphor, therefore, served as a way to apply the pure moral law (literal) in actual situations (social). Kant saw both the limits of metaphor and the usefulness of metaphor.


This post ends the historical review of the western theory of metaphor. The next installment will begin to unpack the modern theory of conceptual metaphor.


“Classical” Western Theory of Metaphor: Thomas Aquinas

See Part 1, 2, and 3 of this series on metaphor and biblical interpretation…

Thomas’s understanding of metaphor and analogy is essence-driven and built upon Aristotelian categories and definition. While he acknowledges metaphor and analogy play a role within scriptural interpretation, even goes so far as to discuss them in the first section of the first book of his Summa, his own ontological and epistemological commitments relegate metaphor to a subordinate role in interpretation (much like being assigned to the kiddie table at a family gatherings).

For Thomas, there is a real and significant ontological gap between the human and divine. For God to be God, this essential qualitative difference had to be maintained. Interwoven with this ontological gap was his epistemological commitment to a tight relationship between things and words. Each word is assumed to signify an entity in the real world and these significations were quite fixed and precise.

Aquinas, therefore, struggled to understand how humans could use language to refer to God. That is how human beings, mere creatures, can claim to comprehend God, presume to speak about God, or to suggest that sacred writings can impart or carry divine truth with merely human words. Yet, in Aristotle’s understanding of metaphor, Thomas discerned a method.

Relying upon Aristotelian categories, Thomas constructed an elaborate system to explain metaphors, a system that evolved during his lifetime. By the time of his Summa, the system  included a three-fold definition of words and analogy. I only want to highlight one type of analogy here. The third type of analogy highlights a relationship in which one entity imitates the other or somehow ‘participates’ in it, but without confusing the distinctive essences of the two entities, an analogy of imitation or participation. While it has limitations, this category held much promise for interpreting scripture. For example, it allowed Thomas to grasp how both God and humanity could be described as good. Through analogy of imitation, both humanity and God could be truly called good, remember words have meaning tied to reality, but the quality of goodness was distinct based upon ontological differences. Human beings could imitate or even participate in the goodness of God, but never equal God.

One final thing to discuss before leaving Thomas, is his understanding of metaphors in scripture. While it seems he would have preferred that God left metaphors out of scripture, he recognizes that since they are present they must be useful. As Thomas interprets them in scripture, he operates basically within an Aristotelian model of metaphor – he discusses metaphors at the level of words, he recognizes that some kind of similarity exists between the words, and he believes it takes insight, effort (Aristotle’s genius) to interpret the meaning of their connection. Thomas, however, goes further than Aristotle to tie the meaning to the historical or literal sense. In what in many ways was a response to the tortured use of the Four-Fold Sense of Scripture, Thomas insists that the literal sense have primacy over all other senses. Thus, as stated above, Thomas saw metaphor as useful for interpretation, but only in a limited or subordinate role.

The next post in this series will make a quick run through Enlightenment views of metaphor. In two weeks, it will turn to the examine conceptual metaphor theory as introduced by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

“Classical” Western Theory of Metaphor: Augustine

See first two posts on subject:

Metaphors and Interpretation

“Classical” Western Theory of Metaphor: Aristotle 

To comb through the works of Augustine (this week) and Aquinas (next week) to find their understanding of metaphor would be an interesting work unto itself. Thus, the goal here is not to give a thorough examination of their ideas but to highlight key areas they influenced a Christian understanding of metaphor.

In the Middle Ages, several factors led to the examination of metaphor, for instance:

-the fact words can more than one meaning perplexed logicians

-language about God or the divine perplexed theologians

-the nature of reality, the connection between experience, reality and language, was a core problem of Medieval  metaphysics.

How these issues interrelated was a major part of the discussion on metaphors during this age and I am using Augustine and Aquinas as examples of the discussion. For me, they serve as bookends to glimpse the discussion at the beginning and end this period.

Augustine was deeply influenced by Neoplatonism. There is a separation between the transcendent realm of God and the finite (fallen) world of man, and according to Augustine it is the Word that bridges the gap. For Augustine, the Word is more than scripture it is also Christ, the Word become flesh, but for our purposes the focus is on scripture. Scripture, according to Augustine, is divinely inspired human writings; via inspiration human words are able to point to the eternal. The difficulty in understanding scripture results in part from the very nature of words as signs pointing beyond themselves and here metaphors play an important role.

Conversely, the continued influence of Aristotle’s understanding of metaphor is obvious in Augustine. He discusses metaphors at the level of words, he recognizes that some kind of similarity exists between the words, and he believes it takes insight, effort (Aristotle’s genius) to interpret the meaning of their connection. In fact, one of Augustine’s reasons for engaging metaphor is to help Christians unlock the hidden meanings found in scripture’s metaphors.

Yet, Augustine contributed many of his own thoughts on metaphors. He spends considerable effort examining how to distinguish between literal and figurative speech. Also, he understood metaphors as embellishments of points explained more plainly in other places (following the adage – scripture interprets scripture). But, perhaps his greatest  influence was his insistence of the ethical quality metaphor. He provided two rubrics through which Christians should interpret metaphors:

  1. Love, Mercy, and Justice – no legitimate interpretation can attribute wickedness to God or the saints. He writes, “To carefully turn over in our minds and meditate upon what we read till an interpretation be found that tends to establish the reign of love” (On Christian Doctrine, 3.15.23). He establishes, therefore, a key component of the use and interpretation of metaphor, to allow all interpretation to point to love.
  2. Universal Truth – Augustine believed humans because of their “lust” would tend to interpret passages in such a way that it justified their sinfulness. Metaphors, therefore, were not open containers that could be spilled out in any manner, but held truth that much be understood correctly. Again, the interpretation of metaphor is highly ethical.

This quick look at Augustine’s work on metaphor is severely lacking, but it can serve as a guide as to how the “Classical” Western Theory of Metaphor evolved into its current state. The influence of Aristotle is clear, but we begin to see how it became crucial for biblical interpretation. For Augustine, metaphors were a means to bridge the gap between human words and divine reality with their ability to serve as signs pointing beyond themselves.


“Classical” Western Theory of Metaphor: Aristotle

Is there a “classical” western theory of metaphor? This is an interesting question because until recently no one has attempted to present a formal theory of metaphor or of language. To suggest that such was the case would be anachronistic. Yet, if one reads most current works in my field, New Testament hermeneutics, it seems that they all rely on a similar, or a “classical” understanding of metaphor. This series of posts is going to follow the development of the “classical” theory of metaphor from Aristotle to the present day over the next few weeks.

While Plato is commonly regarded as the progenitor of Western philosophical tradition’s anti-metaphorical bent, Aristotle first gives sustained reflection to the nature of metaphor in human cognition. Two revealing statements from Poetics can help boil down his thoughts on metaphor:

Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else; the transference being either from genus to species, or from species to genus, or from species to species, or on grounds of analogy.

But 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 good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.

By looking at these two statements together we can cobble together a basic understanding of metaphor:

  1. Metaphor works at the level of individual words. The process of transfer might occur at different levels (species or genus), but metaphor is the transfer of names between two words (most often nouns).
  2. A quality of perceived similarity between the two objects enables the transfer. Metaphoric connections must draw from similarities actually present in the world. A good metaphor corresponds rightly to the thing be signified.
  3. And yet the objects cannot be obviously related or it lessens the impact of the metaphor. In this sense, metaphor is both the realm of the genius (one who can perceive the similarity) and a linguistic deviance.

To summarize, Aristotle’s view of metaphor focuses on single words that deviate from ordinary, literal language to evoke a change in meaning based on perceived similarities.

Compare this to a summary of the common view of metaphor held today by many: metaphor is a linguistic devise useful for explaining something abstract by referring to something more concrete.

It does not take a genius to perceive the similarities between these two definitions. Aristotle’s view of metaphor forms the foundation on which the “classical” view of metaphor is built.

Next week we will look at how the “classical” view developed further in the works of Augustine and Aquinas.