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.