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Conceptual metaphor: In cognitive linguistics, metaphor is defined as understanding one conceptual domain in terms of another conceptual domain; for example, using one person's life experience to understand a different person's experience. A conceptual domain can be any coherent organization of experience.

This idea, and a detailed examination of the underlying processes, was first extensively explored by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By. Other cognitive scientists study subjects similar to conceptual metaphor under the labels "analogy" and "conceptual blending."


There are two main roles for the conceptual domains posited in conceptual metaphors:

  • Source domain: the conceptual domain from which we draw metaphorical expressions.
  • Target domain: the conceptual domain that we try to understand.

A mapping is the systematic set of correspondences that exist between constituent elements of the source and the target domain. Many elements of target concepts come from source domains and are not preexisting. To know a conceptual metaphor is to know the set of mappings that applies to a given source-target pairing. The same idea of mapping between source and target is used to describe analogical reasoning and inferences.

A primary tenet of this theory is that metaphors are matter of thought and not merely of language: hence, the term conceptual metaphor. The metaphor may seem to consist of words or other linguistic expressions that come from the terminology of the more concrete conceptual domain, but conceptual metaphors underlie a system of related metaphorical expressions that appear the linguistic surface. Similarly, the mappings of a conceptual metaphor are themselves motivated by image schemas which are pre-linguistic schemas concerning space, time, moving, controlling, and other core elements of embodied human experience.

Conceptual metaphors typically employ a more abstract concept as target and a more concrete or physical concept as their source. For instance, metaphors such as 'the days [the more abstract or target concept] ahead' or 'giving my time' rely on more concrete concepts, thus expressing time as a path into physical space, or as a substance that can be handled and offered as a gift. Different conceptual metaphors tend to be invoked when the speaker is trying to make a case for a certain point of view or course of action. For instance, one might associate "the days ahead" with leadership, whereas the phrase "giving my time" carries stronger connotations of bargaining. Selection of such metaphors tends to be directed by a subconscious or implicit purpose, in the mind of the person employing them.

The principle of unidirectionality states that the metaphorical process typically goes from the more concrete to the more abstract, and not the other way around. Accordingly, abstract concepts are understood in terms of prototype concrete processes. The term "concrete," in this theory, has been further specified by Lakoff and Johnson as more closely related to the developmental, physical neural, and interactive body (see embodied philosophy). One manifestation of this view is found in the cognitive science of mathematics, where it is proposed that mathematics itself, the most widely accepted means of abstraction in the human community, is largely metaphorically constructed, and thereby reflects a cognitive bias unique to humans that uses embodied prototypical processes (e.g. counting, moving along a path) that are understood by all human beings through their experiences.

Language and culture as mappings

In their 1980 work, Lakoff and Johnson closely examined a collection of basic conceptual metaphors, including:


The latter half of each of these phrases invokes certain assumptions about concrete experience and requires the reader or listener to apply them to the preceding abstract concepts of love or organizing in order to understand the sentence in which the conceptual metaphor is used.

There are numerous ways in which this process of assuming and applying metaphors has been said to manipulate human perception and communication, especially in mass media and in public policy.


While neither a cognitive linguist nor a conceptual metaphor theorist per se, another prominent linguist, Noam Chomsky, proposed, along with Edward S. Herman, a propaganda model consisting of media filters which prevent news or opinions that violate the basic conceptual metaphors of the listeners from being heard in the public arena at all, meaning that the media has a tendency to screen their content in order to restrict the metaphors employed, deliberately controlling the ways in which their audiences understand content. In Chomsky's view, the basic human capacity to acquire language and believe metaphor is abused by restricting, in the mass media, the range and type of metaphors to which the citizen is exposed. Specifically, mappings that emphasize the security of property or the fear of conflict with authority would tend to be highlighted in a mass media controlled by private corporate interests, while mappings that tended to emphasize the risk of conflict over resources or fairness would tend to be de-emphasized or censored altogether.

Family roles and ethics

A less extreme, but similar, claim is made by George Lakoff in his book Moral Politics and his later book on framing Don't think of an Elephant. Lakoff claims that the public political arena in America reflects a basic conceptual metaphor of 'the family.' Accordingly, people understand political leaders in terms of 'strict father' and 'nuturant parent' roles. Two basic views of political economy arise from this desire to see the nation-state act 'more like a father' or 'more like a mother'.

The urban theorist and ethicist Jane Jacobs made this distinction in less gender-driven terms by differentiating between a 'Guardian Ethic' and a 'Trader Ethic'. She states that guarding and trading are two concrete activities that human beings must learn to apply metaphorically to all choices in later life. In a society where guarding children is the primary female duty and trading in a market economy is the primary male duty, Lakoff posits that children assign the 'guardian' and 'trader' roles to their mothers and fathers, respectively.

Both of these theories suggest that there may be a great deal of social conditioning and pressure to form specific cognitive bias. Anthropologists observe that all societies tend to have roles assigned by age and gender, which supports this view.

Linguistics and politics

Lakoff, Chomsky, and Jacobs all devote a significant amount of time to current events and political theory, suggesting that respected linguists or theorists of conceptual metaphor may tend to channel their theories into political activism. Indeed, if conceptual metaphors are as basic as all of them seem to think, they may literally have no choice in doing so.

Critics of this ethics-driven approach to language tend to accept that idioms reflect underlying conceptual metaphors, but that actual grammar, and the more basic cross-cultural concepts of scientific method and mathematical practice tend to minimize the impact of metaphors. Such critics tend to see Lakoff and Chomsky and Jacobs as 'left-wing figures', and would not accept their politics as any kind of crusade against an ontology embedded in language and culture, but rather, as an idiosyncratic pastime, not part of the science of linguistics nor of much use.

Partly in response to such criticisms, Lakoff and Raphael Nunez, in 2000, proposed a cognitive science of mathematics that would explain mathematics as a consequence of, not an alternative to, the human reliance on conceptual metaphor to understand abstraction in terms of basic experiential concretes.

See also


  • Lakoff, George & Johnson, Mark (1980) Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Lakoff, George (1995) Moral Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (2nd ed. 2001)
  • Chomsky, Noam & Herman, Edward, S. (1988) Manufacturing Consent (2nd ed. 2002)
  • Chomsky, Noam (1989) Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies.

External links

  • The Conceptual Metaphor Home Page This server is a research tool for cognitive scientists and others interested in the study of conceptual metaphor systems. Ongoing work in the metaphor system of English and other languages is made available here using a hypertext format which allows the reader to trace links between metaphors and thus get a better idea of the structure of the system.
  • Metaphor Examples lists examples of metaphor by experiential category, including spatial and sensory metaphors.

simple:Conceptual metaphor

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