Cognitive Linguistics
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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. Cognitive scientists often study subjects similar to conceptual metaphor under the label of "analogy."


There are two main types of conceptual domains used 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.

Metaphorical linguistic expressions are words or other linguistic expressions that come from the language or terminology of the more concrete conceptual domain. Conceptual metaphors underlie the metaphorical expressions. They tend to be pre-linguistic and make basic assumptions regarding space, time, moving, controlling, and other core elements of 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. An extreme version of this view is expressed in the cognitive science of mathematics, where it is proposed that mathematics itself, the most widely accepted means of abstraction in the human community, reflects a cognitive bias unique to humans, and prototype 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.

Family roles and ethics[]

A claim is made by George Lakoff in 'Moral Politics'. 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 quite a bit 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.


  • Lakoff, George & Johnson, Mark (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Lakoff, George (2001). Moral Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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See also[]

  • Analogy
  • Conceptual blending
  • Metaphor
  • Ontology
  • Cognitive science of mathematics
  • Language acquisition
  • Embodied philosophy
  • Scale-free networks

External links[]