What is Metaphor?


                    Substitution, Comparison, Interaction, Conceptual



      Otherwise Inexplicable Meaning



               Collaboration in Creating Meaning


                   Systems Version


                        Inference Structure

                           Conventional Metaphor

                                Novel Metaphor

                                    Conventional and Primary Conceptual Metaphor

                                        Not an Algorithm

                                            Unconscious Operation



Metaphor is where one concept, situation or domain is used to describe or understand something else.  The metaphor is something about which you or your listener already knows more, while less is known about the “something else” to which the metaphor is applied.  The effect of the metaphor is to transfer the understanding from the better-known “source” to the lesser-known “target”.  Another way to say this is that the “source” becomes a mental model used to understand the “target.”

                   Metaphor As Substitution, Comparison, Interaction, Conception
[Note:  This box (like the entire website, but more so) is a work in progress, modified and added to continuously.  Authors drawn on are not yet properly cited and include Eubanks, 2000; Cameron, 2003; Beer and De Landtsheer, 2004; Charteris-Black, 2004.]

Since Aristotle the canonical definition of metaphor seems to be the substitution of the name of one thing when talking about another.  “John is a man” is not a metaphor but “John is a hog” is, because a name from the animal or barnyard domain is substituted and this simple linkage of “John” with “hog” makes it metaphoric.  Metaphor also has been defined as a comparison, wherein “John is a hog” is implicitly understood as “John is like a hog,” thus making any metaphor into a simile – a statement of similarity.  If metaphors are only substitutions or implicit comparisons, a kind of mental decoding process would be required to understand them, a literal equivalent is always assumed possible, and metaphor is simply a non-essential decoration adding no essential meaning of its own.  This gives primacy to literal understanding and expression as always more accurate and direct.  Such may be the case for some active, strong or original metaphors, but not necessarily for more conventional and pervasive ones.

To understand “John rooted through the kitchen” doesn’t require the listener to substitute a large pig for man and doesn’t necessarily invite a comparison between how a pig would act in the kitchen versus a man.  Nor is understanding aided by a literal rendition which, if attempted, is likely to be a lengthy sentence that is neither comprehensive nor direct (such as, “John put his nose into every kitchen cabinet, moving things around until he found something edible, rapidly eating every morsel, and making a mess”). 

This illustrates how a metaphor can create understanding that is not reducible to any literal version and it seems to require a mental construction more so than a decoding.  We imagine John’s behavior in the kitchen not simply in terms of similarities to a pig feeding on tubers in a field, but through a more complex process of interaction of the systems of ideas of “John in the kitchen” and “pig in the field,” including selecting elements and mapping them from the latter to the former while retaining their internal organization.  Such interaction puts together the features of the latter relevant to the former so as to include matters of searching, eating, and cleanliness while omitting pointed ears and a curly tail. 

Far from being the conscious introduction of anomalous words, metaphors are mental as much or more than they are linguistic.  Now we see that the metaphoric transfer is an unconscious conceptual process and that many – perhaps a majority – of concepts are structured in terms of metaphorical mappings.  Instead of the metaphor existing in the language, the metaphor can be said to exist in thought, and language is a form of evidence for the conceptual metaphor.  Uttering “John is a hog” would then indicate a pattern of thinking, the existence of which would tend to be confirmed by “He’ll eat whatever slop is thrown to him” or disconfirmed by “He’s a wizard at combining what he finds” that alternatively indicates John is seen metaphorically as a magician.  On this account a strong metaphor might be so fundamental to thinking that its mappings form parts of the reality that a person understands to be true, directing attention in certain ways and prompting avenues of thought, automatic assumptions or limitations, thus in turn controlling behavior.  Making a metaphor conscious, eliciting its entailments, or changing it could correspondingly alter aspects of reality and consequent behavior.

Conceptual metaphors shared by a community of speakers, due to common language and cultural experience, can be called primary conceptual metaphors.  Bodily experience in the terrestrial environment is shared across human groups and could account for pan-cultural metaphors.  Conceptual metaphors may be a special case of stable structures stored in memory with primary conceptual metaphors being the most general and established ones.  In general such structures can be more ephemeral, arising from idiosyncratic experience, for which the theory of conceptual blending (Fauconnier, et. al) is relevant.

Ortony (1975/2001) mentions three characteristics of metaphor that make it especially useful:  (1) Compactness – something unknown to the listener that otherwise would require a lengthy digression to describe or explain can be more economically expressed in terms of something known, transferring larger chunks of understanding in fewer words.  (2) Vividness – because the Source Domain comes as a whole from direct sensory experience, it can be more colorful, vibrant and dramatic, capturing one’s attention more so than a concept or abstraction built up from recombined discrete events.  (3) Ability to convey otherwise inexplicable or unnamable qualities – since the “real” or literal qualities or inner workings of a subject may not be knowable to the speaker or listener (due to mutual lack of experience or the lack of relevant words in their language), metaphor provides description and explanation that would be otherwise unattainable.

Ferrara (1994) concurs regarding the compactness of communication that metaphor facilitates and offers three more characteristics:  Obliqueness, or how the use of metaphor can displace attention to another domain; thus it aids in talking about difficult issues indirectly and less threateningly, since one thing is spoken of using the language and logic of something else.  The indeterminacy of metaphor that comes from talking of one thing in terms of another but never knowing exactly the extent to which, and precisely the manner in which, the parallelism holds; this may invite a search for ever more implications and make meanings more salient; or (as Koller, 2002, points out) take advantage of the power of beguiling, yet wooly, metaphors to transfer ideological inferences.  The meaning of any metaphor is the result of collaboration among those conversing by use of it (after Ragoff and Roschelle, Cameron, 2003, p 36,, talks about negotiation of meaning and metaphors); discussion may clarify why a person is in trouble rather than having trouble; the reader of a poem may have to re-read and compare lines, develop interpretations with others or consult with a critic before co-creating its meaning; someone intervening may have to ask questions of a client to understand claims of unfairness, and then explore alternative entailments of this equilibrium metaphor to invent a resolution.

Because metaphors are conceptual they do considerably more work than symbols, similes or chronicles.  Lakoff and Johnson (1999) argue that metaphors don't simply point to ideas, they are ideas about ideas.  Metaphors transfer properties from Y to X so that X is seen as if it were Y.  Metaphors map physically grounded experience to subjective domains. Thus they give physical attributes to non-physical matters by projecting from bodily experience to more abstract domains.  The elements, connections and logic of the Source Domain physical experience combine to form inference structure.  When this is projected to the Target Domain we are enabled not just to, for example, “see” what a person means, but see what is “close” in meaning and what is “obscured” by “larger” things or what “stands out.”  In this example our abstract, subjective conception of understanding (Target) comes to be fully endowed not only with positional, orientational and size attributes, but also the inferential logic of our visual (Source) experience, such as what is in front can block knowing what is behind, things close together are more likely to be similar or related, knowledge is focused or diffuse and can be changed by filters or lenses, and what you know depends on what point you view it from.

That metaphors are processed and understood using the same mental functions (and perhaps even the same neural configurations) as behavior means that metaphors are about cognition – how we think – not just about language.  The theory of conceptual metaphor explains the large subset of conventional metaphor that is widely held in terms of the almost universal physical experience we have from infancy, learning to use our bodies, move in space and handle objects.  Conceptual metaphors are learned early in life, blend together into complex cognitive structure, and may be scarcely noticed as they operate primarily outside of conscious awareness.  Conceptual metaphors become the “common sense” of much of our thinking.  For example, Source Domains of moving from one place to another metaphorically shape our conception of “making progress”; Source Domains of containers with walls, being inside or outside them, etc., form our conception of states of well being, such as “in” good health or a “borderline” personality disorder.

The same principals of metaphorical mapping also apply to creative or novel metaphors that express meanings in poetry or what a certain dispute may represent to a client in mediation.  For example, while one disputant may see a conflict as “an obstacle in getting on with life” another may see it as “a pressure that will blow everything up.”  (Also see a discussion of conventional and primary conceptual metaphors.)

Several specialists in metaphor have amplified the original work of Lakoff and Johnson (1980, 1999) and clarified in recent books how metaphor is a conceptual process, not just a linguistic style (Kövecses, 2002; Cameron, 2003; Charteris-Black, 2004).  It has more to do with how we think than how we may choose to speak, and this may help explain why it is used effortlessly by all of us in ordinary situations, not just through the exertions of experts in artistic or rhetorical circumstances.  Cameron traces how metaphor first was considered ornamental language little related to thought, then as so fundamental to thought that it controls our minds and behavior, and finally as jointly constructed, moment by moment, during thinking and talking.  Since our interest here centers on how metaphor relates to conflict and how it may be involved in the changes that develop and resolve conflict, we want to know how metaphor participates in real-time learning and the progress of shared understanding.  

Metaphor is first of all a means of focusing attention on a topic, concern or problem, as we know from understanding its ornamental function and vividness; this occurs at the "activation" of a mental space, as is talked about in conceptual blending theory (Falconnier and Sweetser, 19  ).  By introducing something unexpected yet related, conventional as well as novel metaphors attract, concentrate, prompt, and structure -- to a greater or lessor extent -- both the speaker's and hearer's receptivity.  To that degree two or more people might be said to "share" a perspective, even though it was constructed individually by each of them, because each construction is based on the source domain of the metaphor; they are united in that degree of intersubjectivity, even though certainly the meaning is not necessarily the same and no claim can be made that their thinking is identical.  In a manner of speaking, a metaphor can make it possible for two or more people each to be looking at their individually constructed representations of a topic, concern or problem.  Then, what must be done is to explore these constructions. [systems; dialogic; tool_of_thought)

Already we can see the tight interplay of both intra- and intersubjective talking and thinking.  When two or more people are in dialog, alternately speaking and listening, we may assume that each chooses words understandable to the other that will prompt for subjective meaning and inform the other about their similarities and differences.  So what people do in dialog is to construct communications that not only correspond to their own thoughts, but also to what they think the other is thinking, and how what they say will be perceived by the other.  With this back-and-forth process, what one says is influenced by one's own initial thoughts plus imperfect understandings of the other's thoughts and perceptions.  During this ongoing interplay -- from word to thought, thought to word -- one's own thoughts and the shifting understandings of the other are likely to be in flux or even unstable, adding even more variability to both intra- and intersubjective differences.  Such a lack of correspondence seems to threaten unending incompatibility and conflict arising from these perceived differences.  Now consider the proposition that when one notes differences between one's thinking and one's language, and between oneself and others, such distinctions are an important means of making order out of chaos.  Accepting this we can choose to focus on these differences, sometimes called alterity (other-ness), and attempt to work with and manage them.

Within the back and forth process of thinking and talking in dialog, how might one gauge the qualities and degrees of alterity or manage the gaps in understanding?  How does one choose words that represent differences without being too discrepant, that incrementally bridge gaps without undue risk of misunderstanding?  Metaphor seems ideal for this because the metaphoric source domain can be substantially different, yet with obvious similarities.  (Perhaps metaphor is a unique solution to managing perceived differences between partially unknown, fluctuating structures.)

Taking a dynamical systems approach, thinking and talking are partially integrated systems of concepts, changes in which are mediated over time mutually within oneself and through interaction with others.  One person's system of concepts is never the same as another's, differences are shown during the mediation of one by the other, and to the extent that one or both make adjustments during dialog (or during the interplay of thinking and talking) new relations arise, links form, the sense of the words expands, and personal, psychological, and cultural significance is further constructed and developed.  Collaborative restructuring or co-adapting of conceptual systems can proceed incrementally as each person's adjustable understandings change.  Each system of concepts may have several qualities that influence another system, such as the presence of certain attributes or a pattern of relationships that might give coherence.  The differences between these ever-shifting approximations may increase or decrease, become more homogeneous or more polarized and, we assume, such outcomes will be a function of what concepts are introduced, when and how.

                    Notes on:
          Dynamical Systems Model of Metaphor At Work in Negotiation or Conflict

As with other fields of study, understanding commonplace metaphor in on-going dialog does not proceed satisfactorily using reductionist paradigms, identifying a few independent variables and trying to isolate their effects.  The overall development of thinking and talking in interaction with others seems to be more than the sum of its parts and is influenced over time by context, non-linear relationships, and dynamically interrelated systems of variables.  Outcomes are not amenable to simple notions of cause and effect but seem to come from multiplicities of interacting influences, and the same or similar outcomes can arise from diverse causes.  Such systems are said to be "self-organizing" and understanding them requires a more holistic approach.  Although their adaptations often cannot be predicted, sufficient understanding of their systems dynamics promises not only rich description but also guidance in influencing conditions that might organically lead to desired types of outcomes.

One scenario suggested by a systems approach is extrapolated from Cameron (2003, p. 37), where the state of one's cognitive resources system is defined as a location on a three- or more dimensional terrain, the topology of which describes relationships among the concepts, and the even or erratic trajectory of movement through which describes conceptual change or learning over time.  Concepts might be locations, paths to which are selected for a multiplicity of reasons.  Movement along paths and occupation of locations results in adaptations or change.  Conventional metaphors are likely to be found on everybody's conceptual terrain...  Each concept is itself a complex system, influenced internally by its own dynamics and externally by its location, contextual ecology, movement, etc.  Metaphor [source domains] are attractor regions (like valleys) in the landscape and can destabilize, then re-stabilize movement making it resistant to perturbation temporarily or permanently.  Alternate metaphors for the same topic might be represented as "limit cycle" attractor valleys into which the trajectory could pass, remain stable for a period (interim understandings), then leave and enter another, perhaps alternating back and forth or, because of the terrain, ecology, or internal changes, prevented from going back ("fixed point" attractor).  Exposed strata and microclimates in valleys might represent corresponding conceptual systems.  When "chaotic" attractors are precipitous or steep, variability of a trajectory increases in the vicinity, as the system organizes itself and hovers just short of entering the chaotic state, during which timeit is even more unstable (less predictable), but shows susceptibility or even readiness to make distinct (restructuring) change (alterity may be of optimal size and distinct). 

Somehow there is a linkage or correspondence between the terrain of the conceptual system of talking with that of thinking, such that each can motivate and restrain the other; likewise between systems of different people in dialog; and somehow perceptions operate.  The conceptual system of another person is a similar, parallel terrain.  Or, would there be one terrain and different agents (operating by at least slightly different rules) on that single terrain?  We need a systems representation of pattern-projection from system to system... some kind of mutual terrain-bending, or agent rule-transforming...

[What is the simple agent automaton that, released on this terrain, would be induced to move on various trajectories?  Might there be several such agents, each representing a mood, point of view, different voice, or different person?]

Cameron asserts that empirical investigation must identify "collective" variables that are directly measurable dependent variables of interest, such as cognitive change, or optimum trajectory.  Alterity could be such a collective variable and could describe (learning) the trajectory of talking-thinking-in-interaction as the cognitive and linguistic systems move across the state space from attractor to attractor.  The study of complex systems has revealed certain regularities that seem to emerge from the essential intricacy; metaphor may turn out to be such an emergent simplicity.

Understanding may momentarily outpace one's ability to speak about it, in which case one seeks to use expanded linguistic resources or to constrain understanding to fit available language.  At other moments one's language may move ahead of comprehension, in which case one's concepts may co-adapt accordingly.  The overall process could be considered to result from two countervailing tendencies -- (1) the tendency to unify through expanding the sense that words or concepts have, thereby interconnecting and harmonizing them and producing more comprehensive understanding, and (2) the tendency to create order by differentiating and retaining relative position.  Metaphor can be considered an important means of mediating these tendencies because metaphor organizes correspondences or links between existing concepts, offers a framework for restructuring, and a lexicon to use in talking about it. 

All of this places metaphor as central to the study of the relation between the language and thought of two or more people in communications over time, engaging, reflecting, constraining and enhancing.  Language is a tool of thought and metaphor is a method or manner of using the tool of language.  Cameron proposes that metaphor is a combined linguistic, conceptual, and affective attractor in the thinking and talking system trajectory (p. 47).  This corresponds with Charteris-Black view of metaphor as operating at semantic, cognitive, and pragmatic levels.  The focus of a metaphor is incongruent within its semantic frame, producing tension; the metaphoric idea does not fit the existing cognitive structure and the resulting cognitive tension resolves by shifting that structure; rhetorically the metaphor induces characteristic evaluations or emotions that persuade.  "Understanding" the metaphor (unconsciously or consciously) reconciles tensions at all levels, but leaves conceptualizations and evaluations in a different state - thereby affecting learning, attitudes and beliefs.

A word about metaphor and determinism:  Can the use of a specific metaphor cause particular effects?  Once they get the idea that metaphor is powerful and systematic, many people find themselves thinking that the presence of a metaphor in what one says somehow determines what will be thought or what behavior will occur.  This might be in the same sense that once a rule of syntax has been learned it will be used, or once you hear a certain tune you will sing it.  Certainly the use of metaphor can have consequences but, as linguists point out (Lakoff, 1993; Lakoff and Johnson, 1999), a theory of metaphor is not a production model – it does not tell you that given X information in the presence of Y metaphor you therefore will get Z thoughts.  It is not an algorithm that processes certain symbol input and gives predictable output.  Instead it is an explanatory model.  Any specific metaphor can have a spectrum of possible results depending also on the context in which it occurs.  It can offer possibilities for both conscious and unconscious interpretation of meaning according to certain very specific structural relationships.  That these interpretations are actually made is evidenced by the way we use language, patterns of inference we can verify, novel uses that can be created and that make intuitive sense, and by experimental findings.

Here are some examples of different forms of metaphor:

Metaphor Example

Identify Source and Target Domains

Partial-Phrase Metaphors: Colorful Images.  A metaphor can be simple such as “He is really a teddy bear” or “She swam through the crowd.”  Placing a well-chosen figurative form as the subject or predicate of a phrase does this.  Traits, states or qualities of a person, thing or action are thus attributed.

In the first example “He” is the target, and is conceptualized metaphorically in terms of the source “teddy bear”.

In the second example “She” is the target and her movement is conceptualized metaphorically in terms of the source “swam”.

Whole-Phrase Metaphors: Thematic Phrases.  More interesting are phrases or descriptions such as “He pursued his career by responding to each new event with an opinion or a proposal that gave him the edge.”  The entire phrase forms the metaphor (not just the subject or predicate).  Although this example lacks colorful images, a quasi-military or sporting theme emerges which transfers understanding of how this person operates.

The target is “his career”, which is conceptualized metaphorically in terms of the source, which is something “pursued”, involves “opinion or proposal” (implying action, assurance, etc.), and possessing “the edge” (leading, out in front, sharp).

Whole-Phrase Metaphors: Analogisms.  “Regarding the national debt, I believe we should fix the roof while the sun is shining.”  This is another example of whole-phrase metaphor.  In this example an analogy containing its own logic becomes available as the source and, if it fits the target alluded to, understanding is transferred including what behavior is recommended, the timing and some possible causal relations.  It also includes colorful images that capture the listener’s attention and convey qualities.

The target is “the national debt”.  This is conceptualized metaphorically in terms of the source – a “roof” in need of repair.

Extended Metaphors: Narratives and Allegories.  For a patient torn between her “wild side” and a strong sense of responsibility, a therapist put together a story of two sisters, one very adventure-some and the other a homebody who enjoyed cooking and taking care of her family.  This narrative told about the sisters’ growing up and encountering various characters and situations that helped them harmonize their lives together.  Such stories, allegories or fables can be multi-faceted, cover the unfolding of events over time, cycles of events, external interventions, and the subtle interplay of forces that permit choices and diverse outcomes.  When skillfully constructed to suit the presenting problem, they can lead to multiple shifts in thought and behavior.

The target is the patient who has an internal conflict.  The target is conceptualized metaphorically in terms of the source that is the life of two sisters.  Within this metaphor are additional metaphors.

Primary Conceptual Metaphors Based on Sensory Motor Experience.  The structure of these intriguing metaphors is almost hidden in their very naturalness, such as “She went into the subject at great depth, revealing a solid understanding.”  This example sounds literal and uses everyday language making this kind of metaphor easy to overlook.  But it may be all the more powerful by transferring such structure as the following:  Subjects are spaces which have surfaces and depths, discussion travels within such spaces and brings what is inside out into the open, and understanding in this case is a well-built, physical construction.

The target is “the subject”.  The source from which the target is conceptualized metaphorically is bodily experience where “she went into” something to a “great depth”, “revealing” (something unseen) to be “solid” and standing under (physically supporting).

It is the kind of metaphor shown in this last example – the primary conceptual metaphor – that I believe is the most fundamental and easiest to access, although it may be unfamiliar to many people.  It is unfamiliar because it usually operates outside of conscious awareness.  Also it is unfamiliar because we have come to think of metaphor as a kind of secret language used by the skilled practitioner – figurative word play that may require special know-how to understand.  

I believe conceptual metaphor is actually much more fundamental.  Perhaps it operates outside of conscious awareness most of the time not because it is esoteric, but because it is actually our inner mental metabolism.   If this is true, it can certainly be a misunderstood source of conflict.

More Explanation of Metaphor;
"Conventional" Metaphor & Primary Conceptual Metaphor