Metaphors are literally in the mind

This is going back to this beautiful book that I read over the summer, by John Brockman who curates Smart People’s (Professors, Doctors, Candle Stick Makers) answers to extremely fascinating questions. I want to talk about this book, 2012 : WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?  and specifically throw my two cents in on top of  Benjamin K. Bergen entry.

His entry explains that beyond poetry, art or music, most of what we do and say is metaphorical. In our basic conversations, in all languages metaphors exist in how speak. There are things we say without thinking, for example morality is cleanliness: “That was a dirty trick.” And understanding is seeing: “New finding illuminates the structure of the universe.”

He points out that Aristotle and your English Teachers have told you to construct a proper metaphors you compare two things that are similar to each other in an overarching way.  So “Juliet is the sun” works because they are both radiant.

But Bergen points out the work George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in the book, Metaphors We Live By, and says all of that is bogus. Metaphoric language isn’t random and based on similarity at all, it is much more deep, elegant and yet simple.

I’m going to outline his logic for you:

What metaphors are: abstract things that you describe in terms of concrete things. ie Morality is more abstract than cleanliness. He’s clean= he has no criminal record. BUT, You cannot reverse this. Concrete things can’t be the explanation for abstractions. Metaphors don’t work like this: He’s moral= doesn’t mean he’s bathed. In semiotics, the red dress stands for sexual liberation, but sexual liberation can never stand for the red dress.

Not being able to reverse the logic suggests that there is some spooky stuff going on in here…
Metaphorical expressions stay consist regardless of the words you use. Check out this example of seeing (concrete thing) for understanding (the abstract thing): I see what you mean,” and “Let’s shed some light on the issue,” and “Put his idea under a microscope and see if it actually makes sense.” These are all different metaphors that work- ad none of the words are the same. Because there is a MAP that exists, that we DID NOT create ourselves. We’re using different language to reiterate the same psychological road map that seeing and understanding are related.
There is nothing inherently similar between “to see” and “to see understand” yet our minds think metaphorically, and these two abstractions are linked, so we can build metaphors surrounding these two ideas regardless of the language we use to describe them in. Let me go back to the Juliet example,  we can see how Juliet is the sun- where they are both “radiant”- but most metaphors are a lot more hugely complex than these similar undertones of two things. Instead, they are rooted in having two separate parts, one concrete and one abstract, that exist as road-maps in our minds, despite not having anything similar about them inherently, at all.  Metaphors become access points to describe a large idea with something tangible- and those two things are linked but not because they are similar, but because they are unconsciously and intrinsically associated in our minds with one another.
While the Juliet is the “sun” metaphor works- it isn’t as complex as these metaphors we actually use all the time. The sun metaphor is a really surface phenomena- because our brains think way beyond that. Lakoff and Johnson argue that our ability to understand the world is metaphorical where Bergen says, “You don’t just talk about understanding as seeing; you think about understanding as seeing. You don’t just talk about morality as cleanliness; you think about morality as cleanliness.”

So here are my two cents on the whole thing…


Metaphors uncover how we think.  It’s not just one thing standing for something more complicated. It is that in discovering that something can stand for something else we discover how we think, and develop a road map of the way we think. We all think metaphorically- and it is because we systematically map certain concepts onto others in your minds that we talk metaphorically. So this ability to point out these ideas as one standing for another, is just a really complicated way of showcasing the way our brains are already mapped out. So nobody actually writes metaphors, instead we discover them.

So metaphors work because they tap into a structured mapping between the two conceptual domains in people’s minds. So metaphors are way more than a linguistic device based on similarity- they are the ability to create paths which we literally UNDERSTAND/(see- (pun intended)) the world in. 

This is where I think poetry is insurmountably important, by creating new metaphors and that work, we are uncovering how life is thought of in our collective consciousness. I think that is pretty amazing. Poets literally become people that are writing out the puzzles to how humanity functions. It is a process of decoding and revealing these maps that for one reason or another already exist in everybody’s minds. It is a beautiful process of explaining, the otherwise unexplainable and gesturing to a code of humanity with your words. Creating metaphors that work, is one step closer to identifying how we process and understand the world. Poets are literal explorers of the mind, discovering and writing the map for us all.

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