Why Mainstream Philosophy
Cannot Take Conceptual Metaphor Seriously

© Dr. Jan Garrett

Revised: March 30, 2007

In what follows I am especially indebted to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh (1999); hence LJ. This essay is offered here as a stimulus to discussion and does not represent a final product.

Origin of Philosophy's Opposition to Conceptual Metaphor

There is a (pre-philosophical, common sense) folk theory that goes like this (cf. LJ 119):

FT1: Reality consists of objects and living beings that have certain attributes and, at any given time, stand in specific relations to one another.

FT2: Language consists of words expressing ideas that literally fit reality.

FT3: The primary task of language is to state and communicate basic truths about reality.

Already a Metaphorical Theory

The above folk theory is already a metaphorical theory, however, because at least two of the claims of the theory involve metaphor.

FT1 assumes something like classical categories into which it is assumed objects and living beings have already been ("naturally") sorted before human beings distinguish them. Classical categories, as you recall, make use of the Category as Container metaphor. For that matter, natural sorting is a metaphorical concept grounded in physical sorting of items into containers based on similarities among the items.

FT2 uses the metaphorical concept of fit, whose source is something like the experience of fitting an item with one shape and size into another item with a shape and size receptive of the first (e.g., signet ring and wax, or key and lock). FT2 projects the source concept onto the relationship between reality and linguistic expressions.

Reinforced by Experience of Our Uses of Basic-Level Concepts

The view contained in the folk theory is strongly suggested by language using our basic-level and spatial-relations concepts, e.g., cat, resting, mat, and on.

The cat is resting.
The cat is on the mat.
These are as close to being literal as any of our statements are.

Aristotle's Refinement of the Folk Theory

Key and lock are simpler than wax tablet and signet ring, but the latter is more apt, as Aristotle realizes. It allows for the process of acquisition of a form. Aristotle explicitly uses this metaphor in connection with the reception of the perceptible form by a faculty of perception, e.g., by the eye characterized by the power of sight (De Anima 2.12.424a18-24), but the reception of the intelligible form by the intellect is consciously conceived as paralleling what happens in perception (De Anima 3.4.429a14-19). (Note: he does not say that he is using a metaphor.)

So, it is fairly clear Aristotle is using the following metaphors.

Wax without forms in it -> The Ignorant Mind

Wax receives an impression -> The Mind learns an Idea.

Wax's acquiring the shape of the thing without distorting it -> Mind's acquiring an idea corresponding to the structure in an external reality

Wax holding an impression that perfectly fits what made the impression -> Mind knowing the external world.

Not intended as a direct quote from LJ

Lakoff and Johnson tell us that Aristotle's theory is really a version of the following metaphorical theory of mind (LJ, Chapter 18, 376; they have explained this metaphorical theory already in Chapter 12):
The Mind is a Container (a wax tablet on which nothing is originally written)
The Ignorant Mind is an Empty Container.
Ideas Are Objects
Mind's Acquiring Ideas is an Empty Container's Acquiring Objects
Understanding is Grasping (Holding in place)

Not intended as a direct quote from LJ

Because understanding is grasping, not any type of container will do. A bucket into which you can put an object that will rattle around in it will not do. It has to be something like a wax tablet: a wax tablet that has been imprinted by a signet ring will hold the impression.

For Aristotle, the objects to be known are structures (intelligible forms) in physical things themselves. Acquiring knowledge is getting these structures into the mind. On this model, there can be no gap between the mind that knows and what it knows. There is no place for skepticism. But there is also only room for Aristotle's equivalent of literal concepts. There is no room for conceptual metaphor.

In other words, Western philosophy, beginning no later than Aristotle, refined the common folk theory into an "objectivist" theory that describes the relationships between language, thought, and reality.

(The Stoics appear to have tried to develop an account of correct perception that differs from Aristotle's by making correct perceptual judgment a part of perception. They too seem to be starting from the folk theory mentioned above, but they develop it in a different way from Aristotle. This topic should be explored on another occasion.)

Why the Folk Theory and the Aristotelian Theory
Seem to Fit Cats on Mats

The real reason the idea of cat and mat seem to fit reality is that the corresponding words are associated with image schemas that enable us easily to pick out cats and mats under normal conditions. Cognitive science, coming after the creation of the modern, sophisticated theory of biological evolution, explains why we developed the capacity to form ideas of basic-level concepts (corresponding to human-level natural and artifactual kinds).

What's Missing in the Aristotelian Theory
("the objectivist" theory) and the Folk Theory?

Missing is the evolutionary account of why we developed the capacity to perceive and form ideas of basic-level natural and artifactual kinds. Because he lacked that complex account, Aristotle fell back onto a simpler a priori account: the mind is conceived metaphorically as a wax tablet on which nothing as yet has been written.

Although itself rooted in conceptual metaphor, the objectivist theory (and its common sense counterpart) conceals the true role of metaphor. For if words operate literally for the most part, as these theories maintain, then they don't operate metaphorically. Metaphor is excluded from considerations of communication of truth. (LJ, 120-21)

In other words, a theory constructed with the use of metaphorical concepts can effectively conceal its own origin and therefore its own nature as a theory rooted in metaphor. That's an indication that the metaphors in question have been extended beyond the uses in which they are apt metaphors.