This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: “Metaphors We Live By: A classic revisited” with guests George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Click here to listen to the episode.
Words matter. We all know it. If we sometimes forget, we are reminded when someone calls us something that mis-describes us. Maybe we are referred to as Mrs. instead of Ms. or Ms. instead of Dr. Maybe we are called Black instead of African American or disabled instead of someone with disabilities. These words can sting, even if the speaker has only the best intentions.
Words also make us uncomfortable, which is why we have euphemisms. Our loved ones pass away or leave us, but they don’t “die” until long after the rawness of their passing has faded. And, of course, many feel the need to avoid direct references to the body. We make love and we use the restroom—plumbers talk about removing “lady products” from clogged pipes. Our words reveal our intimacies, our economic classes, and our insecurities.
But how deep does language go? Is it really just a bulwark against social impropriety and political sensitivity or does it help frame who we are and how we think? How much does language construct our reality? How much does it define what we see and how we hear? These are the question of tonight’s show, particularly the roles that metaphors play in how we frame ideas, make logical connections, and choose to act. We will answer these questions by revisiting a thirty-five year-old publication, Metaphors we Live By, a book that helped us understand that word choice was more than just poetry or rhetoric, but, indicative of the very way we conceptualize ideas.
These are questions in the philosophy of language, a collection of debates almost as old as philosophy itself. Plato wanted to define philosophical terms. He sought clear accounts of the meaning of Justice, Love, and the other virtues. Aristotle wanted to categorize knowledge in grand lists. Augustine, Maimonides, and Ibn Rshd were all concerned with the literal or figurative use of Biblical language. And, Hobbes thought that morality was the simple conversion of the words “I want” to the term “good,” a relativism that lead Nietzsche, two hundred years later, to question the foundation of religion, ethics, and equality.
But it wasn’t until the twentieth century that language became the center of all philosophical discussion. Could a picture communicate ideas or do we need words? Was a single word enough to get that idea across or do we need a whole sentence? Can we reduce language to logic like we could math, and if so, could we create an ideal language? Do exclamations like “ouch” have the same value as the clause “snow is white”? And what about propositions like “there is a god”? If the existence of god could never be verified, did this lack of proof mean that asserting God’s existence is nonsense, poetry gone awry, gobbledygook so familiar that we only imagine it has meaning. There were even philosophers who thought that language was the prerequisite for thought itself and that if we didn’t have language, we couldn’t actually think. This means of course, that most animals were deemed incapable of thought, but it also had profound implications for people who couldn’t communicate. Under this way of thinking, the miracle worker didn’t just give Helen Keller the ability to speak, she gave her the ability to think. She welcomed her into the human community.
These are great debates, some, in my opinion, more valuable than others. But they can all be reduced to the very basic questions: what is the purpose of language and what is its relationship to thought? An irony though, is that despite its linguistic precision, despite its profound role in educating and motivating the imagination, poetry was the great blind spot of the twentieth-century philosophers.
Poetic language is rarely direct. It circles ideas as much as it focuses on them explicitly. It evokes feelings through association and insinuation. Its sentence structures mimic thought, with lines of broken text and intuitive but grammatically questionable punctuation. It reflects the internal experience of ideas, but not the precise concepts that philosophers thought were necessary for clarity of thought. And so some philosophers dismissed poetry along with euphemism, allusions, symbolism, and, of course, metaphor. These literary tools, they claimed, only had philosophical value when they were reduced to the perfectly grammatical, uninterestingly clear, literal propositions that were hidden underneath the poem. The flourishes of language obscured the truth, they felt, and did nothing to reveal it. Philosophy, many thought, should only concern itself with truth.
I offer this history to emphasize that the attention we’re about to give the philosophical importance of metaphors is, in many regards, revolutionary. It runs counter to significant portions of the philosophical teachings that educated most philosophers today. Or, rather, I should, say, this focus was revolutionary. It’s not anymore. The study of metaphors is now essential to all areas of philosophy from symbolic logic to political philosophy to phenomenology to epistemology, a shift that couldn’t have happened if George Lakoff and Mark Johnson had never published Metaphors We Live By. It’s worth, then, taking another look at it, not as academics, but as people for whom metaphors are so commonplace that we don’t grasp their influence, and as an audience who is so used to their multiple meanings, that we may not see them as metaphors at all.