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Metaphors We Compute By

By Alvaro Videla

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 60 No. 10, Pages 42-45

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In their now classic book Metaphors We Live By,6 George Lakoff and Mark Johnson set out to show the linguistic and philosophical worlds that metaphor isn't just a matter of poetry and rhetorical flourish. They presented how metaphor permeates all areas of our lives, and in particular that metaphor dictates how we understand the world, how we act in it, how we live in it. They showed that our conceptual system is based on metaphors, too, but since we are not normally aware of our own conceptual system, they had to study it via a proxy: language.

By studying language, Lakoff and Johnson tried to understand how metaphors work by imposing meaning in our lives. The basic example they present is the conceptual metaphor "argument is war." We understand the act of arguing with another person in the same way we understand war. This leads to the following expressions in our daily language:


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