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Basic Metaphor Theory

Metaphor theory has exploded since the early 1970’s, making it both an exciting and frustrating field of study, since different theorists rarely use the same technical terms or definitions. (For a [very] detailed overview of a variety of approaches to metaphor, see the Appendix to my dissertation, available here: Describing the Duality of Metaphor. Manufacturer’s Warning: has caused serious side effects in some test cases.)

The basics of metaphor theory assumed by this blog, however, can be summed up in three important aspects of metaphor. The first two are described in more detail by theorists like Lakoff, Johnson, and Turner (see the Basic Bibliography); the last is suggested but undeveloped in the scholarly study of metaphor and constitutes my unique contribution to the field.

The Basics of Metaphor

1. Metaphor thinks about, talks about, and experiences one thing in terms of something else.

Whether we are talking about Life in terms of a Journey (“I took a wrong turn somewhere;” “She has come a long way;” “Our relationship is stuck in the mud.”), or a verbal exchange in terms of armed conflict (“He attacked my ideas;” “She defended her point of view;” “My argument got blown out of the water.”), our language reflects a specific way of thinking and interacting with one domain of knowledge or experience in terms of a second domain of knowledge or experience.

A “Source Domain,” like Journey, is used to describe and understand a “Target Domain,” like Life. A wide variety of linguistic expressions can flow from the same basic structure of thinking and experiencing one thing in terms of something else. Metaphor is therefore first and foremost a matter of  mapping relevant characteristics and relationships from a Source Domain to a Target Domain, something that happens first at the level of thought or experience, only then taking the shape of specific metaphorical utterances.

To say, “She has come a long way,” is already to be thinking of Life, and important aspects of Life, in terms of Journey, and important aspects of Journey. Metaphor uses one thing, a Source Domain, to think about, talk about, and experience something else, the Target.

this is a space

2. What makes sense in the Source makes sense in the Target.

Metaphor is therefore not merely a matter of language use, but a way of thinking or even experiencing life. Without the conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR, for example, we would never feel like we were “under attack” in a debate, we would feel no need to “defend” our position, nor could we ever feel like we “won” an argument. What makes sense in one domain, like Warfare, is mapped onto our thinking about another domain, like Argument.

The basic inference structures in the Source are used to reason about the Target. If it’s fair or appropriate in War, it must also be fair or appropriate in Argument. For example, I would be perfectly justified in attacking an opponent in order to defend my own opinion; that’s how War (and therefore Argument) is supposed to work. If I am “outgunned” our “outmaneuvered” in an argument, it makes sense to avoid a confrontation and wait for a better opportunity: reasoning about War helps me reason about Argument. Typically, the goal I have in mind in Argument is not mutual understanding, but “blowing the other guy out of the water.” What makes sense in the Source makes sense in the Target.

Just imagine conceiving or experiencing Argument in terms of Dance instead of War. Changing the Source domain means changing inference patterns; we don’t reason about Dance the same way we reason about War. Launching a counter attack on a dance partner doesn’t make sense. How we draw conclusions about an argument, in fact, even the things we do when we argue, would change if we changed the inference patterns we use to think about and experience the Target domain of Argument.

this is a space

3. Inference patterns have a narrative structure.

What maps from the Source to the Target in metaphor is not a random list of characteristics or features. What maps is a structure of relationships, possibilities, hoped for outcomes and consequences–in short an inference pattern that allows us to think about and draw conclusions about a Target domain based on what we know about the Source. Further analysis reveals that these inference patterns have a narrative structure.

Perhaps the easiest way to get at the implied narrative behind a metaphor is to ask the kinds of questions any roving reporter would need to ask to get a story: Who is doing What for Whom and How? What obstacles or enemies need to be overcome in order to achieve the hoped for outcome or goal? What kinds of things or people are helping make this happen? What kinds of inferences can I draw from the situation assumed by the metaphor?

Thinking of Argument in terms of War assumes at least two sides and allows me to reason about Argument based on the narrative relationships in War. My dialogue partner becomes an enemy that I hope to vanquish with the help of my arsenal, though I also know a full retreat may be in order. I want to take advantage of weaknesses in my opponent’s defense in order to win the day. The narrative possibilities related to the domain of War become the possibilities I see or anticipate in the argument; other aspects of arguing are not relevant and are not considered in my reasoning as long as I am in the narrative structure of War.

But change the metaphor to Argument is Dance and you have changed the narrative relationships in which I imagine myself. The narrative structure has changed, therefore the inference structure has changed. No longer do I view my interlocutor as an enemy, but as a partner. My goals becomes grace and balance and cooperation rather than domination and capitulation.   Now any lack of skill in my partner is not something to exploit but to overcome; good dance partners make each other better.

Changing the narrative structure of the Source domain changes the way inferences are drawn in the Target. For a more descriptive narrative tool than a basic Who, What, For Whom, and How approach, see the Basic theory page Narrative Structure and Metaphor.

These, then, are the basic elements of metaphor: metaphor involves mapping inference patterns which depend on narrative structure from a Source domain to a Target domain. Once you start thinking about metaphor in these terms, a whole new world opens up both in terms of how we understand metaphor and in terms of how we use metaphor to communicate.

About Justin Rossow

Justin writes and talks at the intersection of Scripture, culture, and metaphor theory. As founder of Next Step Press, he helps people delight in taking a next step following Jesus.

One comment on “Basic Metaphor Theory

  1. […] domain.” For more on the basics of Source, Target, and cross-domain mapping, you can review The Basics to get up to […]

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