Metaphors We Live By - by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish—a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. For this reason, most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature. The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities. If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.

The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.

Orientational Metaphors

These spatial orientations arise from the fact that we have bodies of the sort we have and that they function as they do in our physical environment. Orientational metaphors give a concept a spatial orientation; for example, HAPPY IS UP. The fact that the concept happy is oriented up leads to English expressions like "I'm feeling up today." Such metaphorical orientations are not arbitrary. They have a basis in our physical and cultural experience. Though the polar oppositions up-down, in-out, etc., are physical in nature, the orientational metaphors based on them can vary from culture to culture. For example, in some cultures the future is in front of us, whereas in others it is in back.

The most fundamental values in a culture will be coherent with the metaphorical structure of the most fundamental concepts in the culture. As an example, let us consider some cultural values in our society that are coherent with our up-down spatialization metaphors and whose opposite would not be. "More is better" is coherent with more is up and good is up. "Less is better" is not coherent with them. "Bigger is better" is coherent with more is up and good is up. "Smaller is better" is not coherent with them. "The future will be better" is coherent with the future is up and good is up. "The future will be worse" is not.

So it seems that our values are not independent but must form a coherent system with the metaphorical concepts we live by. We are not claiming that all cultural values coherent with a metaphorical system actually exist, only that those that do exist and are deeply entrenched are consistent with the metaphorical system.

Ontological Metaphors

Understanding our experiences in terms of objects and substances allows us to pick out parts of our experience and treat them as discrete entities or substances of a uniform kind. Once we can identify our experiences as entities or substances, we can refer to them, categorize them, group them, and quantify them—and, by this means, reason about them.

Ontological metaphors serve various purposes, and the various kinds of metaphors there are reflect the kinds of purposes served. Take the experience of rising prices, which can be metaphorically viewed as an entity via the noun inflation. This gives us a way of referring to the experience: INFLATION IS AN ENTITY Inflation is lowering our standard of living. If there's much more inflation, we'll never survive. We need to combat inflation. In these cases, viewing inflation as an entity allows us to refer to it, quantify it, identify a particular aspect of it, see it as a cause, act with respect to it, and perhaps even believe that we understand it. Ontological metaphors like this are necessary for even attempting to deal rationally with our experiences.

The following list gives some idea of the kinds of purposes, along with representative examples of ontological metaphors that serve them.

  • Referring: My fear of insects is driving my wife crazy. That was a beautiful catch. We are working toward peace.

  • Quantifying: It will take a lot of patience to finish this book. There is so much hatred in the world.

  • Identifying Aspects: The ugly side of his personality comes out under pressure. The brutality of war dehumanizes us all.

  • Identifying Causes: The pressure of his responsibilities caused his breakdown. He did it out of anger.

  • Setting Goals and Motivating Actions: He went to New York to seek fame and fortune. Here's what you have to do to insure financial security.

As in the case of orientational metaphors, most of these expressions are not noticed as being metaphorical. One reason for this is that ontological metaphors, like orientational metaphors, serve a very limited range of purposes— referring, quantifying, etc. Merely viewing a nonphysical thing as an entity or substance does not allow us to comprehend very much about it. But ontological metaphors may be further elaborated. Ontological metaphors like these are so natural and so pervasive in our thought that they are usually taken as self-evident, direct descriptions of mental phenomena. The fact that they are metaphorical never occurs to most of us. We take statements like "He cracked under pressure" as being directly true or false.

Personification: Perhaps the most obvious ontological metaphors are those where the physical object is further specified as being a person. This allows us to comprehend a wide variety of experiences with nonhuman entities in terms of human motivations, characteristics, and activities. Here are some examples: His theory explained to me the behavior of chickens raised in factories. This fact argues against the standard theories.


  • He likes to read the Marquis de Sade. (= the writings of the marquis) He's in dance. (= the dancing profession) Acrylic has taken over the art world. (= the use of acrylic paint)

  • The White House isn't saying anything. Washington is insensitive to the needs of the people.

  • Wall Street is in a panic.

How Is Our Conceptual System Grounded?

We claim that most of our normal conceptual system is metaphorically structured; that is, most concepts are partially understood in terms of other concepts. This raises an important question about the grounding of our conceptual system. Are there any concepts at all that are understood directly, without metaphor? If not, how can we understand anything at all?

What we call "direct physical experience" is never merely a matter of having a body of a certain sort; rather, every experience takes place within a vast background of cultural presuppositions. It can be misleading, therefore, to speak of direct physical experience as though there were some core of immediate experience which we then "interpret" in terms of our conceptual system. Cultural assumptions, values, and attitudes are not a conceptual overlay which we may or may not place upon experience as we choose. It would be more correct to say that all experience is cultural through and through, that we experience our "world" in such a way that our culture is already present in the very experience itself.

However, even if we grant that every experience involves cultural presuppositions, we can still make the important distinction between experiences that are "more" physical, such as standing up, and those that are "more" cultural, such as participating in a wedding ceremony.

Perhaps the most important thing to stress about grounding is the distinction between an experience and the way we conceptualize it. We are not claiming that physical experience is in any way more basic than other kinds of experience, whether emotional, mental, cultural, or whatever. All of these experiences may be just as basic as physical experiences. Rather, what we are claiming about grounding is that we typically conceptualize the nonphysical in terms of the physical—that is, we conceptualize the less clearly delineated in terms of the more clearly delineated.

How Metaphor Can Give Meaning to Form

The ME-FIRST ORIENTATION observe that our culture's view of what a prototypical member of our culture is like determines an orientation of concepts within our conceptual system. The canonical person forms a conceptual reference point, and an enormous number of concepts in our conceptual system are oriented with respect to whether or not they are similar to the properties of the prototypical person. Since people typically function in an upright position, see and move frontward, spend most of their time performing actions, and view themselves as being basically good, we have a basis in our experience for viewing ourselves as more UP than DOWN, more FRONT than BACK, more ACTIVE than PASSIVE, more GOOD than BAD. Since we are where we are and exist in the present, we conceive of ourselves as being HERE rather than THERE, and NOW rather than THEN. This determines what Cooper and Ross call the ME-FIRST orientation: UP, FRONT, ACTIVE, GOOD, HERE, and now are all oriented toward the canonical person; DOWN, BACKWARD, PASSIVE, BAD, THERE, and THEN are all oriented away from the canonical person.

New Meaning

The idea that metaphors can create realities goes against most traditional views of metaphor. The reason is that metaphor has traditionally been viewed as a matter of mere language rather than primarily as a means of structuring our conceptual system and the kinds of everyday activities we perform. It is reasonable enough to assume that words alone don't change reality. But changes in our conceptual system do change what is real for us and affect how we perceive the world and act upon those perceptions. The idea that metaphor is just a matter of language and can at best only describe reality stems from the view that what is real is wholly external to, and independent of, how human beings conceptualize the world—as if the study of reality were just the study of the physical world. Such a view of reality—so-called objective reality—leaves out human aspects of reality, in particular the real perceptions, conceptualizations, motivations, and actions that constitute most of what we experience. But the human aspects of reality are most of what matters to us, and these vary from culture to culture, since different cultures have different conceptual systems. Cultures also exist within physical environments, some of them radically different—jungles, deserts, islands, tundra, mountains, cities, etc. In each case there is a physical environment that we interact with, more or less successfully. The conceptual systems of various cultures partly depend on the physical environments they have developed in. Each culture must provide a more or less successful way of dealing with its environment, both adapting to it and changing it. Moreover, each culture must define a social reality within which people have roles that make sense to them and in terms of which they can function socially. Not surprisingly, the social reality defined by a culture affects its conception of physical reality. What is real for an individual as a member of a culture is a product both of his social reality and of the way in which that shapes his experience of the physical world. Since much of our social reality is understood in metaphorical terms, and since our conception of the physical world is partly metaphorical, metaphor plays a very significant role in determining what is real for us.

Metaphor, Truth, and Action

New metaphors, like conventional metaphors, can have the power to define reality. They do this through a coherent network of entailments that highlight some features of reality and hide others. The acceptance of the metaphor, which forces us to focus only on those aspects of our experience that it highlights, leads us to view the entailments of the metaphor as being true. Such "truths" may be true, of course, only relative to the reality defined by the metaphor.

Though questions of truth do arise for new metaphors, the more important questions are those of appropriate action. In most cases, what is at issue is not the truth or falsity of a metaphor but the perceptions and inferences that follow from it and the actions that are sanctioned by it. In all aspects of life, not just in politics or in love, we define our reality in terms of metaphors and then proceed to act on the basis of the metaphors. We draw inferences, set goals, make commitments, and execute plans, all on the basis of how we in part structure our experience, consciously and unconsciously, by means of metaphor.


We do not believe that there is such a thing as objective (absolute and unconditional) truth, though it has been a long-standing theme in Western culture that there is. We do believe that there are truths but think that the idea of truth need not be tied to the objectivist view. We believe that the idea that there is absolute objective truth is not only mistaken but socially and politically dangerous. As we have seen, truth is always relative to a conceptual system that is defined in large part by metaphor. Most of our metaphors have evolved in our culture over a long period, but many are imposed upon us by people in power—political leaders, religious leaders, business leaders, advertisers, the media, etc. In a culture where the myth of objectivism is very much alive and truth is always absolute truth, the people who get to impose their metaphors on the culture get to define what we consider to be true—absolutely and objectively true.

We understand a statement as being true in a given situation when our understanding of the statement fits our understanding of the situation closely enough for our purposes. This is the foundation of our experientialist theory of truth.

Metaphors are basically devices for understanding and have little to do with objective reality, if there is such a thing. The fact that our conceptual system is inherently metaphorical, the fact that we understand the world, think, and function in metaphorical terms, and the fact that metaphors can not merely be understood but can be meaningful and true as well—these facts all suggest that an adequate account of meaning and truth can only be based on understanding.

The Myths of Objectivism and Subjectivism

We see ourselves as offering a third choice to the myths of objectivism and subjectivism. Incidentally, we are not using the term "myth" in any derogatory way. Myths provide ways of comprehending experience; they give order to our lives. Like metaphors, myths are necessary for making sense of what goes on around us. All cultures have myths, and people cannot function without myth any more than they can function without metaphor. And just as we often take the metaphors of our own culture as truths, so we often take the myths of our own culture as truths.

Objectivism and subjectivism need each other in order to exist. Each defines itself in opposition to the other and sees the other as the enemy. Objectivism takes as its allies scientific truth, rationality, precision, fairness, and impartiality. Subjectivism takes as its allies the emotions, intuitive insight, imagination, humaneness, art, and a "higher" truth. Each is master in its own realm and views its realm as the better of the two.

What we are offering in the experientialist account of understanding and truth is an alternative which denies that subjectivity and objectivity are our only choices. We reject the objectivist view that there is absolute and unconditional truth without adopting the subjectivist alternative of truth as obtainable only through the imagination, unconstrained by external circumstances. The reason we have focused so much on metaphor is that it unites reason and imagination. Reason, at the very least, involves categorization, entailment, and inference. Imagination, in one of its many aspects, involves seeing one kind of thing in terms of another kind of thing—what we have called metaphorical thought. Metaphor is thus imaginative rationality. Since the categories of our everyday thought are largely metaphorical and our everyday reasoning involves metaphorical entailments and inferences, ordinary rationality is therefore imaginative by its very nature. Given our understanding of poetic metaphor in terms of metaphorical entailments and inferences, we can see that the products of the poetic imagination are, for the same reason, partially rational in nature.

The Experientialist Alternative: Giving New Meaning to the Old Myths

The fact that the myths of subjectivism and objectivism have stood for so long in Western culture indicates that each serves some important function. Each myth is motivated by real and reasonable concerns, and each has some grounding in our cultural experience.

The fundamental concern of the myth of objectivism is the world external to the individual. The myth rightly emphasizes the fact that there are real things, existing independently of us, which constrain both how we interact with them and how we comprehend them. Objectivism's focus on truth and factual knowledge is based on the importance of such knowledge for successful functioning in our physical and cultural environment. The myth is also motivated by a concern for fairness and impartiality in cases where that matters and can be achieved in some reasonable fashion. The experientialist myth, as we have been sketching it, shares all these concerns. Experientialism departs from objectivism, however, on two fundamental issues: Is there an absolute truth? Is absolute truth necessary to meet the above concerns—the concern with knowledge that allows us to function successfully and the concern with fairness and impartiality? Experientialism answers no to both questions. Truth is always relative to understanding, which is based on a nonuniversal conceptual system. But this does not preclude satisfying the legitimate concerns about knowledge and impartiality that have motivated the myth of objectivism for centuries. Objectivity is still possible, but it takes on a new meaning. Objectivity still involves rising above individual bias, whether in matters of knowledge or value. But where objectivity is reasonable, it does not require an absolute, universally valid point of view. Being objective is always relative to a conceptual system and a set of cultural values.

What legitimately motivates subjectivism is the awareness that meaning is always meaning to a person. What's meaningful to me is a matter of what has significance for me. And what is significant for me will not depend on my rational knowledge alone but on my past experiences, values, feelings, and intuitive insights. Meaning is not cut and dried; it is a matter of imagination and a matter of constructing coherence. The objectivist emphasis on achieving a universally valid point of view misses what is important, insightful, and coherent for the individual. The experientialist myth agrees that understanding does involve all of these elements. Its emphasis on interaction and interactional properties shows how meaning always is meaning to a person. And its emphasis on the construction of coherence via experiential gestalts provides an account of what it means for something to be significant to an individual. Moreover, it gives an account of how understanding uses the primary resources of the imagination via metaphor and how it is possible to give experience new meaning and to create new realities. Where experientialism diverges from subjectivism is in its rejection of the Romantic idea that imaginative understanding is completely unconstrained.


The single biggest obstacle to understanding our findings has been the refusal to recognize the conceptual nature of metaphor. The idea that metaphors are nothing but linguistic expressions—a mere matter of words—is such a common fallacy that it has kept many readers from even entertaining the idea that we think metaphorically. The fallacy is that metaphor is only about the ways we talk and not about conceptualization and reasoning.

The theory of metaphor has come a long way from the humble beginnings presented in this slim volume. Yet, most of the key ideas in this book have been either sustained or developed further by recent empirical research in cognitive linguistics and in cognitive science generally. These key ideas are the following:

  • Metaphors are fundamentally conceptual in nature; metaphorical language is secondary.

  • Conceptual metaphors are grounded in everyday experience.

  • Abstract thought is largely, though not entirely, metaphorical.

  • Metaphorical thought is unavoidable, ubiquitous, and mostly unconscious.

  • Abstract concepts have a literal core but are extended by metaphors, often by many mutually inconsistent metaphors.

  • Abstract concepts are not complete without metaphors. For example, love is not love without metaphors of magic, attraction, madness, union, nurturance, and so on.

  • Our conceptual systems are not consistent overall, since the metaphors used to reason about concepts may be inconsistent.

  • We live our lives on the basis of inferences we derive via metaphor.