Thursday, June 5, 2008

Metaphors We Live By

I'm reading Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff, and it's sort of blowing my mind. I liken it to watching The Matrix (or, more precisely, actually being in the movie The Matrix and discovering that reality isn't what I thought it was).

The basic concept in the book is that we understand the world through metaphor - and we're often unaware of the metaphors we use. These metaphors shape our understanding of the world around us, and guide our behavior by illuminating some aspects of reality, and obscuring others. One implication is that different metaphors would shape us differently (but it's hard to change metaphors).

For example, a common metaphor is MORE IS UP. That is, we equate the condition of having more with an increase in elevation. So, the stock market rises, we get a raise at work, our bank balance goes up, and generally, any number representing a larger quantity is said to be higher than a number representing a smaller quantity... you get the picture. This metaphor correlates with our physical experience of adding more of something and seeing the height of the pile physically increase - but our bank account balance doesn't really go up, does it? It just gets MORE - so our concept of MORE IS UP is metaphorical.

Interesting, we also have a metaphor of HAPPY IS UP. As in, I was feeling DOWN yesterday, but now I'm perked UP. It BOOSTED my spirits, etc. Combine those two (MORE IS UP and HAPPY IS UP) and we get (drum roll please...) MORE IS HAPPY. (I made that connection myself!). Thus, the roots of our consumer culture is at least partly due to our metaphors.

But MORE IS UP is not the only possible metaphor. It would be just as reasonable to use MORE IS HEAVY as a metaphor (we do use that sometimes). So, we could say the stock market gained weight, my bank account is hefty, 9 is weightier than 7, etc.

I wonder if our society would be less consumeristic if we used the MORE IS HEAVY metaphor instead of MORE IS UP. Certainly, many spiritual traditions (Christianity & Buddhism in particular) talk about wealth and possessions in a MORE IS HEAVY metaphor, in which we are burdened down by an excessive accumulation of stuff.

Just a thought...


Rhet said...

Hi Dan. You should include an Amazon affiliate link when you recommend a book. That way I could buy it with two clicks while making your pile heavier. ;-)

The Dan Ward said...

Good point, Rhet! I'll have to look into that Amazon Affiliate thing again... but I wouldn't want my pile to get too heavy, right? :)