The purpose of the conceptual metaphor, as Lakoff and Johnson (1980) described it, is that conceptual metaphors use concrete experiences to help explain abstract concepts. In a conceptual metaphor, as they posit the concept, there is the source domain and the target domain. The source domain is what we use to form a meaningful comparison, while the target domain is the concept that we are trying to explain with the metaphor. Let’s take the comparison “Marriage is a marathon, not a sprint.” A lot of people enter marriage not fully aware of the work that lies ahead of them. They think of marriage as something that serves as the culmination of an extremely romantic process and then stretches out into the mists of time as a blissful state, or at least a static one. Of course, this misconception is upheld by most romantic comedies, which tend to focus on the process of getting together rather than the process of continuing to build a meaningful relationship. Weddings happen at the end of these movies, rather than the beginning, because the idea is that marriage is supposed to solidify, become stable, which does not make much fodder for film. So the use of the word “marathon” as a point of comparison is to show that the marathon is a long journey that not only takes a long period of time but also requires significant preparation. While the word “marriage” is primarily an abstraction, the comparison to a marathon allows for the people in the conversation to have a visual (the long-distance runner) showing them the amount (and duration) of the work involved at making a marriage last.
Lakoff (1995) would later expand those views to move into the political arena, and, as one might expect with any large-scale employment of metaphor, there are points of resonance as well as difficulty with this idea. His idea that American politics attempt to take on the role of the “family” is an intriguing one, but it has not borne out much in recent years. If anything, the American government has tried to be anything but a parental figure for the American citizenry, instead moving toward a minimalist role in public life, at least as far as the nurturing goes. So in this case, Lakoff (1995) has to force his own concept of what the political system is into a parenting metaphor. But to take a look at the government as one’s proxy parents can be a bit misleading. At best, it only works when a conservative administration is trying to justify the withdrawal of the government from any sort of meaningful oversight of the citizenry. Consider the fact that whenever someone proposes a texting and driving ban in a conservative state, the leadership will decry the effort as some sort of try at establishing a “nanny state” that will soon turn into the latest incarnation of tyranny. So the best one can apply this is as a fear tactic, not as an authentic representation of one’s view of government.
Another limitation of this approach, as some critics have noted, is that it does not acknowledge the sort of thinking that metaphorical interpretations require. These critics suggest that metaphor is not just a language mode but instead is a mode of the way that we think. So our minds have to be in a particular place for us even to understand metaphor, let alone to be able to communicate in figurative language. This is what Wallace Stevens gets at in his poem “The Snow Man,” when he writes, “One must have a mind of winter / To regard the frost and the boughs / Of the pine-trees crusted with snownot to think / Of any misery in the sound of the wind / In the sound of a few leaves” (Stevens 1954, 1-3, 7-9). If one is not in the proper place mentally to accept metaphors, then they simply pass over the consciousness of the audience, and the point of the communicator is lost. The limitation of the conceptual metaphor is that it also requires that the audience have a similar perspective on the topic at hand as the communicator. So when a mother compares her son’s room to a pig sty, she is going to have a much more receptive audience among other mothers than she would in a room full of teenagers. When one compares marriage to a marathon, as in the initial example, one will find a much more receptive audience among those who have been married for a length of time than one would find among a group of people who just got engaged and are currently involved in the business of choosing items for their registry, or among a group of adolescents who are just beginning to think about romantic relationships in a way that does not involve cooties. Without that shift, progress is impossible.
Lakoff, G. (1995). Moral politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of
Stevens, W. (1954). The snow-man. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-