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A Critique of Conceptual Metaphor Theory

Where analytic philosophy is an embrace of analytic truths and formal logic as the sine qua non of philosophical investigation, conceptual metaphor theory is a full-throated rejection of that idea.

In the analytic tradition, a sentence is meaningful only when it is reducible to a proposition. Propositions, in turn, are all such that:

They can be expressed through a formal symbolic language.

They have a truth value (that is, a proposition is either true or false).

Adherents of conceptual metaphor theory (CMT) reject these principles. Here’s David Hills:

Talk of referents and propositional contents and logical forms belongs to a formalistic picture of what thinking is like, a picture which is at best an intermittently convenient fiction.

The work builds on the intuitions of Frederich Nietzsche, who argued that:

There is no "real" expression and no real knowing apart from metaphor. But deception on this point remains, i.e., the belief in a truth of sense impressions. The most accustomed metaphors, the usual ones, now pass for truths and as standards for measuring the rarer ones. The only intrinsic difference here is the difference between custom and novelty, frequency and rarity. Knowing is nothing but working with the favorite metaphors, an imitating which is no longer felt to be an imitation. Naturally therefore, it cannot penetrate the realm of truth.

Lakoff and Johnson make the point more clearly (if less poetically) in Metaphors We Live By:

We do not believe that there is such a thing as objective (absolute and unconditional) truth ... truth is always relative to a conceptual system that is defined in large part by metaphor.

That’s a pretty strong conclusion. As Carl Sagan was fond of reminding us, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And the evidence for CMT—while not nonexistent—is considerably weaker than its adherents claim.

Raymond Gibbs—a sympathetic interpreter of conceptual metaphor theory—suggests that there are five areas where its adherents stand on shakier empirical ground than they often admit. He looks at several overlapping questions:

How does one decide what counts as evidence for conceptual metaphors?

Are conceptual metaphors truly ubiquitous?

What motivates metaphorical thought patterns in language and action?

How are conceptual metaphors grounded in minds and brains?

Do people ordinarily use conceptual metaphors when producing and understanding metaphorical language?

Do conceptual metaphors explain the poetic, creative nature of some language?

How does CMT compare empirically with alternative theories of metaphor?

Gibbs suggests that CMT can answer some of these questions much better than others. He notes, for example, that some experiments have shown that “only about 14% of all words convey metaphorical meaning in context”—a finding that would seem at odds with the suggestion that our entire conception of meaning and truth is rooted in metaphor.

To my mind, however, the more telling line isn’t in the analysis of CMT itself. Gibbs notes early on that “in some academic quarters, CMT is ridiculed, dismissed, or ignored.”

Obviously that scholars have ridiculed an idea is not definitive evidence that a scientific theory is wrong. At the same time, one rarely finds academic quarters in which, say, relativity or the third law of thermodynamics is ridiculed or dismissed.

The social sciences are simply not yet scientific. They are, to borrow again from Thomas Kuhn, still an immature science, one that is pre-paradigm. In short, this means that in fields like anthropology, sociology, cognitive linguistics (and, yes, economics, too), there isn’t yet a theoretical view that adequately explains the full set of problems inherent to the field.

That’s not a call to reject all empirical analyses from the social sciences. But it is a reason for exercising restraint in drawing sweeping metaphysical and epistemological conclusions from social science experiments.

Or, more snarkily: claiming you have empirical evidence for a theory that entails rejecting the entire concept of truth is (a) arguably self-defeating and (b) pretty ballsy for a discipline where only 39% of experimental studies hold up to replication.