In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson define metaphor as a process by which we conceive “one thing in terms of another, and its primary function is understanding” (36). Metaphors provide a means for understanding something abstact (“love”) in terms of something concrete or physical (“falling”) or in terms of some kind of plot (“madness”; there are features of an insane person’s activity that we expect – it’s part of the “story” of what it means to be mad). There are crucial implications from this definition:
- Metaphors aren’t just “poetic” but rather determine “usage” in our language: that is, these metaphors inform “normal ways of talking about life situations.” I say, “How do you spend your time?” not to be poetic but to communicate: I cannot, in 21st-century American English, communicate with others about time without thinking about it in terms of “spending,” without relying on the time = money metaphor.
- They involve “entailments” – “Time = money” entails that Time is a limited resource and a valuable commodity.
- Metaphors help us understand an abstract thing that we cannot understand by reaching out and touching it, handling it – they are a way of “grasping” an object, turning it around to look at its various sides, which cannot be physically grasped. But each metaphor will only help us see certain aspects of a thing, not all aspects. Metaphors highlight some features of things and hide others. Equating love with falling highlights the feelings one has of being out of control; equating it with madness also captures that feeling but emphasizes that one may act in crazy ways even when not with one’s beloved.
- While there might be many cultures that think of Time as “a limited resource” – given that we all worry about death coming too soon – conceiving of time as money can perhaps only happen in a culture which sees labor as a commodity (a capitalist culture). When you read another language in translation, some sentences are translated “spend time.” Ask yourself: is the word being translated actually the word “to spend”? If so, is that word also typically used in conjunction with the word “money” in the same way that it is in our language? What kind of economic system is practiced by that culture at the time that this piece of writing was produced? Practices, forms of life, produce possibilities for meaning.
This definition, along with its implications, is crucial to us in trying to think about how technology changes our understanding, particularly our self-understanding: the way we think about what it means to be a self.