As a classic study shows, very young children forcefully refuse to envisage even the possibility of certain conceptual metaphors. The traditional explanations of this phenomenon are inadequate. The present paper proposes two psychoanalytic explanations. First, many of the metaphors that young children encounter concern the body. As an unconscious defense against being reminded of repressed infantile conflicts connected with the body, young children may simply reject the relevant metaphors. Second, there exists in everyone an unconscious disposition to take metaphor as expressing literal identity rather than mere similarity. The underlying impulse-to perceive all objects as interchangeable-reflects the mental organization of the very young infant. Metaphorization is thus associated, unconsciously, with memories of the beginning of life. In young children it provokes anxiety about regression to the helplessness of that period. Their defense is a denial of the possibility of metaphor.
keywords: children and metaphor, denial of metaphor, conceptual metaphor, Asch and Nerlove, double function terms, literalization, symmetrization
One of the most influential books of the last decades is Lakoff and Johnson's Metaphors We Live By (1980), which lays the foundations for the theory of conceptual metaphor. In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson demonstrate that much, perhaps most, of our discourse, from small talk to philosophy, is undergirded by a vast network of metaphors. Unlike conscious, "literary" metaphors, these unconscious "conceptual" metaphors function not to create stylistic effects but to structure our thinking. They tend to be rooted in the domain of the physical, often in basic bodily experience. They allow us to make use of the physical to help conceptualize more abstract domains. We tend, to give just one simple example, to conceptualize abstractions like ideas as physical entities, and we often see them, via the so-called "conduit metaphor," as being placed into containers so as to be transmitted across space, as in "It's hard to put my ideas into words" or "It's hard to get that idea across to him" (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, p. 11; Reddy, 1979). In the years since the appearance of Metaphors We Live By, the study of conceptual metaphor has generated a voluminous and ever-expanding body of work, not only in linguistics, but also in such fields as philosophy, psychology, and, especially, cognitive science.
The assumptions and the findings of the branch of cognitive linguistics that studies conceptual metaphor correspond in a number of ways to those of psychoanalysis. Both disciplines are concerned with the infrastructure of human thought processes. Both see those thought processes as largely unconscious (though cognitive scientists and cognitive linguists tend, mistakenly in my view, to see the "cognitive unconscious" as thoroughly distinct from the more dynamic unconscious that psychoanalysis is concerned with). Both disciplines assign privileged status to early experience, especially to early experience of the body. Indeed, a number of attempts have been made both to relate and to apply the theory of conceptual metaphor to psychoanalysis (Borbely, 1998; Carveth, 1984; Casonato, 1994, 2003; Holland, 1999; Lakoff, 1993; Melnick, 1997, 2000; Modell, 1997, 2000a, 2000b, 2003; and Rosenbaum & Garfield, 1996).1 Very little has been written, however, that applies psychoanalysis to the unconscious processes connected to conceptual metaphor. The present article attempts to do just that. Raising the issue of how conceptual metaphor functions within the psyche of the individual, it focuses on the question of why young children, as a well-known field study indicates, reject or deny the very concept of metaphorization. The answer that it proposes, which points to an intertwining of cognitive and psychodynamic processes, has implications for theories of mental development both in psychoanalysis and in cognitive science. …