Metaphors We Serve By: Investigating the Conceptual Metaphors Framing National and Community Service and Service-Learning

By Taylor, Joby | Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Metaphors We Serve By: Investigating the Conceptual Metaphors Framing National and Community Service and Service-Learning


Taylor, Joby, Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning


"But indeed, words are very rascals since bonds disgraced them."

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

Conceptual Metaphors

Two decades ago George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980) persuasively argued in Metaphors We Live By that conceptual metaphors are ubiquitous and powerful frames for human thought and experience. "Metaphor has traditionally been viewed in [philosophy and linguistics] as a matter of peripheral interest. We share the intuition that it is, instead, a matter of central concern, perhaps the key to giving an adequate account of understanding" (p. ix). They have continued to elaborate this in their recent work, Philosophy in the Flesh (1999), where they define conceptual metaphors as, "mappings across conceptual domains that structure our reasoning, our experience, and our everyday language" (p. 47). In this sense, metaphor is more than a specialized usage of language reserved for writers and rhetoricians. In fact, the sensibility of poetic metaphors builds upon a fundamental human disposition to make sense of new or dissonant experience through comparative representations. Conceptual understanding is in most cases metaphoric because cognition is a complex and layered process in which "most concepts are partially understood in terms of other concepts" (Lakoff & Johnson, 1986, p. 56).

There are two complementary but distinguishable scholarly projects that arise from recognizing metaphor as a fundamental influence on conception. The first is historical and analytical; it involves identifying, describing, and critically examining the metaphors, implicit or explicit, that frame a given concept. These I term metaphors of concepts. Uncovering metaphors of is the predominant project of Lakoff's and Johnson's work, which consists of textual or contextual deconstruction. (1) Their method in Metaphors We Live By was to name a concept and explore the conceptual metaphors framing it by examining the common language used to describe or speak about it. For example, in choosing the concept "argument" they uncover numerous examples of the conceptual metaphor argument is war. One "attacks" or "defends" a position in an argument, and so forth. It is important to recognize that conceptual metaphors both highlight and hide aspects of a concept. Using a comparison to direct attention toward this aspect implies distracting attention from that aspect. Returning to the example, if argument is war, then cooperative learning is not a primary goal of conversational debate. (2)

There is also a conceptually constructive project that follows this theory of cognition. If metaphors of concepts have historically arisen to frame our consideration of those concepts, then we may, in a manner similar to the poet, self-consciously develop new metaphors that nuance or change a concept's meaning. These I distinguish as metaphors for concepts because they creatively redescribe concepts, giving them a new interpretive range, and, in many cases, overturning previous conceptions. As Diane Blakemore (1992) argues, metaphors "... cause us to notice things, or, more specifically, to see things in a new light" (p.160). If, in the literary tradition, metaphors are used to evoke creative connections and connotations, then developing creative metaphors for concepts is an integral aspect of human learning and knowledge construction. If conceptual metaphors frame thought, then innovative metaphors lead thought development and create new situational frames for human interaction. This sense is what is intended in Donald Schon's (1993) helpful term "generative metaphor." (3) Educator Thomas Sticht (1993) has applied a similar notion of metaphors to pedagogy describing them as "tools for thought." (4) The theory of conceptual metaphors has epistemological implications as well because it highlights the gap between concepts and reality. Hugh Petrie (1979) has argued that the very possibility of learning and ideation must depend upon something like metaphor. …

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