Shelley Burningbird Powers writes about George Lakoff‘s article Metaphor and War, Again:

…I also have found it interesting and fascinating and well written as well as very astute. But as a call to arms, or even a call to communicate, I found it to be, well, innocuous; at most, safe reading for a world feeling bruised by too much war and too much rhetoric. Even those who point to it do so with little commentary. It seems to absorb discussion as a felt lined room absorbs sound.

…More importantly, there is nothing in the essay or in the conclusion that tells us how to break through the so-called frames, the conceptual metaphors. In other words, how to get people to listen. Then again, perhaps all this essay is meant to do is make us aware that we’re not listening to each other, and not to take it personally.

I think Shelley, as well as some other people who’ve commented on Lakoff’s article, misinterpret his use of the word “metaphor” somewhat. Here are some phrases indicating that misinterpretation:

…It’s here that his metaphor begins to break down a bit…

…there exist things in the world other than verbal formulations…

…The average person who is pro-terrorist uses metaphors also…

…Metaphors? They pale in significance compared to pictures…

(taken from comments on Shelley’s site).

The standard definition of “metaphor” is something like “a figure of speech in which a word that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another”. Lakoff expands this definition in a way that is surprising to non-linguists; he speaks of primary metaphors which are associations of sensory experiences with subjective judgments, and of complex metaphors which are built out of groups of primary metaphors somewhat like molecules are built out of atoms, or programs are built out of programming language statements; the effect is that metaphors can be described as being the atoms of thought. All thinking is thus metaphorical thinking, and one important point is that much of the interplay of metaphors happens on the unconscious level; much as programming statements are not directly visible at a program’s user interface.

The standard definition quoted above therefore describes a type of complex metaphor. This is discussed in great detail in Lakoff & Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, the “Phil Phlesh” book I’ve mentioned before, and several follow-up publications applying these insights to politics, mathematics, and other specific fields. For instance, “Phil”‘s second half deconstructs several philosophical theories, such as those of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Chomsky and others, in order to show which complex metaphors underlie their reasoning. Many other links on the subject can be found at wood s lot; I refer interested readers to Lakoff’s interview at

Lakoff’s article attempts to show what metaphors underlie Gulf War II, both for the pro- and anti-war camps; as this focuses on the mechanisms that underlie reasons, rather than on the reasons themselves, it comes off as dry and technical. Unsurprisingly, many people who do understand Lakoff’s concepts resent having their thoughts deconstructed in a way they consider unflattering – much like software companies dislike having their products decompiled, perhaps – and people who don’t understand them put them off as “simplistic” or “phantastic”.

By far the best commentary I’ve found so far is AKMA‘s:

Ideas don’t change things in and of themselves, but they can open us up to the possibility of changes we hadn’t been ready to imagine before.

Asking Lakoff to publish something like “Peace Metaphors for Dummies” would be a fatal oversimplification. Rather, let’s hope that his insights into cognition will help other researchers to find out why human reasoning comes to destructive conclusions.