Criticisms of Lakoff’s Theory of Metaphor

Posted on August 23, 2009 by Peter Turney

Lakoff’s theory of metaphor has been both highly praised and highly criticized. My own thinking about how the mind works has been greatly influenced by Lakoff’s books, yet I also agree with much of what his critics say. I would like to make a case here that his books are worth reading, although much of the criticism is correct.

These are the books by Lakoff and various co-authors that I have read:

I enthusiastically recommend all five of these books to anybody who has a strong interest in either cognition or language.

Below are excerpts from four opinions of the work of Lakoff and co-authors. After each excerpt, I give my reaction to the opinion.

I dislike Lakoff’s theory of metaphor, especially when compared to Sperber and Wilson’s. His work is deeply, purely speculative, which is fine, but he seems not to care at all about experimental controls, or even admit they’re an issue, which is not. And his manner of writing is most unpleasant, principally because it’s so grandiose (he’s overthrowing the whole tradition of western thought) and so dogmatic (e.g., he often writes “cognitive science has shown that” when what he means is “as I have often claimed, and many others vehemently denied”). I half suspect, given the subjects Lakoff is writing on, that he’s deliberately positioning himself to be the 21st-century version of Freud, the man who provides a educated non-specialists with a scientific-sounding vocabulary for mental life. But I hasten to add that (a) I really have no evidence for that, and (b) Lakoff is in person polite, affable and well-spoken. Still, it’s very hard for me to force myself all the way through one of his books. — Cosma Rohilla Shalizi, Analogy and Metaphor

It is true that Lakoff does not seem interested in experimental controls, but other researchers have been working to address this problem. See Chapter 6 of Philosophy in the Flesh for many references. It is also true that Lakoff is often grandiose and dogmatic, and he neglects to cite much related work, such as the work of Dedre Gentner and her colleagues. However, his basic claims, stripped of their abrasive presentation, are insightful and fruitful. If you can focus on the ideas and ignore the style of presentation, there is much to learn from Lakoff’s books.

No one has a problem with the idea that the lens of an eye and the lens of a telescope are two instances of the general category “lens,” rather than the telescope being a “metaphor” for the eye. Nor is there anything metaphorical going on when we refer to “the genetic code”: a code by now is an information-theoretic term for a mapping scheme, and it subsumes cryptograms and DNA as special cases. But do cognitive psychologists use the computer as a “metaphor” for the mind, or (as I believe) can it be said that the mind literally engages in computation, and that the human mind and commercial digital computers are two exemplars of the category “computational system”?

So the ubiquity of metaphor in language does not mean that all thought is grounded in bodily experience, nor that all ideas are merely rival frames rather than verifiable propositions. Conceptual metaphors can be learned and used only if they are analyzed into more abstract elements like “cause,” “goal,”, and “change,” which make up the real currency of thought. And the methodical use of metaphor in science shows that metaphor is a way of adapting language to reality, not the other way around, and that it can capture genuine laws in the world, not just project comfortable images onto it.


Though metaphors are omnipresent in language, many of them are effectively dead in the minds of today’s speakers, and the living ones could never be learned, understood, or used as a reasoning tool unless they were built out of more abstract concepts that capture the similarities and differences between the symbol and the symbolized. For this reason, conceptual metaphors do not render truth and objectivity obsolete, nor do they reduce philosophical, legal, and political discourse to a beauty contest between rival frames.

Still, I think that metaphor really is a key to explaining thought and language. The human mind comes equipped with an ability to penetrate the cladding of sensory appearance and discern the abstract construction underneath — not always on demand, and not infallibly, but often enough and insightfully enough to shape the human condition. Our powers of analogy allow us to apply ancient neural structures to newfound subject matter, to discover hidden laws and systems in nature, and not least, to amplify the expressive power of language itself. — Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought

Pinker agrees that metaphor is important, but he believes that abstraction is more important. He claims that abstraction captures the similarities and differences that are the basis of metaphor. However, Pinker neglects to explain how abstraction works. I believe that metaphor (more precisely, analogy-making) is the basis for abstraction. First we observe an analogy, such as the analogy between water waves and sound waves, and then we form an abstraction, wave theory, which includes both types of waves. Later we add light waves. Abstraction does not subsume metaphor, because analogy precedes abstraction and is the basis for abstraction.

Whereas the authors devote 44 pages to Chomsky, they cover all of “Anglo-American analytic philosophy” in 29 pages, while lumping together Frege, Russell, Carnap and the Vienna Circle, Quine, Goodman, Davidson, Putnam, Kripke, Montague, and Lewis. In the same chapter, they continue with ordinary language philosophy (Strawson, Austin, and the later Wittgenstein), which they consider to be based on the same metaphors. Yet these philosophers have expressed widely divergent views on the embodiment of mind, the nature of language, and Chomsky’s theory of autonomous syntax. By drawing finer distinctions, the authors might have claimed some of them as potential allies against Chomsky’s position. — John Sowa, Review of Philosophy in the Flesh

Like Shalizi, Sowa criticizes Lakoff’s presentation. Yes, Lakoff distorts the work of others and exaggerates the novelty of his own work. Yes, his ideas could be presented more clearly, more fairly, and with better discussion of related work. Nonetheless, if you can ignore these problems with presentation, you will find many interesting ideas in the work of Lakoff and his co-authors.

Lakoff and Nuñez have a very interesting general framework for approaching their topic: mathematics arises by the extension of innate human capacities (e.g. subitization) or basic universals of human experience (spatial and motor experience), and the means of extension is cognitive metaphors which preserve the basic inferential structure of the source domain. The first few chapters provide a plausible sounding, perhaps workable account of arithmetic, simple logic and set theory, but one that they should have developed in far more detail (e.g. their account of intersection in terms of container schemas is criminally underexplained).


In short, they have very interesting ideas, but the mass of technical vagueness and blunders, plus the big strawman that is their “philosophical” argument, suggests that they are more interested in passing off as intellectual revolutionaries among the pop-science book audience than in contributing to our understanding of the topic. — Idiosyncrat, Review of Where Mathematics Comes From

The final sentence of this review serves as a good summary: the ideas are very interesting, but the presentation of the ideas is impaired by a desire to seem revolutionary, at the cost of fairness, balance, rigour, and careful discussion of related work. For me, ultimately, ideas trump presentation. Until there is a better source for these ideas, I recommend Lakoff’s books.