How We Really Think About Religion and Politics: The Power of Metaphors

May 17, 2006 | By | 3 Replies More

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

The above is an excerpt from “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” a poem on which John Godfrey re-told an ancient Indian fable that serves as an allegory. The lesson is this: the lens through which we view reality accentuates some features while downplaying others.  It must be this way, because we are creatures of limited attentional capacities. 

Metaphors are the lenses through which we view our world.  In abstract fields like religion and politics, the use of metaphors isn’t just fanciful (although it can be fanciful); the use of metaphors is absolutely necessary to understand abstract concepts.  Further, research has shown that the use of conceptual metaphors is systematic, not ad hoc. 

Just as physics students understand the flow of electricity by reference to the flow of water, the rest of us use metaphors to understand our own abstract concepts (e.g., in the fields of religion and politics).  More important, without metaphors, we would have no meaningful understanding of most abstract concepts.  Therefore, whenever we discuss any abstract concept, we are compelled to relentlessly engage in the use of metaphors–there is no other way to talk or write about such things. 

Not convinced? What does this matter? Read on and consider the examples.  This was literally and truly a life-changing idea for me.

In Metaphors We Live By (1980), Mark Johnson and George Lakoff stated that “the essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.”  Johnson and Lakoff have found that metaphors are actually pervasive in thought and action, not just language.  “Conceptual” metaphors are the foundation for the way we think and function.  They structure our actions and thoughts.  “They are ‘alive’ in the most fundamental sense:  they are metaphors we live by.” (Lakoff/Johnson 1980 p.55). 

In sum, Johnson/Lakoff claim that we understand (and talk about) things like:

Love, Time, Justice, Ideas, Understanding, Causation, Arguments, Labor, Happiness, Health, Control, Status, Justice and Morality

In terms of things like:

Physical Orientations (such as going in or leaving an enclosed space), Physical Movement, Geographic Spaces, Objects, Substances, Seeing, Journeys, War, Possessions, Forces, Barriers, Part-Whole relations, Grasping,
Madness, Food, Buildings, Encountering Physical Obstacles and even Giving Birth

For you skeptics out there, consider the following three factual assertions:

Harry is in the kitchen.
Harry is in the Army.
Harry is in love.

These sentences refer to three domains of experience: spatial, social and emotional.  The first sentence is not metaphorical.  The second sentence is a metaphorical sentence based on our (intuitive) understanding that SOCIAL GROUPS ARE CONTAINERS.  We can “get a handle on” what it means to be part of a social group by spatializing it.   The third sentence is also a metaphor, because the emotional experience of “love” can also be conceptualized as a PLACE WITH BOUNDARIES.  Hence, Harry is in love.

What is an “argument?”  Lakoff and Johnson found that we think of arguments very much the same way we think of wars:

  • Your claims are indefensible.
  • He attacked every weak point in my argument.
  • His criticisms were right on target.
  • I demolished this argument.
  • I’ve never won an argument with him.
  • You disagree?  OK, shoot!
  • If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
  • He shot down all my arguments.

We use metaphors to understand and experience one kind of thing in terms of another kind of thing.  As shown above, our concept of argument is metaphorically structured in terms of war.  This use metaphorical language is not poetic, fanciful or rhetorical.  It is literal use of language. 

We understand arguments by stretching our understanding of war to higher level human interactions.  We talk about arguments using war terms because we conceive of arguments much like we conceive of war.  Lakoff and Johnson argue that if we didn’t conceive of arguments like we conceive of war, we would have only a vague and impoverished understanding of arguments.  Perhaps we wouldn’t understand them at all.  “Metaphor is not just a matter of language, that is, of mere words. . . . human thought processes are largely metaphorical.” (Lakoff, Johnson 1980, p. 6). 

What kinds of things do we understand primarily through conceptual metaphors?  Things outside of immediate experience, things such as “human emotions, abstract concepts, mental activity, time, work, human institutions, social practices . . .” (Lakoff, Johnson 1980, 177).   

Not all thoughts are based upon metaphor, of course.  When I say that I planted a tree or that my daughter lost her favorite toy, I’m not using metaphors.  Our understandings of most higher-order human thoughts, however, those that involve subjective experience and judgment, heavily depend on metaphor.

And not every metaphor “works.”  Consider this explanation of how the brain works, spoken by a doctor in one of the Monty Python skits:

The human brain is like an enormous fish. It’s flat and slimy, and has gills through which it can see. Should one of these gills fail to open the messages transmitted by the lungs don’t reach the brain. It’s as simple as that.

Sometimes, we combine metaphors into a complex metaphor.  What is communication?  We commonly used three metaphors to understand communication.  Consider these three:


Lakoff and Johnson describe the process of communication as follows: “the speaker puts ideas (objects) into words (containers) and sends them (along a conduit) to a hearer who takes the idea/objects out of the word containers.  To illustrate this point, they present the following list:

  • It’s hard to get that idea across to him.
  • I gave you that idea.
  • Your reasons came through to us.
  • It’s difficult to put my ideas into words.
  • When you have a good idea, try to capture it immediately in words.
  • Try to pack more stuff into fewer words.
  • You can’t simply stuff ideas into a sentence any old way.
  • The meaning is right there in the words.
  • Don’t force your meanings into the wrong words.
  • His words carry little meaning.
  • Your words seem hollow. 
  • The idea is buried in dense paragraphs.

We also rely on metaphors based upon body orientation.  For example, our bodies that function best in an upright position.  Hence, the following metaphors:


I’m feeling up.  That boosted my spirits.  My spirits rose.  You are in high spirits.  Thinking about her always gives me a lift.  I’m feeling down.  I’m depressed.  He’s really low these days.  I fell into a depression.  My spirits sank.


He’s at the peak of health.  Lazarus rose from the dead.  He’s in top shape.  As to his health, he’s way up there.  He fell ill.  He’s sinking fast.  He came down with the flu.  His health is declining.  He dropped dead.


I have control over her.  I am on top of the situation.  He’s in a superior position.  He’s at the height of his power.  He’s in high command.  He’s in the upper echelon.  He ranks above me in strength.  The Supreme court shall decide.  It is the highest court. He is under my control.  He fell from power.  His power is on the decline.  He is my social inferior.  He is low man on the totem pole.  He’s under her thumb. They will send that case back down to the trial court.

The above examples aren’t exhaustive.  They are the tip of the iceberg (metaphor intended!). Even our understanding of logic is based on metaphors.  Consider “All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal.” As Richard Posner pointed out, the first premise presents a box labeled “all men,” in which each of the contents is labeled “mortal” and one of those is labeled “Socrates.” Posner concluded: “[W]e find the syllogism compelling by virtue of a metaphor, the metaphor of the box. (odd that one should “prove” the truth of logic by a metaphor!)” Posner, “The Jurisprudence of Skepticism,” 86 Mich L. Rev 827, 830 (1988).

The use of these metaphors is not willy-nilly.  The use of such metaphors doesn’t mean anything goes. We use metaphors systematically.  Because the numbers of basic conceptual metaphors are limited (several dozen of them go along way), they actually structure our understanding of the world.  Research has shown that conceptual metaphors are found in all languages.

Many abstract concepts can be understood only in terms of several metaphors. Mixing conflicting metaphors leads to confusion, though mixing coherent metaphors illuminates concepts.   For instance, I sometimes hear the phrase: “It’s all downhill from here.”  Does that phrase mean that it will be easy (because gravity will work with us) or that it will be a bad outcome (because down is associated with bad outcomes)? I’ve avoided using that expression because of that confusion. Many political, legal and religious disputes center on the choice of the most appropriate metaphor, where conflicting metaphors are available.

Again, for conceptually rich and socially important domains like “love,” we need multiple metaphorical mappings to adequately reason and talk about that experience.  Love can be conventionally conceptualized as any of the following:  a journey, a physical force, an illness, magic, madness, union, closeness, nurturance, giving of oneself, complementary parts of a single object and heat.  Johnson and Lakoff hold that such metaphorical pluralism is actually the norm. “We find all of our most important abstract philosophical concepts, including time, causation, morality and the mind conceptualized by multiple metaphors, sometimes as many as two dozen.” (Johnson/Lakoff 1980).

Consider marriage, as another example. 

A marriage, for example, can be understood metaphorically in many ways: as a partnership, as a journey through life together to reach common life goals, as a union of two individuals forming a third entity, as a container that the spouses are in, as a means for growth, as a haven from the outside world, as a form of salvation, as a institution that the spouses become a part of, and so on. How one thinks about a marriage depends on the metaphors used. If you think of a marriage as a partnership, then things go wrong when there is not an equal sharing of work and benefits. If you think of a marriage as a means for growth, then things go wrong when at least one spouse is not “growing.” 


Causation has a literal skeletal structure “that is so minimal and impoverished that hardly any significant inferences can be drawn from it.” See Philosophy in the Flesh, p. 176. At the center of this skeleton is the following prototypical case of causation:  the direct volitional application of force resulting in motion or physical change.

In the courtroom, though, causation can be based on a wide variety of metaphors. One such common metaphor is forced motion, which is associated with verbs like push, pull, bring, send, and so on, as in sentences such as “They pushed her into signing the contract”; Causation is also understood in terms of links (e.g., “Vioxx has been linked to heart attacks”), giving and taking (e.g., “Witnessing the incident gave me PTSD), sources (e.g., “He died from toxic exposure.”); Each of these forms of causation expresses itself in a particular form of reasoning.

Causation “is best understood as an experiential gestalt,” a concept where the whole seems more basic than the parts. (Lakoff, Johnson 1980, 70). The basic sensory-motor experience on which all legal conceptions of “cause” rely:  physical manipulation. As babies, we pull off our blanket and we drop our spoons.  As adults, we flip light switches, close doors and button our shirts.  These are prototypical cases of causation, where an agent plans for a physical goal, and successfully carries it out physically.  But real life causation involves extensions from this prototype.   They include “action at a distance, nonhuman agency, the use of an intermediate agent, the occurrence of two or more agents, and involuntary or uncontrolled processes.  Causes can be links, paths, sources, forces, correlations, probabilities and essences.  Causes are, in essence, a wide range of creatively construed explanations, each of them ultimately anchored as set forth in the following section.

The Biological Foundation for Metaphors

On what do we base conceptual metaphors?  According to Johnson and Lakoff metaphors naturally flow from “image-schemas,” the sensory-motor experiences that we learn from repeated physical experiences concerning space, time, moving, controlling, and other core elements of embodied human experience (think of your viceral understanding of such things as Balance, Part-Whole, Objects, Source-Path-Goal, Force-Barrier and Container). 

We instantly and viscerally recognize these basic situations whenever we encounter them. They are so commonly encountered and so easily recognized that they provide deep and intuitive structure for our thinking process. We build our conceptual metaphors on top of these image-schemas. Evidence for these image schemas derives from work in psychology, spatial cognition, linguistics, psychology and neuroscience.  Embodied cognition is a theory that pertains to our ability to understand all subjective experiences and abstract concepts.  

Alternate theories of word meaning fail to ground word meaning. These “amodal” theories hold (one way or the other) that words can have meaning merely by reference to other words and, ultimately, without reference to our sensory-motor routines.  But it makes no sense that human beings could understand the meaning of words by simply referring to other words (or to nothing).  The refer-to-other-words argument is a fatally flawed eternal regress.  To compare amodal theories with embodied cognition, see this article by Larry Barsalou et al.

Under the Johnson/Lakoff approach, all linguistic meaning derives, directly or indirectly, from sensory-motor experience.  For terms involving abstract thinking or subjectivity, words are meaningful only insofar that we stretch sensory-motor experiences (these exist in the form of what Johnson and Lakoff would term “image schemas”) through the use of the imagination, usually through metaphor.

Machiavellian Uses of Metaphors

Metaphors allow us to understand concepts by mapping from a more familiar source domain, to the more ethereal target domain. They are therefore helpful, even necessary, for communicating many legal concepts. Metaphors can also be misleading, however. As philosopher Monroe Beardsley warns:

The trouble with metaphors is that they have a strong pull on our fancy . . . A metaphor can be extremely helpful to thought, when it suggests an analogy that opens up new lines of inquiry; but if the image is strong and colorful, it can fasten itself upon us and control our thinking too rigidly.

Monroe C. Beardsley, Thinking Straight 38-39 (2d ed. 1950). Metaphors are models.  Like all models, they accentuate certain features of the world and downplay others.  Metaphors are therefore tools for focusing limited human attention capacity toward certain aspects of the world and away from others. 

There is a Middle-eastern saying:  “If you allow the camel’s nose under the tent, the entire camel is soon inside the tent.”   An argument is a camel and a metaphor is the camel’s nose. 

The reason that metaphors are powerful is that they take advantage of the confirmation bias. In Inevitable Illusions:  How Mistakes of Reason rule Our Minds, M.P. Palmarini writes that: 

There is a psychological law that has been endlessly confirmed, even among professionals and experts, among doctors, psychiatrists, judges, teachers . . .:  When someone is convinced of a positive correlation, however illusory that correlation can objectively be shown to be, that person will always find new confirmations and justify why it should be so . . . [W]e are naturally and spontaneously verifiers rather than falsifiers.

We constantly seek confirmation of our own hypotheses, because we become anchored by them and overconfident in them.  The confirmation bias consists of the tendency to “seek out evidence which confirms rather than contradicts current beliefs . . .” Choice of a metaphor sets the stage for confirming that metaphor.  Evidence inconsistent with that metaphor will become less salient.

Many people cautioning the use of metaphors would rather we instead stick with the careful, emotionally detached use of reason.  Responding to the Enlightenment claim that Reason itself is “rigorous, linear, cool, and unemotional,” Steven Winter has pointed out that such a claim actually proclaims the metaphorical quality of reason:  “reason is cold; it is rigorous; it is linear; it is clear; it is felt.  Indeed, in its dependence on embodied experiences like temperature and rigor, the metaphorical quality of reason is anything but detached and impersonal.” Steven L. Winter, “Death is the Mother of Metaphor,” 105 HARV. L. REV., 745, 749 (1991).

George Lakoff and Mark Turner assert “[t]he things most alive in our conceptual system are those things that we use constantly, unconsciously and automatically.” George Lakoff & Mark Turner, More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor xi (1989) p. 62.  We invoke conceptual metaphors to understand (not only to communicate) about emotion, society, human character, language, life and death.  It’s no surprise, then, that metaphors are so often invoked in the fields of law, religion and politics.

If we don’t keep tabs on the metaphors we encounter, they will quietly yet firmly take us down particular paths of argument, to the exclusion of others. Failure to scrutinize metaphors can lock us into one conceptualization of the issue as though it is the only conceptualization.  To do this is to commit the potentially serious error Lakoff and Johnson term “reification.”


Humans are prolific users of words.  Being aware of the highly metaphorical nature of language can help us to evaluate arguments.  Where can particular arguments lead and what are their limits?

Some of our biggest disputes are metaphor-intensive.  “Proofs” for the existence of the existence of God, for example, are squarely based on conceptual metaphors.  All parties to these disputes should revisit their positions in light of these findings on conceptual metaphor.

Attending to metaphors makes language come alive and exposes the incredible richness of our language.

Being aware of the metaphors lurking behind our arguments can help us avoid mixing incompatible metaphors and to use, instead, arguments that reinforce each other.

Last but not least: Awareness of metaphors underlying arguments helps with the proper use of prepositions!


1. Metaphors We Live By, by Mark Johnson and George Lakoff. (2003).
2. Philosophy in the Flesh, by Mark Johnson and George Lakoff (1999).
3. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason, by Mark Johnson (1990).
4. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, by George Lakoff (1987).
5. Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics, by Mark Johnson (1993).
6. A Clearing in the Forest: Law, Life, and Mind, by Steven Winter (2003).
7. “Transcendental Nonsense, Metaphoric Reasoning, and the Cognitive Stakes for Law, 137 Univ. of Pennsylvania Law Rev 1007 (1989).


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Category: Language, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Cynthia Jay says:

    Most prepositions refer primarily to positions in space: up, down, in, out, around, with, so their use infers metaphor.

    I must look up the distinction between metaphor and analogy.

    It is interesting that a school of Christian thought considered/considers all the features of creation as metaphors for the divine: the delicacy of the flower or the inner ear, the fury and awesomness of the volcano, the immensity of the heavens. Hopkins wrote a poem on "Our Lady compared to the air we breathe".

    I took tennis lessons in Nantucket some twenty years ago, and was amazed at how my instructions, like Hamlet, were full of quotations: "Don't lose your grip", "keep your eye on the ball", etc. Swimming: "coming up for air", J"don't hold your breath" "go with the flow".

    I have always been fond of floating metaphors", events, actions or objects that seem to have an unspecified metaphorical content. Two people sitting on the beach, untangling kite strings.

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