Metaphorically Evolving

This post is part 3 of a series. Click for part 2 or part 1.

We are saturated by metaphor. From our language, to our thinking, to our core values, there is evidence of metaphors. In the last part of this series, we discussed how metaphor-based values are assigned priorities over one another. And lately, I’ve begun to wonder if we are in a priority reassigning revolution.

Do you know what a mid-life crisis is? I’m sure you do. But have you ever heard of a quarter-life crisis?

I graduated from college in 2013. I was 23 years old. That was when my own quarter-life crisis began. I didn’t know what to do with my life. I had desires and I had an idea of what was expected of me. But of course, they clashed.

At the time, I thought my inaction was due to my fear of the unknown laced with some kind of commitment phobia.

Beginning a career was a terrifying prospect–doing the same thing day in and day out for the rest of my life? Can’t that be found in the dictionary under “bone-chilling?” This was problematic.

To bring this back to the theme, let’s talk about a common metaphor: Time is money. We use it when we talk about “wasting our time,” “budgeting our time,” or asking someone how they “spend their time.” As far as priorities go, Time is money is one of the top time metaphors.

Or is it?

Embedded in this metaphor is the concept Time is valuable. I’ve had several discussions in the past few years that make me wonder if the priority we give these metaphors isn’t changing and if what we value is evolving. It seems that the lesson we want to teach children, that money isn’t everything, may finally be starting to stick. Is it possible that we are beginning to think Time is valuable, leaving out the material aspects of the metaphor, namely money?

How would this affect us? We use our time to gain wealth. But what if money was no object? What if we valued something more than money? How would you spend your time?

Time is money is a metaphor deeply entrenched in our culture and, therefore, in our personal values. To reassign its priority in our own psyche might take a lot of effort and it seems reasonable, that for a period, the two metaphors would clash and erupt in a mushroom cloud of cognitive dissonance? Is the quarter-life crisis a symptom of this conflict?

Recent graduates are about the age of full physical maturation, the brain included. This is the age people begin to truly think for themselves (or at least have the option to). Is it possible this is when metaphor priorities, the metaphors which determine our value system, get reassigned according to personal belief and experience?

“An era can be said to end when its basic illusions have been exhausted.”–Arthur Miller

Maybe we have exhausted the illusions within aspects of our culture and all that is left to do is revise our value system, which requires a rearrangement of our metaphor hierarchy.

I’m not saying that the Time is money metaphor will be disappearing anytime soon–I don’t think it can. But the frequency of quarter-life crises seems to be increasing, indicating that we are at some kind of tipping point…and I’m curious to see how the subconscious of society is going to change, how it is going to evolve.

Metaphorically Thinking

This post is part 2 of a series. Click for part 1.

In the first post of this series, we saw how metaphors not only show up in our everyday “literal” language, but how those metaphors help us make sense of the world. Furthermore, according to the Theory of Metaphorical Concepts, metaphors go as deep as structuring our value system.

Our cultural values are largely consistent with the metaphorical concepts we live by. Remember the metaphor Good is up, bad is down? Well here a few other metaphors we associate with the up orientation:

More is better originates from More is up (if good is up, then more must be good);

Bigger is better also originates from More is up; and

The future is better is consistent with The future is up.

Think about these metaphors and where we see them daily. Ever wanted more money? More time? More Facebook friends? Have you ever heard someone say they wanted a bigger TV? A bigger house? How about bigger…well, think plastic surgeon. And I know you’ve all heard political speeches that talk about how great the future is going to be. These values run deep in our cultural zeitgeist.

However, not everything is perfect. Sometimes values will conflict with each other, causing a conflict in our metaphorical construct of those values. In order to avoid conflict and misunderstanding, there is a hierarchy that gives specific metaphors priority over others.

The above examples are metaphors consistent with the More is up metaphor. Usually, we associate More is up and Good is up (as demonstrated). But can you think of anything going up as being a bad thing?

How about when we say the national debt is going up, or the crime rate is rising, or that tensions are high? We don’t perceive any of these notions as being particularly good. This is an indication that we give the More is up metaphor priority over the Good is up metaphor when they don’t reinforce each other.

Mainstream cultures share the same general values; but different subcultures assign different priorities to those values. Think hippies and politicians of the 1970s; they were part of the same mainstream culture, but were different subcultures that gave different values priority. And different people may even have unique priorities given their personal values.

So what metaphors do you see surfacing in your personal values?

Metaphorically Speaking

“Speaking? Don’t you mean metaphorically thinking?”

Metaphors fit the bill of today’s discussion. But don’t worry you second-hand journalists, you pitiful poets, you wanna-be literary gods, for this article isn’t for the writers of society and it isn’t about literary metaphors. It is about cognitive metaphors, those constructs through which we experience the world.

“Wait…metaphors aren’t just a tool of rhetoric?”

No, metaphors are a tool to understand one kind of thing or experience in terms of another. In short, we think in metaphors. This post will introduce two kinds of metaphors and illustrate how they appear in our everyday language.

Orientational metaphors give abstract concepts a spatial orientation. Compared to other classes of metaphors, these are special because they are grounded in our direct experience of the world. It is through our physical and cultural environments that these metaphors arise.

For example: Happy is up, sad is down.

Think about a particularly incredible day that you’ve had. It’s fair to assume that you were feeling great, walking with a spring in your step, your chin held high while you gazed up at the sky. What about the last time you were miserable though? Your shoulders were probably hunched while your chin rested on your chest, your eyes fixed on your feet as the soles of your shoes gradually wore away because of the way in which they dragged along. This is the physical basis of our first orientational metaphor. A happy person has erect, upward oriented posture while depression manifests as a sagging, limp posture.

So how does this metaphor manifest in everyday language? Have you ever said anything similar to “my spirits rose” or “that gave me a lift?” Those key words indicate an upward orientation. How about “I’m feeling down” or “I fell into a depression”? These words have a downward orientation. Have you ever thought about these simple phrases as being metaphors? If you’re anything like me, there’s not a chance. But don’t worry, we aren’t alone. Most people look right past these metaphors and actually consider comments like the ones above as being quite literal. This just shows how pervasive metaphor is in our language. Let’s look at another example.

Having control (or power) is up, being subject to control is down.

Ever been in a fight? Yeah, me neither. But we know what the end of any fight looks like; the victor is standing over the defeated as he bleeds (or cries in the case of the schoolyard…I’d hope there wouldn’t be blood) while laying on the ground. Do you see how the relative physical positions relate? The victor is above (up) the defeated (down).

So have you ever “had the upper hand” or “had control over the situation?” Ever “risen through the ranks?” I hope you can say yes to those and never have to experience a “decline or fall from power.” And I certainly hope you never find yourself “under someone else’s control.”

Again, orientational metaphors originate from our physical and cultural experiences and are so fundamental in our thinking that it can be difficult to find an alternative. Here are some more orientational metaphors. See if you can figure out the physical/cultural basis of each (you can get the first two no problem):

Conscious is up, unconscious down;

Health and life are up, disease and death are down (feeling “under the weather“, Flula?);

Good is up, bad is down;

Virtue is up, depravity down;

Rational is up, emotional down.

The second kind of metaphors we’ll cover are Ontological metaphors. These metaphors allow us to reflect on our experiences in terms of objects and substances, which can be treated as discrete entities. Conceiving everything as discrete allows us to refer to, quantify, group, and categorize them. But what do I mean by discrete? Let’s look at container metaphors, my favorite type of ontological metaphor.

We all have skin. It’s what separates the outside from our insides (our guts). We project this conception on everything we perceive as having a boundary, from forests and meadows, to roads and houses, and to countries and continents. And when entities are bounded, they have size and can be quantified by the amount of substance they hold. That’s why we say there is a “lot of land in China” and not China is made up of a lot of land. We perceive the land (the substance) as being contained by China (the container) even though the concept of “China” is an abstraction of the mind. And even though rocks can be a homogenous, it doesn’t stop us from “breaking them open to see the inside.” The inside is no different than the outside, except the outside is a boundary, so we perceive an in/out relationship (geodes are a cool exception to this example). And did your parents ever tell you not to “stand in the middle of the road?” They didn’t mind if you stood on it, just don’t stand in it.

The same holds true for our field of vision, as objects “move into and out of” our field of vision. Events and actions are perceived with the same metaphor as well. Have you ever “gotten out of doing work?” Or did you get “called in to work and have to drop out  of the race?” Again, our use of metaphor is pervasive.

Human cognition is fascinating and our use of metaphor in everyday thought and language was news to me. It’s interesting now to listen to conversations and pick out the metaphors, even when it’s me talking. If you want to learn more, check out Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, a book about the Theory of Metaphorical Concepts, which is where this material came from. If you don’t have the time to read the book, then stay tuned for future posts on metaphors; this one has only scratched the surface.

This post is part of series. Continue reading here.