Metaphor Is Narrative

The Nature Of Metaphor

Just for fun, let me open today’s discussion with a few aphorisms:

  1. It feels more natural to say “her smile is warm” than “her body warmth is a smile”. Metaphor is asymmetrical. 
  2. Abstraction is wedded to metaphor.
  3. Inference flows from the concrete to the abstract. Metaphor relocates inference.
  4. The flow of inference is constrained. When we say “that lawyer is a shark” our brains decide which of our shark inferences are relevant.
  5. Idiom is a form of metaphor. Like idiom, metaphor can go stale.
  6. Metaphor relocates affect, even after the stream of inference dries up.
  7. Metaphor imbues communication with affective flair or style.
  8. Metaphors are hierarchical, with complex themes (e.g., “a Purposeful Life is a Journey”) made of smaller metaphors.
  9. In my language, I say that metaphor is narrative. That is, weaving metaphorical hierarchies is narrative paint.
  10. Metaphor is not yet differentiated sufficiently to compose well with the rest of cognitive science.

Primary Sensorimotor Metaphor

Okay, time to delve a little deeper. Consider the following metaphors.

  1. Affection Is Warmth (“her smile is warm”)
  2. Important is Big (“tomorrow is a big day”)
  3. Happy Is Up (“I feel uplifted”)
  4. Intimacy Is Closeness (“we’re beginning to drift apart”)
  5. Bad Is Stinky (“this artist stinks”)
  6. Difficulties Are Burdens (“finals are weighing me down”)
  7. More Is Up (“prices are high”)
  8. Categories Are Containers (“do tomatoes go in the fruit category?)
  9. Similarity Is Closeness (“these colors are close”)
  10. Linear Scales Are Paths (“your IQ goes well beyond mine”)
  11. Organization Is Physical Structure (“how do the pieces of this theory fit together”)
  12. Help Is Support (“support your local charity”)
  13. Time Is Motion (“time flies”)
  14. States Are Locations (“close to having an anxiety attack”)
  15. Change Is Motion (“car has gone from bad to worse”)
  16. Actions Are Self-Propelled Motions (“my project is moving along”)
  17. Purposes Are Destinations (“I’m not where I wanted to be”)
  18. Purposes Are Desired Objects (“grab the opportunity”)
  19. Causes Are Physical Forces (“pushed the bill through Congress”)
  20. Relationships Are Enclosures (“this feels confining”)
  21. Control Is Up (“I’m on top of it”)
  22. Knowing Is Seeing (“see what you mean”)
  23. Understanding Is Grasping (“gotten my mind around imaginary numbers”)
  24. Seeing Is Touching (“pick my face out of the crowd”)

What similarities between these metaphors do you see? [Footnote 1] Well, these questions are all unidirectional, and explain abstract concepts by appealing to more down-to-earth domains. What do I mean by down-to-earth? Well, all of the above examples appeal to perceptual or motor phenomena!

In terms of the human brain, perceptual and motor (“sensorimotor”) systems tend to reside in the cortical homunculus. In terms of the human memory hierarchy, these types of concepts tend to arise in procedural memory.

Primary Metaphor In Other Memory Systems

Now, human memory contains more than just procedural memory. We can use our understanding of other memory systems to predict other kinds of primary metaphor.

  • “Lawyers are sharks” might be better explained by appealing to a culturally-ubiquitous item of semantic memory
  • The Biblical metaphor “Sinners are tax collectors” would plausibly draw from a culturally-ubiquitous item of episodic memory.
  • Since autobiographical memories are not culturally ubiquitous, we might predict a more personal taste to this type of metaphor.

Metaphor Composition Is Narrative Paint

Human beings conceptualize abstract objects by bringing many primary metaphors into a complex whole. Let me pull an example from Lakoff & Johnson: the concept of Time [Footnote 2].

The Time Orientation Metaphor looks like this:

  • The Location Of The Observer → The Present
  • The Space In Front Of The Observer → The Future
  • The Space Behind The Observer → The Past

Examples: That’s all behind us now. We’re looking forward to your presentation. He has a great future in front of him.

The Moving Time Metaphor interprets times to be objects and the passage of time to be the motion of objects past the observer.  This metaphor really finds its legs when composed with the Time Orientation metaphor. The Time Orientation + Moving Time complex metaphor, then, looks like this:

  • The Location Of The Observer → The Present
  • The Space In Front Of The Observer → The Future
  • The Space Behind The Observer → The Past
  • Objects → Times
  • Motion Of Objects Past The Observer → The “Passage” Of Time

Examples: The time will come when there are no more typewriters. The time has long since gone when you could mail a letter for three cents. The time for action has arrived. Thanksgiving is coming up on us. Time is flying by. Let’s meet the future head-on.

But abstractions like time are typically underwritten by more than one can of narrative paint. In this case, the Moving Observer Metaphor alternatively imagines location on the observer’s path as times, and the motion of the observer as the passage of time. Here is the Time Orientation + Moving Observer complex metaphor, in full detail:

  • The Location Of The Observer → The Present
  • The Space In Front Of The Observer → The Future
  • The Space Behind The Observer → The Past
  • Locations On Path Observer’s Path   → Times
  • Motion Of The Observer → The “Passage” Of Time
  • Distance Moved By Observer → The Amount Of Time “Passed”

Examples: There’s going to be trouble down the road. What will be the length of his visit? Let’s spread the conference over two weeks. We passed the deadline. We’re halfway through September. His visit to Russia extended over many years.


Today, I gave you examples of “primary” metaphor, which in this case were grounded in the human perceptual/motor systems. Abstract concepts are made by gluing primary metaphors together like Legos. I also left you with several aphorisms, including:

  • Metaphor relocates inference.
  • Metaphor imbues communication with affective flair or style.
  • Weaving metaphorical hierarchies is narrative paint.


  1. This question (“do you see”) nicely illustrates primary sensorimotor metaphor #22.
  2. Source: For reasons outside the scope of this post, I cannot endorse this text, but I did find its presentation of complex metaphor useful.

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