The Other Side: Criticism of the Conceptual Metaphor

Like any novel cognitive theory, conceptual metaphors have their fair share of critics. Ranging from the theoretical basis of assuming metaphors to be conceptual rather than grounded in diction to the implications of metaphor (or cognitive mapping) being a mode of cognition and not a phenomenon of language, conceptual metaphors garner all different ranges of criticism.

Verena Haser cautions against the careless adoption of conceptual metaphors as a valid concept through investigating the difference between metonymy and metaphor—metonymy generally refers to a referential relationship in which one word is replaced with another linked term (e.g. the pen is mightier than the sword, the prince will inherit the crown, etc.) (Haser). Lakoff and Johnson preemptively answer this question by stating that cognitive mapping requires that two or more entities of the target domain be mapped onto the source domain whereas metonymy requires no structural correspondence (Lakoff and Johnson). For example, when one speaks of love as a journey, one uses phrases such as “look how far we’ve come”, “our relationship is off-track”, and “we are spinning our wheels”. These three phrases indicate that love as a whole resembles that of a journey; whereas when someone speaks of “drink a glass”, the word used (the container/the glass itself) and the intended word (the content of the glass) are not similar in any other instance. However, Lakoff and Johnson’s definition seems to be more arbitrary and conducive for their theory than some clear-cut academic standard. The status of metonymy is certainly very vague in current cognitive linguistic studies: it has been identified and studied as a conceptual phenomenon, incorporated into non-literal speech acts, and sometimes even outside of language as a whole.

Another core criticism of the conceptual metaphor theory arises out of the generality and assumptions of its source and target domains: when one investigates the argument-is-war metaphor as a conceptual one, one has to assume that words like “demolish”, “destroy”, and “win” belong exclusively to the domain of WAR when that isn’t necessarily or historically the case. Haser even offers alternative groupings such as ARGUMENT IS GAME-PLAYING and ARGUMENT IS PHYSICAL FIGHTING—she uses these crude alternatives to illustrate the unreliability of assuming that one can categorize words into specific conceptual domains that do not overlap by nature (Haser).

Gregory Murphy launches an investigation in 1996 regarding the profundity of the implications of conceptual metaphors: he proposes a strong model and a weak model of interpretations (Murphy). The strong version proposes that one’s conceptual understanding of the world is metaphorically constructed, while the weak version suggests that both source and target domain are represented—in other words, one’s metaphorization of the two domains influences how one views both (Murphy). Both proposals are under suspicion for their lack of substantive data and thus find themselves with low credibility amongst cognitive psychologists.

Conceptual metaphor, with all its glory and mysticism, has certainly struck a chord in the cognitive linguistics community; however, it can be overarchingly difficult to provide objective and replicable data for a theory that asserts an almost-ambitious ubiquitousness and pervasiveness in language.


Works Cited

  1. Haser, Verena. Metaphor, Metonymy, and Experientialist Philosophy: Challenging Cognitive Semantics. Mouton De Gruyter, 2005.

  2. Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996.

  3. Murphy, Gregory L. “On Metaphoric Representation.” Cognition, vol. 60, no. 2, 1 Aug. 1996, pp. 173–204., doi:10.1016/0010-0277(96)00711-1.