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Metaphor and embodiment in Education

Metaphor and Basic Concepts

 Lakoff and Johnson (1980; 1999) argue that human beings rely extensively upon metaphorical reasoning when learning or developing an understanding of unfamiliar concepts.

Imagine, for instance, trying to explain to a child the meaning of election. Drawing a connection between election and a concept the child already understands, like foot race, makes the job easier. The “elections are races” metaphor provides a kind of scaffolding for introducing and explaining the content of the election concept. Candidates are like runners hoping to win the race. They will adopt various strategies. They must be careful not to start too fast or they might burn out before reaching the finish line. It’s about endurance through the long stretch—more a marathon than a sprint. Some will play dirty, trying to trip others up, knocking them off their stride. There will be sore losers but also graceful winners. Appeal to the content of a familiar concept—foot race—provides the child with a framework or stance for learning the unfamiliar concept—election.

The next step toward the embodiment of concepts proceeds with the observation that, through pain of regress, not all concepts can be acquired through metaphorical scaffolding.

There must be a class of basic concepts that (if not innate) we learn some other way. Lakoff and Johnson argue that these basic concepts derive from the kinds of “direct physical experience” (1980: 57) that come from moving a human body through the environment. The concept up, for instance, is basic, emerging from possession of a body that stands erect, so that “[a]lmost every movement we make involves a motor program that either changes our up-down orientation, maintains it, presupposes it, or takes it into account in some way” (1980, 56). Lakoff and Johnson offer a similar account for how human beings come to possess concepts like front, back, pushing, pulling, and so on.

Basic concepts reflect the idiosyncrasies of particular kinds of bodies. Insofar as less-basic concepts depend upon metaphorical extensions of these most basic concepts, they will in turn reflect the idiosyncrasies of particular kinds of bodies. All concepts, Lakoff and Johnson appear to believe, are “stamped” with the body’s imprint as the characteristics of the body “trickle up” into more abstract concepts. They thus arrive at Conceptualization: “the peculiar nature of our bodies shapes our very possibilities for conceptualization and categorization” (1999, 19). Insofar as this is true, one should expect that differently-bodied organisms, equipped with a different class of basic concepts, would conceptualize and categorize their worlds in nonhuman ways.


Metaphors are ways of understanding and describing abstract phenomena in terms of something that is more tangible.

Metaphors are not only as consciously and creatively used phrases, but as a powerful cognitive phenomenon where our every-day use of language both reflects and affects our thinking in ways that often remain subconscious.

Metaphors are selective in the sense that they can highlight particular aspects of the life experience and background others.

 Attentiveness to the personal narrative, including the experiences and perceptions, is a central element of the educational process in a person-centered approach. The use of metaphors is believed to be significant in the development of a common language which can enrich the relationship between the participant and the educator, as long as the learners’ own use of metaphors is allowed to guide the communication.


George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in the book Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, discuss how we use metaphor to structure our perceptions. One complex metaphor is of life as a journey, like a train trip with a timetable and destinations. You have expectations and assumptions. You imagine that to have a meaningful life you need goals and a plan and you need to stick to it.

And this journey is tied to a concept and identification of self as a traveler, the hero, saint or sinner on the journey. But this “self” transcends “me.” It is a cultural artifact, embedded in a cultural story in which this journey of a self comes alive. We imagine this self is who we are. Thus we might think we are the way others see us, or we think we are the persona or face we live for others. We think we are this traveler identified by cultural destinations like school, marriage, job. This self is a cultural identity as much as a personal one.

 We do the same with understanding our own mind and experience. We have this cultural metaphor that mind is the same as the brain or somehow lives in the brain. Maybe we imagine the mind travels in the brain like a passenger on a train, some in first class, some in coach, and we imagine this is just the state of nature, not the state of cultural metaphor.

 So when I felt the urge to rebel and couldn’t figure out how to make the transition from college to job, to support myself in a way I found ethical and meaningful, I could no longer stay on schedule. I panicked. I felt a sense of dread. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t find a way to make a living. I wasn’t just a traveler who had missed his/her train. My very sense of self seemed to dissolve. The underside of the life-as-a-journey metaphor was exposed. When before I was “on track” I was now “off track.” I was “lost.” I had fallen off the train. Confusion was not an acknowledged train stop.

 But after falling off the train, I eventually began to see the metaphor as a metaphor. I began to see the implications. If love, success and retirement were the big destinations on the train route, then wasn’t birth the first stop and death the last? The existential shook up the cultural. There was a whole universe of moments I was missing by focusing on destinations instead of feeling the motion of the train and the colors, scents, relationships of all the beings riding along with me.

 My mind is not a passenger riding my brain. It is the whole landscape of meaning in which I come alive.

It is embedded not only in a body and a culture, but a universe.

So, if one way to understand our lives is with metaphor, what is the metaphor we want to live? What story or poem do we want to write with our life? And we need to re-write the cultural story to include the “gap years,” time to “find yourself” or time to step off the train and ride a camel on the silk road. Time to value restructuring society instead of just fitting in.



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