Cognitive Science shows that metaphors don't just help us understand abstract
concepts, it turns out metaphors are our understanding of abstract
concepts. They are what we use when we think about things. They are what we use
to reason with. All well and good,... unless the metaphor happens to be wrong.
Using an incorrect metaphor to reason with can cause us to make poor, even
Here’s one example (the only example I know of so far, so we’ll go
with it). Consider the political difference between Progressives and
Conservatives. Many people use the mental image of a continuous line, with
progressive views on the left and conservative views on the right:
This is actually a metaphor we use to help us understand the abstract concept
of Progressives vs. Conservatives.1 Progressives are on the left,
Conservatives are on the right, and there is a continuum of opinions between
left and right. Reasoning using this conceptualization gives people the idea
that somewhere in the middle is a good balance, where we find people who are
neither fanatically way too conservative nor fanatically way too progressive.
Turns out this metaphor is wrong. There is no continuum between progressive and
conservative thought. There are simply two very different modes of thought:
there’s the progressive mode of thought, and there’s the
conservative mode of thought. There is nothing in between. A better way to
visualize this would be:
Progressives have a particular way of reasoning about the world.
Conservatives have a strikingly different way of reasoning about the
world. They are two strikingly different ways of reasoning about the
world—two strikingly different modes of thought used to make decisions
and determine what one should do.
One of the breakthroughs in Cognitive Science was discovering that
there is a common thought process behind all progressive views on all
the various seemingly completely unrelated issues, and likewise there
is a strikingly different common
thought process behind
all conservative views on all the various seemingly completely
Using the incorrect metaphor of a continuum, people may reason that to
gain some votes of voters on the other side we should move towards the
center. But the metaphor is wrong! There is no continuum. There is no
center. What “moving toward the center” ends up doing is
accepting the views of the other side on some of the issues. This is
exactly the wrong thing to do, as it just reinforces the other
side’s mode of thought.
Using an incorrect metaphor to reason with can cause people to make
poor, even disastrous decisions. By learning about metaphors and how
we use them to think and reason about abstract concepts, we can be more
consciously alert to the possibility that the metaphor we are using may
be wrong. There is also an even greater possible benefit — it may
actually be possible to trace and comprehend the thought process of
someone else who thinks differently than we do. This is the hope
offered by the new emerging 21st-Century Enlightenment.
1. The spectrum metaphor. The "political spectrum."
2. George Lakoff, The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand
21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain (2008).
The last chapter, which contains no politics, is an overview of the New
21st-Century Enlightenment we are entering. This chapter really is
superb, destined to be a classic that changes our philosophical
understanding of the world. And since philosophy determines government,
politics is a natural field to use for examples. This book is like
Isaac Newton's Principia. It's full of new knowledge, not about
what we think, but how we think. How we go about understanding
and reasoning abstract concepts. If I tried to summarize the book I'd
end up quoting the entire book. It really is that good.