In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Metaphor

  • Introduction
  • Anthologies
  • History of Metaphor Theory
  • The Rediscovery of Metaphor, 1955–1980
  • Conceptual Metaphor Theory
  • Psychological Approaches and Metaphors in Psychology
  • Cognitive-Neuroscience Research
  • Conceptual Blending Theory
  • Literature
  • Morality, Law, and Politics
  • Philosophy, Mathematics, and Science
  • Nonlinguistic Metaphor
  • Religion and Culture

Linguistics Metaphor
Mark Johnson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0167


For nearly 2,500 years, since the time of Aristotle, scholars assumed that metaphor was simply a matter of language—cases in which a word with a literal meaning could have a second meaning, which Aristotle claimed was “similar” to the first. According to this comparison theory, any cognitive content a metaphor might have would supposedly be reducible to a set of literal similarity statements. Consequently, while metaphors were seen as powerful rhetorical and poetic devices of language, they were deemed nonessential for stating fundamental truth claims, which could supposedly be reduced to literal concepts and propositions. During the last half of the 20th century, however, this dominant Aristotelian perspective was shown to be wrong. A growing body of cognitive-science research on meaning, conceptualization, reasoning, knowledge, and language called for a radical rethinking of the nature and operations of metaphor. This empirical research was the basis for what came to be known as conceptual metaphor theory. It was discovered that metaphor is conceptual rather than linguistic in nature, that we think by using metaphor—not rarely or obscurely—but constantly, and that most metaphorical thought is not based on perceived similarities in the world. Instead, conceptual metaphors are frame-to-frame mappings, where frames are basic structures of everyday thought. Conceptual metaphors thus consist of “source domain” frames that are mapped onto “target domain” frames, with most of the inference structure found in the source domain carried over to the corresponding target-domain structure. This process gives rise to metaphorical reasoning. Linguistic, psychological, and neuroscientific methods of inquiry and explanation continue to shed new light on how metaphors are learned, how they structure conceptual systems, and how they shape our reasoning in all aspects of our lives. Scholars are now investigating the working of metaphor in languages and cultural systems across the world and throughout history. In addition to this cross-linguistic research, metaphor has been explored in other modes of symbolic interaction besides language, such as art, music, architecture, dance, theater, and ritual. In a few short decades, metaphor has moved from the margins to the center of the study of mind, thought, and language. First regarded as a peripheral linguistic phenomenon to be studied only in literary theory and aesthetics, metaphor is now recognized as a fundamental process of human conceptualization and reasoning.


Since metaphor did not become a focal topic of research until the 1960s, all the collections of work on metaphor have been published since then. Shibles 1972 is an early collection of essays from multiple perspectives, and Johnson 1981 provides most of the important philosophical writings on metaphor that defined the field at that time. Miall 1982 includes essays covering metaphor both in literary and scientific texts. Ortony 1993 and Gibbs 2008 are cross-disciplinary, and Raymond Gibbs’s book is especially useful to get a sense of current directions of research in the field. Komendzinski 2002 offers essays by a number of prominent scholars, many of whom adopt a conceptual metaphor theory orientation. Forceville and Urios-Aparisi 2009 is the only volume dealing with the new topic of multimodal or cross-modal metaphor, in which the source and target domains come from two different modalities (e.g., visual, verbal, tactile).

  • Forceville, Charles J., and Eduardo Urios-Aparisi, eds. 2009. Multimodal metaphor. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110215366

    The only introduction to the new field of metaphors in which the source and target domains are from two different experiential types, such as visual metaphors or metaphors combining the verbal and the visual modes.

  • Gibbs, Raymond W., Jr., ed. 2008. The Cambridge handbook of metaphor and thought. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511816802

    A very impressive anthology of the most recent empirical research coming from cognitive science, neuroscience, linguistics, psychology, philosophy, literary theory, and cultural theory. This is the best source from which to get a sense of the most-current directions of research.

  • Johnson, Mark. ed. 1981. Philosophical perspectives on metaphor. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

    The first and only anthology devoted exclusively to philosophical treatments. See the introductory essay for a brief survey of metaphor theory from Plato to 1980. Annotated bibliography.

  • Komendzinski, Tomasz, ed. 2002. Metaphor: A multidisciplinary approach. Theoria et Historum Scientiarum: An International Journal for Interdisciplinary Studies 6. 1. Toruń, Poland: Nicolas Copérnicus Univ. Press.

    An interesting diverse collection of essays by important contemporary researchers covering work from psychology, linguistics, cognitive science, neuroscience, and computer science.

  • Miall, David S., ed. 1982. Metaphor: Problems and perspectives. Brighton, UK: Harvester.

    An early, small anthology on metaphor in literature and science, with chapters by scholars who later gained some prominence in the field.

  • Ortony, Andrew. 1993. Metaphor and thought. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139173865

    Contains some seminal essays that still define many of the competing points of view in the field. Together with Gibbs 2008, this lays out the landscape, and both these anthologies are excellent for a course at any level.

  • Shibles, Warren. 1972. Essays on metaphor. Whitewater, WI: Language Press.

    A short, eclectic selection of essays relating metaphor to philosophy, psychology, religion, art, and literature.

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