How Metaphor Structures Dreams: The Theory of Conceptual Metaphor Applied to Dream Analysis

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How Metaphor Structures Dreams:

The Theory of Conceptual Metaphor Applied to Dream Analysis

George Lakoff
Linguistics Department
University of California at Berkeley
To Appear in Dreaming
January 29, 1993
What Is Metaphor

It was discovered in the late 1970's that the mind contains an enormous system of general conceptual metaphors -- ways of understanding relatively abstract concepts in terms of those that are more concrete. Much of our everyday language and thought makes use of such conceptual metaphors. This paper claims, first, that the system of conceptual metaphor that functions in ordinary thought and language is also used, first, to provide plausible interpretations of dreams and, second, to generate dreams.

But before I turn to the discussion of dreams, I should spend a bit of time explicating in detail what I mean by ``conceptual metaphor.''

Conceptual Metaphor

Imagine a love relationship described as follows:
Our relationship has hit a dead-end street.
Here love is being conceptualized as a journey, with the implication that the relationship is stalled, that the lovers cannot keep going the way they've been going, that they must turn back, or abandon the relationship altogether. This is not an isolated case. English has many everyday expressions that are based on a conceptualization of love as a journey, and they are used not just for talking about love, but for reasoning about it as well. Some are necessarily about love; others can be understood that way:
Look how far we've come. It's been a long, bumpy road. We can't turn back now. We're at a crossroads. We may have to go our separate ways. The relationship isn't going anywhere. We're spinning our wheels. Our relationship is off the track. The marriage is on the rocks. We may have to bail out of this relationship.
These are ordinary, everyday English expressions. They are not poetic, nor are they necessarily used for special rhetorical effect. Those like Look how far we've come, which aren't necessarily about love, can readily be understood as being about love.
As a linguist and a cognitive scientist, I ask two commonplace questions:
-Is there a general principle governing how these linguistic expressions about journeys are used to characterize love?
-Is there a general principle governing how our patterns of inference about journeys are used to reason about love when expressions such as these are used?
The answer to both is yes. Indeed, there is a single general principle that answers both questions. But it is a general principle that is neither part of the grammar of English, nor the English lexicon. Rather, it is part of the conceptual system underlying English: It is a principle for understanding the domain of love in terms of the domain of journeys.
The principle can be stated informally as a metaphorical scenario:

The lovers are travelers on a journey together,

with their common life goals seen as destinations

to be reached. The relationship is their vehicle,

and it allows them to pursue those common goals

together. The relationship is seen as fulfilling

its purpose as long as it allows them to make pro-

gress toward their common goals. The journey

isn't easy. There are impediments, and there are

places (crossroads) where a decision has to be

made about which direction to go in and whether to

keep traveling together.

The metaphor involves understanding one domain of

experience, love, in terms of a very different domain of experience, journeys. More technically, the metaphor can be understood as a mapping (in the mathematical sense) from a source domain (in this case, journeys) to a target domain (in this case, love). The mapping is tightly structured. There are ontological correspondences, according to which entities in the domain of love (e.g., the lovers, their common goals, their difficulties, the love relationship, etc.) correspond systematically to entities in the domain of a journey (the travelers, the vehicle, destinations, etc.).

To make it easier to remember what mappings there are in the conceptual system, Johnson and I (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980) adopted a strategy for naming such mappings, using mnemonics which suggest the mapping. Mnemonic names typically have the form: X IS Y, where X is the name of the target domain and Y is the name of the source domain. In this case, the name of the mapping is LOVE IS A JOURNEY. When I speak of the LOVE IS A JOURNEY metaphor, I am using a mnemonic for a set of ontological correspondences that characterize a mapping, namely: THE LOVE-AS-JOURNEY MAPPING
-The lovers correspond to travelers.

-The love relationship corresponds to the vehicle. -The lovers' common goals correspond to their common destinations on the journey.

-Difficulties in the relationship correspond to impediments to travel.
It is a common mistake to confuse the name of the mapping, LOVE IS A JOURNEY, for the mapping itself. The mapping is the set of correspondences. Thus, whenever I refer to a metaphor by a mnemonic like LOVE IS A JOURNEY, I will be referring to such a set of correspondences.
The LOVE-AS-JOURNEY mapping is a set of ontological correspondences that map knowledge about journeys onto knowledge about love. Such correspondences permit us to reason about love using the knowledge we use to reason about journeys. Let us take an example. Consider the expression, ``We're stuck,'' said by one lover to another about their relationship. How is this expression about travel to be understood as being about their relationship?
``We're stuck'' can be used of travel, and when it is, it evokes knowledge about travel. The exact knowledge may vary from person to person, but here is a typical example of the kind of knowledge evoked. The capitalized expressions represent entities in the ontology of travel, that is, in the source domain of the LOVE IS A JOURNEY mapping given above.



IMPEDIMENT and gets stuck, that is, becomes non-

functional. If they do nothing, they will not


number of alternatives for action:

> -They can try to get it moving again, either by

fixing it or getting it past the IMPEDIMENT that

stopped it.

> -They can remain in the nonfunctional VEHICLE and


> -They can abandon the VEHICLE.

> The alternative of remaining in the nonfunctional

VEHICLE takes the least effort, but does not

satisfy the desire to REACH THEIR DESTINATIONS.

The ontological correspondences that constitute the

LOVE IS A JOURNEY metaphor map the ontology of travel onto the ontology of love. In so doing they map this scenario about travel onto a corresponding love scenario in which the corresponding alternatives for action are seen. Here is the corresponding love scenario that results from applying the correspondences to this knowledge structure. The target domain entities that are mapped by the correspondences are capitalized:



some DIFFICULTY, which makes it nonfunctional. If

they do nothing, they will not be able to ACHIEVE

THEIR LIFE GOALS. There are a limited number of

alternatives for action:

> -They can try to get it moving again, either by

fixing it or getting it past the DIFFICULTY.

> -They can remain in the nonfunctional RELATION-


> -They can abandon the RELATIONSHIP.

> The alternative of remaining in the nonfunctional

RELATIONSHIP takes the least effort, but does not

satisfy the desire to ACHIEVE LIFE GOALS.

This is an example of an inference pattern that is mapped from one domain to another. It is via such mappings that we apply knowledge about travel to love relationships.
Metaphors are not mere words
What constitutes the LOVE-AS-JOURNEY metaphor is not any particular word or expression. It is the ontological mapping across conceptual domains, from the source domain of journeys to the target domain of love. The metaphor is not just a matter of language, but of thought and reason. The language is secondary. The mapping is primary, in that it sanctions the use of source domain language and inference patterns for target domain concepts. The mapping is conventional, that is, it is a fixed part of our conceptual system, one of our conventional ways of conceptualizing love relationships.
This view of metaphor is thoroughly at odds with the traditional view of metaphor. The traditional view includes the following claims:
(1) Metaphors are linguistic expressions (as opposed to conceptual mappings).
(2) Metaphors use words from one literal domain to express concepts in another literal domain, but there is no such thing as metaphorical thought or metaphorical reasoning where inference patterns from one domain are applied to another domain.
(3) Metaphors are based on similarity: words from one domain express similar concepts in other domains.
(4) Metaphorical language is not part of ordinary, everyday, conventional language, but rather part of poetic or especially rhetorical language.
All these claims are false. For example, if metaphors were merely linguistic expressions, we would expect different linguistic expressions to be different metaphors. Thus, "We've hit a dead-end street" would constitute one metaphor. "We can't turn back now" would constitute another, entirely different metaphor. "Their marriage is on the rocks" would involve still a different metaphor. And so on for dozens of examples. Yet we don't seem to have dozens of different metaphors here. We have one metaphor, in which love is conceptualized as a journey. The mapping tells us precisely how love is being conceptualized as a journey. And this unified way of conceptualizing love metaphorically is realized in many different linguistic expressions.
In addition, we saw above that inference patterns from the travel domain can be used to reason about love. Hence, metaphorical reasoning does exist. As to similarity, there is nothing inherently similar between love and journeys, yet they are linked metaphorically. Finally, all of the metaphorical expressions we looked at in the LOVE IS A JOURNEY metaphor are ordinary, everyday expressions, rather than poetic or especially rhetorical expressions.
It should be noted that contemporary metaphor theorists commonly use the term ``metaphor'' to refer to the conceptual mapping, and the term ``metaphorical expression'' to refer to an individual linguistic expression (like dead-end street) that is sanctioned by a mapping. We have adopted this terminology for the following reason: Metaphor, as a phenomenon, involves both conceptual mappings and individual linguistic expressions. It is important to keep them distinct. Since it is the mappings that are primary and that state the generalizations that are our principal concern, we have reserved the term ``metaphor'' for the mappings, rather than for the linguistic expressions.
In the literature of the field, small capitals like LOVE IS A JOURNEY are used as mnemonics to name mappings. Thus, when we refer to the LOVE IS A JOURNEY metaphor, we are refering to the set of correspondences discussed above. The English sentence ``Love is a journey,'' on the other hand, is a metaphorical expression that is understood via that set of correspondences.
The LOVE IS A JOURNEY metaphor is a conceptual mapping that characterizes a generalization of two kinds:

-Polysemy generalization: A generalization over

related senses of linguistic expressions, e.g.,

dead-end street, crossroads, stuck, spinning one's

wheels, not going anywhere, and so on.
-Inferential generalization: A generalization over

inferences across different conceptual domains.

That is, the existence of the mapping provides a general

answer to two questions:

-Why are words for travel used to describe love


-Why are inference patterns used to reason about

travel also used to reason about love relation-


Correspondingly, from the perspective of the linguistic analyst, the existence of such cross-domain pairings of words and of inference patterns provides evidence for the existence of such mappings.

Novel extensions of conventional metaphors
The fact that the LOVE IS A JOURNEY mapping is a fixed part of our conceptual system explains why new and imaginative uses of the mapping can be understood instantly, given the ontological correspondences and other knowledge about journeys. Take the song lyric,
-We're driving in the fast lane on the freeway of love.
The traveling knowledge called upon is this: When you drive in the fast lane, you go a long way in a short time and it can be exciting and dangerous. The general metaphorical mapping maps this knowledge about driving into knowledge about love relationships. The danger may be to the vehicle (the relationship may not last) or the passengers (the lovers may be hurt, emotionally). The excitement of the love-journey is sexual. Our understanding of the song lyric is a consequence of the pre-existing metaphorical correspondences of the LOVE-AS-JOURNEY metaphor. The song lyric is instantly comprehensible to speakers of English because those metaphorical correspondences are already part of our conceptual system.
Each conventional metaphor, that is, each mapping, is a fixed pattern of conceptual correspondences across conceptual domains. As such, each mapping defines an open-ended class of potential correspondences across inference patterns. When activated, a mapping may apply to a novel source domain knowledge structure and characterize a corresponding target domain knowledge structure.
Mappings should not be thought of as processes, or as algorithms that mechanically take source domain inputs and produce target domain outputs. Each mapping should be seen instead as a fixed pattern of ontological correspondences across domains that may, or may not, be applied to a source domain knowledge structure or a source domain lexical item. Thus, lexical items that are conventional in the source domain are not always conventional in the target domain. Instead, each source domain lexical item may or may not make use of the static mapping pattern. If it does, it has an extended lexicalized sense in the target domain, where that sense is characterized by the mapping. If not, the source domain lexical item will not have a conventional sense in the target domain, but may still be actively mapped in the case of novel metaphor. Thus, the words freeway and fast lane are not conventionally used of love, but the knowledge structures associated with them are mapped by the LOVE IS A JOURNEY metaphor in the case of ``We're driving in the fast lane on the freeway of love.''
Imageable Idioms
Many of the metaphorical expressions discussed in the literature on conventional metaphor are idioms. On classical views, idioms have arbitrary meanings. But within cognitive linguistics, the possibility exists that they are not arbitrary, but rather motivated. That is, they do arise automatically by productive rules, but they fit one or more patterns present in the conceptual system. Let us look a little more closely at idioms.
An idiom like ``spinning one's wheels'' comes with a conventional mental image, that of the wheels of a car stuck in some substance-either in mud, sand, snow, or on ice, so that the car cannot move when the motor is engaged and the wheels turn. Part of our knowledge about that image is that a lot of energy is being used up (in spinning the wheels) without any progress being made, that the situation will not readily change of its own accord, that it will take a lot of effort on the part of the occupants to get the vehicle moving again-and that may not even be possible.
The LOVE-AS-JOURNEY metaphor applies to this knowledge about the image. It maps this knowledge onto knowledge about love relationships: A lot of energy is being spent without any progress toward fulfilling common goals, the situation will not change of its own accord, it will take a lot of effort on the part of the lovers to make more progress, and so on. In short, when idioms that have associated conventional images, it is common for an independently-motivated conceptual metaphor to map that knowledge from the source to the target domain. For a survey of experiments verifying the existence of such images and such mappings, see Gibbs 1990.
Mappings at the superordinate level
In the LOVE IS A JOURNEY mapping, a love relationship corresponds to a vehicle. A vehicle is a superordinate category that includes such basic-level categories as car, train, boat, and plane. Indeed, the examples of vehicles are typically drawn from this range of basic level categories: car ( long bumpy road, spinning our wheels), train (off the track), boat (on the rocks, foundering), plane (just taking off, bailing out). This is not an accident: in general, we have found that mappings are at the superordinate rather than the basic level. Thus, we do not find fully general submappings like A LOVE RELATIONSHIP IS A CAR; when we find a love relationship conceptualized as a car, we also tend to find it conceptualized as a boat, a train, a plane, etc. It is the superordinate category VEHICLE not the basic level category CAR that is in the general mapping.
It should be no surprise that the generalization is at the superordinate level, while the special cases are at the basic level. After all, the basic level is the level of rich mental images and rich knowledge structure. (For a discussion of the properties of basic-level categories, see Lakoff, 1987, pp. 31-50.) A mapping at the superordinate level maximizes the possibilities for mapping rich conceptual structure in the source domain onto the target domain, since it permits many basic-level instances, each of which is information rich.
Thus, a prediction is made about conventional mappings: the categories mapped will tend to be at the superordinate rather than basic level. Thus, one tends not to find mappings like A LOVE RELATIONSHIP IS A CAR or A LOVE RELATIONSHIP IS A BOAT. Instead, one tends to find both basic-level cases (e.g., both cars and boats), which indicates that the generalization is one level higher, at the superordinate level of the vehicle. In most of the hundreds of cases of conventional mappings studied so far, it has been borne out that superordinate categories that are used in mappings.
There are, however, occasional cases where basic-level categories seem to show up in mappings, or where it is not clear whether a category should be considered basic-level. For example, anger is a basic emotion. Should it be considered a basic-level concept? There is no shortage of conceptual metaphors for anger: ANGER IS A HOT FLUID IN A CONTAINER, ANGER IS MADNESS, and so on. It is not clear whether anger should not be considered a basic-level category or a case where a basic-level category occurs in a mapping. Another case will be discussed below: In the IMPOTENCE IS BLINDNESS metaphor (observed by Freud), there is a submapping that TESTICLES ARE EYES. This certainly involves basic-level concepts. It is not clear what significance this has, if any, for the theory of metaphor. There is nothing in the general theory that requires mappings to be on the superordinate level. It is simply an empirical fact that they tend to occur that way. This tendency may just follow from the fact that mappings at the superordinate level do more conceptual work than mappings at lower levels. It could be that mappings tend to be optimized for information content, but that occasional mappings at the basic-level occur for other reasons, for example, when there is an experiential basis for a mapping at the basic level but not at the superordinate level.
In the remainder of this paper, when I speak of a ``metaphor'' or a ``conceptual metaphor,'' I shall be referring to a mapping of the sort we have just discussed. With this example of a conceptual metaphor in place, let us turn to the relationship between conceptual metaphor and dreams.

Metaphor and Dreams

What I have to say about dreams is not entirely new. The basic point goes back to a remark of Freud's in The Interpretation of Dreams, in a discussion of dream symbolism (Strachey translation, New York: Avon Books, 1965, section VI.E., p. 386):

... this symbolism is not peculiar to dreams,

but is characteristic of unconscious ideation . .

. and it is to be found in folklore, and in popu-

lar myths, legends, linguistic idioms, proverbial

wisdom and current jokes, to a more complete

extent than in dreams.

It is my job, as a linguist and a cognitive scientist, to study systematically what Freud called ``unconscious ideation'' of a symbolic nature. I specialize in the study of conceptual systems -- the largely unconscious systems of thought in terms of which we think, and on which ordinary everyday language is based. I do this largely on the basis of the systematic study of what Freud called ``linguistic idioms.''

What I and my colleagues have found, in a decade and a half of study, is that, as Freud suggested, we have systems of ``unconscious ideation'' of a symbolic nature. Part of this is a very large system of conceptual metaphor and metonymy, and I and my colleagues and students have been tracing out this system in extensive detail. Freud was right when he suggested that this system is even more elaborately used in ordinary ``linguistic idioms'' than in dreams.
Having worked out a very large part of this system for English, I would like to show in some detail how it functions in dreams. Interestingly enough, Freud and other dream analysts have not already done this. Neither Freud nor other psychoanalysts have been interested in working out the details of the system of mundane metaphoric thought, though they implicitly recognized the existence of such a mode of thought and have made use of it implicitly as part of dream interpretation . The job of working out the details of the metaphor system has fallen to linguists and cognitive scientists. Freud and many of his followers were interested more in sexual symbolism -- metaphors of a tabooed nature. But what we find through the study of everyday language is that unconscious symbolic thought is, for the most part, not sexual or tabooed. Tabooed thought only rarely shows up in ordinary everyday conventional language. What I will be doing is thus something that other dream analysts have not already done. It is, if anything, the tame part of dream analysis -- the study of how unconscious symbolic thought of the most ordinary nontabooed kind shows up in dreams.
The purpose of this paper is to provide a set of examples of commonplace dreams in which our ordinary system of metaphor mediates between the overt content of the dream and the way we understand dreams as applying to our everyday lives. In the examples of dream interpretations that I will be discussing, conceptual metaphor plays the following role:
Let D = the overt content of the dream. Let M = a collection of conceptual metaphors from our conceptual system Let K = knowledge about the dreamer's history and everyday life Let I = an interpretation of the dream in terms of the dreamer's life
That is, I is the interpreted meaning of the dream, which the interpreter hopes he has accurately portrayed. The relationship between the dream and its interpretation is:
D --M--> I, given K

Metaphors map the dream onto the meaning of the

dream, given relevant knowledge of the dreamer's

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