Sanders on Conceptual Metaphors

Broadly speaking, conceptual metaphors have three characteristics. (1) They are vehicles for understanding our world— they structure the way we think about life experiences. (2) They only partially map reality, for they do not say everything that can be said, and consequently they constrain our understanding. For instance, the apostle Paul speaks about the Christian community as a body, but since this conceptual metaphor does not communicate all of his understanding, he also speaks of believers as a building and as a farmer’s field. (3) They are culturally constrained since not all cultures use the same conceptual metaphors to give meaning to our experiences of love, anger, success, failure or truth. 5 This means that the traditional way of understanding metaphors is wrongheaded. The assumptions made by the traditional theory are false because we erroneously think we are speaking literally when we are often using conceptual metaphors. Cognitive linguists have discovered a huge system of such metaphors by which we give meaning to our life experiences. In the words of George Lakoff, a preeminent proponent of conceptual metaphor theory: “It is a system of metaphor that structures our everyday conceptual system, including most abstract concepts, and that lies behind much of everyday language. The discovery of the enormous metaphor system has destroyed the traditional literal-figurative distinction, since the term ‘literal,’ as used in defining the traditional distinction, carries with it all those false assumptions.”

Sanders, John. The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence (p. 20). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

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