The talk (notes)
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The Fourth International Conference on Researching and Applying Metaphor

 April 2001, Tunis


Metaphors in cultural surface and knowledge

 The talk is in two parts

  1. Another perspective on metaphor
  2. A new term: fixed concepts
  • rethinking the function of metaphor
  • it is not creative
  • the metaphors say: the world is static
  • metaphors are not common in everyday life
  • metaphors are common in specialized language
  • metaphors connect our commonsense knowledge with new experiences
  • metaphors allow us to get new knowledge into language
  • about new things
  • we are using non reflective words saying something new
  • from a constructivistic perspective
  • this metaphor restricts us in talking in a substantial way of many topics.
  • this way of studying metaphors and culture is new for me too!


1. The metaphors

  • we have been trapped in a special perspective on metaphors
  • stagnation in this linguistic field
  • how metaphors really work
  • no empirical evidence
  • lot of speculation, many discussions
  • "Discussions is war" – do we think this way?
  • "discussions is dance"
  • Which metaphors do people use?
  • Empirical constructivism: construct metaphors on how people use metaphors!
  • Computer metaphors - Danish / (English)
  • technological new-thinking
  • new concept, new knowledge
  • based on about 6000 computer metaphors – a periodical for one year



The conclusions

Pilot researches in fields of e.g. physics, mathematics, pedagogy, popular science, religion, ads, television language give the same indications:

  1. The metaphors are structured systematically and can be arranged into 12 scenarios, including about 400 different typical metaphors
  2. The metaphors are not as creative as often believed – on the contrary the metaphors can in some sense be predicted on the basic of the scenarios
  3. The metaphors are widespread in specialized (and technical) language
  4. The function of metaphors are always to map something unknown into the area of known (the field which Berger & Luckmann calls commonsense conscious), to the surface of our everyday knowledge
  5. The function of metaphors is not to tell something new at all, but to tell something old, something we already know.
  6. Metaphors are always to be seen as expansions of everyday language (a definition).
  • Only looking at literature: metaphors tell us something new
  • But: we use lots of energy telling us selves: the world is always the same!
  • Metaphors are telling us something old
  • A restricted, final system
  • For instance
  • computers "accelerate", "runs fast", "has a high sped"
  • data "arrives" to a place, they are at "home" computers or at "web hotels"
  • we use old concepts from everyday experiences to talk about something complex using words from scenarios we know
  • – nothing new
  • hi-technology is very common
  • 400 scenarios
  • a final system
  • We always – not only in the computer field – use metaphors from the same scenarios
  • Metaphors are often seen as unpredictable and unrestricted
  • The source area is always the same restricted area!
  • Metaphors are not man’s creative, innovative and intuitive power
  • Metaphors are not indigenous to everyday language
  • Metaphors are based on scenarios from everyday language!





Part 2: Fixed concepts

  • We can talk through metaphors – but how do we understand?
  • Only through these metaphors!
  • We shall avoid them as Hobbes and Locke claimed
  • Metaphors have epistemological value
  • Using an holistic and constructive perspective we should have no problem
  • The world is always constructed through our language – and the world is changing through the intonation of the always changing paradigms
  • Knowledge is not absolute


  • knowledge is always grounded upon our everyday life
  • the metaphors are connecting our everyday life with the new
  • then we understand
  • so: to understand is to use metaphors
  • it is to connect some concept from our everyday life with the new
  • Knowledge then, is not something in our heads – it is the relation between unproblematic concepts (we think we know) and the new
  • When we use for instance water and bath we think we know what this means
  • Therefore we can make metaphors with such concepts


Let’s call them fixed concepts

  • We can be orientated in the world
  • Like in


  • Mahler talks about object relations. When we as people want to have connections with the complicated social and technical life we thrust these objects. We cannot live without them


  • Using metaphors we do the same thing: with fixed concepts we can swing ourselves a further step along


  • From a phenomenological point of vies: we try to digitize an analog world


The historians:

  • they also construct the world
  • they cannot grab it "as it is"
  • the house is (mentally) constructed upon the remaining posts
  • the hi-story is constructed upon the fundaments, the remaining posts

Using metaphors

  • we are all walking on the remaining fundaments from the house, jumping form the one fixed point to the next, form the one post to the next
  • In a complex world we should need to use more metaphors – and we really do!
  • Metaphors do not tell us something new. But using them we understand and we construct our world.


  • We always understand things in the world upon fixed words - these words are the basis for source domains in metaphors.
  • These fixed words mirrors what is essential in our everyday life because they show us which terms we find unproblematic and stereotype.



  • By studying metaphors (in any area or text corpus) we uncover fundamental structures in our culture. We find the basis upon which we build our knowledge.



Net works


Dominating scenarios / complexity

Basis of language/culture: fixed words

It is important to study these topics in different cultures


- how language expands/changes

- how we are able to talk about new things

- a model for how language and knowledge are connected