METAPHOR IN CULTURE: Universality and Variation by Zoltán Kövecses

Metaphor in Culture builds on the cognitive linguistic approach to metaphor exemplified by Metaphors We Live By (Georg Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980; reprint, 2003.  For a more detailed description of the contours of this theory, see Kövecses, Metaphor: A Practical Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).  This approach is concerned with metaphor primarily at the level of concept rather than linguistic expression and links our ways of thinking metaphorically to our bodily experience. Anger is often metaphorically linked to heat, for example, or intimacy to warmth, because of related physical experiences (18-19).  Conceptual metaphors, like anger is a hot fluid in a pressurized container give us ways of structuring our thinking and experience evidenced in expressions like “You make my blood boil.”; “Simmer down!”; or even, “He blew his top” (26, 39).    According to Kövecses, this “‘second-generation’ cognitive science” (168) approach to metaphor, with its focus on concept and bodily experience, often overemphasizes the universal character of metaphorical thought (xii). Kövecses wants to move this theory forward by not only accounting for ways in which metaphorical thought can be seen as universal, but also for how and why we find cultural variation as well.

Kövecses uses a wide variety of examples from a broad spectrum of languages to show how human beings in very different cultures tend to think metaphorically in very similar terms, at least at the most general or abstract levels.  As we examine the specifics of metaphorical thought and expression, however, we also find evidence for a great deal of variation. Kövecses gives a very comprehensive account of the different kinds of (intra- and intercultural) metaphor variation and suggests their potential motivations (see especially chapter 10, “Causes of Variation in Metaphor”).  By taking into account things like the physical environment (232 ff.), the cultural context (234 ff.), the “communicative situation” (236 ff.) and “social history” (241 ff.), Kövecses makes a substantial contribution to the contemporary understanding of metaphor by relating a cognitive theory concerned with concepts more closely to the dynamics of interpretation in actual (and therefore culturally situated) communication events.

Because this book takes seriously the dynamics of metaphor interpretation in and across cultures, it is potentially useful for any who interpret metaphors embedded in the specific cultural and communicative settings of the Biblical text for specific people living in a very different cultural, social, physical, and communicative environment.  If we apply Kövecses’ insights to the study of metaphor in the Bible, we find that both bodily experience and cultural understanding can separate contemporary readers from the Biblical text in important and often unrecognized ways.  Just as one example, scriptural images of light and darkness seem to draw on universal human experiences, but the elements Kövecses claims make for cultural variation in metaphor interpretation should cause us to slow down our automatic interpretive processes.  Our experiential and cultural understanding of light and darkness in an electric age must be very different from a culture that did not have virtually instant and almost unlimited access to light at their finger tips.  What does it mean for us who know headlights and streetlights and emergency lights to say, Thy Word is a lamp to my feet?  In the near context of Psalm 119:105, the psalmist appears to be afraid for his life.  Who of us, as a part of our natural, prototypical, daily experience, is deathly afraid of the dark?  The insights Kövecses offers have important implications for all who would read, mark, and inwardly digest the Word of God in a time and culture far removed from the daily experiences and natural assumptions of the culture of Mark or Paul or David or Isaiah.

Part of what makes this work compelling, especially in the later chapters, is the wide range of examples from unrelated languages Kövecses provides.  At times, however, his samplings can be inadequate (he can base a conclusion on responses from groups as small as twenty or even single individuals); but he knows this and often points to the tentative nature of his conclusions and the need for further study (see, for example, his disclaimers on 258 and 294).

A more serious flaw, evidenced most clearly in the early chapters, is his less-than-critical appropriation of the broad field of metaphor study in cognitive linguistics.  At times, Kövecses fails to test the validity of general constraints suggested by others, as when he assumes one particular version of what is called elsewhere the “Invariance Principle” without asking whether his own research bears it out (20-21, for example).  At other times, Kövecses offers new insights without challenging significantly previous work in the field.  When he introduces the important concept of “major theme” or “meaning foci”, for example, he offers it merely as a complementary perspective to the classification of “primary” and “complex” metaphors (11-12).  Though Kövecses does not develop his thought in this area, his theory not only complements, it potentially contradicts this classification: the more complex metaphors may actually be primary and their component metaphorical parts the result of inferences based on the narrative logic of what Kövecses describes as the metaphor’s “major theme.”

Though perhaps not the best place to begin a study of metaphor, Kövecses adds to the contemporary study of both metaphor and culture by bringing cognitive and social sciences together.  In so doing, he also raises issues vital to the serious study of Biblical texts and cultures as well as to the dual task of interpretation and proclamation.

Justin Rossow






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