The best books on metaphor

Who am I?

I became interested in metaphor and analogy as a graduate student in philosophy of science in the 1970s. Important scientific ideas such as natural selection and the wave theories of sound and light were built from metaphors and made to work by analogical thinking. In the 1980s, I started building computational models of analogy. So when I got interested in balance because of a case of vertigo in 2016, I naturally noticed the abundance of balance metaphors operating in science and everyday life. Once the pandemic hit, I was struck by the prevalence of the powerful metaphor of making public health decisions while balancing lives and livelihoods. 


I wrote...

Balance: How It Works and What It Means

By Paul Thagard,

Book cover of Balance: How It Works and What It Means

What is my book about?

Ordinary activities like walking or riding a bike require the brain to keep the body in balance. Language abounds with expressions and figures of speech that invoke balance. The concept crops up from politics—checks and balances, the balance of power, balanced budgets—to science, in which ideas of equilibrium are crucial.

Paul Thagard describes the neural mechanisms that keep bodies balanced and explains why their failures can result in nausea, falls, or vertigo. He analyzes balance metaphors across science, medicine, economics, the arts, and philosophy, showing why some aid understanding but others are misleading or harmful. In both literal and metaphorical senses, balance is what enables people to solve the puzzles of life by turning sensory signals or incongruous comparisons into a coherent whole.

The books I picked & why

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Metaphors We Live By

By George Lakoff, Mark Johnson,

Book cover of Metaphors We Live By

Why this book?

This book has been enormously influential with almost 80,000 citations. It inaugurated the study of metaphor as a fundamental aspect of human thinking, not just a linguistic flourish. It provides abundant examples such as Argument is War and Happy is Up that show the great extent to which metaphors pervade human thinking. Although the book exaggerates the universality of metaphor in human thought and the contribution of metaphor to reality, it survives as the classic source for modern understanding of metaphor. 

Metaphors We Live By

By George Lakoff, Mark Johnson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Metaphors We Live By as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

People use metaphors every time they speak. Some of those metaphors are literary - devices for making thoughts more vivid or entertaining. But most are much more basic than that - they're "metaphors we live by", metaphors we use without even realizing we're using them. In this book, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson suggest that these basic metaphors not only affect the way we communicate ideas, but actually structure our perceptions and understandings from the beginning. Bringing together the perspectives of linguistics and philosophy, Lakoff and Johnson offer an intriguing and surprising guide to some of the most common metaphors…

The Spider's Thread: Metaphor in Mind, Brain, and Poetry

By Keith J. Holyoak,

Book cover of The Spider's Thread: Metaphor in Mind, Brain, and Poetry

Why this book?

In the 1980s and 1990s, Keith Holyoak and I collaborated on a series of articles and books about analogy, which is the underpinning of complex metaphors. His new book is a delightfully insightful discussion of metaphors in poetry, drawing not only on his deep knowledge of cognitive psychology but also on his experience as a highly published poet. Through analysis of great poems by Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and many others, he illuminates how metaphors contribute to beautiful poems and to creativity in general.  

The Spider's Thread: Metaphor in Mind, Brain, and Poetry

By Keith J. Holyoak,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Spider's Thread as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An examination of metaphor in poetry as a microcosm of the human imagination—a way to understand the mechanisms of creativity.

In The Spider's Thread, Keith Holyoak looks at metaphor as a microcosm of the creative imagination. Holyoak, a psychologist and poet, draws on the perspectives of thinkers from the humanities—poets, philosophers, and critics—and from the sciences—psychologists, neuroscientists, linguists, and computer scientists. He begins each chapter with a poem—by poets including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Theodore Roethke, Du Fu, William Butler Yeats, and Pablo Neruda—and then widens the discussion to broader notions of metaphor…


Metaphor and Thought

By Andrew Ortony (editor),

Book cover of Metaphor and Thought

Why this book?

This collection contains articles by many of the leading writers on metaphor and provides an excellent overview of its psychological and philosophical ramifications. Metaphor is discussed in relation to language, thought, meaning, society, science, and education. For example, metaphor contributes to science through fertile new concepts like natural selection, and to education through ways of connecting new concepts with old ones. 

Metaphor and Thought

By Andrew Ortony (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Metaphor and Thought as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Metaphor and Thought, first published in 1979, reflects the surge of interest in and research into the nature and function of metaphor in language and thought. In this revised and expanded second edition, the editor has invited the contributors to update their original essays to reflect any changes in their thinking. Reorganised to accommodate the shifts in central theoretical issues, the volume also includes six new chapters that present important and influential fresh ideas about metaphor that have appeared in such fields as the philosophy of language and the philosophy of science, linguistics, cognitive and clinical psychology, education and artificial…

Metaphor Wars: Conceptual Metaphors in Human Life

By Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr,

Book cover of Metaphor Wars: Conceptual Metaphors in Human Life

Why this book?

Raymond Gibbs is a leading psycholinguist with deep familiarity with theories of conceptual metaphor and their critics. Drawing on evidence from cognitive linguistics and other fields, this book provides a valuable account of the contributions of metaphor to language, thought, action, and culture. Metaphors operate in multimodal experience s well as language. 

Metaphor Wars: Conceptual Metaphors in Human Life

By Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Metaphor Wars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The study of metaphor is now firmly established as a central topic within cognitive science and the humanities. We marvel at the creative dexterity of gifted speakers and writers for their special talents in both thinking about certain ideas in new ways, and communicating these thoughts in vivid, poetic forms. Yet metaphors may not only be special communicative devices, but a fundamental part of everyday cognition in the form of 'conceptual metaphors'. An enormous body of empirical evidence from cognitive linguistics and related disciplines has emerged detailing how conceptual metaphors underlie significant aspects of language, thought, cultural and expressive action.…

The Linguistics Wars: Chomsky, Lakoff, and the Battle over Deep Structure

By Randy Allen Harris,

Book cover of The Linguistics Wars: Chomsky, Lakoff, and the Battle over Deep Structure

Why this book?

Randy Harris is a colleague of mine at the University of Waterloo, and his book is a marvelous history and analysis of the decades-long intellectual battle between Noam Chomsky and George Lakoff. It provides the context and background for how Lakoff’s theory of metaphor was part of the development of alternatives to Chomsky-style linguistics, along with some trenchant criticisms of the very idea of conceptual metaphor. 

The Linguistics Wars: Chomsky, Lakoff, and the Battle over Deep Structure

By Randy Allen Harris,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Linguistics Wars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An updated and expanded history of the field of linguistics from the 1950s to the current day

The Linguistics Wars tells the tumultuous history of language and cognition studies from the rise of Noam Chomsky's Transformational Grammar to the current day. Focusing on the rupture that split the field between Chomsky's structuralist vision and George Lakoff's meaning-driven theories, Randy Allen Harris portrays the extraordinary personalities that were central to the dispute and its aftermath, alongside the data, technical developments, and social currents that fueled the
unfolding and expanding schism. This new edition, updated to cover the more than twenty-five years…

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