Lakoff’s roads not taken

Reuven Tsur*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper is a critique of George Lakoff’s theory and practice as presented in his “Contemporary Theory of Metaphor” (Lakoff 1993). It addresses the issue on several planes, on each plane comparing Lakoff’s approach to some alternative. The highest plane, affording the widest perspective, concerns two approaches to interpretation and scientific thinking: one that relies on a pre-established set of meanings, and one that assumes that “all the work remains to be done in each particular case”. The two approaches involve different cognitive strategies, rapid and delayed conceptualization. Another plane concerns the cognitive explanation for using spatial images in metaphoric and symbolic processes. Here the “embodied-mind hypothesis” is confronted with the “efficient-coding hypothesis”. It is argued that the latter is more adequate, and can better account for the mental flexibility required for “delayed conceptualization”. On the third plane, Lakoff’s “Contemporary Theory of Metaphor” is compared to Beardsley’s “Controversion Theory of Metaphor”. I will assert that precisely in those respects in which Lakoff claims superiority for his theory it is inferior to Beardsley’s. On the most concrete plane, Lakoff’s handling of three texts is considered, two literary and one nonliter-ary. It is argued that in two cases Lakoff’s conceptual apparatus is less than adequate to handle the arising problems; in the third case it allows him to say about the text exactly what every critic would have said about it for the past seven hundred years.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)339-359
Number of pages21
JournalPragmatics and Cognition
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1999


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