IN THEIR NOW classic book Metaphors We Live By,
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson set out to show the
linguistic and philosophical worlds that metaphor
isn’t just a matter of poetry and rhetorical flourish.
They presented how metaphor permeates all areas of
our lives, and in particular that metaphor dictates how
we understand the world, how we act in it, how we live
in it. They showed that our conceptual system is based
on metaphors, too, but since we are not normally
aware of our own conceptual system, they had to study
it via a proxy: language.
By studying language, Lakoff and Johnson tried
to understand how metaphors work by imposing
meaning in our lives. The basic example they present
is the conceptual metaphor “argument is war.” We
understand the act of arguing with another person
in the same way we understand war. This leads to the
following expressions in our daily language:
˲ Your claims are indefensible.
˲ He attacked every weak point in my
˲ I demolished his argument.
˲ I never won an argument with him.
These sentences may seem innocuous, but the problem is how we act
and feel based on them. We end up
seeing the person we are arguing with
as our opponent, someone who is
attacking our positions, so we structure
our arguments as if we were at war
with the other person. This means
the metaphor is not just language
flourish; we live it. Lakoff and Johnson propose the exercise of imagining a culture where arguments are
not viewed in terms of war—of winners and losers—but in which language is a dance, where you have to
cooperate with a partner in order to
achieve a desired goal, reaching conclusions as a team.
The book goes on to analyze the
different aspects of language and
metaphors and how they affect our
concepts and view of the world. The
authors give many examples to defend
the thesis that our understanding of
the world is based on metaphors and
that those metaphors are the foundation of behavior.
One of the book’s biggest takeaways
is that metaphors enable certain ways
of thinking, while restricting others,
as the argument-as-war example illustrates. This article applies this idea to
computer science. How do metaphors
shape the way we understand computing and its related problems? What
kinds of problems are enabled by the
metaphors in use? And, no, monads are
not like burritos!
First, the article looks at how metaphors help us understand the relatively young world of computers and how
they affect the way we structure code
or design algorithms and data structures. We even solve problems based
on which metaphors are part of our
arsenal, or toolbox. “Sometimes our
tools do what we tell them to. Other
times, we adapt ourselves to our tools’
requirements,” states author Nicholas
We Compute By
Article development led by
Code is a story that explains
how to solve a particular problem.
BY ALVARO VIDELA