Conceptual Metaphor Theory and Interpretation

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Douglas Cairns, in his contribution to this website, starts just the conversation I want to have. Cairns introduces the use of Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT) to analyze ancient Greek conceptualizations of emotions. In this post, I would like to extend that methodology to other ancient conceptualizations, in this case birth, life, and death, and finally to agree with Cairns that metaphor brings us into what Umberto Eco would call the encyclopaedia of language.

I find Umberto Eco’s semiotics helpful because, like cognitive models, it clarifies the tension between experience and language. Rooted in Charles Peirce’s philosophical work, semiotics orders the sign first, the object second, and the interpretant, third. The firstness of the sign means that we are all from birth inculcated into what Umberto Eco calls an encylopaedia of words and discourses that order our conception of reality. The world we inhabit impinges on us and we interpret it through the filter of language. (Peirce uses the Doppler Effect to point out that even though the pitch of a train whistle changes as it goes by, our everyday language does not conceptualize it in that way and as a result we often do not notice that change or are surprised when it is pointed out). This sign-object-interpretant unit orders our communicative attempts. Both methodologies emphasize the organizational schemas (cognitive models for CL and cultural units for Semiotics) through which experiences are filtered and into which they are ranged. Semiotics analyzes langue, the ways that languages are structured to enable communication. CL provides detailed analysis of parole, exploring the day-to-day mental processes that accompany experiences including communication. Langue and parole are covered in both methodologies, but (and perhaps this is as related to the cognitive models in my own brain as to anything else) I find each useful in those different ways.

The cognitive structuring of language points, furthermore, to the importance of metaphors. Cognitive models, populated by encyclopedic knowledge, provide the patterns through which we apprehend our experiences. Thus, experience is never unmediated. Language, therefore, is ultimately metaphorical since our apprehensions of reality are always representational. As Douglas Cairns argues, CMT does not flatten out all culture but rather reveals it.

For example, consider the use of “light” (phōs) in metaphors for birth across the 1st century bce to the early 2ndcentury ce. As an English speaker I begin with the sign-object-interpretant units, or frames, conveyed by light in the English encyclopaedia (light as physical illumination, light as knowledge, light as discovery, etc.). However, repeated use of phōs in contexts discussing birth and death suggests an additional cognitive model in the ancient world for the sign /phōs/.

  • Dionysius of Halicarnassus speaks of two combatants who “came into the light (proelthontas eis phōs) on the same day” (Roman Antiquities14.1).
  • Pausanias describes a statue of Eileithyia, the goddess of birth:
    • “One hand is stretched out straight; the other holds up a torch. One might conjecture that torches are an attribute of Eileithyia because the pangs of women are just like fire. The torches might also be explained by the fact that it is Eileithyia who brings children to the light (hē es phōs agousa)” (Description of Greece, Achaia6 [Jones, LCL])
  • Josephus, similarly, describes childbirth as “bringing into the light”: “Wine and the king, whom all obey, are, to be sure, very strong, but greater in power than these are women. For it is a woman who brings a king into the world (gunē parēgagen eis to phōs, a woman who brings into the light), and it is women who bear and bring up those who plant vines which produce wine. In short, there is nothing which we do not get from them” (Jewish Antiquities49–50 [Marcus, LCL]).
  • Babrius tells the fable of the lion and the mouse and ends with a metaphor that references not birth, but life itself:
    • “The mouse ran forth unnoticed from his hole, and, gnawing the sturdy rope with his tiny teeth, set the lion free. By saving thus in turn the lion’s life, he made a recompense well worth the gift of life (tou to phōs blepsai epaxion, worthy of seeing the light) that he’d received” (Fables12–15 [Perry, LCL]).

Conversely, if LIFE IS LIGHT, then DEATH IS LOSS OF LIGHT. This metaphor is especially frequent on tombstone inscriptions:

  • From Scythia Minor in the 2nd century ce (IScM189):
    • “He was 17 when he left the light of the sun” (phōs lipon aeliou).
  • Additionally, gravestones sometimes contain curses against graverobbers, for example from Asia Minor (Anderson, 1899, #222):
    • “If anyone should do evil to this pillar, may he leave the radiance of the sunshine and the light of the sun” (lipoito hēliou to phōs).
  • Sirach 22:11, similarly, speaks of dying as leaving the light:
    • “Weep over a corpse, for he has left the light (exelipen gar phōs), and weep over a foolish person, for he has left understanding behind” (Wright, NETS).
  • Job, too, uses this metaphor, as he wishes he had never been born: “why was I not like a premature birth that comes from a mother’s womb or like infants that did not see the light (hoi ouk eidon phōs)?” (Job 3:16, [Cox, NETS]). Other examples occur in Job 3:20; Ps 48:20; 56:13–15 LXX. Note that the existence of this metaphor in the Hebrew Bible parallels testifies that it was in use within that encyclopaedia as well.

It is evident even from these brief examples that the metaphor is not balanced such that DEATH IS DARK and LIFE IS LIGHT. From as early as the fourth century bce, BIRTH IS COMING INTO THE LIGHT, LIFE IS LIGHT, and DEATH IS LOSS OF LIGHT (Tsagalis, 2008, 64 n. 4).

The repetition of these metaphors provides information to contemporary interpreters about a sign-object-interpretant unit within a Greek encyclopaedia that mediated ancient understandings of life and death. Because such conceptual models are grounded in physical interactions with our environments (Lakoff & Johnson, 2003, 57), human embodiment provides a bridge from contemporary interpreters to cultural systems of communication in the past. So, while in English “to bring to light” does not mean “to give birth,” the experience of fearing the dark, common in both eras (Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 2.55–56), provides a means for us not only to understand this ancient expression but, in a sense, to physically comprehend it.

Such comprehension provides more extensive interactions with known texts in at least two ways. First, it extends our understanding of light metaphors into the concept of life. For example, 1 John 1:7a (ean en tō phōti peripatōmen, hōs autos estin en tō phōti), “if we live in the light as he [Jesus] is in the light” is often understood, in context, as a call for honesty and moral purity (Ngewa, 2006, 1529–30). Certainly, issues of truthfulness and sinfulness factor into this passage (vv. 6, 7–9). However, these issues are broadly subsumed into a contrast between living in the darkness (v. 6) and living in the light (v. 7). And if living is definitionally to be in the light, then living in the darkness must necessarily be an oxymoron and a lie (v. 6). To live must mean to be in the light, and for the author this requires fellowship with God. To understand light as a metaphor for life extends the contrasts in this passage from lie/truth and sin/purity into life/death itself.

Secondly, though, our comprehension of this ancient metaphor highlights the emotional component of interpretations of texts referring to life and death. We noted above funerary references to death as “leaving the light.” A cognitive model that includes the fear of the dark brings poignancy to other funerary inscriptions, such as this one seemingly about a man freed from imperial slavery:

He received light to see this freedom from kings,

Light beheld among humankind, until across the River Lethe,

He entered a murky night below, the house of Hades.

(IGUR 1200.5–8, cited in Snyder, 2014, 41).

Ignatius, in fact, plays with this same metaphor. He asks the Romans not to keep him from death and not to want him to stay alive (which to him is death): “But pains of birth have come upon me. Grant this to me, brothers: do not keep me from living; do not wish me to die” (Rom 6.1–2 [Ehrman, LCL]). He then goes on, “Allow me to receive the pure light (katharon phōs labein); when I have arrived there, I will be a human” (Rom 6.2 [Ehrman, LCL]). Ignatius has now reversed the metaphor not only to DYING IS BIRTH and LIVING IS DEATH, but also death is no longer loss of light but rather DYING IS WALKING INTO LIGHT.

A similar reversal occurs in the Flavia Sophe inscription, a Valentinian poem perhaps contemporaneous with Ignatius (Snyder, 2014, 15–19):

Longing for the Father’s light, my sister and spouse, Sophe,

Anointed in the bath of Christ with ointment imperishable, holy,

You were eager to see the divine faces of the Aeons,

No common end of life had she, this one who died;

She perished and yet lives, and sees truly imperishable light.

She lives among the living, but has died to those who are truly dead.

Earth, why do you marvel at this sort of body? Are you frightened?

(Snyder, 2014, 27–28)

Fearlessness in the face of death was not uniquely a Christian or Valentinian attitude, of course. Epictetus notes, “You do not go back to something you must fear, but back to that from which you came, to what is friendly and familiar to you, to the physical elements. What there was of fire in you shall return to fire, what there was of earth, to earth, what there was of air to air, what there was of water, to water” (Epictetus, Disc. 3.13.14–15, tr. Hope, 2007, 227). And the importance for Romans in facing death bravely including taking one’s own life is well-known (Jantzen, 2004, 271–72). However, the metaphor reversal from DEATH IS LOSS OF LIGHT to DYING IS WALKING INTO THE LIGHT, a metaphor that continued to be prevalent in funerary inscriptions after the second century ce (Northcote, 1878, 92–93), communicates not simply resignation but the same full-bodied relief that we felt as a child when someone brought a light into the darkness.

A fuller study would be required to draw conclusions about the cultural, geographical, linguistic, and religious distribution of these two opposite images of death. What CMT has offered, however, is the recognition that to describe death as leaving the light is to activate the child’s fear of the dark in service of lament. And to describe death as going into the light is to activate a child’s relief at the appearance of light in the dark to mitigate that lament.

CMT, then, has provided a bridge from human experience today to a metaphor of the past. However, one must not confuse knowing how communication works cognitively with interpretations that advance the content of meanings. Peter Stockwell (2020, 10-12) points out that the value of a cognitive approach is not necessarily (or even primarily) to come up with new interpretations but to account for readings that already exist in the world (see, e.g., my conclusions about Paul’s nursing metaphor in 1 Thes 2:5-9). Nevertheless, even in this short article, CMT has uncovered the impact of light metaphors on passages where it is implicit rather than stated, such as in 1 John 1:5–10. It also connected the embodied experiences of light and dark into the effects of texts discussing death. To agree one more time with Douglas Cairns, “metaphor is a figure of thought and not just of language.” As such, cognitive analyses, Conceptual Metaphor Theory in particular, offers an avenue into culturally distinct units that connect sign, object, and interpretant, and thus insights into ancient communication.


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