The ‘Ideas are Food’ Conceptual Metaphor

George Lakoff and his collaborators have identified scores of what they call “conceptual metaphors,” figurative phrases that describe fundamental abstract concepts using the language of physiology and physical experience. Expressions like “Your claims are indefensible” and “He shot down all of my arguments,” for example, are instances of the conceptual metaphor ‘argument is war’; “This relationship is a dead-end street” and “We’ll just have to go our separate ways” are examples of ‘love is a journey’; “This plan is half-baked” and “Let me chew it over for a while” exemplify ‘ideas are food’.

Without conceptual metaphors like these, Lakoff and other advocates of conceptual metaphor believe, we would have no way of talking about—or even thinking about—abstractions like love, beauty, suffering, and joy. According to Lakoff and Mark Turner, another cognitive scientist: “Basic conceptual metaphors are part of the common conceptual apparatus shared by members of a culture . . . We usually understand them in terms of common experiences. They are largely unconscious, though attention may be drawn to them. Their operation in cognition is mostly automatic. And they are widely conventionalized in language, that is, there are a great number of words and idiomatic expressions in our language whose interpretations depend upon those conceptual metaphors.”

A fun illustration of the pervasiveness of the ‘ideas are food’ metaphor comes from this poem by Phil Isherwood, a research student in cultural and creative studies at the University of Bolton:

Food for Thought

Chewing on the half-baked.
Had to suck it and see.
What I couldn’t digest
only ate away at me.

Years of stodgy literature,
chewing on the cud,
snuffling for morsels
buried deep in mud.

I tried the candy floss
of fluffy inspiration, so
sweet to get your teeth into
but leads to constipation.

Best aphorism appetizers
before a poem or two.
Fully fed with metaphors
I can leave my mind to stew.