Metaphor and Self, Part 2: The Emotional World of Romantic Love

Philosophy, Psychology

Our emotional life is not constituted by crass literalism, but is strewn with – composed of, even – literary devices. Don’t believe me? When your lover asks you to express your feelings about them in words, you will bend the knee. Zoltán Kövecses explains, “Emotion concepts are composed of a number of parts: metaphors, metonymies, [and] ‘related concepts.’”[1] What do these categories look like in terms of the “love” concept? Kövecses gives us a helpful start.


  • love is a nutrient: I am starved for love. 
  • love is a journey: It’s been a long, bumpy road.

  • love is a unity of parts: We’re as oneThey’re breaking up. We’re inseparableWe fused together.
  • love is a bond: There is a close tie between them.

  • love is a fluid in a container: She was overflowing with love.
  • love is fire: I am burning with love.

  • love is an economic exchange: I’m putting more into this than you are.

  • love is a natural force: She swept me off my feet.

  • love is a physical force: I was magnetically drawn to her.

  • love is an opponent: She tried to fight her feelings of love.
love is a captive animal: She let go of her feelings.

  • love is war: She conquered him.

  • love is insanity: I am crazy about you. 
  • love is a social superior: She is completely ruled by love.
love is rapture/a high: I have been high on love for weeks.

  • the object of love is a small child: Well, baby, what are we gonna do?

  • the object of love is a deity: Don’t put her on a pedestal. He worships her.


  • increase in body heat stands for love: I felt hot all over when I saw her.
increase in heart rate stands for love: He’s a heart-throb.
  • blushing stands for love: She blushed when she saw him.

  • dizziness stands for love: She’s in a daze over him. I feel dizzy every time I see her.

  • sweaty palms stand for love: His palms became sweaty when he looked at her.
  • inability to breathe stands for love: You take my breath away.

  • interference with accurate perception stands for love: He saw nothing but her.

  • inability to think stands for love: He can’t think straight when around her.
  • physical closeness stands for love: They are always together.
intimate sexual behavior stands for love: She showered him with kisses. He caressed her gently.
  • sex stands for love: They made love.
  • loving visual behavior stands for love: He can’t take his eyes off of her. She’s starry-eyed.

Related Concepts:

“Some of the most important related concepts for love include liking, sexual desire, intimacy, longing, affection, caring, respect, and friendship. Related concepts can be placed along a gradient of their centrality in the definition of an emotion concept, such as love; some of them appear to be inherent parts of the conception of love (such as liking and affection), some of them are only loosely associated with it, in that they are a part of some idealized model of love (such as friendship or respect), and some fall in between (such as caring).”[2]

[1] Zoltán Kövecses, “Metaphor and Emotion,” in The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought, ed. Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr. (New York: Cambridge, 2008), 380.

[2] Ibid., 382.

Metaphor and Self, Part 1: The External World


How do you understand the world around you? Some philosophers argue that it is in terms of p and q. You’re reading this blog (p), and not another ~(~p). Yet Mark Johnson argues that there lies a besetting incompetence in such abstract philosophical language – an incompetence that bubbles to the surface when examined side-by-side with human language. As tempting as it may be to cast the world in a p–>q schema, it fails in its ability to retain semantic function, and therefore structural coherence also…and therefore its usefulness as a language.  Johnson argues that the incompetence of abstract philosophical language lies squarely on its jettisoning of metaphor. For Johnson, when you remove metaphor, you remove both meaning and systematic integrity at the linguistic, and therefore referential level. Johnson summarizes:

A “formal” language is an artificial language that, unlike natural languages, consists entirely of arbitrary meaningless symbols, each of which has specific formal (syntactic) features that play a role in formal operations specified for the language.[1]

Johnson contests,

The key problem with this formal language metaphor is that actual formal languages do not and cannot possess the key features that make it possible for natural languages to be meaningful. Consequently, if Mind Is A Computational Program (i.e., the Mind As Computer metaphor), then the Language of Thought will not, in itself, be meaningful in any way. As a result, [one] must officially reject the formal language metaphor. But then [one] is left with the problem of how an intrinsically meaningless Language of Thought can somehow acquire meaning.[2]

So, do philosophers own up to the intrinsic meaninglessness that a metaphor-less “computer-program” (!) language drags onto metaphysical shores? Hardly:

[T]he single biggest reason that most traditional and contemporary philosophy cannot recognize the pervasive, theory-constituting role of metaphor in philosophy is the failure of philosophers to acknowledge the existence of deep systematic conceptual metaphor. They cannot recognize it because to do so would require a fairly substantial revision of some of the founding assumptions of their philosophies. It would require them to abandon some of their founding metaphorical conceptions in favor of other metaphors. If you acknowledge conceptual metaphor, then you have to give up literalism. If you give up literalism, you must abandon objectivist theories of knowledge. If you reject objectivist metaphysics and epistemology, you must abandon the classical correspondence theory of truth. Eventually, you will have to rethink even your most basic conception of what cognition consists in.[3]

[1] Mark Johnson, “Philosophy’s Debt to Metaphor,” in The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought, ed. Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr. (New York: Cambridge, 2008), 50.

[2] Ibid. Contrary to computer-program language, Richard Rorty tries to develop a positive philosophy of metaphor when he says, “Tossing a metaphor into a conversation is like suddenly breaking off the conversation long enough to make a face, or pulling a photograph out of your pocket and displaying it, or pointing at a feature of the surroundings, or slapping your interlocutor’s face, or kissing him. Tossing a metaphor into a text is like using italics, or illustrations, or odd punctuation or formats. All these are ways of producing effects on your interlocutor or your reader but not ways of conveying a message.” Richard Rorty, “The Contingency of Language,” in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 18. However, Rorty ultimately fails to account for the semantic aspect of metaphor altogether, which is the very aspect of the linguistic phenomenon that we are even now discovering to be indispensible.

[3] Ibid., 51.