The metaphors we die by

George Markoff and Mark Johnson wrote a book called Metaphors We Live By. Reviews have hailed it as “seminal” and readers have proclaimed it as “life-changing”. As you may guess from the title, it’s about our conceptual use of metaphor and how it helps us to understand and act in the concrete world. I haven’t read it, though. No, instead, I wish someone would write an alternative.

Due to the popularisation of behavioural economics, you may have heard of an idea called “loss aversion”. The main idea is that we are more sensitive to loss than to gain, to pain rather than pleasure. For example, losing £10,000 conjures negative feelings of greater import than the positive feelings associated with winning the same amount. Or, phrased succinctly by Livy: “Men feel the good less intensely than the bad.” To me, the metaphors we live by are the positive condition of life. I’d be more interested in a book about the negative condition of life: Metaphors We Die By.

After all, we all lug around our personal set of beliefs, models, narratives, metaphors—whatever you want to call them. And as any semi-sane and remotely sensible person will tell you, although they differ immensely from person to person and from culture to culture, they can all work. A devout Christian can navigate a life just as well as the most religious atheist. Which, in my mind, makes the positive consequences of a chosen belief less interesting than the negative—nay, the fatal—consequences.

As I first heard Charlie Munger quip, “All I want to know is where I’m going to die so I can never go there.” Similarly, I don’t want to know how, when and why a belief system or narrative functions. I want to know how, when and why it fails to function.