root metaphor

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

root metaphors
Andrew Ortony (Educational Theory, 1975). (Tim Robberts/Getty Images)


A root metaphor is an image, narrative, or fact that shapes an individual's perception of the world and interpretation of reality. Also called a basic metaphor, master metaphor, or myth.

A root metaphor, says Earl MacCormac, is "the most basic assumption about the nature of the world or experience that we can make when we try to give a description of it" (Metaphor and Myth in Science and Religion, 1976).

The concept of the root metaphor was introduced by American philosopher Stephen C. Pepper in World Hypotheses (1942). Pepper defined root metaphor as "an area of empirical observation which is the point of origin for a world hypothesis."

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:


Examples and Observations

  • "A man desiring to understand the world looks about for a clue to its comprehension. He pitches upon some area of common sense fact and tries to understand other areas in terms of this one. The original area becomes his basic analogy or root metaphor. . . .

    "If man is to be creative in the construction of a new world theory, he must dig among the crevices of common sense. There he may find the pupa of a new moth or butterfly. This will be alive, and grow, and propagate but no synthetic combination of the legs of one specimen and the wings of another will ever move except as their fabricator pushes them about with his tweezers."
    (Stephen C. Pepper, World Hypotheses: A Study in Evidence. University of California Press, 1942)

  • Defining the Meaning of Life
    "The root metaphor is the comprehensive, organizing analogy that helps in making sense of experiences, interpreting the world, and defining the meaning of life. . . .

    "Is the whole universe a perfect machine? Is the society an organism? . . . Is life a long, arduous journey? Is the present a phase in the fateful karmic cycle? Is social interaction a game? Though mostly implicit, a large set of assumptions stem out of each of such root metaphors to form one's Weltanschauung [world view]. . . .

    "Certainly, life will look very differently to a person whose metaphor is that of a ruthless, gladiatorial combat to the bitter end than to another who perceives an aspen grove wherein each tree grows individually while sustained by a common network of roots. Accordingly, the two lives will be lived very differently. Life seen as a cathedral to be built, as the gambling game of craps, or as the oyster that creates pearl out of an irritant grain of sand--each supposition generates its own script for life.

    "Needless to say, a collective life can be similarly influenced by some commonly held root metaphors, and a whole generation, organization, community, nation, continent, or even world may appear to fall under the spell of the so-called Zeitgeist (the spirit of the age) to reveal certain, particular perspectives, ideas, sentiments, attitudes, or practices."
    (Kaoru Yamamoto, Too Clever for Our Own Good: Hidden Facets of Human Evolution. University Press of America, 2007)

  • Functions of a Root Metaphor
    "A root metaphor or myth usually takes the form of a story about the cosmos. Although the story may be amusing or enjoyable, it also has four serious functions: to order experience by explaining the beginning of time and of history; to inform people about themselves by revealing the continuity between key events in the history of the society and the life of the individual; to illustrate a saving power in human life by demonstrating how to overcome a flaw in society or personal experience; and to provide a moral pattern for individual and community action by both negative and positive example."
    (Alan F. Segal, Rebecca's Children: Judaism and Christianity in the Roman World. Harvard University Press, 1986)

Also Known As: conceptual archetype

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "root metaphor." ThoughtCo, Oct. 19, 2015, Nordquist, Richard. (2015, October 19). root metaphor. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "root metaphor." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 17, 2018).