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Metaphors are not simply literary devices, but something active in understanding,
perhaps even the very basis of language.
Read this section for arguments that metaphors organize our experience, uniquely
express that experience, and create convincing realities. Poetry, which uses them
instinctively, is following a scientific truth.

Metaphor commonly means saying one thing while intending another, making implicit comparisons
between things linked by a common feature, perhaps even violating semantic
rules. {1} Scientists,logicians and lawyers prefer to stress the literal meaning of words, regarding
metaphor as picturesque ornament.
But there is the obvious fact that language is built of dead metaphors. As a traditional critic put it:
"Every expression that we employ, apart from those that are connected with the most rudimentary
objects and actions, is a metaphor, though the original meaning is dulled by constant use." Consider
the words of that very sentence: an expression is something squeezed out; to employ something is
to wind it in (implicare ); to connect is to tie together (conectere); rudimentary comes from the
root to root or sprout; an object is something thrown in the way; anactionsomething driven or
conducted; original means rising up like a spring or heavenly body; constant is standing firm.
Metaphor itself is a metaphor, meaning the carrying across of a term or expression from its normal
usage to another." {2}
Metaphors are therefore active in understanding. We use metaphors to group areas of experience (life
is a journey), to orientate ourselves (my consciousness was raised), to convey expression through the
senses (his eyes were glued to the screen), to describe learning (it had a germ of truth in it), etc. Even
ideas are commonly pictured as objects (the idea had been around for a while), as containers (I didn't
get anything out of that ) or as things to be transferred (he got the idea across). {3}

Metaphors in Science
How does science and scientific prose deal with this most obvious of facts? By stratagem and evasion.
The scientific style aims at clarity, objectivity and impersonality attempting to persuade us that the
reality depicted is independent of experimenter and reporting. The key evidence is that laid out in the
scientific paper, which, though purporting to be a plain account of what was done and observed, is in
fact {4} a carefully tailored document making a bid for personal recognition. The abstract allows the
significance of the work to be modestly hinted at. The passive voice makes appear inevitable and
impersonal what was often achieved only after great effort and skill by the experimenter. Stylistic
devices like metaphor, irony, analogy and hyperbole that might call attention to the staged nature of
the reporting are muted or banned. Where descriptive, the language employs figures drawn from
physics: inert and mechanical. Sentence structure is simple, not to say barbaric: commonplace verbs
linking heavy noun clusters. References pay homage to previous workers in the field, and imply
familiarity with procedures and therefore professional competence.

Linguistic Philosophy
Can metaphors be paraphrased in literal terms? Many philosophical schools supposed they could,
perhaps even needed to do so, particularly those of the Logical Positivist approach who stressed the
rational, objective aspects of language. But influential papers by Max Black showed that readers come
to metaphors armed with commonplace understandings of the word employed, understandings which
enter into how we read the passage. In When sorrows come, they come not in single spies, but in
battalionsboth spies and battalions have different connotations that interact and shape our
understanding in ways that escape a literal paraphrase. {5}

Not everyone agrees. As would be expected from a theorist who needs a logically transparent
language, Davidson denies that metaphors have a meaning over and above their literal meaning. They
may point to some resemblance between apparently dissimilar things, but they don't assert that
resemblance and do not constitute meaning. {6}

Lakoff and Johnson

Metaphors are much more powerful instruments in the eyes of Lakoff and Johnson. {7} Metaphors have
entailments that organize our experience, uniquely express that experience, and create necessary
realities. Lakoff and Johnson attacked the two commonly accepted theories of metaphor. The
abstraction theory that there exists one neutral and abstract concept that underlies both the literal
and metaphoric use of word failed on six counts. The abstraction doesn't apply throughout, in height,
emotion, future, etc. We can say A is B, but the reverse, B is A, is not equivalent. The theory doesn't
account for the structuring of different aspects of a concept, nor with the fact that when we say A is B,
the B is always the more concrete and clearly defined. The systematic way in which metaphors apply is
not explained, nor how metaphors are made to fit the occasion. Equally, on several counts, the
homonymy theory that the same word may be used for different concepts also fails. In its strong
form the theory cannot account for relationships in systems of metaphors, nor for extensions of such
metaphors. In its weak form the theory doesn't account for categories of metaphor. In addition to the
above-mentioned difficulty that B is always more concrete and clearly-defined than A, it is to be
doubted that statements like "I'm on a high" really involved similarities at all.
Previous theories derive, Lakoff and Johnson believe, from a naive realism that there is an objective
world, independent of ourselves, to which words apply with fixed meanings. But the answer is not to
swing to the opposite and embrace a wholly subjectivists view that the personal, interior world is the
only reality. Metaphors, for Lakoff and Johnson, are primarily matters of thought and action, only
derivatively of language. Metaphors are culturally-based, and define what those with certain
assumptions and presuppositions find real. The "isolated similarities" are indeed those created by
metaphor, which simply create a partial understanding of one kind of experience in terms of another
kind of experience. They are grounded in correlations within our experience.

Evidence of Psychology
If metaphor permeates all discourse, it necessarily played a large part in the history of psychology,
particularly in generating fruitful ideas. But metaphor does not simply express, it conditions thought.
Psychologists at the turn of the century (and Freudians even today) tended to picture psychic energy as
steam in a pressure-boiler. Mind is subsidiary, something brought to life by the energy of the instincts.
{8} Deviant behaviour has also been seen as spirit-possession, a pathology, dementia, hallucination,
inappropriate response, mental imbalance, spiritual and intrapersonal poverty views which have not
only coloured society's views of the "afflicted" but also guided treatment. {9}
The process continues. Neurological discourse employs metaphors from telecommunications, computer
science and control systems. Analysis of emotions revolves round metaphors of inner feelings, driving
forces, animal instincts, etc. Motivation looks to metaphors of vigilance and defence. Perception
oscillates between mirrors of reflection and moulders of experience. Social analysis uses the concepts
of laboratory work, mechanical regulation, meaningful relationships and systems theory. What is the
"correct" view? There isn't one. Yet metaphor is not an empty play of words, or even free play of ideas.
Metaphors need to be in harmony with the social and historical setting, with the beliefs and personal
constructs of the society or micro-society of the time. {10}

Sociology and Anthropology

Sociologist and anthopologists are much interested in metaphor because of the Whorf-Sapir
hypothesis, the supposedly primitive thinking of some tribes, and the clash of cultural contexts implicit
in translation. Equally important is the light thrown by the study of native people on our own western
cultures and unexamined assumptions. Sociologists remember what Vico said long ago: "man, not
understanding, makes his world." Much of man's reasoning is vacuous, simply transferring meaning from
intimate, domestic surroundings to the unknown. {11} In less picturesque terms, metaphor is a mapping
from source (familiar, everyday) to target domain (abstract, conceptual, internal, etc.) But, contrary

to Lakoff and Johnson's view that metaphor represents something fundamental to brain functioning,
many sociologists regard the target domain as culturally determined. In describing their marriages,
speakers choose models (target domains) that provide a helpful match ("we made a good team, I'd be
lost without her"). {12}
How do sentences in different languages have the same meaning? Rationalists assume that there is a
universal base of shared semantic primitives (just as Chomsky's grammar once supposed there were
syntactic universals) but fail to explain how this base came about. Empiricists argue for some body of
shared experience that arises from contact with the real natural world, but can't explain why language
takes the form it does. Linguists like Jakendorf suppose that language grows out of perceptual
structures meaning is part of the meaningfulness of experience but then need to forge detailed
links between the two. {13} Jardine believes that all objects are intentional objects i.e. that our
human senses and intelligence are conditional, and restrained by our biologic make-up. Words become
components of experience. {14} Alverson {15} considers the preposition "over" from Lakoff's
perspective {16} and accepts that schemas are not reducible to propositions, are the core-meanings of
words, enter into syntax, are ideal in origin and partly predictive, enter into networks with other
schemas, and enter into metaphorical and conventional extensions. But they are not brain-based as
such or primitive. Languages contain codings of universal schemas, but their partitioning into words
varies with cultural context. Schemas remained as symbols for categories of sense as intention-andsignificance-bestowing devices, not abstract configurations.

Literary Use
For writers and critics, metaphor is simply a trope: a literary device deriving from the schools of
classical rhetoric and intending to put an argument clearly and persuasively. Boundaries are not sharp,
but devices are commonly grouped as schemes and tropes. Schemes, which include alliteration,
chiasmus, etc., have more to do with expression. Tropes, which include metaphor, metonymy and
synecdoche, are more powerful and deal with content. {17} Metonymy entails using a name to stand for
the larger whole: "Whitehall intended otherwise." where Whitehall stands for the British civil service.
Metonymy does not open new paths like metaphor, but shortens distance to intuition of things already
known. {18} Metaphor therefor involves a transfer of sense, and metonymy a transfer of reference. {19}
There are larger considerations. Kenneth Burke thought tropes were ready-made for rhetoricians
because they describe the specific patterns of human behaviour that surface in art and social
life. {20} Hayden White sketched a theory of history which bridged the claims of art and science by
defining the deep structures of historical thought in terms of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and
irony. {21} For Derrida, the inevitable clash of metaphors in all writing shows only too well that
language may subvert or exceed an author's intended meaning. Like Derrida, Paul de Man saw language
as an endless chain of words, which cannot be closed off to a definitive meaning or reference. The
literal and figurative meaning of a text is not easily separated, and the realities posited by language
are largely those accepted by the dominant ideology as truthful representations of the world. {22}

Rhetoric of Science
Alan Gross goes a good deal further than most literary critics in his Rhetoric of Science. {23} Truth in
science, he argues, is a consensus of utterances rather than a fit with evidence. Whatever scientists
may assert and they very much resent any reduction of science to a form of persuasion
philosophers have long known that the claim of science to truth and objectivity rests on shaky
foundations. Knowledge does not exist independently of conceptual schemes, or even perhaps of
linguistic formulation. Indeed, has not the contemporary logician, W.V.O. Quine, shown that science is
under-determined by experience: the edges may square with experience but the interior cannot be
more than a coherence view of truth? Perhaps it comes down to practicalities. The sheer bulk of
"scientific findings", its dependence on certain procedures and assumptions, not to speak of vetting and
reviewing procedures, all of which ensure that the reality which science portrays exists as statements
which are now too costly to modify. Of course science "works", but then so does mathematics, which
has largely relinquished claims to logical foundations or transcendent truth. {24}


What are Lakoff and Johnson saying but that there is no one central interpretation? Use different turns
of speech as we do naturally in our everyday lives and the "meaning" alters. Without thinking twice
we translate from one mind-set to another. We have probably always done so. {25} Speech started as a
primary function in oral societies. There was no "content" behind the expressions. Hieroglyphics were
not word pictures but mnemonic devices initially, becoming logograms in Egypt and Mesopotamia in
third millennium BC, and only later denoting a syllable sound. It was the North Semitic Byblos alphabet
of BC 1400 that the ancient Greeks adapted, turning four of the consonants into vowels that allowed
entire speech to be placed on the page, when the focus passed from words to invisible ideas.
What of the Iliad and Odyssey? Parry and other scholars showed that Homer's productions were
improvisations to music of a vast collection of stock phrases a procedure still used by Serbian Guslars
who can improvise tens of thousands of lines in this way. Plato preferred the new written procedures
(castigating poets of the old oral tradition in The Republic) but also worried that the very process of
writing and learning from texts imprisoned speculation in authoritative interpretations. Meditation was
needed to bring the past into the presence, and this may also explain Plato's desire for eternal forms.
Classical rhetoricians developed mnemonic devices but it was the north European scholastics who made
memory a record of doings that could be examined under confession. In twelfth-thirteenth century
Europe the validity of an oath (given word, symbolically the Word of God) is transferred to documents
that have legal force.
Translation was not an issue in the classical world: the literate spoke several languages and could
interpret ( i.e. recast) from one to another. The Christian Church became monolingual to incorporate
Greek and Hebrew into the culture of late Antiquity. Indeed, for long centuries, the vernacular spoken
by all classes in Europe was a romance language pronounced differently in different places, none of the
pronunciations being close to classical Latin. It was never written down, and only in ninth century
Germany was an attempt made to create a 'German grammar'. Charlemagne accepted a uniform
pronunciation of official Latin, but this was incomprehensible to his subjects and was therefore
repealed. Depositions were taken from the vernacular and written in Latin, and Latin creeds were
rendered and remembered in the vernacular. Elio Anonio de Nebrija attempted in 1492 to create a
Spanish that was not spoken but served to record speech, his grammar and argument for a standardized
Castillano being intended to curb the publication of literature inimical to the crown.
Until comparatively recently continue Illich and Sanders {26} there was no self as such, but only an
"I" that glowed into life as it recounted its adventures or told its autobiography. Chaucer claimed a
fantastic memory to avoid the Church's injunction against invention, employing also a complex syntax
so that listeners were compelled to imagine the page. The first novel to "make up facts" was
Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, which undercut the dependence on written testimony to which the
work alluded. The work was fiction dressed up as fact, just as Huckleberry Finn asks the reader to
believe in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by an illiterate Tom. But his misspellings and incorrect
expressions do all the same evoke the great openness and freedom of the meandering Mississippi River,
which implies that we are imprisoned by our own mannered language. Coming to modern times, we
note that Orwell's Newspeak served as a mechanical substitute for thought, and was therefore a parody
of the "Basic English" promulgated in the thirties. And today of course we have the impersonal language
of science and business.

Concluding Thoughts
Where is metaphor grounded? Not in logic, nor literary theory. There is no purely literal language in
terms of which metaphor may be evaluated and objectively assessed. Along a broad front in cognitive
psychology and social anthropology, metaphor is currently subject to extensive analysis, but the
findings can only be partial, and relative to the discipline involved. What is becoming clearer is that
metaphor like linguistic theory and theories of speech acts is rooted in the beliefs, practices and
intentions of language users.
This and other pages in the theory section have been collected into a free pdf ebook entitled 'A
Background to Literary Theory'. Click here for the download page.


1. Robert R. Hoffman et al.'s Cognitive metaphors in experimental psychology in David

Leary's Metaphors in the History of Psychology (1990). Book has an extensive bibliography.
2. p. 193 in F.L. Lucas's Style (1955). Also see J.D. Becker's The Phrasal Lexicon (1975) and bibliography
of Hoffman et al.
3. pp.178-179 in Hoffman et al 1990.
4. Alan Gross's The Rhetoric of Science (1990).
5. See Metaphor entry in Ted Honderich's The Oxford Companion to Philosophy and Max Black's More
about Metaphor in Andrew Ortony's (Ed.) Metaphor and Thought (1979).
6. Donald Davidson's What Metaphors Mean in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation (1984).
7. G. Lakoff and M. Johnson's Metaphors We Live By (1986). Andrew Goatly's The Language of Metaphors
(1997) is a systematic elaboration.
8. Kurt Danziger's Generative metaphor and the history of psychological discourse in Leary et al. 1990.
9. Theodore Sarbin's Metaphors of unwanted conduct: a historical sketch in Leary et al. 1990.
10. David Leary's Metaphor, theory and practice in the history of psychology in Leary et al. 1990.
11. p. 4 in James Fernandez's Beyond Metaphor: The Theory of Tropes in Anthropology (1991).
12. Naomi Quinn's The Cultural Basis of Metaphor in Fernandez 1991.
13. Ray Jackendorf's Semantics and Cognition (1983).
14. Nick Jardine's The Possibility of Absolutism in D.H. Mellor's (Ed.) Science, Belief and Behaviour:
Essays in Honour of R.B. Braithwaite (1980).
15. Hoyt Alverson's Metaphor and Experience: looking Over the Notion of Image Schema in Fernandez
16. George Lakoff's Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the
Mind (1987).
17. pp 74- 76 in Geoffrey Leech's A Linguistic Guide to English Poetry (1969).
18. p. 153 in Leech 1969.
19. Michael Issacharoff's Jakobson, Roman in Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth's (Eds.) The Johns
Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism (1994).
20. Paul Jay's Burke, Kenneth in Groden and Kreiswirth 1994.
21. Hans Kellner's White, Hayden in Groden and Kreiswirth 1994.
22. Cynthia Chase's Man, Paul de in Groden and Kreiswirth 1994.
23. Gross 1997.
24. See George Lakoff and Raphael Nez's Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind
Brings Mathematics into Being (2000). for an application of metaphor theory to mathematics.
25. I. Illich and B. Sanders's The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind (1989).
26. Ibid.

Internet Resources
1. Understanding the basics of metaphor in poetry . Garry Smith.
2002.http://scsc.essortment.com/metaphorsinpoe_rlpz.htm. Straightforward account of literary use:
Dylan Thomas poem example.
2. Glossary of Poetic Terms. http://www.poeticbyway.com/glossary.html. Useful definitions, examples
and quotations: includes metaphor.
3. Links to Rhetorical Theory Notes. http://bradley.bradley.edu/~ell/notelnks.html. Excellent notes on
and reading lists for rhetorical theory.
4. Metaphor and Meaning. William Grey. 2000. http://www.ul.ie/~philos/vol4/metaphor.html. Literary
use of metaphor in some depth.
5. Kenneth Burke. James F. Klumpp.
2002. http://www.wam.umd.edu/~jklumpp/comm758b/Comm758B_syl.pdf. Seminar notes.
6. Philosophy and Rhetoric, Argument and Exploration. Doug
Brent. http://www.ucalgary.ca/~dabrent/webliteracies/philrhet.htm. Oakeshott and Burke's views of
7. An Irenic Idea about Metaphor. William G. Lycan. http://www.unc.edu/~ujanel/Metaphor.htm.
Searle and Davidson's arguments in more detail.
8. George Lakoff. Jan. 2004. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Lakoff. Introduction to Lakoff and
controversies raised.

9. "Metaphors We Live By" by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Janice E. Patten.
2003. http://theliterarylink.com/metaphors.html. Review/summary of first four chapters of the book.
10. Cognitive Linguistics and the Marxist approach to ideology. Peter E
Jones. http://www.tulane.edu/~howard/LangIdeo/Jones/JonesAbs.html. Cognitive linguistics and a
Marxist critique of ideologies.
11. Does Cognitive Linguistics live up to its name? Bert
Peeters. http://www.tulane.edu/~howard/LangIdeo/Peeters/Peeters.html. Review of current work in
cognitive linguistics.
12. George Lakoff: The Theory of Cognitive Models. Francis F. Steen. Apr.
1997. http://cogweb.ucla.edu/CogSci/Lakoff.html. Critical review of Lakoff's work.
13. Thinking About Thought. Piero Scaruffi. 2001. http://www.thymos.com/tat/metaphor.html.
General essay that takes metaphor theory a little further.
14. Hermeneutics of Metaphor. http://www.actus.org/metaphor.html. A theological perspective.
15. Integration and Conceptual Modeling. Thomas J
Wheeler. http://people.cs.vt.edu/~edwards/RESOLVE2002/proceedings/Wheeler/. Metaphor and brain
16. Mark Turner. http://markturner.org/. Home site, with publications, etc. and links.

c. john holcombe | about the author | 2007 2012 2013 2015. material can be freely used
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