views updated May 09 2018


Metaphor, traditionally defined as the transference of meaning from one word to another, is perhaps the most intensely and variously studied instance of figurative language. This is so because metaphor enjoys two distinct primary aspects, presenting itself as (1) a form (a discrete, replicable linguistic structure, conceivable as extrinsic to thought) and (2) a power (a cognitive operation issuing from an intrinsic and inherently creative mental faculty). Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.), who begins the Western tradition's systematic investigation of metaphor, is the first to address the trope's double nature. On the one hand, he treats metaphor in the context of style (implicitly rendering it secondary to invention, the first of the five parts of rhetoric), as deviation from the ostensible clarity of everyday language that is subject to rules of propriety. On the other, he calls metaphor "a kind of enigma" and claims that for the verbal artist "the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor" because "this alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances" (1961, p. 104).

The dominant Aristotelian idea of metaphor is not, however, either a balanced opposition or mixture of metaphor's two primary aspects. Of the two, Aristotle chooses to emphasize the formal viewperhaps because it confirms the primacy of reason and cooperates with his systematic and pedagogical motives. The philosophical and cultural consequences of Aristotle's formal emphasis are substantial and lasting: along with cultural and intellectual traditionalism, this emphasis holds that the office of language is mimetic, that of representing the world. From such a notion of language follows the implication that the truth and value of verbal art is measured by its fidelity to an unchanging, external, and therefore communally explicable reality.

The Classical System

The Aristotelian privileging of metaphor's formal aspect and its attendant assumptions, emphases, and procedures are together amplified and reified by his classical inheritors. In this tradition, metaphor's creative aspect tends to be viewed with suspicion. For instance, in De oratore (55 b.c.e.; On oratory), through a fabular comparison between metaphor and clothing, Cicero (10643 b.c.e.) articulates a view of language as a form of ethical conduct that must not stoop to don the potentially corruptive finery of metaphor: "For just as clothes were first invented to protect us against cold and afterwards began to be used for the sake of adornment and dignity as well, so the metaphorical employment of words was begun because of poverty, but was brought into common use for the sake of entertainment." Cicero uses his comparison to caution us against "borrowing" fancy metaphors because they suggest "poverty" of thought and expression (p. 121123). But it is largely through Cicero's precise, nuanced discussion of the proper and improper forms and uses of intentionally shaped language that his motive to civilize the power of metaphor is transmitted, inspiring the anonymous author of the Rhetorica ad Herennium (first century b.c.e., Rhetoric to Herennius) and Quintilian (c. 3595/6 c.e.), author of Institutio oratoria (first century c.e.; Institutes of oratory).

Quintilian's terminological and conceptual precision expands the formal context within which metaphor may be understood. Because his primary interest is pedagogically useful classification, Quintilian chooses to treat metaphor as a member of the tropes, which involve "the artistic alteration of a word or phrase from its proper meaning to another" (p. 301). Treating metaphor as a member of a class of similar forms allows Quintilian to note metaphor's uniqueness without committing himself to an equal exploration of both its aspects. For example, while he allows that metaphor is the "commonest and by far the most beautiful of tropes," and praises it for "accomplishing the supremely difficult task of providing a name for anything" (p. 303), he restricts an attribution of cognitive agency to the tropes as a class: "The changes involved [in the use of tropes] concern not merely individual words, but also our thoughts and the structure of our sentences" (p. 301303). It is noteworthy that here, in the midst of explicating a system whose formal emphasis diminishes metaphor's creative aspect, Quintilian states that tropes in themselves can play a serious role in thinking. Though muted, this connection between figured language and cognition anticipates the ground from which springs the Middle Age's most important contribution to ideas about metaphor: the notion that, when interpreted correctly, the ambiguities and excesses of figured language involve human understanding with a superior order of knowledge and being.

The Middle Ages

The institutionalization of Christianity required the preservation of classical learning, including Greco-Roman ideas of metaphor. However as Erich Auerbach points out in Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1968), the passage from classical to Christian civilization involved a radical change in the context within which figured language was understood. Because the classical system depended upon a precise delineation and separation of elements, Auerbach sums up its emphasis as "aesthetico-stylistic." In contrast, the Christian "ethico-theological" emphasis assumes the merging of hitherto distinct styles and foregrounds a decidedly un-Roman urgency concerning interpretation. To the early Christian fathers, figured language represented a formidable theological problem. The scriptures contain many figures and ambiguities, and Christ often chooses to teach through metaphor and parablesbut the classical technology of eloquence (particularly how it defines and achieves the high style, language that moves the audience to action) is pagan and elite, neither holy nor humble.

In line with the classical tradition, which he resourcefully defends throughout De doctrina christiana (396426; On Christian doctrine) as being essential for proper scriptural interpretation, Augustine (354430) discusses metaphor as a trope. It is, however, how he defines a sign that clearly indicates the Christian break from the past: "A sign is a thing which, over and above the impression it makes on the senses, causes something else to come into the mind as a consequence of itself" (p. 535). For Augustine, words (the most important human signs) have an intrinsic power that may exceed the limits erected by the classical doctrine of mimetic fidelity and enforced by the Greco-Roman insistence on decorum. Augustine's view of words as signs helps him to renew and meld the two aspects of metaphor that Aristotle delineated and his classical inheritors further isolated from each other.

The Renaissance

In step with sweeping material and social changes, including the Reformation and a gathering intellectual consensus that the universe and the mind similarly follow the laws of logic, a new context for understanding the relationship between thought and language was developing. Peter Ramus's (15151572) challenge to the Scholastic status quo represented this new context and prepared the way for the Enlightenment's cult of reason and pursuit of a language free from the excesses and ambiguities of figured language. Ramus replaces the transcendent Augustinian sign with stark syllogism and calls for a thorough reorganization of the rhetorical system. As pertains to metaphor, Ramism's most consequential features are the tightly related assumptions that (1) thought follows the rules of logic and (2) language, because of its vital role in thinking, must be plain and clear. From the Ramist perspective, metaphor has no place in serious discourse and, thus, the nature and tension between its two aspects is rendered moot. However, despite its antimetaphorical outlook, Ramism did not stifle either the flowering of Renaissance rhetoric or subsequent investigations of metaphor. Because the culture of early modern Europe was, in many respects, as medieval (traditional and collectively minded) as it was modern, oratory and poetry were highly respected and widely practiced. Thus Elizabethan and metaphysical metaphors, such as those invented by Shakespeare and Donne, tend to strike an organic balance among three elements: tradition, the age's increasing emphasis on logic as a basis for artistic invention, and its discovery of a new model of subjectivity distinguished by a personal struggle for self-knowledge and self-determination.

Similar to Ramus, Francis Bacon (15611626) was an enemy of Scholasticism and a champion of reason and an unadorned language capable of serving it. In contrast to Ramus, however, Bacon was skeptical of the syllogistic process because, as he writes in The New Organon (1620), "the syllogism consists of propositions, propositions consist of words, words are symbols of notions." "Our only hope" of knowing nature, the truth of things and ourselves, Bacon asserts, "lies in true induction" (p. 41). The foundations of his methodwhich inspired the British Royal Society's call for a scientific plain style in language and influenced a range of later philosophers, including Giambattista Vico (16881744)is rooted in the principle that true knowledge comes of what one has "observed in fact or in thought of the course of nature. Beyond this he neither knows anything nor can do anything" (Bacon, p. 39). To Bacon, then, the knowledge that comes of metaphor and other figures of speech number among the "Idols" that confuse human kind, leading us into error. It is Bacon's dream of a scientific language, one enabling the direct perception and undistorted discussion of reality through the control and exclusion of tropes and figures, that predicts and helps lay the ground for the Enlightenment's general perspective of metaphor.

The Enlightenment

John Locke (16321704), one of the Enlightenment's most representative thinkers, born into a culture increasingly defined by a belief in the verity of empirical science and its procedures, solves the problem of metaphor by rejecting both of its aspects. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke holds that the foundations of thought are simple ideas, which are obtained through direct sense impressions. From this perspective, words should refer to things and the most that may be expected of language is that it further discursive "Order and Clearness." As for metaphor and "all the [other] artificial and figurative application of Words Eloquence hath invented, [these] are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong Ideas, move the Passions, and thereby mislead the Judgment" (Locke, p. 508). In order to get at the "true ideas upon which the inference depends," Locke advises that from language one should "strip" the "superfluous ideas" evoked by tropes and figures, and then "lay the naked Ideas on which the force of the argumentation depends, in their due order." Thus confronted with "true ideas" in their natural order, the mind easily perceives the truth of things and their relations (Locke, p. 676).

To Locke, metaphor's enigmatic power to create images and ideas is so corrupting of thought that he entirely exiles it from his model of consciousness and (correct) philosophical process. Of course, neoclassical thinkers, such as Voltaire (16941778) and Samuel Johnson (17091784), continued to use and productively discuss figured languagebut in a context whose emphases denied relativism and forestalled the exploration of categories such as the primitive and the irrational.

Giambattista Vico's (16681744) views are a notable exception to the late-Enlightenment outlook and its limited and generally dismissive idea of metaphor. Although not influential in his lifetime, Vico's ideas clearly anticipate aspects of the Romantics' intense interest in and philosophical linking of poetic language, primitivism, and psychological and historical relativism. Vico's thought thus demonstrates both the continuities and differences between Enlightenment and Romantic thinking about metaphor.


As reflected in La scienza nuova (1725; The new science), Vico sees language as a social construction intimately involved with cognitive development and epistemology. Because society has changedmoving from an original theological stage, through a heroic epoch, to a present-day civilized, humanistic orderso, too, have language and human nature altered. Articulating ideas similar to those espoused by later, Romantic philosophers, such as Jean Jacques Rousseau (17121778) and Johann Gottfried von Herder (17441803), Vico postulates that, during the theological epoch (which has its analog in individual cognitive development), humans shared a primitive, metaphorically rich language, which was later complicated and variegated through cultural pressures and the advance of rational thinking. Rather than the opposite or absence of thought, figurative language demonstrates an elemental mode of thinking that Vico calls "poetic logic."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (17721834) serves as a particularly influential specimen of Romantic thinking about metaphor. Neoplatonic in inclination and influenced by Vico, Rousseau, and the German Romantics, Coleridge famously distinguishes between imagination and what to him is the inferior mode of fancy, thereby clarifying his age's impatience with the limits of empirical knowledge. To Coleridge, imagination is a creative, connective power that unites nature and the poet, whose genius is realized through "organic," original form rather than "mechanic," derivative form. Coleridge defines poetryand thus the exercise of its modes, such as metaphoras a self-expressive activity whose object (pleasure) is opposed to that of science (truth).

Although Coleridge maintains that poetry enables a view of nature superior to that obtained through scientific inquiry, his system effectively treats poetry and science as complementary opposites: each (paradoxically) capable of discovering, through its specific symbolic activity, aspects of the reality that simultaneously undergirds and lies beyond symbols. Coleridge's Neoplatonic view of nature and its potential accessibility through human inquiry were not, however, shared by all Romantic thinkers. In particular, Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900) unequivocally states that human beings are "indifferent" and even hostile to "pure knowledge," to the "thing in itself." More important, Nietzsche denies that languageand by way of extension, any symbolic activityis capable of revealing any meaning beyond that which it constructs. From this anti-essentialist perspective, the truths obtained through language are "illusions," members of a "worn out" "army of metaphors." Nietzsche is not, however, recycling a Ramist or Baconian position: To him a metaphor-free language is as impossible as a value-free science. In Nietzsche's opinion, metaphor and reality are so entwined as to be synonymous.

The Twentieth Century

With few exceptions, the twentieth century's consequential ideas of metaphor may be classified as Romantic because: (1) the trope is held to be cognitively and linguistically essential; and (2) its form and power are treated as an organically related unit. One crucial distinction between Romantic and twentieth-century ideas of metaphor, however, is that the latter summarily rejects transcendence, the notion that symbolic activity gives human beings access to supernatural knowledge and being. The origins of this rejection are manifold, but its primary engine and context is modern, disciplinary science. In this particular context, metaphor strongly tends to be viewed as an embedded phenomenon, as functioning within a cognitive, linguistic, or social system of such complexity that its elements and operations are generally accessible only to specialiststhus the contentious variety and intellectual weight of most contemporary ideas of metaphor.

Sigmund Freud (18561939) and Roman Jakobson (18961982) helped found and define structuralism, which, despite challenges mounted by poststructuralist thinkers beginning in the 1960s, continues to dominate contemporary theories of metaphor. Freud, best known as the founder of psychoanalysis, sees metaphor as a verbal elaboration and symptom of the elemental psychological process of condensation. Jakobson, drawing upon the theories of Ferdinand de Saussure (18571913) and through his work with persons suffering from aphasic disorders, proposes a functional synonymy between metaphor and the associative process, in his view one of the two basic operations used by the mind to construct language.

The structuralist approach to metaphor is not, however, exclusive to Freud, Jakobson, and their direct inheritors, thinkers as diverse in outlook as Jacques Lacan (19011981), Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1980), and Julia Kristeva (b. 1941). An alternative current of structural attention to metaphor is represented by the work of Stephen C. Pepper (18911972) and a set of like-minded scholars who constitute what may be called the "Vicoian school." Rather than embedding metaphor in a psycholinguistic system, in World Hypotheses: A Study in Evidence (1942), Pepper projects metaphor onto the history of thought, which he views as a series of distinct "world hypothesis," each "determined by its root metaphor" (p. 96). The philosopher and historiographer Hayden White (b. 1928) similarly embeds metaphor in the social fabric, considering the metaphorical process as the ground for one of four modes of historical understanding. A related understanding of metaphor is offered by Thomas Kuhn (19221996), who proposes the concepts of the "paradigm" and the "paradigm shift" as instruments for illuminating the relationship between changes in worldview and the process of scientific discovery.

Because structuralist argumentation, like that of traditional philosophy and science, generally presupposes a separation between the object of study and the dyad of investigator and method, it tends toward universalizing claims. Thus structuralism has helped stimulate the growth of a sophisticated alternative context for thinking about metaphor, one directly inspired by Nietzsche's militant rejection of objectivity, consistency, and unexamined systematic thinking. Jacques Derrida (b. 1930), the architect of deconstruction and a primary disseminator of poststructuralism, cautions against the abstractions produced by and upon which metaphysical systems are built. In the essay "White Mythology" (1972), Derrida holds that metaphor is a "metaphysical concept" created when "primitive" meanings are renamed and "circulated" in philosophical discourse. Hence his claims that "philosophy is a process of metaphorization" whose verity depends upon effacing its metaphorical roots (p. 210211).

The formulation and widespread dissemination of poststructuralist ideas signals a broad and definite movement away from the traditional view of language as mimetic and the consequent treatment of intentional figuration as supplementary to thought and expression. For instance, through an interdisciplinary blend of philosophy, linguistics, cognitive science, and intercultural comparison, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have moved the metaphorical function beyond language and, thus, beyond questions of representation. To these thinkers, "our ordinary conceptual system is fundamentally metaphorical in nature" (p. 3), grounded in the universal and yet particular facts of the body.

Working within (and beyond) the discipline of anthropology, James W. Fernandez offers an approach to metaphor that, similar to Lakoff and Johnson's, assumes the trope's embedment and the intellectual obligation to foreground principles of cultural relativism. To Fernandez, metaphor is a "strategic predication" of identity that "leads to performance." Rather than identifying metaphor as either a cognitive, linguistic, or structural abstraction (classifications that similarly encourage metaphor's division into two aspects), Fernandez understands metaphor in much the same way that Henry Louis Gates Jr. (b. 1950) conceives the practice of "signifyin(g)" in African-American culture. Like "signifyin(g)," metaphor is a lived strategy, one that plays a key, mediating role in the mutual construction of identity, emotions, and the immediate social matrix. While it is impossible to predict the larger consequences of the ongoing shift in ideas of metaphor, the work of comparativists like Earl Miner (19272004) suggests that future understandings of metaphor will be all the richer because they will spring from and advance dialogue between heretofore intellectually separated traditions and cultures.

See also Genre ; Literature ; Narrative ; Rhetoric .


Aristotle. Aristotle's Poetics. Translated by Samuel H. Butcher. New York: Hill and Wang, 1961.

. The Rhetoric of Aristotle. Translated by Lane Cooper. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1988.

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Translated by Willard R. Trask. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968.

Augustine. "On Christian Doctrine." Translated by J. F. Shaw. In A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st series, edited by Philip Schaff. Vol. 2 of St. Augustine. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1956, reprint.1983. Originally published in 1887.

Bacon, Francis. The New Organon. In The New Organon and Related Writings. Edited with an introduction by Fulton H. Anderson. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1960.

Cicero. De oratore. 2 vol. Translated by Edward W. Sutton and Harris Rackham. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1942.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria: or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions. Edited by George Watson. Rutland, Vt.: Charles E. Tuttle, 1991.

Derrida, Jacques. "White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy." In his Margins of Philosophy, translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Fernandez, James W. Persuasions and Performances: The Play of Tropes in Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Hawkes, Terence. Metaphor. London: Methuen, 1972.

Kristeva, Julia. "Freud and Love: Treatment and Its Discontents." Translated by Léon S. Roudiez. In The Kristeva Reader, edited by Toril Moi. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Locke, John. An Essay concerning Human Understanding. Edited by Peter H. Nidditch. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. "On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense." In The Portable Nietzsche, translated by Walter Kaufman. New York: Penguin, 1982.

Ong, Walter J. Ramus, Method and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Ortony, Andrew, ed. Metaphor and Thought. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Pepper, Stephen C. World Hypotheses: A Study in Evidence. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1942.

Quintilian. Institutio oratoria. 4 vols. Translated by Harold E. Butler. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Ricoeur, Paul. The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language. Translated by Robert Czerny with Kathleen McLaughlin and John Costello. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977.

Vico, Giambattista. The New Science of Giambattista Vico. Rev. and abr. ed. Translated by Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1968.

Cristopher Hollingsworth


views updated May 17 2018


"Metaphors" have an emotive force and aesthetic dimension that have long been recognized. What has made metaphor so compelling to contemporary philosophers, however, has been its importance to cognition. Aesthetics and philosophy of religion are no longer the sole province of the study of metaphor. Instead, most of the research is located in philosophy of language, philosophy of science, and cognitive science. The ubiquity of metaphor and its contribution to all forms of discourse, the apparent anomaly of metaphor in light of standard accounts of language, and the increased interest by philosophers in providing theories for natural (rather than formal or artificial) languages have made an account of metaphor an important criterion of adequacy for theories of language. The limits of literality have similarly been felt in accounts of science and cognition. Max Black's (1962) seminal work connecting the use of scientific models to metaphors opened an area of inquiry now pursued by psychologists and cognitive scientists as well as philosophers of science. Some philosophers join questions of the role of metaphor in science to debates concerning scientific realism (Boyd, 1979; Hesse, 1970). The work emanating from theories of language and theories of science and cognition converge in concerns about meaning change, computer modeling of discovery processes, linguistic competencies, creativity, and religious discourse (Soskice, 1985).

While many questions remain, a few issues have been settled. The view of metaphor as an isolated word or phrase that is an occasional, unsystematic, and deviant phenomenon in language valued for its rhetorical force but disdained for its ability to mislead or be used in place of proper argument has been challenged. Metaphors have come to be understood as syntactically complex (Black, 1962; Tirrell, 1991) attributions that may or may not be grammatically deviant (Stern, 1985). In the tradition of I. A. Richards (1936) and Black, metaphors are generally taken to implicate entire conceptual domains or semantic fields (Kittay, 1987) through which a metaphor is interpreted, extended, and even systematically integrated into the language (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980). They either exploit some similarity between the metaphorically used term (the vehicle or source) and the concept spoken of (the topic or target) or create or intimate a similarity. While the similarity appealed to in earlier discussions pertained to intrinsic properties or properties associated with vehicle and topic, similarity has increasingly come to mean a relational or structural similarityakin to models and analogiesbetween the contexts or domains (Black, 1962; Goodman, 1968) implicated in the metaphor.

While earlier debates concerned metaphor's cognitive value, current debates accept its cognitive function and ask if this function is properly assigned to metaphoric meaning and whether it is a distinctive form of cognition not reducible to other forms such as the capacity to recognize similarity and make comparisons. The outcome of the debate is important to the nature of language, of thought, and of epistemic enterprises such as science. If metaphors have meaning, then a theory of language must explain how such meaning is determined, and any account of mind in which linguistic capacity plays a central role for cognition must similarly explain how cognitive faculties make use of, and make possible, metaphorical thought. Similarly, if the use of metaphorical language in knowledge domains such as science is not reducible to literal language, then we need metaphor in order to understand and explain what is knowable. Furthermore, if we need metaphor to access scientific knowledge, as well as for aesthetic or evocative purposes, then the domains such as art and religion may be more akin to scienceor related in more interesting waysthan we have presumed (Fleischacker, 1994). But if metaphors perform their cognitive function without generating a distinctive meaning, then theories of language that are based on literal language suffice; metaphoric contributions to cognition are assimilable to other, already understood or accepted cognitive abilities; the cognitive role of metaphor would be valuable only as heuristic (although, in the case of combinatorially complex problems, the heuristic contribution of metaphor itself may be irreplaceable), and we maintain a clear delineation between the scientific and the poetic.

The position propounding metaphoric meaning and the cognitive irreducibility of metaphor was staked out by Black and has been buttressed by arguments and evidence gathered by philosophers of science, cognitive psychologists, philosophers of language, and linguists. However, the parsimony of the opposing position, and its elegant articulation by Donald Davidson (1978), continues to make it attractive, despite the counterintuitive claim that metaphors have no meaning and the weighty evidence of metaphor's importance in all cognitive endeavors.

Philosophers claiming that metaphors have meaning generally begin by accepting some version of the interaction theory of metaphor but have utilized the resources of many different semantic theories (e.g., possible-world semantics [Bergman, 1982; Hintikka and Sandu, 1994], semantic-field theory [Kittay, 1987], cognitive semantics [Gibbs, 1994; Lakoff and Johnson, 1980; Sweetser, 1990], a componential semantics [Levin, 1977], a Wittgensteinian semantic, and David Kaplan's semantics for demonstratives [Stern, 1985]). Some use speech-act theory, claiming that metaphors are a feature of speaker meaning rather than sentence meaning (Searle, 1981) or that metaphors are, in the end, elliptical similes after all (Fogelin, 1988).

Newer comparison theories, versions of the theory that metaphors are elliptic similes or implicit comparisons and so do not have a distinctive meaning, explore the notion of figurative rather than literal similarity (Glucks and Keysar, 1990; Ortony, 1979). Some of these approaches offer a causal theory, opposing it to a semantic theory, claiming that metaphors cause us to make comparison by "intimating similarities" and have a causal effect of creating intimacy among speaker and listener (Cohen, 1978; Cooper, 1986). Questions remain concerning the relation between metaphor and literal language (e.g., Can the distinction be drawn in a clear fashion? Is the interpretative process the same or different? Is language originally metaphorical or literal?) and other nonliteral languages (see Hintikka and Sandu, 1994; Jakobson, 1960).

The importance of metaphor in science was stressed by Mary Hesse (1970), who developed the understandings of metaphors as systematic analogies in which the "neutral"that is, unexplored analogical relationsprovide a distinctive source for predictive claims. Dedre Gentner (1982), a cognitive psychologist, along with her associates has identified features, such as systematicity and higher-order relations, that make some metaphors more productive for cognitive purposes than others.

Noting the affinity between metaphor and analogy has permitted a number of researchers in philosophy and psychology to make headway with computational approaches to metaphora promising tool for testing theories of metaphor and for understanding the extent to which accounts of metaphor are amenable to formal and precise accounts (Holyoak and Thagard, 1989; Steinhart and Kittay, 1994). Making use of advances in our understanding of metaphor, theorists have explored the role of metaphor in creativity, in language acquisition and concept formation, and in both the consolidation and the breakdown of habituated patterns of thought such as cultural prejudice. These latter developments (which have especially been taken up by feminist philosophers and other social critics) bring the question of the cognitive role of metaphor full circle, reconnecting it to its rhetorical force.

See also Aesthetics, History of; Aesthetics, Problems of; Black, Max; Cognitive Science; Davidson, Donald; Goodman, Nelson; Hintikka, Jaako; Kaplan, David; Philosophy of Language; Philosophy of Religion; Philosophy of Science, History of; Philosophy of Science, Problems of.


Bergman, M. "Metaphorical Assertions." Philosophical Review 91 (1982): 229245.

Black, M., ed. Models and Metaphors. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1962.

Boyd, R. "Metaphor and Theory Change: What Is 'Metaphor' a Metaphor For?" In Metaphor and Thought, edited by A. Ortony. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Cohen, T. "Metaphor and the Cultivation of Intimacy." Critical Inquiry 5 (1978): 312.

Cooper, D. Metaphor. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

Davidson, D. "What Metaphors Mean." In On Metaphor, edited by S. Sacks. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Fleischacker, S. "Frustrated Contracts, Poetry, and Truth." Raritan 13 (4) (Spring 1994): 4770.

Fogelin, R. Figuratively Speaking. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988.

Gentner, D. "Are Scientific Analogies Metaphors?" In Metaphor: Problems and Perspectives, edited by D. S. Maill. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1982.

Gibbs, R. The Poetics of Mind: Figurative Thought, Language, and Understanding. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Glucksberg, S., and B. Keysar. "Understanding Metaphorical Comparisons: Beyond Similarity." Psychological Review 97 (1990): 318.

Goodman, N. Languages of Art. Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1968.

Hesse, M. Models and Analogies in Science. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966.

Hintikka, J., and G. Sandu. "Metaphor and Other Kinds of Nonliteral Language." In Aspects of Metaphor, edited by J. Hintikka. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1994.

Holyoak, K. J., and P. Thagard. "Analogical Mapping by Constraint Satisfaction." Cognitive Science 13 (1989): 295355.

Jakobson, R. "Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetry." In Style in Language, edited by T. A. Sebeok. Cambridge, MA: Technology Press of MIT, 1960.

Kittay, E. F. Metaphor: Its Cognitive Force and Linguistic Structure. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

Lakoff, G., and M. Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Levin, S. R. The Semantics of Metaphor. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

Ortony, A. "The Role of Similarity in Similes and Metaphors." In Metaphor and Thought, edited by A. Ortony. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Richards, I. A. The Philosophy of Rhetoric. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936.

Searle, J. "Metaphor." In Philosophical Perspectives on Metaphor, edited by M. Johnson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981.

Soskice, J. M. Metaphor and Religious Language. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985.

Steinhart, E., and E. F. Kittay. "Generating Metaphors from Networks: A Formal Interpretation of the Semantic Field Theory of Metaphor." In Aspects of Metaphor, edited by J. Hintikka. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1994.

Stern, J. "Metaphor as Demonstrative." Journal of Philosophy 82 (1985): 677710.

Sweetser, E. From Etymology to Pragmatics: The Body-Mind Metaphor in Semantic Structure and Semantic. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Tirrell, L. "Reductive and Nonreductive Simile Theories of Metaphor." Journal of Philosophy 88 (1991): 337358.

Eva F. Kittay (1996)


views updated May 29 2018

metaphor Ordinary language is saturated with corporeal metaphors. We frequently speak of ‘the lip of a cup’, and ‘the legs of a table’, and use expressions like ‘the walls have ears’, ‘the interviewer kept me on my toes’, and ‘let's get to the heart of the matter’. Not only are many of our metaphorical expressions rooted in the body and our experiences of it, but metaphors, in turn, significantly shape our cultural perceptions of the body.

Definitions and interpretations

From the Greek word ‘metaphora’ meaning ‘transference’, a metaphor has generally been understood as a figurative expression which interprets a thing or action through an implied comparison with something else. Aristotle, who is usually considered the originator of ‘comparison’ theories of metaphor, described metaphors in the Rhetoric as elliptical similes — comparisons of ‘things that are related but not obviously so’ without using ‘like’ or ‘as’. According to Aristotle, the best or ‘most well liked’ type of metaphor transfers its meaning from one subject or ‘register’ to another through the principle of analogy. As Aristotle observes in the Poetics, these metaphors often depend on logical relationships between multiple terms. The metaphor ‘old age is the evening of life’, for instance, relies on the relation between a set of terms describing day and another set describing age.

Aristotelian approaches to metaphor remained largely unchallenged until 1936, when I. A. Richards offered what philosopher Max Black has termed an ‘interaction’ view of metaphor. Critiquing both Aristotle's notion of metaphor as special or ornamental use of language, and his assumption that metaphor involves the mere substitution of one term for another, Richards claimed that metaphor relies on a complex interaction of thoughts, rather than a process of linguistic substitutions. To explain how a metaphor functions as a ‘double unit’, Richards introduced the terms ‘tenor’ and ‘vehicle’, which refer to the ‘principal subject’ and the name of the figurative term itself, respectively. (In the metaphor ‘Juliet is the sun’, for example, ‘Juliet’ would be the tenor and ‘sun’ the vehicle.) Richards' theory of metaphor as the product of an interaction between vehicle and tenor was later refined by Max Black in his 1962 book, Models and Metaphors. In this volume, Black suggested that a metaphor acts as a ‘filter’ in which two or more subjects interact according to a ‘system of associated commonplaces’ (a shared set of cultural responses) to produce new meanings for the entire phrase or sentence. In the metaphor ‘Tom is a fox’, then, not only is ‘Tom’ viewed in terms of cultural associations of foxes as sly creatures, but ‘fox’ is also reinterpreted through its juxtaposition with a human male.

In the late 1970s, John Searle rejected both interaction and comparison theories of metaphor, and offered an understanding of metaphor based on the ‘speaker's utterance meaning’. In Expression and Meaning, his 1979 study of speech act theory, Searle criticized earlier approaches to metaphor on the grounds that they tried to locate the meaning of metaphors in the sentences or metaphorical expressions themselves. Instead, Searle suggested, we must examine the slippage between the speaker's meaning and the sentence or word meaning. In other words, metaphorical utterances work not because a certain juxtaposition of words produces a change in the meaning of the lexical elements but because the speaker's meaning differs from their literal usage. Thus phrases like ‘It's getting hot in here’ or ‘Sally is a block of ice’ function as metaphors only in certain contexts with specific truth conditions: there is no single principle according to which metaphors operate.

Despite divergent theories of the ways in which metaphors operate, twentieth-century approaches have almost uniformly attempted to broaden traditional conceptions of metaphor as special use of language, offering an understanding of metaphor as a fundamental cognitive process or structure. In short, metaphor came to be seen as ‘the omnipresent principle of language’ ( Richards), as a basic pattern of organizing and concertizing experience. No longer simply the domain of rhetoric or literary studies, metaphor has, over the past three decades, become a central topic of debate for fields like psychology, linguistics, philosophy, and the cultural studies of science.

Bodily metaphors

Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, scholars have shown that many of our metaphorical expressions (along with much of thought itself) develop from our perceptions and experiences of the body. In her 1956 volume on reading poetry, Modern English and American Poetry, Margaret Schlauch suggested that one of the most basic types of metaphorical transfer is the naming of a new object through its resemblance to part of the body. Citing such examples as ‘headland’, ‘foothill’, ‘the face of a watch’, and ‘blind alleys’, Schlauch offered a comparison view of corporeal metaphor in which meaning is transferred from bodily parts and sensuous experiences to other objects on the basis of similarity.

Paul Ricoeur's 1978 essay, ‘The Metaphorical Process as Cognition, Imagination, and Feeling’, likewise claimed that the body should play a key role in our understanding of metaphor. In accordance with his view that there is a ‘picturing function’ of metaphorical meaning, Ricouer suggested that the term ‘figure of speech’ is rooted in our very understanding of the body as a figure. Just as the body twists and changes position, so, too, do metaphors, which ‘turn’ or ‘twist’ standard meanings through particular usages of words or phrases. According to Ricouer, figures of speech such as metaphor provide language with a ‘quasi-bodily externalization’; in making abstract or foreign concepts more tangible, metaphors ‘embody’ ideas, offering a ‘figurability to the message’.

The body's role in shaping metaphors and cognition was expanded and refined in Mark Johnson's 1987 book, The Body in the Mind. Breaking with objectivist views on metaphor and meaning, Johnson asserted that human embodiment is central not only to metaphorical projection, but also to our most basic processes of developing and articulating meaning. Johnson argued that metaphor, one of our primary cognitive structures for ordering experience, stem from fundamental embodied schema relating to the body's movements, orientation in space, and its interaction with objects. The body's general upright position in space, for instance, creates a ‘verticality’ schema, which influences numerous metaphors. When we speak of ‘upscale living’, and use expressions like ‘she's on top of it’ or ‘he was down on himself’, we are using metaphors based on a hierarchy derived from the body's orientation in space. The body's interaction with objects likewise contributes to the general metaphorical correlation of ‘up’ (as opposed to ‘down’) with ‘more’; as we observe through our bodily interactions, when we add liquid to a container or magazines to a pile, the level increases. Thus even phrases like ‘falling stock prices’ and ‘rising costs’ derive their abstract representation of quantity through basic bodily experience. Other embodied schemata that are projected through metaphorical networks include: balance, in/out, front/back, contained/uncontained, and force or weight. Although revolutionary in its examination of the ways in which human embodiment is encoded into metaphor, Johnson's work has been critiqued by feminist scholars like Katherine Hayles for its failure to account for individual and cultural bodily specificities like gender, ethnicity, and physical ability.

In addition to influencing the names we give to objects and basic patterns of metaphorical thought, the human body has also had an impact on many of the metaphors we employ to describe society. Perhaps the most prevalent of these bodily metaphors, the body politic has contributed to our understanding of institutions like the state and church since the age of Pericles in ancient Greece. Whether in Plato's Republic, where the problems of the polis are metaphorized as diseases, or St, Paul's writings, in which the Church is compared to a human body with unified ‘members’, the metaphor of the body politic has shaped the way scholars have envisioned the hierarchies and interrelationships between various elements of society. Indeed, we still speak of ‘heads of state’, ‘governing bodies’, and crime as ‘a social disease’.

Metaphors for the body

Just as the body has played a crucial role in influencing our metaphorical networks, so too have metaphors shaped our understanding of the body. Metaphors for the body are as diverse as the cultures and civilizations that have created them; however, several key metaphors can be identified as central to Western thought. Dating back to Plato's Cratylus, the metaphor of the body as a prison or house for the soul has influenced philosophical, religious, and other cultural attitudes toward the body — especially the mind/body dualism. At the heart of Plato's metaphor is the notion that the true essence of human beings lies in their soul or spirit; the body is alien, brute matter, a vessel for the soul/mind. The metaphor of the body as dungeon or house took on particular gendered implications with Aristotle's writings on the chora and reproduction, which contend that the mother merely ‘houses’ the child, providing the shapeless matter, while the father provides the form or shape. In the New Testament and other early Christian writings, the body was again conceived of as a house or temple, offering the distinction between the immortal, god-given soul and the mortal, corruptible body in which it dwells.

Another primary metaphor in Western perceptions of the body and the mind/body split is the Cartesian metaphor of the human body as a machine. Intervening in the mechanism versus vitalism debate, René Descartes suggested that the body (res extensa) could be understood as a self-moving machine composed of separate mechanisms that function according to the laws of nature. Descartes' metaphor of body as machine and its association of bodies (but not minds) with nature was fundamental in positioning the body as a universally knowable subject fit for scientific investigation. In the twentieth century, fields like art history and medicine used the body as machine metaphor in interesting new ways. Within the art world, the metaphor intersected with modernist theories of aesthetics, as artists like Fernand Léger and Marcel Duchamp depicted the body in an increasingly mechanized fashion. Drawing on earlier notions of a mechanistic body, and an understanding of the Fordist mass production system, the medical community utilized new cultural perceptions of the body through its metaphorical elaborations of the ‘Fordist body’. As described by Emily Martin in ‘The End of the Body?’, the Fordist body functioned according to principles of ‘centralized control and factory-based production’. This metaphorical conception of the body not only created a hierarchy among bodily organs, with the brain (centralized control) at the top and the other organs below, but also caused the body to be considered in terms of productivity and efficiency.

Central to much recent work on embodiment is the metaphor of the body as a text or surface upon which our cultural and personal identity is written. Though widely used by many body theorists, the metaphor is most often associated with Michel Foucault. Drawing from Nietzschean notions of the body as a site of social incision, Foucault described the body as ‘the inscribed surface of events’ (‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’) and as an ‘object and target of power’ (Discipline and punish). For Foucault, the body became a text or a medium on which power operates, producing culturally and historically marked subjects. Thus, as various feminist scholars have noted, cultural gender norms are ‘written’ on female and male bodies through diet, make-up, exercise, dress, footwear, and other practices. We should be careful, however, not to see the body solely as a blank slate awaiting cultural markings; as feminist philosophers Susan Bordo and Elizabeth Grosz point out, the materiality of the ‘page’ (the body itself) must be taken into consideration when we examine the ways in which bodies are culturally or otherwise inscribed.

The relationship between metaphor and the body is quite complex. Not only do metaphors affect our cultural perceptions of the body, but many of our metaphors and patterns of metaphorical cognition are shaped by our understandings of the body and embodiment. Thus, as science studies scholar Gillian Beer observes in ‘Problems of description and the language of discovery’, metaphors are both descriptive and productive. As they move from level to level, cutting across disciplines with free movement and flexibility, metaphors become an important ‘resource for discovery’; they become sites for reconceiving and recreating the body in new and exciting ways.

Christina Jarvis


Grosz, E. (1994). Volatile bodies: toward a corporeal feminism. Bloomington and Indianapolis.
Johnson, M. (1987). The body in the mind: the bodily basis of meaning, imagination, and reason. Chicago and London.
Lakoff, G. and and Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago and London. Sacks, S. (ed) (1979). On metaphor. Chicago and London.


views updated May 14 2018

METAPHOR. In RHETORIC, a figure with two senses, both originating with Aristotle in the 4c BC: (1) All FIGURES OF SPEECH that achieve their effect through association, comparison, and resemblance. Figures like ANTITHESIS, HYPERBOLE, METONYMY, SIMILE are all species of metaphor. Although this sense is not current, it lies behind the use of metaphorical and figurative as ANTONYMS of literal. (2) A figure of speech which concisely compares two things by saying that one is the other. A warrior compared to a lion becomes a lion: Achilles was a lion in the fight. In such usages, the perception of something held in common brings together words and images from different fields: warriors and lions share bravery and strength, and so the warrior is a lion among men and the lion is a warrior among beasts.


When introducing students to the idea of metaphor, teachers have generally adopted the approach of the Roman rhetorician Quintilian (1C AD), using the simpler figure simile (He fought like a lion) as a way in to the more complex metaphor (He was a lion in the fight). A typical definition on this principle is:‘A metaphor is like a simile condensed. In a simile the comparison is explicitly stated with the help of some such word as like or as, whilst in a metaphor the comparison is implied by an identification of the two things compared’ ( Ronald Ridout & Clifford Witting, The Facts of English, 1964). Such descriptions have helped generations of students recognize metaphors, but do not comment on the creative process at work. Aristotle provided a formula for creating metaphors which pointed to something inherent in all kinds of comparison. He proposed a ratio (análogon) of the type A is to B, as X is to Y, exemplified as Life is to old age, as day is to evening. This ratio demonstrated that life and day can come together because of a third shared factor, time. He then switched the second terms to get A is to Y, as X is to B, producing: Life is to evening, as day is to old age. Such a cross-over creates such phrases as the evening of life and day's old age (Poetics, 31. 11). Here, terms from distinct contexts are first aligned, then spliced, demonstrating the close relationship between metaphor and ANALOGY. In 1936, the English critic I. A. Richards provided labels for the three aspects of metaphor implied by Aristotle: the original context or idea is the tenor of the metaphor, the borrowed idea is the vehicle, and the shared element the ground. In Aristotle's example, life is the tenor, day the vehicle, time the ground. Commentators, however, are not usually precise about where the metaphor proper resides: it is sometimes defined as the vehicle alone, sometimes as the combination of tenor and vehicle, and sometimes as tenor, vehicle, and ground together.

Metaphor is often used in naming and in extending the senses of words. Its capacity to name was exemplified in the US in 1966, when a group of black activists adopted the name Black Panther. At about the same time, people who disliked the police began calling them pigs. As a result, the sentence Black Panthers hate pigs could occur and be suitably interpreted in a context far removed from ‘real’ black panthers and pigs. In George ORWELL'S Animal Farm (1945), pigs stand for Communist Party members, dogs for the police, and humans for the Russian ancien régime. Because of the meanings given to pig and man, the story's close is particularly potent as a comment on the fate of revolutions:
Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

Extended metaphors

Orwell's tale is an ALLEGORY, based on the master metaphor ‘farm is to state as animals are to citizens’, and its plot runs parallel to real life. The result of its use throughout a text is an extended metaphor, a device which can operate at many levels of speech and writing. The same imagery may run through a text, as a writer develops an analogy between the topic of immediate interest and another topic considered relevant and informative:
The architect delivers a number of completely impersonal plan drawings and typewritten specifications. They must be so unequivocal that there will be no doubt about the construction. He composes the music which others will play. Furthermore, in order to understand architecture fully, it must be remembered that the people who play it are not sensitive musicians interpreting another's score…. On the contrary, they are a multitude of ordinary people ( S. E. Rasmussen, Experiencing Architecture, 1959).

Here, the writer splices architecture and music, so that tenor and vehicle run together through the whole paragraph.

Metaphoric networks

In addition to this extension of a theme through a single discourse, networks of metaphor criss-cross language at large, especially in the form of IDIOMS and sayings. In PROVERBS, similar advice may be proffered through different images: A stitch in time saves nine, Look before you leap, Don't count your chickens before they're hatched, Don't cross your bridges before you come to them. Idioms all drawn from the same source may reflect a significant element in a society and culture: for example BrE cricketing expressions, used to talk about arguments, contests, and life itself. A politician might go in to bat in the House of Commons, intent on knocking the Opposition for six, only to be clean-bowled, stumped, or caught out by an opponent. If people do things off their own bat, they do them without help from anyone else, and if they live to be a hundred, they knock up their century, in which case they have had a (jolly) good innings. The master metaphor animating such usages can be compactly expressed as: Life is a Game of Cricket.

The universality of metaphor

Because metaphor is so pervasive in linguistic and cultural terms, it is often seen as central to thought and ordinary, non-literary language. In such speculation, the broader Aristotelian interpretation of metaphor is evoked. Language is seen as a system of SYMBOLS running parallel to reality, its purpose to blend form and meaning. All models of existence are associative make-believe: ‘Existence is like X or Y’, ‘It is as if there were a Heavenly Father’, or as T. R. Wright has put it: ‘If narrative is the way we construct our sense of identity, metaphor is how we think, especially in areas in which we need to build our knowledge of the unknown by comparison with the known’ (Theology and Literature, 1988). He adds that theology ‘has always been irredeemably riddled with metaphor’. The Christian Gospels ‘make Jesus repeatedly risk and often suffer the misunderstanding of the literal-minded’, so that in Matthew (16: 6–7) the disciples say that they have no bread when Jesus warns them against accepting the leaven of the Pharisees, while in John (3: 4) Nicodemus wonders how a man can enter his mother's womb a second time so as to be ‘born again’. Most religions and ideologies are imaginative in the shapes they lend reality, asserting the virtues of Image X over Picture Y or Model Z. Wright considers that it is not so important to replace one metaphor with another (‘addressing God continually as Mother instead of Father, She rather than He’) as to understand the processes involved in concretizing infinity and ‘recognize the metaphorical status of all these terms’.

Dead metaphors

Whether such a status is recognized or not, metaphors and models tend to have a time of vigour, after which they may ‘fade’ and ‘die’. Traditionally, those that have lost their force have been called dead metaphors; as such, they may still continue in service as CLICHÉS and hackneyed expressions. Many venerable metaphors have been literalized into everyday items of language: a clock has a face (unlike human or animal face), and on that face are hands (unlike biological hands); only in terms of clocks can hands be located on a face. Again, decide began as a metaphor, where Latin decidere meant to cut through something in order to achieve a conclusion or a solution. In their turn, conclusion and solution were once metaphorical (Latin concludere to shut up, and solvere to unfasten). The deadness of a metaphor and its status as a cliché are relative matters. Hearing for the first time that ‘life is no bed of roses’, someone might be quite swept away by its aptness and vigour. See FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE, MIXED METAPHOR, PERSONIFICATION.


views updated May 14 2018


The word metaphor (from the Greek metaphor, meaning "transfer") is an important language element in both science and religion. Since the time of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, it has been understood that something strange happens in the process of creating a metaphor. Metaphors change the ways people understand things.

Common definitions of the terms metaphor, simile, and analogy are not discrete; they refer generally to the substitution of one thing for another. Authors sometimes use one term to refer to all three. For example, in his Imagery in Scientific Thought (1987), Arthur I. Miller makes heavy use of the concept of analogy but uses the terms metaphor and metaphorical, perhaps preferring the complexity, inscrutability, and sophistication of the term metaphor over the more mundane, even pedestrian, character of analogy. Among cognitive scientists, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson explore implied analogy as a window into the operations of thought calling it metaphor in Metaphors We Live By (1980).

Metaphors, however, are less widely found in science and religion, the composite interdisciplinary field of academic study. When metaphor is found in science and religion (the composite field of academic study), the relevant analysis is epistemological rather than aesthetic. That is not to say that the celebrated transfer of meaning, which metaphor is traditionally understood as effecting, is not of importance in the literature of science and religion. It is to observe merely that the linguistic object called a metaphor is of less importance than the cognitive process that brings about the transfer that creates new meaning. Accordingly, this entry will emphasize the processmetaphoric processthat brings about the changes in meanings that are found when science and religion are taken to be related and interacting cognitive fields of meaning.

Metaphor and analogy

An important first step is to distinguish metaphoric process from the making of analogiesthe business of comparing two things that have similar characteristics. When one of two such things is understood and the other is not, one's overall understanding can be improved by making an analogy. One could say, for example, "Theology in religion is analogous to theoretical physics in natural science." Here one is making an analogy between a component of religious scholarship and a component of research in natural science. For those who know some of the theoretical laws of physics, the character and role of theology in its domain is clarified; the reverse occurs for those who read or write theology. We are here asserting an analogical relationship between a known and an unknown, in which the analogical statement advances understanding by comparing an unknown element with a element previously known. Analogical process dominates much of formal instruction. Metaphoric process is significantly different; it occurs infrequently in the field of science and religion taken together.

Metaphoric process presupposes two different phenomena (X and Y ), each well understood within their respective field of meanings. A discovery then occurs, a gestalt-like realization that the different phenomena are the same. The effect of the discovery is to establish a host of new relationships between ancillary phenomena in the two fields, ancillary phenomena closely related with the original phenomena. Events (discoveries) of this kind serve to knit together the fabric of disparate disciplines, but not by making compromises in which one "side" must relinquish some point to gain some other. Rather, the disparate views are held together and resolved into a higher viewpoint, to use an expression of Bernard Lonergan's, much as binocular vision resolves two different flat images into a single three-dimensional view.

Many scholars, including Mary Hesse, Nelson Goodman, Paul Ricoeur, and Earl MacCormac, address the problem of understanding the metaphoric process in terms of an implied model of thought. For Hesse there is a "network of meanings"; Goodman spoke in terms of "worldmaking"; Ricoeur referred to "shift in the logical distance"; and MacCormac made use of what he called "a computational metaphor for cognition."

Metaphorical processes

Janet Martin Soskice has pointed out that religious metaphors retain their tension long after other kinds of metaphors have lost theirs. One of the most startling and perennially productive religious metaphors is the assertion in John's Epistle that "God is love" (1 John 4:8). The equation of God and love involves equating the field of traditional attributes associated with God, such as superlative potency and intelligence, with the field of meanings associated with love, here understood as human relationality at is best, including vulnerability.

In science, Isaac Newton (16421727) used metaphoric process by equating the mechanics of the heavens with the mechanics of earthly objects, thus generating a higher viewpoint that had a profound effect on people's lives. The "laws of the heavens" had been developed earlier by Johannes Kepler (15711630). These laws described, in quantitative terms, the motion of the planets (the "wandering" heavenly bodies) around the sun. Mechanical "laws of the of the world" (on the surface of Earth) were given by Galileo Galilei (15641642), who could, for example, calculate the motion of a projectile or the rate of fall of an object as it fell toward the ground. Subsequently Newton, in the famous falling apple allegory, realized that Galileo's laws of falling applied to the moon as well as to terrestrial objects, and, with that metaphoric act, caused the laws of Earth to become the laws of heavenquite a reversal. The general laws of mechanics followed, and the resulting ability to analyze mechanisms and predict mechanical behavior reliably can be understood as having reshaped one world of meanings to create a new world of meanings, one that dominated science and technology for over two hundred years.

Other examples of metaphoric statements can be found. Examples in physics include: heat is motion (Benjamin Thompson, James Prescott Joule); light is particulate as well as undulatory (Albert Einstein); energy is particulate (Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Einstein); and mass is undulatory as well as particulate (Louis de Broglie). Examples in religion include: in the midst of life we are in death (Paul); an individual's ultimate concern is that person's god (Paul Tillich); the "natural" state of existence for human beings is to be graced (Karl Rahner); and Christ is sophia and logos (Elizabeth Johnson). Possible examples in science and religion include: evil is entropic degradation and personal relativistic time is the time of the second coming of Christ.

The discovery that two persons from different disciplines are talking about the same thing is not uncommon in closely related fields and can be highly profitable. The exchange interactions of quantum physics were found to correspond to the molecular bonds of chemistry, and chemical physics was born. It remains to be seen whether productive instances can be found in disciplines separated by as much cognitive space as natural science and religion. The hope for science and religion as a valuable academic discipline in its own right depends on such possibilities and on the metaphoric process that can knit them together.

See also Models


gerhart, mary, and, russell, allan m. metaphoric process: the creation of scientific and religious understanding. fort worth: texas christian university press, 1984.

goodman, nelson. ways of worldmaking. indianapolis, ind.: hackett, 1978.

hesse, mary. models and analogies in science. notre dame, ind.: notre dame press, 1970.

jones, roger s. physics as metaphor. minneapolis: university of minnesota press, 1982.

lakoff, george, and johnson, mark. metaphors we live by. chicago and london: university of chicago press, 1980.

leatherdale, w. h. the role of analogy: model and metaphor in science. new york: elsevier, 1974.

maccormac, earl r. metaphor and myth in science and religion. durham, n.c.: duke university press, 1976.

mcfague, sallie. metaphorical theology: models of god in religious language. philadelphia, pa.: fortress press, 1982.

miller, arthur i. imagery in scientific thought: creating twentieth-century physics. boston: birkhäuser, 1985.

ricoeur, paul. the rule of metaphor: an interdisciplinary study. toronto, ont.: university of toronto press, 1977.

rogers, robert. metaphor: a psychoanalytic view. berkeley: university of california press, 1978.

schon, donald alan. displacement of concepts. london: tavistock, 1963.

soskice, janet martin. metaphor and religious language. new york: oxford university press, 1985.

mary gerhart

allan m. russell


views updated May 21 2018


Metaphor is a figure of speech that involves designating one thing with the name of another, a process that is carried out essentially by substituting one term for another.

Metaphor is a fundamental notion that Jacques Lacan introduced in relation to his thesis that "the unconscious is structured like a language." He justified its legitimacy principally by analogy with the Freudian mechanism of "condensation," and more generally in relation to the structure of the formations of the unconscious and the metaphorical process of the Name-of-the-Father.

Lacan proposed the following symbolic formula for metaphor (2002, p. 190):

The Lacanian use of metaphor is founded on the principle of a signifying substitution that promotes the authority of the signifier over that of the signified. In language, metaphorical substitution most often occurs between two terms on the basis of semantic similarity. At the level of unconscious processes, this similarity is not always immediately apparent, and only a series of associations can bring it to light.

Thus Freudian condensation plays a role in the different unconscious formations, such as dreams and symptoms, for example. Just as the unconscious material in dreams, telescoped by condensations, reappears in a meaningless form in the manifest dream content, so the symptom expresses, in reality, something completely different from what it appears to mean.

The metaphor of the Name-of-the-Father, as it was called by Lacan, is based on the same principlethat of the substitution of signifiers. In this case, the signifier of the Name-of-the-Father substitutes for the signifier of the mother's desire, which thus becomes the object of repression and becomes unconscious.

The "fort/da game" that Freud described (1920g) directly attests to the process of metaphorization and the repression that is linked to it. A relation of signifying substitution is established by the child as soon as they "name" the signifying reference to the father as the cause of the mother's absences. In addition to the paternal metaphor, which makes it possible, the fort/da game is also inscribed in a double metaphorical process. In itself, the reel is already a metaphor for the mother, and the game of its presence and absence is another metaphor since it symbolizes her departure and return.

JoËl Dor

See also: Condensation; Displacement; Forgetting; Formations of the unconscious; Letter, the; Linguistics and psychoanalysis; Matheme; Metonymy; Mirror stage; Name-of-the-Father; Phobias in children; Psychoses, chronic and delusional; Signifier; Signifier/signified; Signifying chain; Symptom/sinthome; Topology.


Dor, Joël. (1998). Introduction to the reading of Lacan: The unconscious structured like a language (Judith Feher Gurewich and Susan Fairfield, Eds.). New York: Other Press, 1998.

Freud, Sigmund. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.

Lacan, Jacques. (2002).Écrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton.


views updated Jun 08 2018

met·a·phor / ˈmetəˌfôr; -fər/ • n. a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable: “I had fallen through a trapdoor of depression,” said Mark, who was fond of theatrical metaphors | her poetry depends on suggestion and metaphor. ∎  a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, esp. something abstract: the amounts of money being lost by the company were enough to make it a metaphor for an industry that was teetering.DERIVATIVES: met·a·phor·ic / ˌmetəˈfôrik/ adj.met·a·phor·i·cal / ˌmetəˈfôrikəl/ adj.met·a·phor·i·cal·ly / ˌmetəˈfôrik(ə)lē/ adv.


views updated May 21 2018

metaphor XVI. — (O)F. mėtaphore or L. metaphora — Gr. metaphorā́, f. metaphérein transfer; see META-, BEAR2.
So metaphorical, metaphorically XVI.


views updated May 14 2018

metaphor a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. Recorded from the late 15th century, the word comes via French and Latin from Greek metaphora, from metapherein ‘to transfer’.


views updated May 14 2018

metaphor Figure of speech that draws a comparison. It differs from ordinary comparisons in its inventiveness, and from a simile in the complexity of the idea expressed. ‘Fleece as white as snow’, is a simile, whereas ‘His political life was a constant swimming against the tide’, is a metaphor.