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Philosophy of Language - The Literal and the Metaphorical

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Metaphor: epichess or platypus?

This essay will be an examination of Blacks explanation of the interaction view of metaphor in his paper More about Metaphor1 and the comparison of this view with the Davidson/Rorty position outlined by Rorty in Unfamiliar Voices.2 I intend to look at how these two subtly different views of metaphor appear to trip over each other in their understanding of meaning and cognition in language and how metaphor performs its communicating function. I also hope to include some personal ideas about how metaphor works and relate this understanding back to the views of Black and Rorty and their more general positions on language. Black starts out by outlining where his interest in metaphor lies and in what type of clearly metaphorical language he wishes to discuss. For example he rejects the statement: falling in love, as not a metaphor and possibly never having been one, but just an example of, catachresis (using an idiom to fill a gap in the lexicon) (Black, p.26). I would suggest there is a danger here that one of the roles of metaphor is to fill gaps in the lexicon and maybe one should see catachresis as a form of metaphor. This discussion of falling in love forms part of Blacks wish to move away from the classification of metaphors as dead or alive. A dead metaphor being one whose metaphorical value has decayed into a literal meaning through use and common understanding. An alive metaphor being one that still challenges and confronts a literal interpretation of it. Black proposes three alternative states for metaphors: extinct, dormant, and active (Black, p.26). He expresses a wish to focus on the active, however he does not in this qualification of his interest recognise that the status of the metaphor could change with context. I would suggest that a metaphor can be extinct for a particular speech community, but be very much alive for another that hears it for the first time; for whom it will still be novel. However Black does define context to be key in his earlier section: identifying the targets (Black, p.24), indicating that what he wants to mean by the word metaphor is the whole metaphorical statement, and that: A statement in my intended sense, will be identified by quoting a whole sentence, or set of sentences, together with as much of the relevant verbal context, or the nonverbal setting (Black, p.24). I assume that Black meant these issues of context to also be taken into account when considering the activity level of the metaphor. Black further refines his interest to strong metaphor[s] (Black, p.27), those that are not clearly decoration, that will allow no variation upon or substitute for the words used and clearly call upon an interpretative response from the receiver (Black, p.26). Black talks of these strong metaphors being both emphatic and resonant (Black, p.27). Having outlined his area of interest, he reviews his theory of the interaction view and clarifies his aims as: a help to understanding how strong metaphorical statements work (Black,
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M. Black, More about metaphor, Dialectica 31 (1977), repr. in Ortony, dept supplied material. R. Rorty, Unfamiliar Voices - Hesse and Davidson on Metaphor, Aristotelian Society Supp. Vol LXI, (1987), pp. 283-296.

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p.27). In the interaction view, the metaphorical statement has a primary and secondary subject (Black, p.28). Black uses the example of society is a sea (Black, p.28). In this case, society is the primary subject and sea is the secondary. The role of the secondary subject is to provide some novel understanding of the primary. To put it in Blacks own words: The metaphorical utterance works by projecting upon the primary subject a set of associated implications, comprised in the implicative complex, that are predictable of the secondary subject (Black, p.28). The implicative complex, being what is implied about society by our prior knowledge of the word sea. Black considers this process an interaction because the presence of the secondary subject stimulates new implications about the primary and consequently: reciprocally induces parallel changes in the secondary subject (Black, p.29). I would suggest that there is a potential for this second reciprocal change but it is not a necessary effect. Black appears to recognise that these interactions and projections that he talks of, are in themselves metaphoric and that these effects take place in the minds of the hearer and speaker. Black goes on to say that this interaction creates a new or shift in meaning for the speaker and the hearer: what both of them understand by words, as used on the particular occasion (Black, p.29). Here again Black is recognising the role of context in what is happening. The idea that new or changed meaning is taking place in the interaction is the key point of departure for the Rorty/Davidson view of metaphor. In Rortys article in Unfamiliar Noises, Rorty explains Davidsons view that a metaphor has no meaning beyond its literal components: that a metaphorical sentence has no meaning other than its literal one (Rorty, p.284). I understand from this that the Davidson view is that the literal meaning, is the meaning of the metaphors component words in a relatively generalised context. Hesse suggests in her reply to Rorty that this literal meaning, is usually nonsense or false and anyway does not coincide with its use as a metaphor.3 Rorty wants us to see this claim by Davidson in the context of a philosophical world that promotes cognition and meaning as the highest point of discourse and as such to give metaphor the status it deserves it must be drawn into this cognitive realm of meaning/semantics. Rorty and Davidson want to place metaphor outside of this world, which for me poses two critical questions: what do they want to do with metaphor outside of this world? And if metaphor has no role in meaning, in semantics, what is its role in language? Rorty argues for a restriction of both the importance of, and the status of semantic cognition and he also suggests that it is applicable to a relatively limited realm of language: we should see semantical notions as applicable only to familiar and relatively uninteresting uses of words (Rorty, p.284). Rorty appears to be suggesting that a large part of language use is not about semantic precision and literal meaning and that this part of language is as valuable as the literal and includes metaphor. Rortys reason for this rejection of the pedestal of the semantic is, to help ourselves

M. Hesse, Unfamiliar Voices - Tropical Talk: The Myth of the Literal, Aristotelian Society Supp. Vol LXI, (1987), pp. 297-311, p.297.

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see natural science as simply an instrument of prediction and control rather than a standard-setting area of culture (Rorty, p.284). Having got metaphor out of cognition and conventional meaning; taken it off Black, just exactly what is it doing for us in language? If the metaphor has no meaning, it becomes an unfamiliar event (Rorty, p.284), something new, a stimulus to the hearer/receiver and in this sense for Rorty becomes analogous to, phenomena like platypuses and pulsars (Rorty, p.290). It becomes a trigger to the imaginative and cognitive powers of the creator and receiver, but without any specific cognitive content. In this sense metaphors are the cause of change of understanding, the stimulus to meaning without containing that meaning. In this view the poetic metaphors, the metaphors that cannot decay into literal meanings that Black rejects from his study are of equal value for their stimulating effect. Rorty suggests that this view, gives us a better account of the role played in our lives by metaphorical expressions which are not sentances scraps of poetry which send shivers down our spine (Rorty, p.285). Although I dont want to overplay the role of intention in the use of language, even the creator of the most poetic metaphor, or even nonsense language has a communicative aim in mind. The platypus however is just there (unless we are going to take a religious position), its stimulating effect is secondary to its existence. The poet on the other hand is working within a context of intention and communication and is therefore to at least some extent calculating the effect of their creation. In this sense Rorty appears to somewhat overstating his case with this analogy, that although one can see how Davidsons concept of metaphor places the effect of the metaphor outside of its semantic meaning it is still within the world of intended communication. The Davidson/Rorty view of metaphor therefore appears to be a particularly theoretical one. There is a sense in which Davidson appears to be looking at language as if he is not part of it. He is making a theoretical interpretation of what he observers. Rorty appears to recognise this in Davidson, suggesting that he is, content with an outside view, the position of the, radical interpreter (Rorty, p.287). At this stage I want to put forward my understanding of what is happening in the metaphorical statement, which to an extent maybe a restating of Blacks position but with hopefully a different emphasis. The creating and interpreting of a metaphorical statement would appear to contain two distinct sets of meanings and a two stage process. For the metaphor to work, the literal meaning of the subjects; of the metaphors component parts must be understood. If there is no stability of meaning in the words that make up the metaphor I see no route to a new meaning in their interaction. Stage one of understanding the metaphor is therefore understanding the literal meaning of its components. This being something that Davidson would recognise and see as the limit of the cognitive/semantic process. Stage two is gaining a new novel meaning from the new and novel relation. It is therefore in the relation in a particular context that the new meaning exists. The Davidson/Rorty view would see this second stage as stimulus; a trigger to the imagination, they

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would see no meaning value is the relation of the words, but only in their overall effect. Here I hit a problem in my own understanding of how we get meaning in literal utterances, because I would like to suggest that in the case of literal language we construct new meaning again based on new relations and contexts and as such I am finding it difficult to define a path between how we work with the literal and the metaphorical. Rorty may be able to provide some help with this, in that he suggests that: you have to kill off a metaphor to get a satisfactory theory of how it works (Rorty, p.291). To reverse this, once the stimulus of the metaphor is understood; has achieved cognitive content, the metaphor has decayed into a dead metaphor (Rorty, p.291); has joined the realms of literal language. In this view Blacks strong metaphors only have a brief metaphorical life. That as soon as we have made a meaning out of the relation of the subjects, the metaphor within a particular context has become dead, has joined the literal world. In this sense, Rorty could argue that Black is working not so much with active (Black, p.26) metaphors but those that are rapidly in the process of dying. The only metaphors that retain their metaphorical form are the poetic and the platypus. Although Rorty affirms that Black and Davidson have different views of how metaphor works, and of its effects, he does not appear to notice that they may have very different ideas of what constitutes a metaphorical statement, and this difference can be seen in their sense of how a metaphor decays into the literal. Black sees this decay as the general acceptance of a relatively fixed meaning, that once a metaphor has gone unnoticed or is beyond resuscitation, it has become extinct or dormant (Black, p.26). For Rorty the metaphorical value starts to be lost as soon as the, noises start to convey information (Rorty, p.295). Critically, both the Black and the Rorty/Davidson positions reject traditional notions of metaphor as simply a substitution for literal language. Black argues that the only available alternatives (Black, p.27), to his interaction view are those of substitution and comparison, and that these views of metaphor relegate metaphor to the realms of incidental pleasure (Black, p.28); to the role of embellishment and disguise. Rorty in commenting on Black and Davidson states that: both philosophers insist that metaphors are unparaphrasable, and also that they are not merely ornamental (Rorty, p.285). So both Davidson and Black reject the apparently positivist view of metaphor, that would exclude metaphor from all factual discourse and from the world of philosophy in general. A view that sees only precise literal meaning as valuable. However this suggesting that metaphor is imprecise and outside of general language meaning fits with the Davidson position which argues that this non-semantic nature of metaphor is precisely its role, its benefit to the business of communication. That, they [the positivists, the believers in substitution] went wrong only when they failed to add that metaphors were necessary for gaining knowledge (Rorty, p.291). The key differences between Black and the Davidson position appears to be in their more general understanding of language. For Black language is a rule governed activity of which

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metaphor is a transgression, he uses the image of a game of chess where pieces can move in new ways; can take on the attributes of other pieces. He talks of the creative rule-violating metaphor producer (Black, p.25). For Davidson rules appear to play a much smaller part, he rejects the idea that understanding is made possible by, something like a portable interpreting machine and makes the claim that to participate in metaphor is a creative endeavour4 and I would suspect that he see language in general in a similar light. However Black does hint at some understanding of this creative endeavour when he suggest that, such a heavy-handed analysis of course neglects the ambience of the secondary subject (Black, p.30), and that: ambiguity is a necessary by-product of the metaphors suggestiveness (Black, p.30). These two statements would appear to allow some room for Davidsons non-cognative, non-semantic impact from the metaphor, that a metaphorical statement is more than a sum of its parts, or to put in a more Davidson sense is not the sum of its parts. This essay feels like a brief scratching of the surface of this subject, but if I want to conclude anything, it is a true thanks for the rejection of the substitution thesis and a strong sense that literal and metaphorical language is not divided by anything terribly significant. Both are natural and normal aspects of everyday language. And that all metaphorical language and any novel use of literal language can cause both a new semantic meaning and a stimulus to the imagination outside of its semantic content. Sorry to finish on a compromise.

Bibliography Black, M ., More about metaphor, Dialectica 31 (1977), repr. in Ortony, dept supplied material Hesse, M., Unfamiliar Voices - Tropical Talk: The Myth of the Literal, Aristotelian Society Supp. Vol LXI, (1987), pp. 297-311 Rorty, R., Unfamiliar Voices - Hesse and Davidson on Metaphor, Aristotelian Society Supp. Vol LXI, (1987), pp. 283-296

D. Davidson, Essays on Truth and Interpretation, p.245 in Rorty, p.291.