What's a Metaphor For?

July 3, 2011


By Carlin Romano

Writing about metaphor is dancing with your conceptual clothes off, the innards of your language exposed by equipment more powerful than anything operated by the TSA. Still, one would be a rabbit not to do it in a world where metaphor is now top dog, at least among revived rhetorical devices with philosophical appeal.

"To be a master of metaphor," Aristotle wrote in his Poetics, "is the greatest thing by far. It is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others, and it is also a sign of genius." He described it most simply as "giving the thing a name that belongs to something else." More recent thinkers explain its analytic structure with greater precision. One locus classic's is the philosopher Max Black's 1955 article, ''Metaphor,'' in which he set forth three traditional views of the device that still guide debate about it.

The ''substitution'' theory argues that a metaphor of the form ''A is B'' (Shakespeare's ''Juliet is the sun") presents some intended literal meaning of the form ''A is C'' (''Juliet is the center of my solar system"). The ''comparison'' theory, probably the most widely held, interprets the ''A is B'' metaphor as an elliptical simile that really asserts ''A is like B in the following respects. ... '' Here, the reader or listener must ferret out the relevant respects. ''Juliet is the sun'' may call attention to Juliet's gravitational influence on Romeo, the heat she radiates, the light she emits, or all these characteristics and more. Last, the ''interaction'' theory suggests that the ''system of associated commonplaces'' of A and B somehow merge to create a distinct metaphorical meaning that no literal statement captures.

Aristotle meant, by his kudos, mastery in using metaphors. Euripides struck him as a master, and Shakespeare remains one to us four centuries later. Mastery of the subject of metaphor, however, is an entirely different matter. Nobody back in ancient Greece, except Aristotle himself, talked much about the concept.

But in the late 20th century, metaphor studies took off across disciplines, with philosophers, linguists, psychologists, cognitive scientists, and others—George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, and Samuel Guttenplan are some names that come to mind—elbowing one another aside in the rush to anoint "metaphor" as the concept at the crux of all thought, and maybe all human understanding. That academic work on metaphor has largely investigated its logical intricacies, tissuing out the implications of experimental and neurological data, or detailing its specialized epistemological relations to truth and meaning. Yet no one has tried to explain the big picture, and particularly metaphor's everyday impact, to a general, educated audience.

More the pity, then, that James Geary's playful, accessible I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World (Harper), comes burdened with such an atrocious title. The line is a literal translation of one of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud's most famous lines, better translated by Lydia Davis as "I am someone else." No matter. Ignore the title. Think of Geary, even at his glibbest, as the bridge between the burgeoning field of metaphor studies and the man and woman in the street.

Geary announces his high regard for metaphor at his book's outset:

"Metaphorical thinking—our instinct not just for describing but for comprehending one thing in terms of another—shapes our view of the world, and is essential to how we communicate, learn, discover and invent. ... Our understanding of metaphor is in the midst of a metamorphosis. For centuries, metaphor has been seen as a kind of cognitive frill, a pleasant but essentially useless embellishment to 'normal' thought. Now, the frill is gone. New research in the social and cognitive sciences makes it increasingly plain that metaphorical thinking influences our attitudes, beliefs, and actions in surprising, hidden, and often oddball ways."

Geary further unpacks metaphor's influence in his foreword:

"Metaphor conditions our interpretations of the stock market and, through advertising, it surreptitiously infiltrates our purchasing decisions. In the mouths of politicians, metaphor subtly nudges public opinion; in the minds of businesspeople, it spurs creativity and innovation. In science, metaphor is the preferred nomenclature for new theories and new discoveries; in psychology, it is the natural language of human relationships and emotions."

All true, though Geary occasionally makes it sound as if the importance of metaphor to human language, knowledge, and comprehension is a recent discovery. (At other times, he gives deserved credit to early champions of metaphor such as the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, who was born in the late 17th century.) In fact, many modern thinkers and scholars have agreed that all language is at root metaphorical. Rousseau argued that man's ''first expressions were tropes''; modern analysts such as Nelson Goodman recognized that metaphor still ''permeates all discourse''; and continental theorists like Derrida concurred (''Abstract notions always hide a sensory figure''). Fontanier, the great French theorist of tropes, pointed out that even so abstract an idea as ''idea'' grew from the Greek eido, ''to see.''

Further undermining those who seek an Archimedean spot from which to analyze metaphor is that even the words ''metaphor'' and ''figure'' are metaphors. Derrida, in "White Mythology," mocks Aristotle's famous full definition: ''Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else; the transference being either from genus to species, or from species to genus, or from species to species, or on grounds of analogy.'' Derrida writes that, in the original, every word of the definition is a metaphor. Paul Ricoeur describes the situation in his study, The Rule of Metaphor: ''There is no nonmetaphorical standpoint from which one could look upon metaphor.''

Of all philosophical writers on metaphor, Nietzsche probably draws the strongest conclusions from this situation. ''Tropes,'' he writes, ''are not something that can be added or abstracted from language at will—they are its truest nature.'' He argues that there is ''no real knowing apart from metaphor,'' by which he means that we experience reality through metaphors, and our notion of literal meaning simply reflects the ossification of language, as figures of speech lose their vitality. He emphasizes in The Genealogy of Morals how metaphor tends to extend its sway, to bring wider ranges of experience under its wing. He goes so far as to say that ''the drive toward the formation of metaphor is the fundamental human drive.'' For him, literal and figurative meaning are not stable categories, but historical ones determined by their social context.

The Nietzschean ''big picture'' of metaphor's role in language and culture lends support to Derrida's point in "White Mythology" that the evolution of abstractions is always a case of going from the physical and sensible to the abstract. Derrida is critical, like Nietzsche, of the automatic distinction of the sensory and nonsensory in Western thought, believing that it shows a lack of self-consciousness in thinkers about the roots of their language. He thinks a key question in looking at a supposed ''abstraction'' is whether the memory of its sensory origin remains in its usage.

That's the rough and unarticulated philosophical backdrop from which Geary's confidence arises, allowing him to note and dismiss the countertradition, particularly in philosophy, that saw metaphor as a temptation away from firm, supposedly literal truth: Hobbes's description of metaphors as "abuses of speech," or Berkeley's admonition that "a philosopher should abstain from metaphor."

The upshot of the boom in metaphor studies, Geary makes clear, is the overturning of that presumption toward literalism: Nowadays, it's believers in a literalism that goes all the way down (so to speak) who are on the defensive in intellectual life, and explorers of metaphor who are on the ascendant. As a result, Geary hardly feels a need to address literalism, devoting most of his book to how metaphor connects to etymology, money, mind, politics, pleasure, science, children, the brain, the body, and such literary forms as the proverb and aphorism.

In those highly empirical arenas, Geary takes off.

Listen to him explain the metaphorical universe: the "teeth" on combs, the "spines" in books, and how active, dormant, and supposedly extinct metaphors each deserve separate categories. Take in his observations on business metaphors, such as the Wall Street term "dead cat bounce." Follow his links from metaphor to Asperger's syndrome and his discussion of the "affect heuristic" in advertising (You think "You're in good hands with Allstate"?). Examine with him the neurological underpinnings of synesthesia, metaphorical gestures such as the "OK" sign, telling political phrases such as "climate cancer," the imagistic competence of children, the need for metaphor in science, and scores of other telling, concrete examples of how metaphor runs our lives.

Writing with or about metaphors is not dancing with the stars, but dancing with asterisks—pointers to the figurative understructure of our supposedly literal language. The more we stay sensitive to that, the better we dance. As the Chinese say, "It's hard to dismount from a tiger," and every metaphor starts out as a wild beast, waiting to be tamed by usage.

Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle Review, is a professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College.