OF METAPHOR (UNMARKED)
The Problem of Metaphor
Final Paper — Fall 1971
The general assumption that the meaning of a verbal expression is equal to the sum of the meanings of its component terms as modified by the relationships among those terms is a fair working assumption for a theory of language. Behaviorists would add that the meaning is also modified by the circumstance under which the expression is uttered. Alston, however, makes the point: It is an extremely important fact about language that it is possible to use a word intelligibly without using it in any of its senses.1 The usage he refers to is figurative language, principally metaphor. Because metaphorical expressions are not confined to poetry but pervade the language as a whole, a theory of language cannot be complete unless it makes provision for such expressions.
Whether the desire for communication originally arose from physical necessity, ritual celebration, a communal instinct, or the urge to express abstract ideas, it is certain that the purpose of language is to effect communication among human beings. And as long as human beings continue to have new experiencesnew to the individual, even if not to the speciesthey will seek to extend the range of their verbal capacity to include the expression and interpretation of those new experiences. In order to do so, they must approach as near as possible to the idea with their known language, and then find some means by interpolation or extrapolation of filling the gap.
Skinner distinguishes two kinds of extension of language that are employed in order to meet the demands of a new situation.2 The first is generic extension, by which a property which identifies a class of things (not necessarily concrete objects; they may be actions, qualities, ideas, sensations, etc.) is recognized in the new situation and provokes the response which applies to all the members of that class. Skinner observes that practical considerations tend to control the properties which are engaged in generic extension. In his example, chair, it is the use of the object which reveals its membership in a certain class and thus causes the proper response of chair to be emitted. He does not indicate, however, how one recognizes the intended use of a new object before one knows to what class it belongs. The intended use of many articles of furniture of modern design is not at all obvious from their appearance; and, on the other hand, it is possible to put to the use normally reserved for a chair many things for which the response chair would be inappropriate. Nevertheless, the essence of generic extension is that an old expression is used for a new experience to which the expression literally applies.
In contrast, metaphorical extension occurs when the new experience is perceived not as belonging to an already established class, but as possessing significant similarities to a member of an established class. The properties which render them similar are among the very properties which do not relate the members of the class. Skinners example here is that of a childs describing his first taste of a carbonated beverage as tasting like my foots asleep. In my own memory is the distinct recollection of informing my mother once that my foot feels like ginger ale. I do not know exactly what age I was at the timeprobably five or sixbut I cannot believe that I had never had the experience of temporary loss of circulation at an age when the prickly sensation of ginger ale was already familiar. But it is very likely that until tasting ginger ale I never had so apt a phrase at my disposal to convey the nature of the feeling in my foot. It was not the novel experience that gave rise to the metaphor, but rather the acquisition of an effective new way to describe a commonplace experience.
Again, however, whether the precise relationships or sequence of experiences are strictly accurate as Skinner presents them, it is the principle of his observation with which we are concerned: namely, that primary properties relate things in a class, which is enlarged by generic extension; whereas secondary properties, present at the time of reinforcement but not governing the [response], relate things in separate classes by metaphorical extension.
Although Chomsky and Skinner profess diametric opposition to one anothers theories of language, and although Skinner is concerned with meaning of expressions while Chomsky maintains his interest to be in the area of syntax rather than semantics, there is an interesting way in which their theories can be brought together. Chomsky suggests that as language is subdivided into classes, the classes fall into a hierarchy of levels depending upon the degree of subdivision.3 Each successive level contains finer distinctions of category; for instance, on the third level the class Nouns from level two might become Abstract Nouns, Concrete Nouns, etc. Presumably all the words of the language are represented at each level, and at each level they are assigned to a category within their category at the previous level. (Some words—grammatical homonyms—may fall into more than one category.) The highest level comprises the minutest possible breakdowns of category: members of a given category are mutually substitutable in the set of generated utterances. Many of them may contain just a single formative.4 Chomsky then proceeds to demonstrate that it is theoretically possible to assign degrees of grammaticalness on the basis of the hierarchical level at which a given sequence of formatives may be derived.
Now, if the expressions in a particular category at the highest level (level m, in Chomskys scheme) are mutually substitutable, and if the categories at each level are refinements of the categories at preceding levels, then it follows that all the elements of a given category at level m occurred together in a single category with other elements at all lower levels; and therefore that any given expression in a category at some lower level g may be mutually substitutable with some of the other elements in that category but not necessarily with all. For two expressions to be in the same category at any level indicates a degree of correspondence between them; on the first level, merely that they belong to the same language. If two terms are mutually substitutable, their meaning must be identical in at least one sense. If two terms are in the same category at level l and separated at level m, they must be very closely related to be distinguished only at the last division. Whatever properties cause two elements to fall into the same category at any point, therefore, are the properties in which they resemble one another; and the higher the level at which two elements not mutually substitutable remain in the same category, the greater the degree of similarity between them. On the lower levels, the similarity may be purely structural; but the nearer they approach to identity of meaning, the more their similarity must be semantic in nature.
If we consider, therefore, two expressions categorized together at some median level g which are not categorized together at level h, we know that their maximum degree of similarity is attained at level g. Up to that point the two expressions can under some circumstances be substituted for one another. Beyond that point, however, to employ one expression in a context which would normally contain the other is to utter an unintelligible sequence of words or to require the reader/listener to comprehend its significance on the basis of the similarity of the substituted expression. This kind of departure from literal sense is what is known as metaphor; and it is here that Skinners distinction may be re-introduced: the use of an expression which belongs in one category may effectively occur in the place of an expression from another category by virtue of the similarities in meaning which are not sufficient to identify one with the other.
Chomsky does not deal with the problem of metaphor explicitly. There are broad dark areas in his reasoning in which the question could conceivably be treated, such as his notion of the creative aspect of language. One tends to suspect, however, that his failureand that of other linguistic theoriststo confront the matter is not, as one might initially suppose, due to the fact that metaphor is irrelevant to the central issues of linguistic analysis, but rather is a consequence of the fact that they do not know how to deal with it, and their inadequate treatment of it would inevitably expose the deficiencies of their systems.
Chomskys creative aspect of language is the property by which it is possible for a person to utter acceptable grammatical sentences which are unique in his experience and do not bear any point for point analogy to sentences in his previous experience. By the same principle, the individual is able to understand without difficulty grammatical sentences of his language which are unlike any already known to him.5 Chomsky uses this phenomenon as an argument in favor of his innate universal grammar. It can also be applied to metaphorical language, however, which in its natural form (i.e., when it arises out of a need to express a new experience not covered by the speakers vocabulary, as opposed to its deliberate or contrived use in poetic language) is a necessary innovation to describe a novel situation. It is perfectly possible, nevertheless, to imagine a commonplace expression which a person has heard frequently in its literal application, given a metaphorical meaning by application to a new situation. A child, for example, may hear the expression, Its snowing out, used to describe a condition of the weather. The same child, in an energetic pillow fight which issues in an unexpected shower of feathers, may jubilantly exclaim, Its snowing out! The creativity which produces this utterance is neither Skinners generic extension, for it is not an new instance of an old experience; nor is it Chomskys creative aspect, for no new utterance is emitted; but rather, a familiar expression is adapted to convey a new meaning. Moreover, the child, if asked what has really taken place, is not apt to maintain that snow has actually fallen. He is not under the necessity of using the image to explain an otherwise inexpressible occurrence. He is simply taking pleasure in his ability to perceive a similarity between the white flurry he has created and the fall of snow he enjoys in winter.
Although the creative aspect of language can be made to apply to certain kinds of metaphorical innovation, it is not unreasonable to suppose that if this were part of Chomskys intention he would have so stated it. Assuredly Chomsky is not ignorant of the concept of metaphor; and if he had considered that a principle, such as that of creativity, within the scope of this stated theory would give a satisfactory account of the metaphorical use of language, it seems unlikely that he would have chosen deliberately to leave so critical an area as metaphor unexplained in his system.
It is to their distinct advantage that two writers in the field, Susanne K. Langer and William P. Alston, are not laboring under the constraint of having to justify their own theories. Instead, both make an effort, in Philosophy in a New Key6 and Philosophy of Language7 respectively, to assemble what seem to them the most satisfying and logical accounts of the phenomena of language, and draw their own conclusions without reference to a preconceived scheme. Consequently, both advance into the realm of metaphor with considerably more realism and thoroughness than does either Skinner or Chomsky.
Mrs. Langer approaches the subject by way of speculation about the origin of language itself. She points out the natural inclination of the human infant to babble meaningless syllables, and contrasts this tendency with the silence of other animals, including chimpanzees, even in infancy. The human infant is encouraged in this practice by vocal response from other human beings, and certain of its syllabic patterns are reinforced. Feral children, at least in the documented cases she cites, experience no such reinforcement by other speaking creatures, and consequently when brought into civilization they have no language of their own and no conception of language, and cannot successfully be persuaded to learn it.
The origin of language in the human species, she suggests, is to be found in ritual, where songsprobably random rhythmic syllables at firstcame into being to accompany particular ceremonies. Men found that by repeating these syllable patterns at other times they could call to mind the occasion of the ceremony. This symbolic attachment of idea or thing to sounda sound by which the concept could actually be meaningfully invoked apart from its ceremonial contextwas the initial stage in the development of a complex, subtle system of articulation which is now a highly sophisticated vehicle for communication.
On the strength of theories set forth by J. Donovan and Philip Wegener, among others, Mrs. Langer brings metaphorical extension into the process of linguistic growth at that most primitive level.8 The meaning of an expression is heavily dependent upon its context, physical or verbal. At the most simplistic levelmuch as a child or a foreigner unaccustomed to the language would doa person can conceivably make his thoughts known through the utterance of as little as a single word, accompanied by appropriate gestures to indicate physical objects and so forth. Similarly, such one-word propositions largely reliant on context may have constituted the first efforts at direct verbal communication.
In order to meet the many inevitable difficulties of such limited discourse, however, syntactic forms must have developed by a process of emendation. Where emendation accounts for structure, metaphor accounts for generality. Rousseau, in his own speculation as to the beginnings of language,9 observes that at a very primitive level the language must have been large, since each object would have its own name without regard for genus and species. Each individual tree, for example, would be distinguished from any other, and all nouns would in effect be proper names. Mrs. Langer offers Wegeners theory of logical analogy as the means by which a known expression is adapted to a novel situation. The meaning of the expression used takes on the character of symbol for the thing which it is used to express. Wegener suggests that metaphor is the source of all general words. Metaphor, says Mrs. Langer, is our most striking evidence of abstractive seeing, of the power of human minds to use presentational symbols. Every new experience, or new idea about things, evokes first of all some metaphorical expression.10
One point on which all sources seem to concur is that metaphor is the principal instrument of growth of the language. In Mrs. Langers words: One might say that, if ritual is the cradle of language, metaphor is the law of its life. It is the force that makes it essentially relational, intellectual, forever showing up new, abstractable forms in reality, forever laying down a deposit of old, abstracted concepts in an increasing treasure of general words.11 And further: Metaphor is the law of growth of every semantic. It is not a development, but a principle.12
While it is by the process of metaphorical extension itself that the language is enlarged to include new concepts, it is by the actual assimilation of such expressions into the language that the language grows. The key notion here is that of faded or dead metaphor. In their accounts of this phenomenon, Skinner,13 Langer,14 and Alston15 all present fundamentally the same view: namely, that once a metaphorical expression is adopted generally as a successful presentation of a certain idea, it loses its metaphorical impact. In the behaviorists view, it becomes as much a single expression as is an isolated word, and its appropriate application is reinforced by the verbal community in the same way. The philosophical view of Langer maintains that the literal meanings of the component terms are enlarged, and the meaning of the focal expression itself becomes more generalized, and consequently its range of applicability is even further increased. Alstons view is situated about midway between the two, in indicating that the expression itself develops an acceptable kind of literal usage, but concluding with a reference to the very important role of metaphor in initiating uses of words that can eventually grow into new senses.16
Up to this point in our discussion we have used the terms metaphor, metaphorical extension, and metaphorical expression freely, without proposing a definition for those terms. Our evasion of the question heretofore may be to some extent justifiable in the light of the difficulty which various experts appear to have had in formulating their own definitions. Skinner does not attempt a formal definition at all, though he approaches definition at several points. After explaining the nature of generic extension, he states the following by way of transition into metaphorical extension: A second type of extension takes place because of the control exercised by properties of the stimulus which, though present at reinforcement, do not enter into the contingency respected by the verbal community This is the familiar process of metaphor.17 He asserts that the only difference between metaphorical and generic extension in the kind of property which gains control of the response.18 To amplify the notion of property, he says: The properties or conditions by virtue of which something may serve as a symbol for something else are precisely the properties or conditions responsible for metaphorical extension.19 Skinner thus explains how a metaphor comes about, and what its characteristics are, but he does not say what it is.
Mrs. Langer falls into the use of metaphorical expressions to describe the nature of metaphor, as can be seen in the passage already quoted. Her nearest approach to a definition is the following unsatisfactorily vague statement: In a genuine metaphor, an image of the literal meaning is our symbol for the figurative meaning, the thing that has no name of its own.20
Alston makes a number of significant observations, and includes revealing ideas of other theorists, on the nature and function of metaphor. But his definition also, though presenting richer possibilities than those given above, is woefully incomplete. After qualifying his use of the term figurative thus: Wherever an expression is used so that, even though it is used in none of its established senses, nevertheless, what is said is intelligible to a fairly sensitive person with a command of the language, the expression will be said to be used figuratively,21 he gives his definition: Metaphor is the sort of figurative use in which the extension is on the basis of similarity.22
Consultation of dictionaries and reference works23 proved even less rewarding. Despite a surprising degree of variation among them, they all tend to turn on such notions as comparison between two objects, the substitution of one expression for another, and the identification of one thing with another. None of these is free enough from misconceptions or narrow limitations that it is not a simple matter to suggest several legitimate metaphors which they would exclude. None of those which deals in substitution, identification, or comparison can account for such a common proverbial expression as In the night all cats are black.
The most definitive, yet still inconclusive, discourse we have encountered on the subject is that of Max Black.24 The inconclusiveness lies in the fact that Black examines several conflicting views of metaphorwhich he calls the substitution view, the comparison view, and the interaction viewand finds suitable examples of each, even while showing their incompatibility. His purpose is not so much to analyze the nature of metaphor as it is to justify its appearance in philosophical writing; and his conclusion is that it performs a necessary function, and should therefore not be censured. Thus, although he makes in the process cogent observations on metaphor itself, he does not impose judgments as to the relative validity of the various views. He considered, instead, that each is appropriate in certain cases. Accordingly, he joins the writers already mentioned, in failing to offer a practical and comprehensive definition.
Among the subdivisions of metaphor made for the purpose of analysis are decorative vs. structural,25 current vs. faded, reducible vs. irreducible,26 and Max Blacks threefold distinction. The last two types of subdivision shed the most light on the question. The substitution view, which Black identifies as any view which holds that a metaphorical expression is used in place of some equivalent literal expression,27 has been the most widely accepted view among writers on the subject. Variations on this same theme form the essence of the definitions Black cited, including the entry in the Oxford Dictionary, as well as the definitions alluded to above. This type of metaphor functions by means of a frame, the literal context in which the metaphorical expression occurs, and a focus, the term which is being used metaphorically. A special case of the substitution view is the comparison view, which differs in that a literal phrase of comparison, rather than a literal equivalent expression, is considered proper translation for the metaphor. With the exception of Black, who proposes alternatives, the substitution view is held in common by all the writers under consideration.
Strangely enough, although they all offer similarity between literal and substituted expressions as the basis of metaphor, only Skinner gives much consideration to the differences between the two terms. Perhaps it is belaboring the obvious to call attention to those differences; but the issues involved in the discussion are ill-defined enough to warrant that risk. It seems logical to assume, first of all, that many expressions that could be substituted for a given term on the basis of similarity would not be metaphors at all, but some other literal equivalent. Therefore, to replace a term with an analogous terms is not necessarily to create a figure of speech. The function of similarity in metaphor is largely technical or mechanical: namely, to justify the substitution by making the whole expression intelligible.
But the impact of the metaphor depends solely on the differencestheir nature, degree, quality, and direction. It is by bringing into play a set of denotations and connotation which must be reconciled with the literal sense of the frame that the extension actually occurs. The point of metaphor is that the extended term makes available implications that are specifically not inherent in any corresponding literal term. Accordingly, those who regard metaphor as a way of identifying one thing with another are misconstruing it: it is emphatically not an equation. The similarity of the two terms is but the bridge by which the metaphorical term may enter the context. The metaphorical expression is not present in order to say something about the missing term; it is there to say something about all the other terms that are present. And it is precisely by stating a condition as if true which is self-evidently not true in any literal sense that the effect is achieved.
In a limited way, Skinners treatment of the subject reflects a concern for disparity as well as similarity. By way of cautious approach, he states: Sometimes a genuine extension seems to occur when no similarity expressible in the terms of physical science can be demonstrated.28 Examples follow in which he illustrates possible stimuli that may affect the subject in the same way: such as the strong visual and auditory sensations involved in a comparison of the color scarlet to the blare of a trumpet. His words gather emphasis, however, as he proceeds to explain why the verbal symbolism of metaphor is ultimately more effective than the symbolism of other modes of expression, such as painting, and he concludes: The extended tact [metaphorical expression] frees the properties of objects one from the other, and thus makes possible a recombination which is not restricted by the exigencies of the physical world.29
The third view of metaphor proposed by Max Black is designated as the interaction view, which represents an altogether different interpretation of the matter. Here the meaning draws upon the system of associated commonplaces which attends the metaphorical term (or, alternately, depends on associations which the larger context provides: specific supplemental data included by the writer to support the metaphor).30 Two terms instead of onethe primary subject and the subsidiary subject, which correspond approximately to the literal and the metaphorical components in the substitution vieware active in producing the effect. The reader connects them31 by a mysterious process, and in so doing selects from among those commonplaces the meanings of the subsidiary subject that he can apply to the primary. These selected implications serve to organize the readers conception of the primary subject. The subsidiary subject, in turn, undergoes certain modifications by its application to the primary subject.
Blacks purpose in writing the article is to make a case for the legitimacy of metaphor in philosophical discourse. After analyzing the three views of metaphor and showing that each is an appropriate view for some but not all instances, he maintains in his final remarks that the use of metaphor is justifiable because it is often the most effective means of conveying an idea. A metaphorical expression is capable of presenting precise shades of meaning in an accurate balance that literal language would distort; furthermore, it can provide the insight lacking in a literal expression. On this point, Black is in perfect accord with Skinner, who says: Even when a nonextended tact [literal expression] is available, the metaphor may have an advantage. It may be more familiar,, and it may affect the listener in other ways, particularly in arousing emotional responses.32 This remark enters directly into the province of poetry, of which metaphor is a principal form.
Whereas in the natural use of language a new situation may elicit a metaphorical response out of necessity, in poetic language metaphor is deliberately chosen in order to enrich the meaning of the statement. In speech a metaphor must be spontaneous; otherwise, the occasion passes. Ordinary conversation does not normally wait upon inspiration. The metaphor of poetry, however, is calculated; the poem is written expressly for the purpose of using such language, or the writer would not choose the genre at all. In poetry, then, the use of metaphor is carefully controlled with regard to nuance, aesthetic quality, emotional and psychological value, and originality of thought. The prime purpose of metaphor in poetry is one with the function of poetry itself: to recreate subjectively in the reader the experience of which the poet writes. The poet seeks to arouse in the reader the same feelings which impel him to write the poem, to cause the reader to participate directly in the same inner experience. In order to achieve this, the poet must choose and devise the most evocative language accessible to him. He does not wish merely to decorate, and neither does he desire to put his reader through an exercise in translation and substitution of literal terms. He wants to produce an effect.
Assuredly he must make certain assumptions about his readers general knowledge, sensitivity, and emotional susceptibilities. Some poets demand considerably more of their readers than others, and some apparently expect their readers to take on faith the fact that there is design behind seemingly incomprehensible expressions. Many readers feel that the effort required to penetrate abstruse verse is amply rewarded by the depth of the insights gained. Ultimately a poets choice of a metaphor or other figure must be instinctive; and the ability instinctively to choose a supremely effective metaphor is the distinction between poetic talent and poetic genius. It cannot be produced by computation or by lists of associated commonplaces; it must come from a powerful inner consciousness of the idea to be conveyed, along with a strong imagination that can dissociate an expression from its literal uses and recognize its aptness for his purpose.
Thought is generally considered to be a verbal process. But in order for metaphor to occur either naturally or by design, the thought must exist in some pre-verbal condition. The commercial success of Rogets Thesaurus (which, incidentally, was conceived for no such vulgar usage) attests to the fact that the word needed to convey a given thought is frequently not a part of the writers active vocabulary. In speech a poor equivalent may be substituted to fill the requirement of the moment; but in writing, even with leisure for consideration, the word may elude the mind. Often the Thesaurus simply recalls a familiar word; but I would venture to say that there is no writer who has not at some time searched its pages or his memory in vain for a word that just does not exist. The thought is nevertheless painfully real.
It is a fact that the English language lacks words for various significant concepts: for example., an adjective to describe a person who possesses integrity; a noun to represent the act of ignoring; and an adjective to denote the relationship to oneself of a person one would call friend. The evidence indicates that it is not necessary for a word to exist in order for a person to entertain the concept. Further support comes from the existence in one language of a concept absent from another language. A common example is the German gemütlich, which has no literal English equivalent. Certainly a person who knows only English can nonetheless find himself in a situation in which the expression he desires to use has the meaning of gemütlich.
It appears, then, that there is a level of understanding which exists apart from the verbal faculty. Although verbal expression is the primary channel through which the understanding is stimulated by external and internal contingencies, and through which it is itself expressed, it is not the exclusive channel.
Just as coding language must undergo translation into electronic impulses before a computer can utilize a program, so there is a kind of translation which takes place between the verbal and the pre-verbal level of thought. A normal literal expression is analyzed in this process of translation, and the relationships among its terms determine the meanings which enter the gate of understanding. When a metaphorical expression undergoes the same translation process, the relationships that control the meaning are semantic as well as syntactic. Once it reaches the pre-verbal level, the concept is grasped without regard to literal equivalents.
If a literal equivalent can be returned back through the verbal channel from the understanding, that metaphor is what Alston would call reducible. Some metaphors, on the other hand, are irreducible.33 Here, it is not a case of a better way to express an idea, or a subtler, or a more effective way; quite simply, it is the only way. Those metaphors, which Ayer would undoubtedly classify among the meaningless expressions, are the one which apply to God and to inner feelings. Among Alstons revealing examples are the statements: God has punished me and I felt a stabbing pain. Neither the word punished nor the term stabbing can be understood literally. Both expressions depend on an implied comparison of the situation described with a situation in which the expressions could be literally applied. Alston shows that any effort to reduce such statements to literal terms will only generate further metaphors. Thus, apart from all other purposesinnovative, effectual, and poeticmetaphor is literally necessary as an instrument of communication.
Alston, William P. Philosophy of Language. Englewood Cliffs,
N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964.