What are metaphors?

Not so long ago, I was a philosopher.


I could still call myself this, but now doing so would just be downright pretentious. When I was a “philosopher” I was actively pursuing a degree in philosophy. I was reading and writing philosophy every day.

At this point in my life, calling myself a philosopher will just elicit images of me sitting on a hill meditating about how there is a mountain and then there is no mountain and then there is. Philosophers don’t really do this. Donovan did that.

Suffice to say, nowadays the name “philosopher” doesn’t describe me like it used to (for more on names see Saul Kripke’s fascinating book Naming and Necessity) . But back when I was a philosopher, I wrote  a paper which examined the basic structure of metaphor and sought to answer the question of whether metaphors are like literal comparisons.

I have not thought seriously about these issues in quite some time. But, for anyone interested, here is the introduction to my paper. If you want to read the whole thing, contact me (it’s 40some pages and potentially boring).

Metaphor, Comparison & Aesthetic Success.


“Do you know what you two are?” said Cousin Joan. “You are little alligators. Now be still I want to read.”

Rose whispered, “Joan—“

“Sh-Sh-Sh!” said Cousin Joan.

“But, Joan,” said Rose.

“Now what?” asked Cousin Joan.

“Why are we little alligators?” asked Rose.

“You are not really little alligators,” said Cousin Joan. “But you do things like little alligators.”

“How?” asked Willy.

“You squeeze and you pinch, and I cannot read,” said Cousin Joan.[1]

This excerpt from a popular children’s reader perfectly exemplifies the most culturally pervasive view of how metaphors work.  The children are said to be alligators, but of course, as Cousin Joan feels she must explain to the rhetorically unsophisticated children, this does not mean that they are really alligators, but that they are like alligators in that they share contextually salient features —in this case, it is the bothersome fighting and biting which gators and children have in common. Or, at least, so a comparative metaphorical account would have it.

The comparative view of metaphor has been around since the time of Aristotle; in other words, probably as long as metaphors have been formally discussed. The view has the advantage that it is, perhaps, the most intuitive and obvious way of explaining this important linguistic phenomenon. It is also familiar; a version of the view is what most students learn in grade school English classes and, indeed, appears even in books written for preschoolers. But, according to most contemporary philosophers analyzing metaphor, it is also incorrect. Usually, it is said that a comparative view of metaphor over simplifies an extremely thorny linguistic phenomenon.

I disagree, and I will defend the comparative view in this paper. In fact, comparisons, whether we call them figurative or literal, are anything but simple. Donald Davidson famously said that metaphors are all trivially false, and similes are trivially true, presumably because all comparative statements are trivially true.[2] But literal comparisons are not always fitting, and neither are figurative comparisons. A metaphor works when the comparison fits. I think, as Aristotle realized, the fit comes from the close relationship between the subject and the tenor.[3]  Aristotle says in Rhetoric: “Metaphors, like epithets, must be fitting, which means that they must fairly correspond to the thing signified; failing this, their inappropriateness will be conspicuous: the want of harmony between two things is emphasized by their being placed side by side.”[4]

In this paper, I am advocating a comparative view, but I am certainly not going to pretend comparison exhausts a study of metaphor—rather, I will argue, comparison is the basic feature of metaphors, and a comparison is the metaphor’s meaning.  However, that is not to diminish the aesthetic aspects of metaphor that go beyond meaning. In presenting my argument, I will make the standard move of arguing that a metaphor has the same meaning as its corresponding simile. Such a simile may sound awkward and often vague or ambiguous, but it captures the same meaning as the original metaphor; the vagueness or ambiguity in the simile is inherent in the metaphor itself.

Further, I will argue there is no clearly defined distinction between figurative and literal comparisons. This will be possible because I am arguing that all comparison has an aesthetic element, and should be evaluated in terms of aptness, rather than truth.  All comparisons suggest that the objects being compared share either (a) properties or (b) descriptions. Literal comparisons usually highlight shared properties, metaphorical comparisons often (but not always) highlight shared descriptions. Further, I’ll try to show a comparison cannot be paraphrased, and does not reduce to any specific set of shared properties or descriptions.  Rather, a comparison, and metaphors particularly, encourages us to puzzle out for ourselves how the two objects may share properties or descriptions in a contextually relevant way.

[1]From Else Holmelund Mindarik, No Fighting, No Biting.(New York: Harper Trophy, 1978).

[2] See Donald Davidson, “What Metaphors Mean,” in On Metaphor, ed. Sheldon Sacks (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980).

[3] .i.e. the object to which the subject is compared.

[4] Aristotle, Rhetoric and Poetics, trans. W. Rhys Roberts and Ingram Bywater (New York: Modern Library, 1954), 1405a.. Aristotle’s view, though influential, is often hard to piece together. It is beyond the scope of my paper to offer an historical interpretation of Aristotle’s view.

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