What is a Metaphor?


“The world is for thousands a freak show; the images flicker past and vanish…”

– Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe


Claiming that the world is a freak show calls on a metaphor to deliver a message to the listener. What is the function of a metaphor in an utterance, and how does its use in a language fare in relation to other familiar linguistic entities? Do metaphors supply new, propositional content to be interpreted by the listener, or are metaphors only to be taken for the literal words of which they are composed? When considering the Goethe insight above, these questions come to mind.   This paper will discuss the treatment of metaphor in Ernie Lepore and Matthew Stone’s piece, “Against Metaphorical Meaning” and in Kendall Walton’s article, “Metaphor and Prop-Oriented Make-Believe”. On the one hand, Lepore and Stone reject that metaphors produce meanings in addition to the literal meanings of the words uttered, and base their position on distinctions about causal mechanisms in interlocution. On the other hand, Walton seeks to explain the cognitive workings behind metaphorical interpretation through his account of props and make-believe. The different approaches are interesting because they encourage differing perspectives on the treatment of metaphor. Examining metaphor from Lepore and Stone’s perspective, where it is analyzed for its linguistic power and structure and compared against other familiar forms of language, means taking a rigorous stance that, in this case, leads to the utter rejection of metaphor as relaying propositional content. In contrast, Walton is uninterested in whether or not metaphor conveys special meaning; instead, he adopts a whimsical (and almost poetic) approach to understand the cognitive workings behind metaphor. Despite their different objectives, however, both positions suggest that a cognitive and imaginative process is prompted by metaphorical language.

Lepore and Stone argue that metaphors elicit interesting effects in communication but that they do not have special metaphorical meaning. To establish the conditions for speaker meaning, Lepore and Stone elaborate on the ideas of Herbert Paul Grice and David Lewis and ultimately reject metaphorical meaning on this basis. A speaker means the utterance P if one of two scenarios ensues.  On the one hand, in light of Grice, the speaker may intentionally elicit some effect of P, and this occurs through the audience’s recognition of the speaker’s intent to evoke P. In other words, if a speaker conveys meaning in utterance P, then the audience was able to recognize the intention the speaker had in uttering P (Lepore & Stone 166).  On the other hand, congruent with Lewis, the speaker and audience may coordinate in order to add the utterance to the conversational record (170). Interlocutors may coordinate their behaviours in order to update a theoretical scoreboard, tallying new information to the conversation. In this way, rather than understanding Grice’s notion of meaning through the specific psychological processes involved in mapping speaker intentions, Lewis states that meaning can be understood through the conventions, general conditions, and strategies characterizing interlocutors’ actions.

Based on the conditions for speaker meaning posited by Grice and Lewis, Lepore and Stone argue that metaphors qualify for neither.  They can neither be thought of as “content gotten across” (170) nor are they a tool for speaker-audience coordination. Despite denying the ascription of special meanings to metaphors, Lepore and Stone nonetheless hold that metaphors have a place in cooperative interactions. They state, “We are not denying that metaphors can be used with the intention of drawing a hearer’s attention to similarities….” (170). When Romeo states, “Juliet is the sun”, he is not saying that Juliet is literally the plasmatic mass at the centre of the solar system.  The statement, instead, prompts the reader to think of Juliet as powerful, vibrant and glowing.  Similarly, observing that the sky is cloudy is not the same as asserting, “The sky is sullen”.  The former relays propositional content; the latter merely draws attention to the similarities between a brooding face and a grey sky. Claiming that, “The world is a freak show” rouses imaginative connections in the mind, and do nothing more according to Lepore and Stone. It is up to the reader to form an insight based on the invitation of the metaphor to do so. A metaphorist, then, uses metaphor to draw similarities. Therefore, metaphors do not involve speaker meaning.

Along similar lines, Donald Davidson’s account against metaphorical meaning likens metaphorical language to hinting or joking, which convey nothing more than the literal utterance of the words. In all three scenarios, the audience must engage in the imagery evoked by the figurative language in order to understand the speaker. In order to grasp a joke, the audience taps into the imagery behind the joke, usually to a comic or satirical end  (171). Similarly, take an instance of hinting. A mother says to her son on the morning of his birthday, “You might be surprised with what you find on the kitchen table!”.  The utterance hints that the boy will like the gift he finds in the kitchen, but the hint itself does not verify that the gift exists or that her son will be happy with it.  In other words, hints do not verify meaning. Similarly, a metaphor does not provide meaning.  Rather, when an audience recognizes metaphorical language, they are encouraged to explore the imagery behind the metaphor and decide for themselves the connections between the literal words of the metaphor and the insights prompted by them. Similar to joking and hinting, then, metaphors do not ascribe meaning.

Upon establishing their view against the legitimacy of metaphorical meaning, Lepore and Stone provide rebuttals to some challenges claiming the interdependence of metaphorical meaning with semantics, pragmatics, understanding, and dead metaphors.

One challenge is that non-metaphorical parts of sentences often gain their meaning because they interact semantically with metaphors (175). Lepore and Stone respond with two species of counterexamples, both of which amount to the claim that readers only interpret words on a literal level and that no interpretation requires thinking of metaphorical meaning. The ‘point’ of a metaphor is never part of the content of a sentence, and in this way, sentences never interact semantically with metaphorical meaning. As aforementioned, the literal meanings of words only prompt listeners or readers to make their own connections.

Another criticism is that some pragmatic utterances involve metaphorical meaning.  For instance, a violin teacher tells his student, “Feel the air move through the lungs of the violin as you glide the bow along the strings.”  Instead of instructing the pupil to move her arm up and down to create sound, he invites the student to imagine the violin’s wooden cavity to be lungs.  The critic in this situation asks how it is possible that this command be taken as a command without seeing the meaningful content in the violin teacher’s metaphor. Lepore and Stone respond that the student is merely playing along with the metaphor so that the command becomes easier to accomplish. The student can just use the image provided by the instructor to better visualize her task; the metaphor in the instruction does not have special meaning.

Some critics even maintain that metaphorical meaning is needed to describe the processes involved in understanding metaphor. Lepore and Stone agree that shared background knowledge is most often necessary to understand metaphors, but they insist that the power to understand a metaphor is not to be confused with the recognition of metaphorical meaning.

Finally, dead metaphors are cited to challenge the claim against metaphorical meaning. A dead metaphor is one that has become so pervasive and popular in common parlance that the original imagery behind the metaphor begins to be taken at a literal level. When a metaphor ‘dies’, it adopts a new literal meaning. These contenders claim that the cognitive content associated with the dead metaphor must have been active all along in order to account for its new usage. In other words, the figurative meaning of a formerly live metaphor becomes the literal meaning of a dead metaphor (178). Lepore and Stone’s reply is that even if a dead metaphor seems to acquire new, literal content, this does nothing for the contender’s argument unless she can show that the new literal meaning is exactly what was meant by the metaphor when it was alive (178). They then turn to Davidson who says that not all metaphors are destined to die because immortal metaphors are those that are incapable of relaying anything propositional. Thus, even if some dead metaphors introduce content, not all do, and it is inappropriate to claim metaphorical meaning because of dead metaphors.

Lepore and Stone state that metaphors are used to invite imaginative effort, to arouse figurative thinking and to inspire the audience to form insights. Similarly, the next author cites the imaginative capacity that metaphors involve.

Kendall Walton, in his paper, “Metaphor and Prop-Oriented Make-Believe”, states that metaphors imply an imagined game of make-believe. First, Walton describes prop-oriented games as opposed to those games that also point to the content of the metaphor – those in which listener interest lies in the make-believe, itself. Next, Walton cautions that metaphors are not to be viewed as inviting similarities between things, contrasting with Lepore and Stone’s stance on the likeness of metaphor and simile. Finally, Walton explains the disposition to metaphor that allows listeners to be cognizant of metaphor in language; this complements Lepore and Stone’s discussion of the ineffability of metaphor.

Walton suggests that most games are prop-oriented, meaning that the props are the focus of attention and that a game of make-believe is initiated purely in order to reveal or explain some characteristic of them (Walton 39).  Consider the fictional example of a vacationer’s comment, “We will be staying in Pizzo, right at the tip of the boot in Italy”. “Boot” applies to the shape of Italy such that it is fictional, or true in the make-believe world, that Italy is a boot (40). Through this imagery, the addressee can locate the destination of the speaker’s vacation.  In this situation, the purpose of recognizing the object in a fictional world is to better understand the object in the real world. The essence of prop-oriented make-believe, then, is that interest is in the prop, and the game of make-believe serves to enhance this interest.

Some more essential metaphors exude a different, “Janus-like quality” (49), in which the make-believe both looks forward to the content of the metaphor and also looks back to the prop. If a metaphor is non-essential, it is both possible and uncomplicated to describe the prop without participating in the make-believe. For example, consider the utterance, “Tom is a night owl”. It is easy to imagine Tom as prompted by the metaphor without visualizing the man as an owl; one could have easily just uttered, “Tom loves to stay up late”.  Dissimilarly, situations that evoke essential metaphors are ones in which participation in the game of make-believe is hard to avoid. For instance, consider the metaphor of an “ascending melody” (49) It is difficult to imagine an ascending melody without visualizing an ascent. The listener ‘hears’ the music as rising, the way she may imagine a drift of smoke meander to the top of a room. As such, the metaphor requires participation in the game implied by “ascending melody”. Thus, the listener is not just interested in hearing the notes (the prop); she is also interested in the make-believe of the metaphor. As such, essential metaphors look both to the content as well as to the prop (50) and require participation in the game of make-believe.

Thus, whether solely prop-oriented or also involving participation in the metaphorical content, metaphors for Walton imply a game of make-believe that brings together two distinct realms (46). According to Walton, the two realms are (i) the realm of the propositional content of make-believe – the home realm of the predicates being used metaphorically, where the predicates have literal application; and (ii) the realm of props and generating facts – the new realm (46). The use of predicates crosses over from the home realm to the new realm through thinking of the objects as props that generate fictional truths about the home realm. In this way, metaphors encourage the audience to think of one thing as framed by another (47). A metaphor involves thinking of an object of one realm as a prop in the realm of another object, which then generate fictional truths about the object in the new realm and allow listeners to generate insights about them. For instance, “Freak show” applies to the world in order to make it fictional, or true in the make-believe world, that the world is a freak show. Doing so, says Walton, invites new insights about the original object that either could not have been formed without the metaphor (as in the case of most essential metaphors) or is enhanced with the usage of a metaphor. In other words, a metaphor allows one thing to be seen in terms of another, and Walton accounts for this new perspective, of sorts, with the metaphor’s introduction or launching of a game of make-believe.

However, acknowledging this metaphorical relationship does not mean encouraging similarities between the relevant things. Walton advises that the ability to generate fictional truths about something is not to bear resemblance to that thing. It is the game that inspires imaginings, not the similarities between objects that inspires the metaphor. By contrast, Lepore and Stone are committed to the likening similes to metaphor. Both types of figurative language inspire the audience to find similarities; similes do so explicitly, using the word ‘like’ or ‘as’, while metaphors leave it to the audience to imagine the connection. Both situations do not ascribe meaning over and above the literal words of the utterance, and both invite the audience to explore similarities. Instead, Walton argues that the similarity relation is symmetrical, whereas the metaphorically-generated-fictional-truths relation is asymmetrical. For instance, saying, “Love is war” inspires a different fictional game from “War is love” because the terms of the game of make-believe, in a sense, have changed. Intuitively, these metaphors imply different insights, one centered on love and the other on war. However, love is similar to war in the same ways that war is said to be similar to love. The similarity relation is reversible whereas the metaphorical one is not. Thus, Lepore and Stone diverge when discussing the relationship between simile and metaphor.

Nonetheless, the authors’ accounts are not completely divergent. Walton’s notion of the human “disposition” to recognize metaphors complements Lepore and Stone’s discussion of the ambiguous, open-ended nature of metaphor. Walton suggests that the audience becomes aware of metaphors and the games they inspire thanks to an inherent  disposition to do so (52). Most games need no introduction; hearers are apt to recognize them. This disposition to recognize metaphor is relevant to what Lepore and Stone call the “ineffability” and open-endedness of metaphor (Lepore & Stone 173). They suggest, “One reason why it’s so difficult to paraphrase the metaphor into literal language is because it can legitimately ‘say’ different things to different hearers” (173). As such, it is often difficult to explicitly affirm the character of a metaphor. For instance, Romeo’s “Juliet is the sun” can be interpreted many ways; perhaps the metaphor expresses Juliet’s fiery character, her warm disposition, or her desire to always be the centre of attention.  Rather than try to explicitly say what features of the props in a metaphor make a certain proposition fictional, it is much easier to ‘feel’ the relevant disposition that a metaphor inspires (Walton 55). The disposition allows the audience to acknowledge metaphorical language without needing to define the metaphor’s features.

Moreover, the disposition to engage with the pictorial imaginings of metaphors allows the audience both to recognize a metaphor, without needing to explicitly state its relevance, and also to apply it to other scenarios. Different scenarios may inspire novel interpretations of a metaphor. In this way, Walton says, “Metaphorical utterances expand our repertoire of concepts” (53). Walton analogizes, “A Japanese brush painting of a flower may be interesting not because of what it makes fictional, but because of how it makes it fictional…” (54). The painting, like a metaphor, serves as a prop in games of make-believe, and it is the interpreter’s choice to determine what game of make-believe to play. Walton shows that metaphors allow audiences to see things in one realm as generating fictional truths about things in another realm.

All things considered, it is evident that Lepore and Stone’s article adopts a different trajectory from Walton’s. The former authors articulate a rejection of metaphorical meaning based on a discussion of the linguistic, situational and psychological components involved in propositional language. In contrast, the latter author calls on references to art, culture, and children’s play in order to discuss the cognitive mechanisms involved in understanding metaphors.

Despite their differences in aims, neither position denies that metaphors have a distinctive, expressive and somewhat transcendental quality, and that they invite contemplation in the minds of interlocutors. Both positions declare that the audience has a special role in accepting a metaphor’s invitation to synthesize connections prompted by the literal words of the metaphor. But this special cognitive capacity is not accounted for in detail by Lepore and Stone; the authors do not explicitly reveal what process in the mind is ‘activated’ with the recognition of a metaphor. They merely state that the imagination is the source of this ability. In this regard, Walton’s essay goes further in offering a detailed account of this imaginative process. His report of the mechanisms of make-believe offers an explanation of this cognitive discourse elicited by metaphors. Nevertheless, regardless of the aims of their articles and despite what their positions on the status of metaphorical meaning in communication may be, both recognize that metaphors launch cognitive discourse and invite imaginative effort from the audience. This is the lesson that we, as readers, discover from this discussion of metaphor. To claim that the world is a freak show, whose images appear and disappear at whim, evokes a metaphor that launches imaginative possibilities in the mind of the listener.


Works Cited

Davidson, Donald. “What Metaphors Mean.” Chicago Journals 5.1 (1978): 31-47. Print.

Goodman, Nelson. Languages of Art. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1968. Print.

Grice, Herbert Paul. “Meaning.” The Philosophical Review 66.3 (1957): 377-88. Print.

____. “Studies in the Way of Words.” Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989. N. pag. Print.

Lepore, Ernie, and Matthew Stone. “Against Metaphorical Meaning.” Springer Science+Business Media 29 (2010): 165-80. Print.

Lewis, David. “Scorekeeping in a Language Game.” Journal of Philosophical Logic 8.3 (1979): 339-59. Print.

Walton, Kendall. “Metaphor and Prop Oriented Make-Believe.” European Journal of Philosophy 1.1 (1993): 39-56. European Journal of Philosophy. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.




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