Iconity and poetic metaphor

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Showing, Telling and Seeing


The Baltic International Yearbook of Cognition, Logic and Communication


There’s beer in the fridge.

Vol. 3: A Figure of Speech

August 2008 pages 1-24

ELISABETH CAMP University of Pennsylvania




Metaphor and “Poetic” Language

ABSTRACT: Theorists often associate certain “poetic” qualities with metaphor– most especially, producing an open-ended, holistic perspective which is evocative, imagistic and affectively-laden. I argue that, on the one hand, non-cognitivists are wrong to claim that metaphors only produce such perspectives: like ordinary literal speech, they also serve to undertake claims and other speech acts with propositional content. On the other hand, contextualists are wrong toassimilate metaphor to literal loose talk: metaphors depend on using one thing as a perspective for thinking about something else. I bring out the distinctive way that metaphor works by contrasting it with two other poetic uses of language, juxtapositions and “telling details,” that do fit the accounts of metaphor offered by non-cognitivists and contextualists, respectively. Consider the followingliterary metaphors: (1) (2) (3) Juliet is the sun.1 Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.2 The hourglass whispers to the lion’s paw.3

When we read these sentences in their respective contexts, the effect seems to be clearly of a different kind than that of a typical utterance of a sentence like (4):

While (4)communicates a certain proposition or thought, which is more or less directly expressed by the sentence that the speaker actually utters, the primary aim of these metaphorical utterances is to produce an overall way of thinking, one that is open-ended, evocative, imagistic, and heavily affective – in short, poetic.4 More specifically, many people have suggested that the poetic power of these metaphorsconsists in their ability to make us see one thing as something else, thereby providing us with a novel perspective on it. Of course, we don’t literally see Juliet, or life, in any way at all when we hear (1) or (2); and we can’t determine what is supposed to be seen as what simply by examining the sentence in (3). Still, the idea is that in these cases, something happens in thought that’s a lot likewhat happens in perception when we shift from seeing the famous Gestalt figure as a duck to seeing it as a rabbit. In the perceptual case, when we shift between perspectives, different elements in the figure are highlighted, and take on a different significance: for instance, the duck’s bill becomes the rabbit’s ears. We are under no illusion that the figure itself – the arrangement of dots and lines –has changed, but its constituent elements now hang together in a different structure for us. Further, the difference in our perception is not just a matter of apprehending a new proposition: we already knew that the figure could be seen as a rabbit, and that those were supposed to be the ears, for instance. Rather, the difference is experiential, intuitive, and holistic. Similarly, the intuitiongoes, with metaphor: when Romeo tells us that Juliet is the sun, he is not primarily asking us to accept some particular proposition. Rather, he wants us to adopt a certain perspective on Juliet, which structures much of what we know about her in a holistic, intuitive, experiential way. And if we do adopt this perspective, even temporarily, then certain of Juliet’s features – such as her beauty, heruniqueness, and the warmth with which she fills his heart – will be highlighted in our thinking, and will take on a new significance for us. Theorists who take the poetic, perspectival effects of metaphors like (1) through (3) seriously often conclude from these observations that metaphors are simply in a different line of business from ordinary workaday utterances like (4). Metaphor is a...