Metaphors in Text Semantics
Problems and Prospects
STTS Report No. 88-4
1. The concept of metaphor
The contemporary literature on metaphor in philosophy, psychology, linguistics, theory of
literature, etc. is immense, and growing fast. There seems to be no consensus on any
fundamental issues in the field. People disagree rather wildly on what sort of phenomenon
metaphor is; there are no generally accepted definitions of quot;metaphorquot;, even for
specialized purposes; nor any generally shared extensional demarcation of the area. One
person's prime example of metaphor is for the next person not a metaphor at all.
The prospects of finding a theory of metaphor precise enough to be implementable, even
in principle, on a computer, and performing tasks like recognizing metaphors or
producing intuitively satisfactory representations of metaphoric content seem rather bleak
at present. Nevertheless, there is ongoing research that aims to accomplish these daring
goals. The aim of this paper is to review some of that work, in the perspective of efforts to
understand the phenomenon of metaphor in other fields of learning, and to offer some
suggestions as to its continuation.
1.1 Linguistic and cognitive metaphors
It cannot, of course, be assumed from the outset that there is a unified concept of
metaphor at all - how does one even tell if a use of quot;metaphorquot; is itself literal or
metaphorical? I think it fair to divide current interests, very roughly, into two main
On the one hand there is a primarily linguistic interest, focused on certain uses of words
that do not seem to be easily accomodated in the current framework of grammatical,
particularly semantical, theory. One works here, as elsewhere in linguistics, with example
sentences - numbered and each having a line for itself as the linguist wants it - allegedly
containing metaphors. The general understanding of what a metaphor is, as well as many
of the examples, is derived from the rhetorical tradition concerning the tropes. Let us use
quot;linguistic metaphorsquot; as a rough pointer to the sorts of example one tends to think of in
this tradition, the most abused of which probably is
(1) Richard is a lion.
On the other hand cognitive psychologists and philosophers of science have been
interested in metaphors as cognitive tools. Their metaphors are not linguistic phenomena
at all, or at least not obviously so, and they are not displayed in example sentences, but
rather named by phrases like quot;the Conduit Metaphorquot;, quot;the Computer Metaphor of the
Mindquot;, etc. The source here is not the classical theory of the tropes - distinctions like
those between metaphors, similes, and allegories seem irrelevant in this context - but
rather theories of the use of analogies and concrete images in thinking. Let us call these
There is, of course, no sharp borderline between linguistic and cognitive metaphors.
Cognitive metaphors act as sources of metaphorical expressions, and one may think of
them as canonically expressed in what may be denominated quot;essential metaphorical
(2) The mind is a computer.
(3) Argument is war.
(3) will be recognized as taken from Lakoff & Johnson (1980), a book that has very
effectively propagated the idea that cognitive metaphors are of prime importance for
understanding natural language. Carbonell (1982) argues that most metaphorical
expressions are instantiations of some 50 quot;generalizedquot; metaphors, and that the
understanding of linguistic metaphors to a large extent consists in recognizing them as
instances of already stored cognitive metaphors, rather than in reconstructing
metaphorical meaning from scratch.
1.2 Metaphoric reference and predication
In rhetorics quot;metaphorquot; names one of the tropes, one of the ways in which a word or a
short expression may be used in a non-ordinary manner. As such it is contrasted with
other tropes, such as metonymy, hyperbol, antinomasy, etc. Metaphor is commonly
accorded a sort of preeminence among the tropes - not only is it conventionally heralded
as the most beatiful among them, but the word quot;metaphorquot; often takes on a generic sense
and is used to cover all tropes. Indeed, this generic sense seems to be historically primary.
Aristotle names no other tropes, but some of his subclasses of metaphor consist rather of
Generally speaking, the rhetorical tradition views a trope as the substitution of one name
for another. Though examples of tropes in context are often given, the canonical form in
which a trope is described is something like quot;X is used instead of Yquot;. The difference
between different tropes is thought to reside in the different relations that motivate the
substitution in each case.
The substitutional view has obvious difficulties, and it has few, if any, defendants today.
The argument most often adduced against it is that it treats metaphors as amenable to
finite paraphrase in literal terms - to interpret a metaphor is tantamount to resubstitute the
literal expression for the metaphoric. This comes into conflict with the Inexhaustibility
Thesis - a dogma that most modern metaphorists seem to subscribe to, and to which I will
devote a special section.
A more obvious difficulty is that it may be far from clear which literal expression is
supposed to be replaced by the trope, as it per definition is no longer there. Nevertheless, I
think that the substitution view has been brushed aside a little too easily. With its
emphasis on substitution of names, it points to a class of metaphors that are often
neglected, namely referential metaphors.
For some reason linguists and, in particular, philosophers with an interest in metaphors
have concentrated their efforts on metaphorical predication. In this, the examples given
above are typical: a literally identified subject is given a metaphorical predicate. Let us
consider a referential metaphor instead.
(4) I told John I was broke and asked him to give me my money back, but the pile
of shit refused.
It seems quite plausible to me that understanding the italicised metaphor primarily
consists in grasping to whom it refers, namely John. The ordinary meaning of the
metaphoric expression obviously has something to do with why the speaker would choose
it, before all others, to achieve his referential purposes, but that does not necessarily make
it an essential part of the interpretation of (4). I suggest that the substitutional view was a
not entirely successful attempt to catch this basic intuition, and I will have some more
things to say about metaphoric reference later on.
1.3 Focus and Frame
Classical rhetorics holds the substitutional view to be true of all tropes. The difference
between them is supposed to reside in the relation that motivates the substitution in each
case. In the case of metaphor the relation is said to be similarity between tenor and
vehicle. Just like substitution, similarity is not in high esteem at present as an explanation
of the metaphoric effect. That there is some truth in the appeal to similarity seems
obvious, though, and I will come back to that too, at a later stage. At the moment, though,
I am interested in something simpler.
Rhetorical theory recognizes other ways than metaphor to exploit similarities to talk about
one thing in terms normally associated with another: simile and allegory.
The difference between simile and metaphor is usually taken to be slight, the simile
merely being more explicit, stating the existence of a similarity that the metaphor takes
for granted. A simile is quot;less bravequot; than a metaphor. A speaker chooses metaphor if he
wants to achieve a quot;stronger effectquot;, simile if he wants to proceed with more caution. Just
like the appeal to similarity in general, this view of the relation between metaphor and
simile is rather unfashionable, and I will say no more about it.
Allegory is distinguished from metaphor by its scope: an allegorical passage is longer
than a sentence, and may encompass a text in its totality. Quintilianus, and many others,
define allegory as a series of connected metaphors, but in doing so they seem to miss an
important distinction that Fontanier draws between allegory and allegorism. The latter is,
indeed, a prolonged metaphor or metaphorical passage. To understand an allegorism, or
an ordinary metaphor, is to grasp the metaphorical sense - often one is not even aware that
the matter was figuratively expressed. True allegory, on the other hand, gives rise to two
different meanings - both the literal and the allgorical interpretation being present at the
The importance of the distinction between allegory and metaphor (including allegorism)
has, I think, to do with framing. Max Black, who only deals with metaphorical
predication within a single sentence, has distinguished beween the focus and the frame of
a metaphor (Black 1960). The focus is that part of the sentence which is to be taken
metaphorically and the frame is the part that retains its ordinary meaning (in Black's
examples normally including the grammatical subject).
Generalizing this terminology to larger texts in the obvious way, we may think of allegory
as a metaphor without any frame. As it usually is some sort of conflict between the frame
and the focus that triggers the metaphorical interpretation of a passage, figurative
interpretation of an allegory becomes an option rather than an imperative.
1.4 The inexhaustibility thesis
I promised to say something about the dogma that metaphors are, as a matter of principle,
quot;inexhaustiblequot;, i.e., that they are not amenable to finite paraphrase or analysis.
Something like the inexhaustibility thesis is probably correct for some metaphors, but I
see no reason to believe it to be true of all, or even the majority of, ordinary linguistic
metaphors. Proponents of the thesis seem to have had primarily creative cognitive or
poetic metaphors in mind, rather than humdrum everyday metaphoring.
The argument most often adduced for the inexhaustibility thesis is that one generally
cannot replace a metaphor with a literal paraphrase without obvious loss of effect. But
although overflowing content may be part of the explanation of this fact in some cases,
there are also other factors involved. Ted Cohen (1978) has drawn attention to the parallel
with jokes. The explanation of a joke is usually not funny (at least not in the same way as
the joke it explains) - but this does not imply that the explanation is wrong. The nice thing
about a metaphor is often that it is a smart way of expressing something. A boring
paraphrase is not smart in the same way, but that does not necessarily preclude it from
catching the meaning of the metaphor.
The rhetorical tradition draws a distinction between (ordinary) metaphor and
(metaphorical) catachresis. The basic feature of the classical way to conceive the tropes is
that they are alternative modes of expression, presupposing the existence of some literal
way to say the same thing. But in catachresis the metaphorical mechanism (or some other
trope) is employed to create an expression for something that otherwise lacks a name.
Obviously the substitutional theory is not apt to handle catachresis, and as elocutio - the
part of classical rhetorics to which the theory of the tropes belong - primarily investigates
questions of style, i.e., of choice between alternative modes of expression, it treats
catachresis as a marginal phenomenon.
Much modern interest in metaphor, on the other hand, seems to be directed primarily at
catachresis - at the formation of quot;newquot; vocabulary. The inexhaustibility thesis even seems
to imply that all metaphors are to some extent catachresis, i.e., says something that could
be expressed in no other way. A quick glance at the sports pages of any newspaper should
convince anyone that this is an exaggeration.
1.5 Metaphor and Polysemia
One point on which different authorities diverge considerably is on how to count
metaphors. Almost everyone agrees that there is a zone of vagueness between metaphor
and polysemia. At some point, a use of words that once was metaphorical may be
conventionalized to the extent that it constitutes a new quot;literalquot; meaning of the relevant
expression. The received view is, I think, that this is a very common phenomenon, and
that language is full of quot;deadquot; metaphors that are no longer of much interest for the
metaphorist. quot;Realquot; metaphors will, of course, be rare in proportion.
At the other extreme is the opinion that almost any manner of speech that, etymologically,
may be metaphorically derived from other uses of words is to count as metaphorical.
From this point of view every page of a newspaper contains metaphors by the hundreds.
I will not propose a non-arbitrary line between the metaphoric and the literal, and, in fact,
I do not think there is any. Like other theoretical concepts of linguistics, the concept of
metaphor is to a large extent an idealization, and, moreover, closely related to other
idealizations - such as those of the quot;grammarquot; and the quot;lexiconquot; of a language.
A metaphor is a use of language that has not been foreseen by the lexicon and the
quot;ordinaryquot; rules for generating meanings for complex expressions, but is derived from
lexicalized uses by a mechanism that the theory of metaphor aims to describe. Properly
speaking, a use of an expression is not metaphorical in itself but only in relation to a
lexicon and a grammar; it may well be metaphorical in relation to lexicon L, while literal
in relation to lexicon L'.
The question of how many metaphors there are boils down to the question of how big a
lexicon you want, and that, of course, depends on your purpose.
Chomsky made popular the view that linguistic theory aims to describe a psychological
reality, the competence of a speaker. Taking this by the letter the lexicon must,
presumably, also be taken as psychologically real - ideally one wants to know whether a
speaker decodes a certain expression by consulting a list in his head, or by something that
might be described as metaphor processing. There are of course epistemological
difficulties in drawing this line, and it will have to be drawn differently for different
speakers, but the aim is clear (or at least not entirely unclear).
But the description of speaker's competence is not the only goal a linguist may set herself.
She may for example be interested in the structure of the vocabulary itself, or in the
dynamics of semantical evolution. For such purposes it may be interesting to work with
the smallest possible lexicon, in order to construct informative derivations of other word
uses from them.
2. Recognizing metaphors
A preliminary problem, it seems, for a system that generates representations of
metaphorical meaning would be to recognize expressions as metaphorical, or at least as
plausible candidates for metaphorical interpretation. This problem has been on the agenda
of analytical philosophy since Beardsley pointed to its solution as a minimal requirement
of a theory of metaphor. Unfortunately, the problem has proved more difficult than was
expected, and at present it seems plausible that there are no universal and easily
formalizable rules for recognizing metaphors.
2.1 Some suggested criteria
Most attempts at metaphor-recognition take it for granted that a literal interpretation is
preferred if it is only minimally plausible. That an utterance is to be taken metaphorically
is signalled by some defect in the utterance when taken literally. Disagreement have
centered on which types of defect that have to be taken into account. Three criteria have
been proposed: metaphorical utterances are when taken literally (1) meaningless, (2)
obviously false, or (3) trivial. These are, of course, not alternatives, the question rather
being whether one can get by with only (1), or will need (2) and (3) as well.
One may have the impression that the first two criteria are semantic - (1) belonging to the
theory of meaning, and (2) to the theory of reference - while the third is pragmatic. I think
that this impression is behind the desire to get by with (1), thereby being able to content
oneself with looking at more or less isolated sentences and not having to muddle around
in other aspects of the total speech situation.
A minimum of reflection, however, reveals all three criteria to be pragmatic, in the sense
that they refer us to the speaker and his intentions, beliefs, and attitudes. A sentence being
false is evidence that it should be taken figuratively only if the speaker believes it to be
false, and believes his hearer to believe the same thing, etc. This is the import of the
demand for quot;obviousquot; falsity - in fact, should speaker and hearer mistakenly have the
appropriate beliefs it would not matter if the sentence in fact were true.
A parallel argument establishes that quot;meaninglessnessquot; must be quot;obviousquot; to speaker and
hearer to count as a mark of metaphor.
It is a curious fact that the debate has almost invariably concentrated on metaphors
occurring within isolated sentences. As will be seen, this has seriously distorted the
problem. In general, metaphoricity is not a property of sentences, but a sentence may be
metaphorically used on some occasions, and literally on others. I would even venture the
hypothesis that almost any sentence could be used metaphorically, given the right context.
If this is so, concentrating on sentences that may only be used metaphorically is probably
not the most illuminating strategy.
The notion that metaphorical sentences must be quot;semantically deviantquot; has been
widespread, and still seems to be prevailing in AI. This is how Carbonell describes the
first step in the recognition of metaphors:
Attempt to analyze the input utterance in a literal, conventional fashion. If this fails, and
the failure is caused by a semantic case-constraint violation, go to the next step.
(Otherwise the failure is probably not due to the presence of a metaphor.) (1982, p 418)
Many metaphoric utterances fulfill this criterion; think for example of the large class of
personifications where inanimate or abstract objects are given determinations that
quot;properlyquot; belong only to human beings.
This type of criterion fitted the general project of Chomskyan linguistics perfectly. For
Chomsky, the main technical problem of syntax was to draw the line between sentences
and non-sentences. Semantics in transformational grammar took over the same goal: it
would effect a more fine-grained sorting of the strings accepted by syntax. The theory of
figurative language, in turn, would make judgements of nonsensicality at bit more
intuitive by rescuing sentences banned by semantics but accepted by normal speakers.
This sort of goal for semantic theory seems rather unnatural to me, at least when coupled
with an ambition to map the linguistic abilities of human speakers. As normal language
users we are practically never faced with the task of recognizing nonsense - and when we
occasionally try we are not good at it. Normally one takes it for granted that what one
hears or reads makes some kind of sense - the question is what sense an utterance has, not
whether it has sense in the first place.
There are plenty of metaphorical utterances that do not violate any semantic constraints of
the sort envisaged by Carbonell. It is, e.g., impossible to tell from the semantic structure
of (1) whether Richard is, like Elsa, literally a lion, or only metaphorically so. It is only
when a speakers reference is supplied that any oddity appears. Hence the suggestion that
the obvious falsity criterion may be needed to supplement semantic constraint violation.
Unfortunately, there is no shortage of quot;twice truequot; sentences either, i.e., sentences that
may be literally and metaphorically true of the same thing. A large class of such sentences
are furnished by negations of metaphors that fulfill the first two criteria:
(5) Richard is not a lion.
But other examples abound, as well.
(6) He's up in the air.
(7) Jane has been blue ever since she repainted her house.
Even if we stick with the idea that metaphorical interpretations are preferred only when
quot;betterquot; than literal candiadates, there does not seem to be any simple dimensions in
which the literal interpretation must fall short in order for the metaphorical to take over.
Often the true literal reading will be trivial - either in itself (quot;no man is an islandquot;) or in
the context. But (7) may be a non-trivial explanation of why Jane does not want to come
to dinner on both interpretations. There does not seem to be any apriori reason to exclude
the existence of genuine unresolvable literal/metaphorical ambiguity, especially not on
the level of isolated sentences.
2.2 A (con)textual approach to metaphoric reference
One lesson to draw from the above is that the isolated sentence approach to metaphor
recognition is not feasible. To detect metaphors one has to rely on general interpretative
strategies that cannot be applied without abundant use of contextual information,
including assumptions about the speakers intentions and beliefs.
Concentrating on written text it is obvious that holistic textual properties, like consistency
and coherence, will be important. As a byproduct one will hopefully prepare the way for a
unified account of metaphors that are quot;framedquot; within the sentence and larger stretches of
figurative text. In particular it has been noted that the standard approaches to
metaphor cannot handle quot;sentence-metaphorsquot;. Ortony (1980, p 72) gives the following
(8) Regardless of the danger, the troops marched on.
Out of context there is nothing to indicate that (8) i metaphorical, yet it is not difficult to
imagine contexts where it would function metaphorically. Ortony supplies:
(9) The children continued to annoy their babysitter. She told the little boy that
she would not tolerate any more bad behaviour. Climbing all over the furniture
was not allowed. She threatened to not let them watch TV if they continued to
stomp, run, and scream around the room. Regardless of the danger, the troops
It seems to be rather easy, in a situation-theoretic framwork, to indicate what forces a
metaphorical interpretation of (8) in the context (9). The definite NP:s quot;the dangerquot; and
quot;the troopsquot; demand to be anchored to objects that are already in the resource situation.
The only group available for plural reference is the children, and the only thing that has
been indicated as harmful, by the use of quot;threatenedquot;, is for the children not to be able to
This also explains how the metaphorical interpretation could be blocked by adding more
context before (9) - with some real troops and a more dangerous threat in the resource
situation different anchors would be chosen for the danger and the troops.
To explain metaphorical reference one would need a principle demanding that parameters
that cannot be properly anchored to anything in the resource situation, will, if possible, be
anchored to something that fits the parametric conditions as well as possible. Whether an
expression is to be interpreted metaphorically will not only depend on the semantic
properties of the expression and its frame, but also on what is available in the resource
situation. In particular, adding facts to the resource situation may change the metaphoric
status of an expression.
Some such quot;best anchor principlequot; may also explain other facts of quot;abnormalquot; reference.
Envisage the following passage as beginning a novel:
(10) A man stopped in thought in front of the bank. Richard had been poor all his
life, and suddenly he thought the time had come to do something about it.
In the absence of any other external or internal context, quot;Richardquot; will automatically be
taken as referring to the same person as quot;a manquot;, despite the fact that the resource
situation does not support any fact about the man being named quot;Richardquot;. The obvious
reason for this is that there is no other candidate around. This is not metaphor, of course -
the most important difference being that the object assigned to quot;a manquot; does not violate
any conditions associated with quot;Richardquot;, it just fails to fulfill all of them.
Two problems spring to mind. The first is to define the notion of quot;best anchorquot; -
presumably this will involve a salience ordering of conditions on parameters. And the
other is to exclude that any parameter may be anchored to any object for pure lack of
alternatives, i.e., given that the resource situation is poor enough. The natural suggestion
is to demand that an anchor not only be the quot;bestquot;, but also quot;good enoughquot;. There is, of
course, no guarantee that such a property could be reasonably specified within the
framework of situation semantics.
3. The meaning of metaphors
A somewhat disproportionate amount of the philosophical discussion of metaphor in
recent decades have been directed at the question of whether metaphors merit the
application of the basic vocabulary of semantics. Is one speaking literally or
metaphorically in talking of the meaning of metaphors, or in describing a statement as
false in its literal intepretation but true when taken metaphorically?
To a large extent, disagreement over such issues is bound to be verbal - there are no
pretechnical semantic concepts precise enough to decide them. The problem does not gain
substance until one has decided on a semantic theory and a format for representing the
meaning of utterances. Moreover, to cover the standard cases of metaphor one must
assume a semantic theory fine grained enough to account for word meaning. At a certain
level, e.g., the truth condition
quot;The lake is a sapphirequot; is true iff the lake is a sapphire.
is perfectly in order, but it does not distinguish between a metaphorical and a literal
reading of the relevant sentence, and consequently gives no specific information about
either of them.
In speaking of a metaphor as having meaning, I suggest that one imply, simply, that
interpreting the metaphor involves generating a representation for it that is of the same
kind as the representation of its ordinary meaning, but does not coincide with it. For
example, if the analysis of quot;Richard is a lionquot; as literally used involves ascribing a set of
semantic features to the word quot;lionquot; - or to the verb phrase, or to the sentence itself - and
the analysis of a metaphorical use of the sentence involves ascribing a different set of
features to the same component, then one takes the metaphor to have its own meaning.
This, of course, makes the concept of metaphorical meaning highly theoretical, but so is, I
have argued, the concept of metaphor itself.
All attempts at constructing a computational theory of metaphor start from the idea that
metaphor involves similarity or analogy. There are, in general terms, two approaches in
swing - different in their heuristic suggestions, but more or less equivalent as to their
content. One is based on abstraction hierarchies in semantic networks, the other on
addition and deletion of semantic features. We will take them in order.
The tenor and the vehicle are joined by the band of similarity, but what is it for two things
to be similar? One obvious suggestion is that they are similar, in some specific respect,
when the same description is true of them both. Viewed in this way, description and
truth become the primary phenomena and similarity derives from them.
Put it in another way: if two things are similar you should be able to say what the
similarity consists in. And if a metaphor, correctly applied, points to a similarity between
tenor and vehicle there is a characterization, literally applicable to both of them that
captures that similarity. This characterization is presumably closely related to the
meaning of the metaphor.
An example: When one describes an argument in terms originally applicable to violent
warfare, i.e., uses the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor, one is not implying that people
get killed in arguments, that arguments should be avoided as far as possible, etc. But one
obviously intends some of the things one takes to be true of wars to be true of arguments
as well, such things as there being a conflict between at least two parties, where there is
winning and losing, etc. Different uses of the metaphor may explore different sets of
similarities - sometimes the war metaphor may indicate a certain seriousness to the
conflict (quot;not just a gamequot;), perhaps the presence of a real hostility, and so forth.
In a certain Aristotelian sense the explication of such similarities takes one to more
quot;abstractquot; levels of description: there is a genus of which both tenor and vehicle are
species, but to which they add their own specific differences. This suggests Aristotle's
own account of metaphor, which to a large extent is formulated in terms of such
abstraction hierarchies, but, as abstraction hierarchies form the backbone of most
semantic network representation of conceptual and knowledge systems, it also fits many
This account applies uniformly to several different types of metaphor: I have used one of
Lakoff's and Johnson's quot;structuralquot; metaphors as an example, but it fits their quot;spatialquot;
metaphors as well. Underlying successful transfer of the up/down metaphor is an abstract
linear structure common to tenor and vehicle. Apart from this similarity one has to
account for the quot;directionquot; transferred (more is up, rather than down). This, I think, is in
most cases possible through metonymic connections - collecting more of something often
implies piling, or the like, a fact that creates an entirely unmetaphorical association
between more and up.
What is the point of using metaphors on this account? Is quot;Argument is warquot; only a rather
awkward way of expressing the same thing as quot;Argument is conflictquot;, which, in turn,
despecifies quot;Argument is argumentquot;? It is, perhaps, not entirely implausible that essential
metaphorical predications should reveal themselves to be analytically true (when true),
but, nevertheless, one would hope for something more breathtaking to say on the matter.
It seems reasonable to look in the direction of catachresis, i.e., semantic innovation.
The simplest circumstances under which climbing an abstraction tree, with the help of
metaphor, would be semantically creative, is where the more abstract concept is hithertoo
unlabeled. I suggest that talk of the quot;legsquot; of tables is, or was, a simple case of this kind.
The same thing goes for the spatial metaphors of Lakoff & Johnson: specific instances of
abstract linear structure were noted and labeled before the abstract structure itself, and
their labels had to double for other instances, as well as for the abstract concept.
Could ARGUMENT IS WAR be fitted in here as well? Admittedly, there is a labeled
generic concept, i.e., conflict, that catches the basic similarity between wars and
arguments, but the metaphor is, presumably, more specific than that. There is a set of
labeled roles associated with warfare that have no lexicalized counterparts in the case of
abstract conflict, nor in the case of argument. Among these labels are tactics, strategies,
weapons, allies, neutrals, guerilla warfare, main battle, battlefield, etc. The metaphor
invites one to construct reasonably abstract versions of such concepts, and attach them to
the quot;newquot; abstract war node.
Differentiating a genus may be done in countless ways, and only a tiny fraction of them
get lexicalized. Metaphor is a way of transferring useful differentiations made in one
branch of a concepual tree to another, of getting the most out of existing lexicalizations.
3.1.2 Feature deletion
The other popular model for representing the semantic content of expressions derives
from componential semantics. A dictionary entry is associated with a set of semantic
features, and a metaphoric use of an expression involves constructing a different set of
features for it than in the normal course of semantic interpretation. There are only two
basic operations available for transforming one feature set into another: addition and
deletion of features.
Climbing an abstraction hierarchy, in the manner indicated in the foregoing section,
corresponds in an obvious way to deletion of semantic features. The proper
platonic/aristotelian way to conceive the construction of an abstraction tree is in terms of
genera and specific differences. You reach the daughter node quot;humanquot; from its parent
node quot;animalquot; by adding the feature quot;rationalquot; - you consequently reach more abstract
nodes by deleting features, in turn.
To rephrase the ARGUMENTS IS WAR example in terms of feature deletion, let us
assume, for the sake of argument, the following definition for WAR: [conflict; violent;
with many contestants on each side]. Deleting the violence and the multitudes leaves us
with bare conflict - just like climbing a few nodes in an abstraction hierarchy. To have a
more interesting metaphorical content, you must have a more interesting unmetaphorical
content to start from - but something should be left to the reader.
The main obstacle to the project of developing an exact theory of metaphor interpretation
is the lack of a useful and comprehensive taxonomy, in terms of which reasonable goals
for research could be set. I have tried to delimit a class of referential metaphors, that have
largely been neglected in the modern discussion, and which it seems natural to treat in
conjunction with other problems of non-descriptive reference, e.g., with anaphoric
pronoun reference. I also sketch a suggestion for how referential metaphors are
interpreted by being related to the resource situation that is successively built up during
the interpretation of a text.
I have made some remarks on the demarcation between the metaphorical and the literal,
suggesting that the problems encountered in this area are to a large extent
pseudoproblems - dissipating when it is realized that metaphoricity is not a property but a
relation. The expression quot;x is a metaphorquot; should be treated as an ellipsis for quot;x is
metaphorical in relation to lexicon Lquot;, with L in most cases contextually presupposed.
I have also discussed some suggested criteria for recognizing metaphors, reaching the
conclusion that the most popular candidates fail, partly because they apply only at the
level of the isolated sentence, disregarding properly (con)textual factors.
The paper ends with some fairly general remarks on the notion of metaphoric meaning.
Intuitive descriptions of the two main current approaches are given - based on abstraction
hierachies in semantic networks , and manipulation of semantic feature sets, respectively.
It is argued that the difference between the two approaches concern their heuristics, rather
than their content.
Aristotle: Rhetorics and Poetics. In The Works of Aristotle (ed. W.D. Ross), vol
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Lehnert W G & Ringle M H), Hillsdale, New Jersey, 1982.
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Lakoff, G & Johnson, M (1980): Metaphors We Live By, Chicago 1980
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Basic Semantic Capabilitiesquot;, Readings in Knowledge Representations (ed.
Brachman R J & Levesque H J), Los Altos, Cal., 1985
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Reddy, Michael (1979): quot;The Conduit Metaphorquot;, in Ortony (ed): Metaphor and
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. The example makes up for its triteness, one might say, by its ancient heritage.
Aristotle's very first example of metaphor is quot;the lion leaptquot;, said about Achilleus. In
Quintilianus it becomes quot;he is a lionquot; - I do not know who gave us Richard instead of
Achilleus. Nevertheless, the metaphorhood of quot;Richard is a lionquot; may be contested in at
least two ways. One might argue that it is a quot;deadquot; metaphor, and so, properly speaking,
not a metaphor at all. Or one may hold that it is strictly speaking a case of synechdoque:
the word for a species of brave creature doing duty for the name of the genus.
. This is a good example of a problem case. Is the brain metaphorically or literally a
computer? And is the mind metaphorically or literally a program? It seems that the more
successful the quot;metaphorquot; is, the less we tend to see it as a metaphor.
. The rest of the tropological terminology surfaces more or less complete in Cicero - it
seems to have been invented between his time and Aristotle's by stoic rhetoricians.
. This is the complaint that Black, e.g., levels against what he calls the substitution
view. There are, however, theories of metaphor that grants a role to a suppressed
expression (in addition to the quot;focusquot; and the quot;framequot;) in the intepretation of metaphor,
without viewing such interpretation as a simple inversion of metaphorical substitution.
. The metaphor in (4) seems to function rather like an anaphoric pronoun, a class of
expressions for which a quot;substitutional viewquot; seems obviously correct. There is a trope
for which the substitutional view seems to be entirely right, namely euphemism - and
perhaps (4) might be argued to be an quot;invertedquot; euphemism.
. It seems natural to suppose that the difference between metaphor and allegory is even
more radical. Proper metaphor seems to be a linguistic phenomenon in a way that allegory
is not. A painting, e.g., may be allegorical in exactly the same sense as a text, but it is
harder to imagine what it would be for a painting literally to contain a metaphor. In the
terminology of situation semantics, metaphor seems to be involved in the ordinary textual
transition from the utterance situation to the described situation, while allegory seems to
be a relation between the linguistically described situation, and some further situation.
. Not that a metaphor has to be new to be rich in meaning. Max Black has drawn
attention to the important differences of emphasis with which a metaphor may be uttered.
Even a rather worn out metaphor may be heavily emphazised, making it appropriate for
the receiver to pursue even farfetched implications of it.
. For any two expressions, there will probably be some situation where the difference
between them will be important - but this general point applies to all forms of synonymy,
and I take it that proponents of the Inexhaustibilty thesis are aiming at something more
specific to metaphor.
. I think Lakoff & Johnson (1980) may profitably be viewed in the latter way, as well
as, more explicitly, Bartsch (1984).
. A criterion may, of course, be important without applying to all cases, and I will
suggest below that something akin to case-constraint violation plays an important part in
metaphor recognition, namely violations of conditions on parameters. The need for
metaphoric interpretation arises when a parameter cannot be anchored quot;properlyquot;, when
the quot;bestquot; anchor does not fulfill all the conditions associated with the parameter.
. The denomination is from Ted Cohen's pioneering paper (1976).
. Cf the following quotation from Pepper (1942), on the function of quot;world
For the words of the book are supposed, so to speak, to put us in gear with the world, so
that all we have to do is to guide the wheel and observe how things look as the headlights
bring them into view. Actually this ideal is not attained, as the conflict of world theories
with one another and the conflict of facts within world theories sufficiently prove. The
gears grind, the lights flicker, and the lenses distort. Nevertheless, we do get some idea of
our world from these vehicles, and without them we should have to move pretty much in
the dark. (p 80)
Obviously there is a lot of metaphoring going on here, but there is nothing inside the
italicised sentence to show that it is metaphoric.
. It seems quite likely that the demand is no stricter than that the adressee shall be
able to think of some reason for the speaker to use that particular expression to refer to
that particular object.
. The question whether metaphors have meaning is the subject of a famous debate
between Donald Davidson, Max Black, and Nelson Goodman, in Critical Inquiry, vol. 5,
numbers 1 & 2.
. It is not obvious that all metaphors are semantic phenomena in this sense. At least
for some metaphors it does not seem unlikely that quot;understandingquot; them involves mental
imagery and perceptionlike processes, rather than symbolic processing.
. A somewhat tricky formulation, of course. The same description in the same literal
sense, one is tempted to add - the metaphor itself cannot pull itself by the hair.
. Semantic network approaches to metaphor generally rely on an almost geographic
intuition of the existence of mappings between tenor and vehicle, concentrating on role-
structure. But roles must be labeled to be interesting; and the labels must obviously, on
pain of an infinite regress, not themselves be metaphorically taken. Taking the species to
species mapping, from war to argument as proceeding by way of an intermediate more
abstract level suggests a way in which the mapping acquires content.
. Classical theory has some standard answers to why one sometimes prefers a
metaphorical expression to a literal. Apart from catachresis, where there is no literal
alternative, metaphors are chosen because they are decorative, vivid, or brief.
Aesthetic factors undoubtedly play an important role when it comes to trigger metaphoric
language - whether the metaphor is chosen for it own beauty or, e.g., to effect some
stylistic variation - but we will say no more of them here.
Brevity is, of course, not to be scorned. Technical terms are, whenever possible, chosen
for their metaphoric potential, even though the concepts they designate have perfectly
adequate unmetaphorical definitions. The quot;treequot; structures frequently alluded to in the last
few sections may serve as examples. quot;Vividnessquot; seems to be the effect most often aimed
at in the case of referential metaphors. Semantically they behave in some ways like
pronouns, and the quot;featurequot; transferred by the metaphor is often an attitude or a valuation,
rather than any descriptive charcterization.
. As usual there is a problem of delimiting quot;properly semanticquot; information from
world knowledge, or the dictionary from the quot;encyclopediaquot;. There seems to be almost
universal consensus that there is no non-arbitrary line to be drawn between the two, and
many metaphors will obviously transfer features that seem decidedly non-semantic. I will
ignore such complications here.
. Indeed, at the level of program code, the nodes of an abstraction tree are bound to be
represented as lists of names referring to other nodes: ancestors, descendants, and roles.