Sponsored by the philosophy department, J.D. Atlas, member of Common Room, at Wolfson College in Oxford, gave a lecture earlier this month, titled “There Are No Metaphors: Analytic Philosophy and the Literal/Metaphorical Distinction.”
The lecture explored the concept of the metaphorical, expanding on Aristotle’s views of metaphor and the failure of traditional criteria to distinguish the metaphorical from ordinary uses of language.
Atlas opened the lecture by providing background knowledge of Aristotle’s views on metaphors, exploring the concepts of species and genus terms.
“Species terms may be used in place of more general terms and conversely,” Atlas said. “A species term may be substituted for another species term if they are of the same genus.”
Such substitution, Atlas notes, is, or was, at least, for Aristotle and the Greeks, essential to substantiate a lack of certain words in the language.
“Analogy permits the substitution of corresponding terms, especially if the lexicon of language has gaps to fill,” Atlas said.
With the lecture topic revolving around metaphors and the metaphorical, Atlas made sure to note the distinction between similes and metaphors, which are literary devices that serve similar purposes.
“Aristotle says “˜the simile also is a metaphor; the difference is but slight. Similes are useful in prose as well as in verse, but not as often, since they are the nature of poetry’,” Atlas said. “‘They are to be employed just as metaphors are employed, since they are really the same thing’.”
After providing examples of each, Atlas questioned the formation of metaphors, using classical as well as contemporary examples.
“What then is the big deal about a metaphor, if it is just as prosaic as Aristotle described it, the use of a term that is “˜alien’ for one that is “˜regular’?,” Atlas said.
In his talk, Atlas brings in contemporary arguments around the notion of metaphors, notably that of American philosopher John Searle and American cognitive linguist George Lakoff. Lakoff, an active participant in the area of the metaphorical, is noted for his reappraisal of the notion of metaphors and their formation, especially in his “Contemporary Theory of Metaphor.”
“Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature,” Lakoff said. “The metaphor is not just a matter of language, but of thought and reason.”
While Lakoff asserts that metaphors are a primarily conceptual construct, Atlas also makes challenging claims regarding the formation of the metaphorical versus the literal.
“This semantic mechanism, called “˜metaphorical’ by Aristotle, is an ordinary feature of ordinary language,” Atlas said. “It creates new genus words with new literal meanings.”
Atlas closed his lecture by putting forth his final claim, stating that the traditional means by which we categorize metaphors and the metaphorical do not differentiate it from any use of ordinary language.
“What does this mean? It means that the traditional criteria of metaphoricity do not suffice to distinguish between so-called metaphorical and ordinary uses of language,” Atlas said. “Faced with this consequence, one may assert that our traditional characterization of metaphor is faulty.”
To sophomore David Warga, the concept of re-evaluating the metaphor as something other than a linguistic construct was an interesting idea.
“I think [Atlas’s] claims were intriguing in the sense that we need to look for more subtle criteria or even more radical positions on what distinguishes a metaphor,” Watga said.
“Especially with his a few of his everyday examples, I think he made a clear point on the notion that the mark of a metaphor really doesn’t distinguish it as a species.”
Through these examples, Atlas shows that these “˜metaphors’ are ordinary, at least semantically, and are lacking any distinction from ordinary language.
“I asserted that so-called metaphors were semantically ordinary,” Atlas said. “The semantics of metaphorical language is no different from the semantics of ordinary language; there is no difference whatever in logical type.”