Metaphorical Words? I: In Search of a Real Question, A History Boy, 20/01/2015

Here’s another idea in the McLuhans’ Laws of Media that stuck into me as I was reading through this book. The role of metaphor in language, and the meanings of words. 

I first encountered philosophy that explored this topic in Donald Davidson’s writings. It was the last year of my undergraduate degree, and I was coordinating Memorial University’s philosophical discussion group, Jockey Club. This was one of the papers that one of our participants brought in my first months on the job, over the summer semester as I transitioned out of full-time work at The Muse, the university’s student newspaper.

In that first Jockey Club discussion of "What Metaphors
Mean," I'll never forget the recurring example of a
clearly meaningless metaphor, "Love is a fish."
“What Metaphors Mean” was a very uninspiring essay to me, and I should say that I don’t pretend to give a definitive take. I don’t have a copy of the paper anymore, I haven’t read it since 2005, and I’m not about to pirate a copy and read the whole thing again for the sake of a blog entry of a few hundred words in between modules of a research ethics tutorial.*

* I find it ironic that, despite finishing a doctoral degree in philosophy, I never had to complete the Canadian Tri-Council training program in proper ethical conduct in research until my communications program. I’m not totally sure what that says about philosophy as a discipline (maybe another sign of its distance from the lived reality of people?) but I don’t have the energy to go into that again.

I found “What Metaphors Mean” the most depressing example I had read until then of what I call deflationary philosophy. It was an argument that what you might think is an interesting problem isn’t actually worth talking about. It’s the one principle that makes me anything of a partisan in the Analytic – Continental conflict in philosophy. 

Most of the time, when a philosophy professor makes a big deal about the worth, or lack thereof, of one side or another of this divide, he or she just repeats the same empty dogma that they learned from their original supervisors. But Analytic philosophy did have one core fundamental problem** in its definitive years.

** Continental philosophy, from my own personal perspective, has one core fundamental problem in its definitive years as well, and his name was Martin Heidegger.

It began in just circumstances, as a rebellion against the conservatism and quietism of British Idealism at Cambridge. The movement’s major weapon was a set of tools for logical analysis of propositions and statements, articulating them in a form that would clearly display their truth conditions, the foundation of a proposition’s fundamental meaning. 

If logical analysis showed a statement’s truth conditions to be unclear and impossible to clarify, then it had no sense. Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore were the main figures arguing that all of metaphysics itself was nonsense. Unable to clarify the meaning of the core questions, they could not be settled. The traditional subjects of philosophical discussion were, in essence, not worth talking about. 

The deflationary thought of
Donald Davidson.
Davidson’s essay, at least in my decade-old memory of it, delivered to me the conclusion that the meaning of metaphors were one of these nonsensical topics. By the time Davidson published his metaphor paper in 1978, much of Analytic philosophy was in an uproar, as many of the old metaphysical topics were returning to respectable discussion through the previously entirely respectable fields of logic. 

From exploring the logic and truth conditions of counterfactuals, David Lewis developed a theory of possible worlds really existing, not just as imagined postulates for the sake of an inference, but as actual planes of reality. From developing a systematic logic of necessity and possibility, Saul Kripke introduced a new approach to the metaphysics of possibility.

So to read this essay about metaphor that struck me as so reactionary, even before I knew this history as well as I do, disappointed me. Davidson’s basic argument was quite simple. Metaphors use words in picturesque ways that do not match their proper referents. Since they don’t match their proper referents, words used as metaphors no longer have meaning. They may evoke, but there is no longer any meaning. 

I still remember, at ten years’ remove, Davidson’s argument as assertively reductive. Because metaphors had removed themselves from the realm of meaning, there was nothing more that could be said about them philosophically, no question worth asking, no inquiry worth exploring. 

I couldn’t have called it such at the time, but it was a perfect example of deflationary thinking. And it actually depressed me. I’ve read work by writers who see the world and human life as existentially empty and devoid of purpose, who analyze the most horrifying crimes and horrors humanity can produce. None of these struck my soul in quite the same way as the declaration that we should discard an idea as conceptually rich as the metaphorical power of words. To be continued. . . . 

No comments:

Post a Comment