Metaphorical Words? II: Powerfully Arbitrary, Research Time, 21/01/2015

Continued from last post . . . When you get to Marshall McLuhan, you understand just how much Donald Davidson was mistaken. Because his argument that metaphors were meaningless depended on a conception of meaning in which each word had a precise meaning, fixed necessarily (though not necessarily sufficiently) by a precise referent. If a word did not refer properly, then its use obscured its meaning. If the use of a word obscures its meaning, then the word in that instance becomes meaningless.

McLuhan approaches the topic of metaphor from a completely different perspective. Davidson worked in fairly conservative Analytic philosophy, having accepted the principle that language is primarily transparent in meaning and practical in use. I’m simplifying an enormously complex tradition of the philosophy of language, of course. For Davidson, what a philosopher does with language is analyze and clarify concepts and meanings. 

But McLuhan came from the discipline of literary criticism, which was open to very different philosophical ideas about language than Analytic philosophy. He developed a theoretical approach to language as affects. I described this in an earlier post as words and utterances literally smacking you around, and I’m sticking to that image because my readers have told me it’s remarkably effective.

An old critique of Analytic philosophy that I’ve often heard in classes introducing the subject is that one of the most common conceptions of language in that tradition is too simple. Words and propositions have precise meanings that our ordinary language* obscures, and so logical analysis must make those meanings clear.

* I’m leaving aside the tradition of ordinary language philosophy whose key figures were the older Ludwig Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin. I’m referring to the paradigm analytic philosophy that developed as Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, and Frank Ramsey developed symbolic logic, and as Russell and the younger Wittgenstein developed the techniques of the logical analysis of ordinary language. 

In our lives, the meanings, functions, and reference of our words are
determined through what we do with language and things. These actions
are contingent, and not necessary elements of words themselves.
McLuhan has an even simpler conception of language, but one that isn’t reductive in the sense that I described last post. He has a thoroughly materialist view of what language is (and I share this basic conception): language is an assemblage of mental and social operations, funny noises, and written marks. When I type the word ‘stone,’ the word is an arrangement of pixels on a screen and data on a hard drive. Printed, it’s a pattern of ink on a page. Spoken, it’s a pattern of air pressures. None of these are an actual stone that I can kick down the street as I walk.

A metaphor is a word that is used to signify something other than what it is. The surf was a loving companion that would break you on a whim.** We use words to refer to lots of things in the world other than words themselves. The paradigm works of Analytic philosophy consider reference to objects in the world an essential component of meaningful words or propositions. But the act of reference itself transforms a word into a metaphor.

** I just finished reading a chapter of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice that takes place in a small community of obsessive, mystically-minded surfers. It ends with an acid trip vision of the protagonist’s mysterious ex-girlfriend on a Triad-connected yacht in the south Pacific. It’s a wonderful book.

The constructions that we usually call metaphors are just unusual enough for us to notice this. Most of our word use has become so habitual that we don’t readily perceive that our words, as sounds and marks, don’t have any necessary connection to their referents. There’s nothing inherently right about me saying ‘tree’ any more than there’s anything inherently wrong in Pierre saying ‘arbre.’ ‘Hello’ has no more necessary connection to the act of greeting someone than ‘Ni Hao.’ 

Our complex language systems developed contingently over many thousands of years from the first grumbling vocalizations. The functions our words achieve define them. Language works when we all use the best words to achieve what we want.

If there were necessary connections between words and their objects, then there would be no major differences between languages. We would perceive an object and know precisely what sounds to make when we refer to it. The words themselves would be extensions of the things into our thoughts.

There are traditions of thought that hold there to be necessary correspondences of words and things, but they aren’t exactly held in high esteem by conservative circles of Analytic philosophy of language. I’m referring to the mystical language concepts that anthropologists discovered in several indigenous cultures. McLuhan discusses an Inuit who, when asked why his word for ‘stone’ is what it is, said that the word ‘stone’ is an extension of all stones in the world. If it was not, then how could it refer to them?

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