How Metaphor Means
In any discussion of epistemology, the study of knowledge, one must address the presence of metaphorical language in explanation. Lucy Shaw, in her book Breath for the Bones, affirms the difficulty of grasping purely abstract, propositional truth, the type of truth proposed by the naturalist worldview. She states instead that humans tend to “think in pictures”(pg 37). By this, she claims that metaphor is often a necessary vehicle for acquiring knowledge as some truths remain inherently bound to imagery, unable to be divorced from their accompanying visions or sensations. Thus, many approaches to learning and to knowledge itself must involve use of metaphorical language. The nature of metaphorical knowledge asks two essential questions: what is metaphorical meaning?; and how do hearers comprehend metaphorical meaning?
Defining metaphor beyond categorizing it as a figure of speech can become difficult. It depends to a certain degree upon the manner in which one believes metaphor is grasped. The most essential and undeniable characteristic of metaphorical sentences seems to be the tension between the subject and the object or description. William Lycan, in his discussion of metaphor in The Philosophy of Language labels these tensions, “not only intelligible but perhaps even exceptionally informative or illuminating”(Lycan 177). These characteristics prove helpful, but insufficient as a definition of metaphor, but any further clarification must be achieved through a theory of interpretation. A number of theories exist for interpretation but each presents different weaknesses.
The Causal theory states that because the intended meanings of metaphor are not verifiable empirically, they must carry nothing more than their literal meanings, no matter how unintelligible. Proponents of this view hold that metaphor has psychological, rather than linguistic, effects, allowing the hearer to understand and acquire knowledge. In this view, however, no interpretation of metaphor can be incorrect, only different because of variations in the specific hearer’s cognitive architecture. Other theories address the specificity of metaphor more sufficiently.
The Naive Simile theory asserts metaphor as a derivative of its corresponding simile. In this case, metaphor is simply an expression of the similarity in the simile. It accounts for the intelligibility of metaphor through the resemblance of the subject and object at hand. The tension in metaphor is here explained in the move from comparison(simile) to actual ascription(Lycan 179). Again though, this theory falls short by failing to address the specificity and distinctness of the similarities at hand. The next step, the Figurative simile theory, expresses metaphor as an abbreviated derivative of the corresponding simile interpreted figuratively. It explains the specificity of metaphor through the linguistic effects of a figurative simile. This theory acknowledges the tension in metaphor but views it as a characteristic of the corresponding simile. Even so, the theory only pushes the conceptual tension into the simile at hand, rather than explaining its nature.
The last and most successful theory is the Pragmatic theory. This theory suggests metaphor is a type of relevance-theoretic speech, in which the hearer assumes the literal meaning of the sentence was not the intended meaning and thus proceeds to devise potential alternate interpretations. Interpretation here depends not on a corresponding simile or on a psychological effect but on the hearers ability to reason to an acceptable interpretation of a metaphorical sentence. This interpretation accounts for tension, by affirming, as the causal theory does, that no special linguistic meaning exists, but rather, the hearer uses linguistic tools already inherent in their understanding of language to reason to the speaker-meaning.
In understanding metaphor by the pragmatic theory, one can reach a true knowledge of some sentence which literally, without extant linguistic architecture, means some falsehood. This opens up a realm of possibility for epistemology. Shaw points out that even describing truth and knowledge requires some metaphor like ‘core’, ‘rock’, or ‘root’. The symbols make the mysterious, abstract subject of truth, into an object society can cognitively digest, by way of their extant linguistic framework. This clarifies the relationship between language and knowledge. If knowledge cannot exist without the language to comprehend it, metaphor seems to evidence the important role that imagery plays in epistemology. Shaw sees this connection clearly: “The metaphorical view sees the world not as reducible to verbal proposition but as multileveled, complex, rich, its mystery capable only of being pierced and presented as imagery”(41). The metaphor acknowledges the nuances of the world and allows the participant to still know it. Many subjects and experiences cannot be known through simple, reduced explanations, as their nature lies in their intricacy. Metaphorical language provides a framework for the complexity to exist without needing to be reduced.