Metaphor and Self, Part 1: The External World

How do you understand the world around you? Some philosophers argue that it is in terms of p and q. You’re reading this blog (p), and not another ~(~p). Yet Mark Johnson argues that there lies a besetting incompetence in such abstract philosophical language – an incompetence that bubbles to the surface when examined side-by-side with human language. As tempting as it may be to cast the world in a p–>q schema, it fails in its ability to retain semantic function, and therefore structural coherence also…and therefore its usefulness as a language.  Johnson argues that the incompetence of abstract philosophical language lies squarely on its jettisoning of metaphor. For Johnson, when you remove metaphor, you remove both meaning and systematic integrity at the linguistic, and therefore referential level. Johnson summarizes:

A “formal” language is an artificial language that, unlike natural languages, consists entirely of arbitrary meaningless symbols, each of which has specific formal (syntactic) features that play a role in formal operations specified for the language.[1]

Johnson contests,

The key problem with this formal language metaphor is that actual formal languages do not and cannot possess the key features that make it possible for natural languages to be meaningful. Consequently, if Mind Is A Computational Program (i.e., the Mind As Computer metaphor), then the Language of Thought will not, in itself, be meaningful in any way. As a result, [one] must officially reject the formal language metaphor. But then [one] is left with the problem of how an intrinsically meaningless Language of Thought can somehow acquire meaning.[2]

So, do philosophers own up to the intrinsic meaninglessness that a metaphor-less “computer-program” (!) language drags onto metaphysical shores? Hardly:

[T]he single biggest reason that most traditional and contemporary philosophy cannot recognize the pervasive, theory-constituting role of metaphor in philosophy is the failure of philosophers to acknowledge the existence of deep systematic conceptual metaphor. They cannot recognize it because to do so would require a fairly substantial revision of some of the founding assumptions of their philosophies. It would require them to abandon some of their founding metaphorical conceptions in favor of other metaphors. If you acknowledge conceptual metaphor, then you have to give up literalism. If you give up literalism, you must abandon objectivist theories of knowledge. If you reject objectivist metaphysics and epistemology, you must abandon the classical correspondence theory of truth. Eventually, you will have to rethink even your most basic conception of what cognition consists in.[3]


[1] Mark Johnson, “Philosophy’s Debt to Metaphor,” in The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought, ed. Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr. (New York: Cambridge, 2008), 50.

[2] Ibid. Contrary to computer-program language, Richard Rorty tries to develop a positive philosophy of metaphor when he says, “Tossing a metaphor into a conversation is like suddenly breaking off the conversation long enough to make a face, or pulling a photograph out of your pocket and displaying it, or pointing at a feature of the surroundings, or slapping your interlocutor’s face, or kissing him. Tossing a metaphor into a text is like using italics, or illustrations, or odd punctuation or formats. All these are ways of producing effects on your interlocutor or your reader but not ways of conveying a message.” Richard Rorty, “The Contingency of Language,” in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 18. However, Rorty ultimately fails to account for the semantic aspect of metaphor altogether, which is the very aspect of the linguistic phenomenon that we are even now discovering to be indispensible.

[3] Ibid., 51.

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