What Is at Issue in the Question of Metaphor?
Excerpt from the The Meaning of the Body — Aesthetics of Human Understanding
Philosophy’s debt to metaphor is profound and immeasurable. However, philosophy’s debt is neither greater nor less than that of any other significant human intellectual field or discipline. Philosophers must use the same conceptual resources possessed by any human being, and the potential for any philosophy to make sense of a person’s life depends directly on the fact that all of us are metaphoric animals.
What I have just said is not now, nor has it ever been, widely accepted by philosophers. In fact, for the major part of our philosophical history, the idea that metaphor lies at the heart of human conceptualization and reasoning has been rejected. One could even make a crude distinction between two types of philosophy: (1) objectivist and literalist philosophies, which see metaphor as a dispensable linguistic appurtenance; and (2) philosophies that regard any particular philosophical viewpoint as a creative elaboration of some specific set of basic conceptual metaphors.
The history of Western philosophy is, for the most part, one long development of the objectivist dismissal of metaphor, punctuated rarely by bold declarations (such as Nietzsche’s) of the pervasiveness of metaphor in all thought. Where a philosopher stands on this key issue can be determined by their answer to one question: are our abstract concepts defined by metaphor, or not? Once the question is formulated in this manner, it is easy to see the profound philosophical stakes. If our most fundamental abstract concepts — such as those for causation, events, will, thought, reason, knowledge, mind, justice, and rights — are irreducibly metaphoric, then philosophy must consist in the analysis, criticism, elaboration, and creative blending of the metaphorical concepts out of which philosophies are made. If, on the other hand, you believe that our most important philosophical concepts are, in the final analysis, literal, then you will regard metaphor as cognitively insignificant, and you will relegate it to what you disparagingly regard as some distant corner of philosophy, typically the unfairly maligned field of aesthetics.