When I was young and studying philosophy at Edinburgh University I remember becoming excited about the figurative use of prepositions; they seemed to crop up everywhere, openly and in disguise as Latin prefixes, in uses that clearly were not literal. Reasoning from the fact that the meaning of any preposition could be demonstrated using objects and space, I concluded that a world of objects and space was implied in all our thinking, and that this might act as a limit on what and how we thought.

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What strikes me about this now is not so much the idea as the assumptions on which it is based: I have made Language in its full-blown form my starting point, which is a bit like starting a history of transport with the motor-car. As I have suggested before, what we think of as ‘Language’ is a relatively recent development, arising from the invention of writing and the influence it has exerted on speech, simultaneously elevating it above all other forms of expression and subjugating it to the written form. It is the written form that gives language an objective existence, independent of human activity, and relocates ‘meaning’ from human activity (what Wittgenstein terms ‘language games’ or ‘forms of life’) to words themselves; and alongside this, it makes possible the systematic anaylsis of speech [as discussed in The Muybridge Moment].

In that earlier theory of mine I took for granted a number of things which I now think were mistaken. The first, as I have said, is that the milieu which gives rise to the figurative use of words is the developed form of language described above; that is to confuse the identification and definition of something with its origin, rather as if I were to suppose that a new species of monkey I had discovered had not existed before I found and named it.

Bound up with this is the model of figurative language which I assumed, namely that figurative use was derived from literal use and dependent upon it, and that literal use was prior and original – in other words, that we go about the world applying names like labels to what we see about us (the process of ‘ostensive definition’ put forward by St Augustine, and quoted by Wittgenstein at the start of his Philosophical Investigations) and only afterwards develop the trick of ‘transferring’ these labels to apply to other things (the word ‘metaphor’ in Greek is the direct equivalent of ‘transfer’ in Latin – both suggest a ‘carrying over or across’).

Points to note about this model are that it is logically derived and that it presents metaphorical thinking as an intellectual exercise – it is, as Aristotle describes it, ‘the ability to see the similarity in dissimilar things.’

The logic appears unassailable: clearly, if metaphor consists in transferring a word from its literal application and applying it elsewhere, so that the sense of the original is now understood as applying to the new thing, then the literal use must necessarily precede the metaphorical and the metaphorical be wholly dependent on and derived from it: to say of a crowd that it surged forward is to liken its action to that of a wave, but we can only understand this if we have the original sense of ‘surge’ as a starting point.

However, there is a difficulty here. It is evident that there can be no concept of literal use and literal meaning till there are letters, since the literal meaning of ‘literal’ is ‘having to do with letters’. Only when words can be written down can we have an idea of a correspondence between the words in the sentence and the state of affairs that it describes (what Wittgenstein in the Tractatus calls the ‘picture theory’ of language). If what we term metaphors were in use before writing was invented – and I am quite certain that they were – then we must find some other explanation of them than the ‘transfer model’ outlined above, with its assumption that literal use necessarily precedes metaphorical and the whole is an intellectual process of reasoned comparison.

The root of the matter lies in the fact already mentioned, that only with the invention of a written form does the systematic analysis of speech become possible, or indeed necessary. Before then (as I suggest in ‘The Disintegration of Expression‘) speech was one facet or mode of expression, quite likely not the most important (I would suggest that various kinds of body language, gesture and facial expression were possibly more dominant in conveying meaning). It was something that we used by instinct and intuition rather than conscious reflection, and it would always have been bound up with some larger activity, for the simple reason that there was no means of separating it (the nearest approach would be a voice speaking in the dark, but that is still a voice, with all the aesthetic qualities that a voice brings, and also by implication a person; furthermore, it is still firmly located in time, at that moment, for those hearers, in that situation. Compare this with a written sentence, where language for the first time is able to stand on its own, independent of space and time and not associated with any speaker).

In other words, when metaphor was first defined, it was in terms of a literate language, and was seen primarily as a use we make of words. (Given the definition supplied by Belloc’s schoolboy, that ‘a metaphor is just a long Greek word for a lie’, there is an illuminating parallel to be drawn here with lying, which might be defined as ‘making a false statement, one that is not literally true’. This again puts the focus on words, and makes lying primarily a matter of how words are used and what they mean. The words or the statement are seen as what is false, but actually it is the person – hence the old expression ‘the truth is not in him’. Deceit consists in creating a false appearance, in conveying a false impression: words are merely instrumental, and though certainly useful – as a dagger is for murder – are by no means necessary. We can lie by a look or an action; we can betray with a kiss.)

There is a great liberation in freeing metaphor from the shackles that bind it to literal language (and to logic, with which it is at odds, since it breaks at least two of the so-called ‘laws of thought’ – it violates the law of identity, which insists that ‘A is A’, by asserting that A is B, and by the same token, the law of contradiction, which insists that you cannot have A and not-A, by asserting that A is not-A). It allows us to see it from a wholly new perspective, and does away with the need to see it either as an intellectual act (‘seeing the similarity in dissimilars’) or as something that necessarily has to do with words or even communication; I would suggest that metaphor is primarily a way of looking at the world, and so is first and foremost a mode of thought, but one that operates not through the intellect and reason but through intuition and feelings.

To illustrate this, I would like to take first an example I came up with when I was trying to envisage how metaphor might have evolved. Two brothers, out in the bush, come on a lion, at a safe distance, so that they can admire its noble mien and powerful grace without feeling threatened. One brother smiles and says ‘mother!’ The other, after an initial look of puzzlement, nods his head in affirmation and laughs.

The explanation I furnished to accompany this is that their mother is a formidable and beautiful woman and that the first brother, seeing the lion, is reminded of her, and by naming her, invites his brother to make the same comparison that has already occurred to him, which he does after a moment’s puzzlement, and the two take pleasure in this new and unexpected – yet apt – use of the word.


I think that the focus here is wrong: it is still concerned to make metaphor about words, and to see it primarily as a way of communicating ideas.

I would now like to alter the story slightly. A man on his own in the bush catches sight of the lion (from a safe distance, as before). On seeing it, he is moved: the sight of it stirs him, fills him with a mixture of awe and delight. And it is not what he sees, but rather what he feels, that calls his mother to mind: the feeling that the lion induces him is the same as he has felt in the presence of his mother. That is where the identification takes place, in the feeling: the outer circumstances might differ (the lion in the bush, his mother in the village) but the inner feeling is the same. If we think of an experience as combining an external objective component with an internal subjective one (and I am carefully avoiding any notion of cause and effect here) then the origin of metaphor lies in experiences where the external objective component differs but the internal subjective component is the same.

Why am I wary of saying ‘the sight of the lion causes the same feelings that the sight of his mother does’ ? Because it strikes me as what I would call a ‘mixed mode’ of thinking: it imports the notion of causality, a modern and analytic way of thinking, into an account of an ancient and synthetic way of thinking, thus imposing an explanation rather than simply describing. (This is difficult territory because causality is so fundamental to all our explanations, based as they are on thinking that makes use of literate language as its main instrument)

What I want to say is this: causal explanations impose a sequence – one thing comes first – the cause – and elicits the other, the effect. So if we stick with the man and the lion we would analyse it like this: ‘sense data arrive in the man’s brain through his eyes by the medium of light, and this engenders a physical response (spine tingling, hair standing on end, a frisson passing over the body) which the man experiences as a feeling of awe and delight.’

We can demonstrate by reason that the lion, or the sight of it, is the cause and the emotion the effect, because if we take the lion away (for instance, before the man comes on it) the man does not experience the emotion (although he may experience ‘aftershocks’ once it has gone, as he recalls the sight of it).

But there is a fault here. If we leave the lion but substitute something else for the man – an antelope, say, or a vulture – does it still have the same effect? It is impossible to say for sure, though we may infer something from how each behaves – the antelope, at the sight (and quite probably the scent) of the lion might bound away in the opposite direction, while the vulture (sensing the possibility of carrion near by or in the offing) might well move closer.

My point is that the analysis of cause and effect is rather more complex  than I have presented it here, which is much as David Hume makes it out to be, with his analogy with one billiard ball striking another; as Schopenhauer points out, what causes the window to shatter is not the stone alone, but the fact of its being thrown with a certain force and direction combined with the brittleness of the glass (and if the stone is thrown by a jealous husband through his love rival’s window, then we might need to include his wife’s conduct and the construction he puts upon it in the causal mix). Change any one of these and the result is different.

My being human is as much a precondition for the feelings I experience in the presence of a lion as the lion is, and I think that this is a case where, as Wordsworth puts it, ‘we murder to dissect’ – it is much more enlightening to consider the experience as a single simultaneous event with, as I have suggested, an inner and an outer aspect that are effectively counterparts. So the lion is the embodiment of the man’s feelings but so is his mother, and the lion and his mother are identified by way of the feelings that both embody; and the feelings are in some sense the inner nature or meaning of both the lion and the mother (think here of all the songs and poetry and music that have been written where the lover tries to give expression to his feelings for his beloved). This interchangeability and the identity of different things or situations through a common feeling aroused in each case is the foundation of metaphor and, I think, the key ‘mechanism’ of Art.

(This has an interesting parallel with the philosophy of Schopenhauer, as expressed in the title of his work Die Welt als Wille und Vortsellung, variously translated as ‘The World as Will and Representation’ or ‘The World as Will and Idea’. In this he borrows from Eastern philosophy to present the world as having a dual aspect – objectively, as it appears to others and subjectively, as it is in itself. Its objective aspect, Representation, is made known to us via our senses, and is the same world of Objects and Space with which this discussion began; we cannot by definition see what it is like in itself since it only ever appears as object, but once we realise that we ourselves are objects in the ‘World as Representation,’ we can gain a special insight by ‘turning our eyes inward’ as it were, and contemplating our own inner nature, which we know not by seeing but by being it.

And what do we find? For Schopenhauer, it is the Will; and the revelation is that this is not an individual will – my will as opposed to yours – it is the same Will that is the inner nature of everything, the blind will to exist, to come into being and to remain in being. (This bears a striking resemblance to the position advanced by evolutionary biologists such as Richard Dawkins, for whom humankind is effectively a by-product of our genetic material’s urge to perpetuate itself).)

I would diverge from Schopenhauer – and the evolutionary biologists – in their pessimistic and derogatory account of the inner nature of things, on two grounds. The first is that it makes us anomalous. Schopenhauer asserts that ‘in us alone, the Will comes to consciousness’ but is unable to explain why this should be so, while his only solution to the revelation that all things are just the urges of a blind and senseless will is effectively self-annihilation (not a course he chose to pursue himself, as it happens – he lived to be 72). There is a lack of humility here that I find suspect, a desire still to assert our uniqueness and importance in a senseless world. If the Will is indeed the inner nature of all things (and that is questionable) why should we consider ourselves the highest manifestation of it?

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The second ground is the nature of the feelings that I describe, which are the opposite of pessimistic: they are uplifting, feelings of awe, elation and delight. There is a fashion nowadays for explaining everything in terms of genetic inheritance or evolutionary advantage (‘stress is a manifestation of the fight-or-flight reaction’ for instance, or any number of explanations which couch our behaviour in terms of advertising our reproductive potential) but I have yet to come across any satisfactory explanation in the same terms of why we should feel elated in the presence of beauty, whether it is a person, an animal, a landscape, the sea or (as Kant puts it) ‘the starry heavens over us*’. The characteristic feature of such experiences is ‘being taken out of yourself’ (which is what ‘ecstasy’ means) a feeling of exaltation or rapture, of temporarily losing any sense of yourself and feeling absorbed in some greater whole.

I would venture that this disinterested delight is the single most important aspect of human experience and is (in Kantian phrase) ‘worthy of all attention.’

*The full quotation is not without interest: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence.” (Critique of Practical Reason)

3 thoughts on “Heart-thought

  1. From my understanding, you initially supposed that the literal meaning of things precedes the metaphorical meaning, but after realizing that metaphors preceded letters, you now think this is not the case. I hope I got the gist correctly.

    But I don’t quite understand two things: 1) it is true that through metaphor allows that good is not good or it may very well be bad (G=-G=B), but doesn’t the context include parameters such that it is permissible to have G=B and -G= (arbitrarily ) Z with no contradictions? 2)does literal imply the usage of written or formalized language? It seems that the true sense of “literal” in your initial conclusion is “un-adapted or real,” which seems in fact unassailable.

    Otherwise, I enjoyed the post, but since you have some interesting conclusions, why not have them foremost to keep the reader entertained?

    Typo: “and the whole is an itellectual process of reasoned comparison.”

    • Hello,

      Thank you for reading my blog and in particular for spotting the typo, which I have now corrected. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece and I will try to answer the points you raise.

      I must apologise that my blog is very often a vehicle for working out my own thoughts on a matter, so that at times it is like a conversation with myself, with the result that some parts are condensed (where I feel that the argument is clear in my own head, or is something I have dealt with at length elsewhere) while others are discursive, when some spark in the course of writing sends me off at a tangent. I hope these have not made the whole too obscure or difficult to follow.

      My concerns in this piece were two: the first was to break the connection that is generally made between the literal and the metaphorical, as if the two were a natural pair – perhaps even opposites – and should always be defined in relation to one another. My position is that metaphor (which I have been thinking about for the last forty years or so) is a very ancient mode of thought – quite possibly primeval – and is one that we use instinctively and intuitively. It consists in seeing one thing in terms of another in order to understand it and it can be thought of as an invitation ‘see it as this’ in response to the question (asked of oneself or another) ‘how am I to understand this?’

      The characteristic of metaphorical thinking is that it is sudden and revelatory – we arrive at it by an intuitive leap rather than a chain of reasoning.

      My second concern was to clarify an idea I have arrived at only recently, concerning what might be the original ‘mechanism’ of metaphor. This is an instance where my argument has become very condensed and I have omitted a great deal in order to get back to what might be the beginning. What I had in mind here was the way that music, say, can express a particular experience (as distinct from describing an event). The particular instance that prompted my thought was an encounter that Sibelius had when out walking on 21 April 1915 – he saw a flight of sixteen swans and wrote in his diary “One of the great experiences of my life! God, how beautiful”. The sight moved him to pen the theme that became the finale of his fifth symphony.

      What interested me was what we recognise when we hear that piece of music – it seems to me more than a ‘picture’ of the swans; rather it conveys what it was like to be there and see them, the sort of feelings a human being experiences in that sort of situation. In some sense – which I have not perhaps made clear – the feeling, the swans and the music are all aspects of the same thing, and this kind of interchangeability seems to me to be at the heart of metaphor and Art.

      I don’t fully understand what it is that you do not understand, but I will try to answer your points. On the first point, I feel I may have caused confusion by my throwaway remark about metaphor violating the laws of thought, which perhaps calls for fuller explanation. The way in which we were taught metaphor in school laid much emphasis on distinguishing it from simile – ‘simile says that one thing is like another; metaphor says it actually is that other thing’ – a rather prejudicial definition, which makes metaphor sound essentially dishonest. As a matter of fact, I don’t think the distinction between simile and metaphor is of the least importance – they work in the same way.

      The real incompatibility is between metaphorical thinking and Aristotelian logic. The former is synthetic and works by identification and unity; the latter is analytic, and works by distinction and separation. A man cannot be a tiger for Aristotle, because they belong in different classes and have different defining characteristics; but a metaphor can assert that a man is a tiger, because of some marked resemblance that strikes the onlooker (his demeanour, ferocity, courage etc – though it is important to guard against giving an analytic account). I did not mean to suggest that metaphors could be used in the moral sphere to assert that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are the same thing, which seems to be the point you are making. Perhaps you could expand what you are saying here? I do not follow what you are saying at the moment.

      By ‘literal language’ or indeed just ‘language’ I mean what results through the influence of writing on expression (not immediately, but over a period of several centuries, even millennia): the written form comes to dominate the spoken, and to dictate how it is used (this is seen particularly in the importance attached to formal grammar, spelling and punctuation, all of which are adjuncts of the written rather than the spoken word). Yet speech comes to us naturally – we learn and teach it instinctively, without any formal training – whereas we have to learn read and write, and not everyone is successful.

      My own feeling is that we should pay more heed to those modes of expression that come to us naturally, which I think includes art, music and dance as well as speech, and we should realise that, great though the benefits of literacy are, it also has its drawbacks.

      Please excuse such a lengthy answer; I hope (if you have taken the trouble to read it) that it has been of some use to you.

      • Thanks for the answer, as I’ve welcomed your elaboration, though it may seem worthy of a post in itself because of its length.

        I am quick to agree with you that metaphor arises from intuition, and I think that all metaphors are able to be deduced such that they aren’t completely grounded with intuition. But it seems visual and musical art cannot be rationalized unlike metaphor because most understand any given metaphor, but few may understand the “picture of the swans in the 5th symphony” or that there even are such additions.

        As for my concerns, I merely disagree that a metaphor and Aristotelian logic are contrary to each other. One may say that a man is a tiger and be validated because “tiger” is used in a metaphorical sense, which I think adds additional parameters in the statement’s meaning, such that “tiger” may very well mean a ferocious man. If this is the case, doesn’t metaphor complement the validity of the law of non-contradiction? or am I misconstruing the how metaphor adds to the meaning of a seemingly contradictory sentence?

        Thanks for your time

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