Is all language metaphorical in any interesting sense?

Mary Hesse argues in her article “The Cognitive Claims of Metaphor” that “all language is metaphorical” (Hesse1). This claim obviously requires some stage-setting before it can make sense. She begins by rejecting Aristotelian universalism in favor of a nominalist position that takes seriously Wittgenstein’s claims about the diffuse, web-like nature of linguistic use. Through this rejection and reappraisal she arrives at a “holistic network that constitutes language” (Hesse 3), a network wherein “extensions of meaning that occur by means of similarities and differences in metaphor are only the more striking examples of something that is going on all the time in the changing and holistic network that constitutes language” (Hesse 2-3).

So, Hesse argues that all language is metaphorical only insofar as metaphor cannot (pragmatically or otherwise) be considered as a ‘deviant’ or aberrant linguistic practice. Rather, metaphor (like so called ‘literal’ meaning) lies within a network of meanings that is always mutating and reshaping. This picture of language does not buy into the rigid distinction between speaker’s meaning and sentence meaning. Rather, the difference between the meaning of words-in-themselves and what we mean by those words is one of familiarity. Literal use (which traditionally depends on sentence meaning), rather than a rigorous definition, is reformulated as the “most frequent use in familiar contexts—that use that least disturbs the network of meanings” (Hesse 3). Metaphorical use, far from being a completely different act, lies on the same continuum. It disturbs the network of meanings a little more than ‘literal use’ but a little less than, say, neologizing or importing foreign words into a language.

So it seems that, rather than claiming all language is metaphorical, Hesse wants to blur the distinction we have long-held between literal and metaphorical. Its not that all language functions in the same way as metaphor, but that metaphor functions in the same way as all language: through use metaphor, along with all language, constantly shifts meanings around. She sees the difference, then, as a matter of degree not a matter of ‘kind’.

But… in what sense is this claim interesting? Well, given the Max Black's, John Searle's and Donald Davidson's various accounts of metaphor, it seems clear that Hesse’s claims have interesting implications for various theories of metaphor (not to mention ontology, philosophy of mind, etc.). For example, if we accept Hesse’s claim (one that I’m sympathetic to) Davidson’s claim, that metaphorical ‘meaning’ is non-cognitive, makes little sense. It isn’t that metaphor is non-cognitive, on this view, its that all language (metaphor included) is both cognitive and non-cognitive. We cannot separate, on this updated Wittgensteinian account, meaning from use.

Thus, I think the claim is interesting. Whether or not it is valid, I am unsure. It does seem to capture something that other theories have been unable to, namely the heterogenous nature of metaphoric examples. If we think of metaphor as a certain spectrum, loosely defined (like Wittgenstein's discussion of the word ‘game’) then the examples we inevitably miss with our other theories seem to make more sense. In Hesse’s picture, the difference between “Juliet is the sun” and Eliot’s poem 'The Hippopotamus' is not insurmountable or rigid.


  • Mary Hesse, “The Cognitive Claims of Metaphor” 1-16 in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy Volume II, Number 1, 1988 (University Park, The Pennsylvania University Press, 1988).

Qualification: tdent has asked me to offer some examples, and to explain what Eliot's Hippopotamus is. I will explain in order to provide an example. It is a poem by T.S. Eliot where he moves back and forth between descriptions of a hippo and descriptions of the Catholic Church. The effect is much like Black's account of metaphor: a juxtaposition of two sets of 'associated commonplaces' to achieve some new effect. In this case the effect is, loosely, to ridicule or lambast the Catholic Church. Hesse's model allows us to see poem's like this along the same spectrum as more humdrum examples like "Juliet is the sun" (from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet).

The end.

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