Donald Davidson’s Non-cognitive Account of Metaphor

Davidson argues in his paper “What Metaphors Mean” that, strictly speaking, metaphors don’t ‘mean’ (in the sense of conveying a determinant cognitive content) anything at all. That is to say: metaphors, unlike literal language, are not semantic phenomena. Rather, metaphors are used, like pointing or photographs, to draw our attention to certain features of the world that we may or may not have been aware of previously.

Max Black, among others, holds that a metaphor can communicate a non-literal cognitive content (a special ‘metaphorical’ meaning) in addition to a literal meaning. Black believes that the key to understanding metaphors lies in understanding how this extra meaning is arrived at and how it relates to the literal meaning of an utterance. Davidson believes that this project is based upon a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of metaphor and its function. He argues that

It is no help in explaining how words work in metaphor to posit metaphorical or figurative meanings, or special kinds of poetic or metaphorical truth. These ideas don’t explain metaphor, metaphor explains them. Once we understand a metaphor we can call what we grasp the “metaphorical truth” and (up to a point) say what the “metaphorical meaning” is. But simply to lodge this meaning in the metaphor is like explaining why a pill puts you to sleep by saying that it has a dormative power (Davidson 436).
Thus, Black is, according to Davidson, putting the cart before the horse. Davidson agrees that metaphor allows us to arrive at new, and important, cognitive conclusions. He disagrees strongly that these cognitive conclusions are in any way a part of the metaphor itself as some metaphorical meaning. Instead he argues that “what metaphor adds to the ordinary is an achievement that uses no semantic resources beyond the resources on which the ordinary depends” (Davidson 435). Thus, metaphors do not ‘mean’ what they show us, or force us to notice. They are more like conversational strategies by which these relations between things, or aspects of the world, are pointed out. Metaphors are, in this sense, less like truth value-bearing propositions than they are like pointing or drawing a diagram. When we ask directions, we aren’t puzzled when someone points to their right. But, at the same time, we don’t confuse this ‘pointing’ with a truth-bearing proposition. We wouldn’t think of their gesture as true or false; instead, Davidson argues, we would think of that gesture as nudging us in the direction of something meaningful. We are led to belief that we should go to the right. This belief can be either true or false, but the truth value has no connection to the gesture of pointing.

Similarly, when Shakespeare writes “Juliet is the sun” we shouldn’t, on Davidson’s view, think that this sentence contains an extra, non-literal, meaning along the lines of “Juliet is like the sun” or “Juliet, like the sun, is central, gaseous, brilliant, etc.”. Rather the metaphor makes us notice aspects of Juliet and the sun that we did not notice before. The cognitive arrival at these potentially novel and surprising aspects of Shakespeare’s subjects is not a semantic property of the metaphor itself, only a pragmatic effect that the metaphor produces in us.

The interesting and important issue lies, for Davidson, in “the question of how the metaphor is related to what it makes us see” (Davidson 444, my italics).

(Richard Rorty has taken a similar approach to metaphor and language in general, though his interpretation of Davidson is, as always, rather different than what the average reader might get from Davidson)


  1. Donald Davidson, “What Metaphors Mean?” pp. 435-446 in Philosophpy of Language, 4th edition, edited by A.P. Martinich (Oxford University Press, New York, 2001) ((Originally printed 1978)).
  2. Donald Davidson, “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs” pp. 433-446 in Truth and Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson, edited by E. Lepore (Blackwell, Oxford, 1986). ((This is an updated version of Davidson’s position)).
  3. Max Black, “Metaphor” pp.41-60 in Models and Metaphor (Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1954).