Searle on the "Interestingness" of Metaphor

John Searle wants to answer how it is that a speaker can say “metaphoricallyS is P” and mean “S is R”, when P plainly does not mean R” (Searle 103). His answer, stated briefly,

“is that the utterance of P calls to mind the meaning and, hence, the truth conditions associated with R in the special ways that metaphorical utterances have of calling other things to mind.” (Searle 104)
This ‘calling to mind’ is accomplished by a number of generalized steps (they are generalized because Searle is dubious, and I agree with him, that there can be any firm and clear definition of how one ‘calls to mind’). First, we must recognize that a metaphor is present. Second, we attempt to discern what “R” could be by applying various principles. One of which is as follows: discover the relation of similarity between S and P, and search for things that S might have a similar relation of similarity to in order to find R. Searle gives a number of other possible principles: a salient, obvious, feature of P is R; P is sometimes R, etc. Searle ends up cataloging eight principles (with a tentative ninth) by which metaphors can be understood.

It seems to me that Searle convincingly broadens the somewhat reductionist account of metaphor we see in the comparison/simile view. While the comparison view holds that metaphors can be easily replaced by a more literal comparison (Juliet is like the sun) Searle’s account argues that thinking of the metaphor like a simile is one strategy, among many, that might help us understand just what the speaker is getting at. Thus, Searle is able to argue that simply replacing “Juliet is the sun” with “Juliet is like the sun” does not ‘explain’ a metaphor. If it did, metaphors would lose everything that makes them philosophically (not to mention aesthetically) interesting.

He would suggest that we do the ‘replacing’ only in an attempt to comprehend the metaphor; this does not logically entail that the truth conditions of the simile are the same as that of the metaphor. Thus, P does not ‘equal’(in any semantic sense) R, but thinking about it that way is one strategy (among at least 8) that helps us understand how P and R might be related. It seems that the lack of hard and fast rules in Searle’s account (like Max Black’s, in this respect) is a blessing rather than a problem. Instead of subjecting all metaphors to a sort of rigorous calculus, Searle understands that trying to explain or analyze metaphors unilaterally is a doomed project. Metaphors are interesting precisely because they are diverse, and exceedingly difficult to describe entirely. So, I think that by retaining this diversity, and difficulty, without relying on a general definition, allows Searle’s metaphors to remain interesting.


  1. John Searle, "Metaphor", chapter in Expression and Meaning (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1979).