I wrote this for an upper-level philosophy class at Dalhousie University.
When we utter a phrase such as ‘Juliet is the sun,’ our understanding of this phrase requires more than just knowledge of what the words mean. The hearer must draw upon other sources of information to figure out the metaphorical meaning. Searle reduces the problem of metaphor to one in which “the utterance of an expression with its literal meaning and corresponding set of truth conditions can, in various ways that are specific to metaphor, call to mind another meaning and corresponding set of truth conditions.”(Searle, 85) Although this does not approach the question pertaining to this week’s reading, his reduction of the problem illustrates that his core understanding of the question of a metaphor’s meaning is fairly standard.
His article shows that both the comparison and interaction views are problematic in their approaches to understanding both how a metaphor means, and how metaphors are constructed. His system is comprised of eight principles that, together, purport to solve the problem of metaphorical predication. He writes that his principles are “collectively efficient to enable speaker and hearer to form and comprehend utterances of the form ‘S is P’, where speaker means metaphorically that S is R.”(Searle, 112) It would appear that his system’s almost scientific reduction of computing the so-called ‘R’ value in the metaphorical statement would make metaphors largely uninteresting; I, however, will argue the exact opposite. His step-by-step account makes understanding the transition from the ‘S is P’ utterance to the ‘S is R’ utterance more accessible, and for the most part, metaphors can remain interesting. He accounts for the ways in which ‘R’ can be derived from ‘P’. The example of ‘Sam is a giant’ shows this nicely. This metaphor shows our derived understanding (Sam is big) comes from our knowledge that giants are big; in short, one word calls to mind another word. This first principle fits in nicely with the above definition of metaphor (85). Searle also shows that the ‘R’ value can be obtained through our knowledge of certain mythologies (he uses the example of comparing a person to a gorilla, and that this person is understood to be mean and nasty because of mythological associations). The ‘R’ value can also be obtained through odd derivations; he uses the example that ‘John is bitter’. The paraphrased meaning of this metaphor would be something like ‘John harbours bad feelings’. This is an example of our associations that tend to be scalar, like temperature metaphors (John came out of the room hot).
Searle’s paper does show that metaphors are replaceable, and I believe that placing several examples of paraphrased metaphors at the beginning of his paper was a conscious choice to illustrate this point. The fact remains that metaphors maintain their allure, and I think that Searle’s paper does not make metaphors uninteresting. If anything, his method of computing the ‘R’ value shows just how interesting and intricate even the simplest of metaphors are. Given the fact that the most basic metaphorical statements are so complex, I can only imagine the levels on which more complex metaphors work. Pursuing these intricate metaphors remains an interesting proposition.
Searle, John. Expression and Meaning. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1979.