PHILOSOPHY 117                                                                                                                                     W.G. Lycan
Fall, 2004

A final objection to all existing psychosemantics

    Here is the objection that I said I would get to but didn't.  It is that (1) nearly every thought you have is to some degree metaphorical; but (2) no existing psychosemantics either furnishes an account of figurative thinking or even hints at one.

    If you are a philosopher you will balk at premise (1).  Philosophers are very literal-minded, as is universally deplored by their nonphilosopher friends and Lebenspartners.  Too bad; deal with it.  At the risk of quoting myself, here is an excerpt from my philosophy of language textbook<1>.

    Philosophers like language to be literal.  The previous thirteen chapters have concentrated on theories of literal reference and literal meaning, and even our discussions of indirect force and conversational implicature have viewed those phenomena as merely speaker-meanings derived by some discrete mechanisms from literal sentence meaning.  I have barely mentioned metaphor and other figurative uses of language.
    That bias reflects standard philosophical practice.  Philosophers tend to think that literal speech is the default and metaphorical utterances are occasional aberrations, made mainly by poets and poets manqué.  But the bias is only a bias:  Sentences are very often used in perfectly ordinary contexts with other than their literal meanings.  Indeed, virtually every sentence produced by any human being contains importantly metaphorical or other figurative elements.
My use just now of the word "element" was at least in part metaphorical.  Or consider the number of times in a day that someone utters the word "level."  "Level" is almost invariably metaphor, unless the speaker is actually talking about a horizontal layering of some physical thing.  Nonliteral usage is the rule, not the exception.
    The letter of the claim that almost every sentence contains figurative elements is widely conceded, because everyone grants that among the literal expressions are many "dead" metaphors, i.e., phrases that evolved from what were originally novel metaphors but have turned into idioms or clichés and now mean literally what they used to mean metaphorically.  We speak of a river's "mouth," but no one in the present century thinks of this as a metaphorical allusion to human or animal mouths.  Likewise "inclined to [do such-and-such]," "rich dessert," "dead microphone," and, for that matter, "dead metaphor."  Perhaps "level" as in "higher/lower level" is now literal too.  "Level" in "carpenter's level," meaning the tool, is certainly dead; there is no other term for that tool, and in a dictionary it would be listed as a separate meaning of the word.
    However, as has been emphasized by Lakoff and Johnson (1980), the distinction between novel or fresh metaphor and "dead" metaphor is one of smooth degree, not of kind.  Fresh metaphors get picked up and become current, and then only very gradually -- sometimes over centuries -- sicken, harden and die.
    (Exactly how many expressions in the previous paragraph were used metaphorically rather than literally, assuming the distinction is not one of degree?)
    So it seems intellectual honesty requires us to confront metaphor.

    The same applies to thought.  Hardly a thought goes by that does not include figurative elements.

    Premise (2) is not controversial.  No psychosemanticist has ever said a word about metaphor.

    Now, especially for a language-of-thought enthusiast, the obvious move is to look at theories of public-linguistic metaphor and import the best one into philosophy of mind, i.e., carry it over to mental meanings.  But that is problematic, because many theories of linguistic metaphor simply assume the literalness and/or unequivocality of thought, and explain linguistic metaphor partly in terms of unequivocal thought.  The obvious example is Searle's theory,<2> which (following Paul Grice) explains linguistic metaphor in terms of the speaker's intentions and conversational maxims.  More generally, metaphor is usually considered a communicative matter; what theorists try to explain is, how metaphorical meanings are communicated by utterances whose literal meanings (if any) are quite different.  But thinking itself is not communication.  There is no gap between literal content and what is communicated.  (Indeed, it is an objection to communicative theories of metaphorical utterances that they do not apply to the corresponding metaphorical thoughts.)

    For the record, I think the only hope for psychosemantics is to appeal to an "interactionist" theory of metaphor, such as those of James Ross and Eva Kittay,<3> which explain figurativity in terms of interaction between concepts themselves, without reference to thought on speakers' or hearers' part.  But such theories have a long way to go, even to deal with linguistic metaphor.  Have a nice day.


1.  Philosophy of Language: A Contemporary Introduction (Routledge, 1999), p.209.

2.  “Metaphor,” in A. Ortony (ed.) Metaphor and Thought (Cambridge University Press, 1979).

3.  Ross, Portraying Analogy (Cambridge University Press, 1981); Kittay, Metaphor (Oxford University Press, 1987).  20th-century Interactionism goes back to Max Black’s “Metaphor,” in Models and Metaphors (Cornell University Press, 1962).  For my own views on linguistic metaphor (if you are at all intersted), see "An Irenic Idea about Metaphor."