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  • Print publication year: 1993
  • Online publication date: June 2012

11 - The contemporary theory of metaphor

Summary

Do not go gentle into that good night.

– Dylan Thomas

Death is the mother of beauty.

– Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”

Introduction

These famous lines by Thomas and Stevens are examples of what classical theorists, at least since Aristotle, have referred to as metaphor: instances of novel poetic language in which words like “mother,” “go,” and “night” are not used in their normal everyday sense. In classical theories of language, metaphor was seen as a matter of language, not thought. Metaphorical expressions were assumed to be mutually exclusive with the realm of ordinary everday language: everyday language had no metaphor, and metaphor used mechanisms outside the realm of everyday conventional language.

The classical theory was taken so much for granted over the centuries that many people didn't realize that it was just a theory. The theory was not merely taken to be true, but came to be taken as definitional. The word “metaphor” was defined as a novel or poetic linguistic expression where one or more words for a concept are used outside of their normal conventional meaning to express a “similar” concept.

But such issues are not matters for definitions; they are empirical questions. As a cognitive scientist and a linguist, one asks: what are the generalizations governing the linguistic expressions referred to classically as “poetic metaphors?” When this question is answered rigorously, the classical theory turns out to be false.

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Metaphor and Thought
  • Online ISBN: 9781139173865
  • Book DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139173865
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