What Metaphors Mean

Critical Inquiry 5 (1):31-47 (1978)
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Abstract

The concept of metaphor as primarily a vehicle for conveying ideas, even if unusual ones, seems to me as wrong as the parent idea that a metaphor has a special meaning. I agree with the view that metaphors cannot be paraphrased, but I think this is not because metaphors say something too novel for literal expression but because there is nothing there to paraphrase. Paraphrase, whether possible or not, inappropriate to what is said: we try, in paraphrase, to say it another way. But if I am right, a metaphor doesn't say anything beyond its literal meaning. This is not, of course, to deny that a metaphor has a point, nor that that point can be brought out by using further words.... My disagreement is with the explanation of how metaphor works its wonders. To anticipate: I depend on the distinction between what words mean and what they are used to do. I think metaphor belongs exclusively to the domain of use. It is something brought off by the imaginative employment of words and sentences and depends entirely on the ordinary meanings of those words and hence on the ordinary meanings of the sentences they comprise. Donald Davidson is University Professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago. He is the author of many important essays, including "Actions, Reasons and Causes," "Causal Relations," and "Truth and Meaning," coauthor of Decision-Making: An Experimental Approach, and coeditor of Words and Objections, Semantics of Natural Language, and The Logic of Grammar.

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