The role of literal meaning in metaphor

Examining literal meaning and the role it plays in the explanation of metaphor shows that the concept of meaning by itself is not powerful enough to answer questions about using and comprehending metaphorical utterances. A full theory of communication is required to give a positive account of metaphorical utterances. In "What Metaphors Mean," Donald Davidson uses his theory of meaning to clear up important confusions about metaphor and its accomplishments, but his account of metaphor is largely negative and leaves much to be explained. Davidson claims that a metaphor means only what the sentence used in the metaphor literally means. Anything else that a metaphor may prompt an interpreter to think is neither a meaning nor a cognitive content encoded in the metaphor and is not subject to linguistic conventions. He claims that the literal meaning of a sentence does play a role in a metaphorical utterance of the sentence, but he does not give a precise account of that role. An important insight in Davidson's account is that literal meaning does not tell the entire story of all important linguistic phenomena. In their book Relevance: Communication and Cognition, Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson give an account of metaphor that avoids Davidson's criticisms and goes beyond the vague positive comments he makes in his essay on metaphor. They propose a theory of communication that not only accommodates Davidson's theory of meaning but explains the role it plays in metaphorical utterances. Sperber and Wilson do not contradict Davidson, but they go beyond his claims and show how a metaphor does what it does. They claim that metaphorical utterances are not different in kind from literal utterances-both require the same interpretive abilities and procedures used in verbal communication. This claim is based on a view that limits the role of literal meaning not only in metaphor but in verbal communication generally
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