Making the Metaphor Move: The Problem of Differentiating Figurative and Literal Language

Abstract

Sally and Sid have worked together for a while, and Sally knows Sid to be a hard worker. She might make this point about him by saying, “Sid is a hard worker.” Or, she might make it by saying, “Sid is a Sherman tank.” We all recognize that there is some distinction between the first assertion, in which Sally is speaking literally, and the second, in which she is speaking figuratively. This is a distinction that any theory of figurative language worth its salt should capture. But, as I will argue, it is a distinction that contemporary accounts of figurative language fail to successfully explain. This is because such theories have been mostly concerned to explore the nature of figurative understanding and the status of figurative meanings. Perhaps proponents of these theories suppose that, by appealing to a special kind of figurative meaning, we can eventually explain the difference between speaking literally and speaking figuratively. I believe this approach gets the order of explanation backwards. I contend that accounts of figurative meaning and understanding can only be fully articulated against a prior account of the distinction between figurative and literal language. What’s more, once my account of figurative language is in place, we can begin to see why people bother speaking figuratively at all, or so I will argue.

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Mark Phelan
Lawrence University

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