Reductive and nonreductive simile theories of metaphor

Journal of Philosophy 88 (7):337-358 (1991)
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Metaphor is commonly taken to be an elliptical simile. This article offers a rational reconstruction of two types of simile theories of metaphor: reductive and non-reductive. Careful analysis shows the differences between these theories, but in the end, neither does the explanatory work it sets out to do. In assimilating metaphor to simile and simile to literal comparison, the reductive simile theory obscures what is most important to an account of metaphor: an account of what it is to interpret a bit of discourse metaphorically. The reductive simile theory fails because the reduction to literal comparison fails. The non-reductive simile theory faces most of the same problems that undermine the simile theory, particularly problems generating a corresponding simile when the metaphor contains quantificational terms and other linguistic complexities. Analysis of the non-reductive simile theory highlights the troublesome assumption (inherent in all simile theories) that metaphor and simile play the same linguistic role: making or prompting us to make comparisons. In both guises, the simile theory mistakes the task of explaining what a metaphor means with how metaphor (in general) has meaning; it confuses explanation with explication. In diagnosing and arguing against the simile theory, this article sets out a framework for understanding the difference between literal and metaphorical interpretation.



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Lynne Tirrell
University of Connecticut

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