Understanding Metaphor: Ad Hoc Concepts and Imagined Worlds

Central Ideas and Background

At the heart of this project is the new idea that there are two distinct kinds of cognitive pragmatic process employed in the understanding of metaphorically used language. One is a fast, automatic interpretive procedure that applies not only to metaphor but also to the comprehension of a wide range of other non-literal uses of words, while the other is a slower, more reflective process which takes the literal meaning of the words as descriptive of an imaginary world and derives from it implications that are relevant to our actual world.

Work on the first kind of process has been developed recently within the field of lexical pragmatics, which aims to account for how words can communicate distinct (albeit related) meanings in different contexts. Metaphorical language use (e.g. ‘Mary is a bulldozer’, ‘Max was boiling with rage’) is taken to be simply one kind of loose use of lexically encoded concepts, on a continuum with approximations, category extensions and hyperbolic language (Wilson and Carston 2006; Sperber and Wilson 2008). On this account, formulated within the relevance-theoretic framework, there is nothing special or distinctive about metaphorical use – like loose uses generally, it involves pragmatic adjustment of lexically encoded meaning and results in an ad hoc (occasion-specific) sense or concept whose denotation is broader than that of the lexically encoded concept. Although metaphorical uses may involve more radical broadening of meaning than other loose uses, the comprehension process employs the same pragmatic mechanisms and representation types. In particular, it is claimed that there is no clear cut-off point between hyperbolic and metaphorical uses of a word, e.g. ‘John is a saint’ could be hyperbolic or metaphorical or both (see, in particular, Sperber and Wilson 2008).

While we endorse much of this view and take it as our point of departure, we do not think it does full justice to the expressive power and precision of many metaphors, qualities which distinguish them from (non-metaphoric) hyperboles and other loose uses of language.

There are two parts to the new theoretical position that will be developed in this project:

[1] A refinement of the ad hoc concept account of metaphor which will make a distinction between the concepts derived from metaphorical uses and those derived from (merely) hyperbolic uses;

[2] An account of an altogether distinct process of metaphorical interpretation, one which does not involve ad hoc concept construction and gives much greater weight to the literal meaning of metaphorically used language. The second of these constitutes the most substantial and innovative aspect of the current project, and consequently the bulk of our attention will be devoted to its development.

Here is a little more detail on the two parts:

[1] A striking feature of metaphorical uses of language is that they typically effect a domain shift (e.g. from machines to human personalities in ‘Mary is a bulldozer’; from physical landscapes to human institutions in ‘Their marriage is a minefield’). This distinguishes metaphors from other kinds of loose use, including hyperboles, whose comprehension simply involves relaxing the encoded property (e.g. ‘I’m starving’, ‘It’s boiling outside’). We hypothesise that the way to account for this difference within the ad hoc concept account is to show that grasping a metaphorical use requires not only a broadening of encoded content, but also, essentially, a narrowing. In other words, not only is a defining property of the literal concept dropped (e.g. ‘machine for ground-clearing’ in the case of bulldozer) but some other property not necessarily closely associated with the literal concept but accessed by context-sensitive relevance-based inference, becomes central to the ad hoc concept (e.g. ‘gross insensitivity’ in the case of bulldozer). On this basis, we may be able to account for the intuition that, for instance, ‘John is a saint’ is both metaphorical and hyperbolic; in brief, this use of saint is metaphorical since a defining property of the literal concept, namely, ‘canonization’, is dropped and the property of a self-sacrificial degree of goodness is promoted to central prominence. It is this latter property that accounts for the hyperbolic feel of the utterance as we take it to be an exaggeration of John’s actual goodness. The project will investigate this idea by analysing a wide range of cases which are pre-theoretically judged to be either hyperboles or metaphors and by carrying out experimental testing that taps property activation during their on-line comprehension (see Research Methodology below).

[2] It is not at all clear that the account in terms of ad hoc concepts could or should work for all cases of metaphor and this is where the second pragmatic interpretive process comes into the account. Understanding metaphorical conceptions (or ‘conceits’) which are developed over whole poems or stretches of discourse seems to require building an interpretation in which the literal meaning of the whole is metarepresented as pertaining to an imaginary world and subjected to reflective processing from which the hearer or reader can derive thoughts and impressions applicable to the world as he experiences it. An example of the sort of case likely to trigger this process is the following:

Depression, in Karla’s experience, was a dull, inert thing – a toad that squatted  wetly on your head until it finally gathered the energy to slither off. The unhappiness she had been living with for the last ten days was a quite different creature. It was frantic and aggressive. It had fists and fangs and hobnailed boots.

It didn’t sit, it assailed. It hurt her. In the mornings, it slapped her so hard in the

face that she reeled as she walked to the bathroom.

(Zoe Heller: The Believers p.263)

The literal content of this extended metaphorical passage presents a coherent, albeit clearly imaginary, scenario. In processing terms, the lexically encoded meanings of the many metaphorically used words (toad, squat, wetly, slither; frantic, aggressive, assail, slap; fists, fangs, hobnailed boots) are very highly activated (due to backwards and forwards priming of associated meanings). Our hypothesis here is that, rather than constructing a series of distinct ad hoc concepts for each of the metaphorically used words, the reader entertains the internally consistent literal meaning as a whole, which, given its blatant falsity (‘depression is a toad’, etc), he frames or metarepresents as depicting an imaginary world: a somewhat surreal world in which human states of mind are amphibious animals, each with different kinds of characteristics (some sitting inertly on human heads, some kicking, biting and face-slapping). From this set of descriptions (and accompanying imagery), taken as a whole, the reader derives implications and impressions that can plausibly apply to the human experiences of depression and raw unhappiness.

There are some similar ideas in more philosophical approaches to metaphor (Levin 1988, 1993; Walton 1993) but those accounts tend either to assume that all metaphors work like this or to restrict their focus to literary metaphors alone (in the case of Levin). Furthermore, it is not their concern to explain metaphorical interpretation in terms of the on-line cognitive processes employed by hearers/readers. According to the hybrid view pursued here, hearers/readers adjust word meanings in context whenever they can (resulting in ad hoc concepts that are descriptive of some property of the actual world) and only resort to the metarepresentation of literal meaning when the process of lexical-meaning adjustment places too great a load on their pragmatic processing resources. This processing account is not meant to correspond to any simple distinction between colloquial or conventional metaphors, on the one hand, and literary or poetic metaphors, on the other. Instead, we expect there to be a range of factors that influence which processing route is taken in particular instances of metaphor use, including degrees of conventionality or novelty (for the particular hearer/reader) and how developed or extended a metaphor is (from a single word, to a phrase or sentence, to whole stanzas of a poem or paragraphs of prose, as in the example above). We also expect some degree of individual differences across hearers/readers in the amount of processing effort they are able or willing to expend on deriving implications and developing images. A preliminary account of these ideas is presented in Carston (2010b).

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