Understanding Metaphor: Ad Hoc Concepts and Imagined Worlds

General Objectives and Specific Hypotheses

At the most general level, the aim of the project is to investigate the nature of metaphorically used language in communication and comprehension, to draw out the ways in which it is continuous with both literal and other non-literal uses in the cognitive mechanisms it deploys and the ways in which it is special and distinct from other uses, both in its expressive effects and the processes employed in its interpretation.

This general aim will be pursued via the following two more concrete and complementary objectives:

1. To develop the theory outlined in the section above in much greater detail, explicating its consequences and predictions, providing analyses of a range of cases of metaphor in a range of contexts, and comparing it with existing accounts across the key disciplines of psychology (e.g. Bowdle & Gentner 2005, Glucksberg 2008), linguistics (Giora 2003, Sperber & Wilson 2008), and philosophy (e.g. Davidson 1978, Levin 1988, 1993, Camp 2006, 2008),

2. To undertake a series of experiments designed to test both the hyperbole/metaphor distinction drawn in [1] and the two process account of metaphor outlined in [2].

Of course, theoretical development and experimental testing will proceed in tandem, each refining the other, and we expect our conception of specific testable hypotheses to become sharper during the first year.

Specific theoretical hypotheses:

1. There are two distinct modes of metaphor processing (or routes to metaphor comprehension), one a local process of lexical ad hoc concept construction, the other a global process of inferring relevant implications from the literal meaning, which is metarepresented as describing an imaginary world.

2. The first process is the normal mode – hearers are adjusting word meanings to a greater or lesser extent all the time in comprehending utterances, in accordance with their occasion-specific expectations of relevance. The switch to the second mode is made when a certain processing threshold or tipping point is reached, when the effort of ad hoc concept formation is too great relative to the dominance, the high accessibility, of the literal meaning.

3. Even within the first process, ad hoc concept construction, there are significant differences between metaphorical uses of language, on the one hand, and hyperbolic and other loose uses, on the other: metaphors inevitably require not only a broadening but also a narrowing of the literal encoded concept.

A final, more speculative hypothesis:

4. Despite the distinct routes that the human cognitive system may take in its effort to comprehend metaphorical language, there is a common property of ‘metaphoricity’ shared by all cases, which distinguishes them from both literal language and other tropes.

Page last modified on 06 apr 11 16:07 by Natalie Wilkins