Quine: Postscript on Metaphor

Critical Inquiry 1978

Pleasure precedes business. The child at play is practicing for life's responsibilities. Young impalas play at fencing with one another, thrusting and parrying. Art for art's sake was the main avenue, says Cyril Smith, to ancient technological breakthroughs. Such also is the way of metaphor: it flourishes in playful prose and high poetic art, but it is vital also at the growing edges of science and philosophy.

The molecular theory of gases emerged as an ingenious metaphor: a gas was likened to a vast swarm of absurdly small bodies. So pat was the metaphor that it was declared literally true and thus became straightway a dead metaphor; the fancied miniature bodies were declared real, and the term "body" was extended to cover them all. In recent years the molecules have even been observed by means of electron microscopy; but I speak of origins.

Or consider light waves. There being no ether, there is no substance for them to be waves of. Talk of light waves is thus best understood as metaphorical, so long as "wave" is read in the time-honored way. Or we may liberalize "wave" and kill the metaphor.

Along the philosophical fringes of science we may find reasons to question basic conceptual structures and to grope for ways to refashion them. Old idioms are bound to fail us here, and only metaphor can begin to limn the new order. If the venture succeeds, the old metaphor may die and be embalmed in a newly literalistic idiom accommodating the changed perspective.

Religion, or much of it, is evidently involved in metaphor for good. The parables, according to David Tracy's paper, are the "founding language" of Christianity. Exegete succeeds exegete, ever construing metaphor in further metaphor. There are deep mysteries here. There is mystery as to the literal content, if any, that this metaphorical material is meant to convey. And there is then a second-order mystery: Why the indirection? If the message is as urgent and important as one supposes, why are we not given it straight in the first place? A partial answer to both questions may lie in the nature of mystical experience: it is without content and so resists literal communication, but one may still try to induce the feeling in others by skillful metaphor.

Besides serving us at the growing edge of science and beyond, metaphor figures even in our first learning of language; or, if not quite metaphor, something akin to it. We hear a word or phrase on some occasion, or by chance we babble a fair approximation ourselves on what happens to be a pat occasion and are applauded for it. On a later occa- sion, then, one that resembles that first occasion by our lights, we repeat the expression. Resemblance of occasions is what matters, here as in metaphor. We generalize our application of the expression by degrees of subjective resemblance of occasions, until we discover from other people's behavior that we have pushed analogy too far and exceeded the established usage. If the crux of metaphor is creative extension through analogy, then we have forged a metaphor at each succeeding application of that early word or phrase. These primitive metaphors differ from the deliberate and sophisticated ones, however, in that they accrete directly to our growing store of standard usage. They are metaphors stillborn.

It is a mistake, then, to think of linguistic usage as literalistic in its main body and metaphorical in its trimming. Metaphor, or something like it, governs both the growth of language and our acquisition of it. What comes as a subsequent refinement is rather cognitive discourse itself, at its most dryly literal. The neatly worked inner stretches of science are an open space in the tropical jungle, created by clearing tropes away.