“Thanks” to experimental philosophy, we have a bit more evidence confirming, that what many people think about the special epistemological status of metaphor is bunk. We should also note that Gibbs’ and Glucksberg’s teams have been doing a lot of similar research with the same results since the late 1980s.
In short, it looks like it really is pretty impossible to explain what a metaphor means. But that is not because of anything special about metaphors. It is merely a reflection of the fact that we can’t explain what any sentence means. Experimental Philosophy: What Metaphors Mean
Phelan went and asked people to paraphrase metaphorical and non-metaphorical statements only to find that the resulting paraphrases were judged equally inadequate for metaphors and literal statements. In fact, paraphrases of metaphorical statements like “Music is the universal language” or “Never give your heart away” were judged as more acceptable than paraphrases of their “literal” counterparts “French is the language Quebec” and “Always count your change”. The result shows something that any good translator will know intuitively – paraphrases are always hard.
So the conclusion (one to which I’m repeatedly drawn) is that there’s nothing special about metaphors when it comes to meaning, understanding and associated activities like paraphrasing. The availability of paraphrase (and understanding in general) is broadly dependent to two factors knowledge and usage. We have to know a lot about the world and how language is used to navigate it. So while we might consider “there’s a chair in the office”, “a chair is in the office” or “how about that chair in the office” as adequate descriptions of a particular configuration of objects in space, the same does not apply to usage. And things get even trickier when we substitute “a cobra” or “an elephant” for “a chair” and then start playing around with definiteness. We know that chairs in offices are normal and desirable, cobras unlikely and undesirable and elephants impossible and most likely metaphorical. Thinking that we can understand both “there’s an elephant in the office” and “there’s a chair in the office” as simply a combination of the words and the construction “there’s X in Y” is a bad idea. And the same goes for metaphors. We need to know a lot about the world and language to understand them.
One of the pairs of sentences Phelan compared was “God is my co-pilot” and “Bill Thomson is my co-pilot”. Intuitively, we’d say that the “literal” one would be easier to paraphrase and we’d be right but not as radically: 47% of respondents chose “God is helping me get where I want to go” as a good paraphrase and mere 58% went with “I have a copilot named Bill Thomson”. And that goes slightly against intuition. But not if we think about it a bit more carefully. All the same questions we can ask about the meaning of these two sentences demonstrate a significant dependence on knowledge and usage. “In what way is God your co-pilot” makes sense where “In what way is Bill Thomson your co-pilot” doesn’t. But we can certainly ask “What exactly does Bill do when he’s your copilots”, “What do co-pilots do anyway”. And armed with that knowledge and knowledge of the situation we can challenge either statement “no God isn’t really your co-pilot” or “no Bill isn’t really your co-pilot”. Metaphoricity really had no impact – it was knowledge. Most people know relatively little about what co-pilots do so we might even suspect that their understanding of “God is my co-pilot” is greater than of “Bill is my co-pilot”.
This is because the two utterances are not even that different conceptually. They both depend on our ability to create mental mappings between two domains of understanding: the present situation and what we know about co-pilots. We might argue that in the “literal” case, there are fewer more determinate mappings but that is only the case if we have precise and extensive knowledge. If we hear the captain say “Bill is my co-pilot” and we know that “co-pilots sit next to pilots and twiddle with instruments”, we can then conclude “the guy sitting next to the captain and switching toggles is Bill”. If the person sitting next to us said “God is my co-pilot”, we can draw conclusions from our knowledge of usage e.g. “people who say this are also likely to talk to me about God”. It seems a very simple mapping. This would get a lot more complex if the captain said “God is my co-pilot” and the person sitting next to us on the plane would say “Bill is my co-pilot” but it would still be a case of reconciling our knowledge of the world and language usage with the present situation through mappings. So the seeming simplicity of the literal is really just an illusion when it comes to statements of any consequence.
–7 Aug – Edited slightly for coherence and typos