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The Twentieth Century

With few exceptions, the twentieth century's consequential ideas of metaphor may be classified as Romantic because: (1) the trope is held to be cognitively and linguistically essential; and (2) its form and power are treated as an organically related unit. One crucial distinction between Romantic and twentieth-century ideas of metaphor, however, is that the latter summarily rejects transcendence, the notion that symbolic activity gives human beings access to supernatural knowledge and being. The origins of this rejection are manifold, but its primary engine and context is modern, disciplinary science. In this particular context, metaphor strongly tends to be viewed as an embedded phenomenon, as functioning within a cognitive, linguistic, or social system of such complexity that its elements and operations are generally accessible only to specialists—thus the contentious variety and intellectual weight of most contemporary ideas of metaphor.

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) and Roman Jakobson (1896–1982) helped found and define structuralism, which, despite challenges mounted by poststructuralist thinkers beginning in the 1960s, continues to dominate contemporary theories of metaphor. Freud, best known as the founder of psychoanalysis, sees metaphor as a verbal elaboration and symptom of the elemental psychological process of condensation. Jakobson, drawing upon the theories of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) and through his work with persons suffering from aphasic disorders, proposes a functional synonymy between metaphor and the associative process, in his view one of the two basic operations used by the mind to construct language.

The structuralist approach to metaphor is not, however, exclusive to Freud, Jakobson, and their direct inheritors, thinkers as diverse in outlook as Jacques Lacan (1901–1981), Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1980), and Julia Kristeva (b. 1941). An alternative current of structural attention to metaphor is represented by the work of Stephen C. Pepper (1891–1972) and a set of like-minded scholars who constitute what may be called the "Vicoian school." Rather than embedding metaphor in a psycholinguistic system, in World Hypotheses: A Study in Evidence (1942), Pepper projects metaphor onto the history of thought, which he views as a series of distinct "world hypothesis," each "determined by its root metaphor" (p. 96). The philosopher and historiographer Hayden White (b. 1928) similarly embeds metaphor in the social fabric, considering the metaphorical process as the ground for one of four modes of historical understanding. A related understanding of metaphor is offered by Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996), who proposes the concepts of the "paradigm" and the "paradigm shift" as instruments for illuminating the relationship between changes in worldview and the process of scientific discovery.

Because structuralist argumentation, like that of traditional philosophy and science, generally presupposes a separation between the object of study and the dyad of investigator and method, it tends toward universalizing claims. Thus structuralism has helped stimulate the growth of a sophisticated alternative context for thinking about metaphor, one directly inspired by Nietzsche's militant rejection of objectivity, consistency, and unexamined systematic thinking. Jacques Derrida (b. 1930), the architect of deconstruction and a primary disseminator of poststructuralism, cautions against the abstractions produced by and upon which metaphysical systems are built. In the essay "White Mythology" (1972), Derrida holds that metaphor is a "metaphysical concept" created when "primitive" meanings are renamed and "circulated" in philosophical discourse. Hence his claims that "philosophy … is a … process of metaphorization" whose verity depends upon effacing its metaphorical roots (p. 210–211).

The formulation and widespread dissemination of poststructuralist ideas signals a broad and definite movement away from the traditional view of language as mimetic and the consequent treatment of intentional figuration as supplementary to thought and expression. For instance, through an interdisciplinary blend of philosophy, linguistics, cognitive science, and intercultural comparison, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have moved the metaphorical function beyond language and, thus, beyond questions of representation. To these thinkers, "our ordinary conceptual system … is fundamentally metaphorical in nature" (p. 3), grounded in the universal and yet particular facts of the body.

Working within (and beyond) the discipline of anthropology, James W. Fernandez offers an approach to metaphor that, similar to Lakoff and Johnson's, assumes the trope's embedment and the intellectual obligation to foreground principles of cultural relativism. To Fernandez, metaphor is a "strategic predication" of identity that "leads to performance." Rather than identifying metaphor as either a cognitive, linguistic, or structural abstraction (classifications that similarly encourage metaphor's division into two aspects), Fernandez understands metaphor in much the same way that Henry Louis Gates Jr. (b. 1950) conceives the practice of "signifyin(g)" in African-American culture. Like "signifyin(g)," metaphor is a lived strategy, one that plays a key, mediating role in the mutual construction of identity, emotions, and the immediate social matrix. While it is impossible to predict the larger consequences of the ongoing shift in ideas of metaphor, the work of comparativists like Earl Miner (1927–2004) suggests that future understandings of metaphor will be all the richer because they will spring from and advance dialogue between heretofore intellectually separated traditions and cultures.


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Cristopher Hollingsworth

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Mathematics to Methanal trimerMetaphor - The Classical System, The Middle Ages, The Renaissance, The Enlightenment, Romanticism, The Twentieth Century