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The Classical System, The Middle Ages, The Renaissance, The Enlightenment, Romanticism, The Twentieth Century

Metaphor, traditionally defined as the transference of meaning from one word to another, is perhaps the most intensely and variously studied instance of figurative language. This is so because metaphor enjoys two distinct primary aspects, presenting itself as (1) a form (a discrete, replicable linguistic structure, conceivable as extrinsic to thought) and (2) a power (a cognitive operation issuing from an intrinsic and inherently creative mental faculty). Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.), who begins the Western tradition's systematic investigation of metaphor, is the first to address the trope's double nature. On the one hand, he treats metaphor in the context of style (implicitly rendering it secondary to invention, the first of the five parts of rhetoric), as deviation from the ostensible clarity of everyday language that is subject to rules of propriety. On the other, he calls metaphor "a kind of enigma" and claims that for the verbal artist "the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor" because "this alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances" (1961, p. 104).

The dominant Aristotelian idea of metaphor is not, however, either a balanced opposition or mixture of metaphor's two primary aspects. Of the two, Aristotle chooses to emphasize the formal view—perhaps because it confirms the primacy of reason and cooperates with his systematic and pedagogical motives. The philosophical and cultural consequences of Aristotle's formal emphasis are substantial and lasting: along with cultural and intellectual traditionalism, this emphasis holds that the office of language is mimetic, that of representing the world. From such a notion of language follows the implication that the truth and value of verbal art is measured by its fidelity to an unchanging, external, and therefore communally explicable reality.

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