Monday, May 09, 2005

On Some Misconceptions About Figurative Language

(1) People often talk as if all figures of speech were cases of figurative language (in the sense ordinarily understood). This is clearly not so. A figure of speech is any artful variation of normal discourse, and only some figures of speech are actually figurative. Take this famous example of aposiopesis, which ends Sterne's A Sentimental Journey:

So that when I stretch'd out my hand, I caught hold of the Fille de Chambre's---

There is no figurative language here; but there is the figure of aposiopesis, which (since it's just an artful breaking off of a sentence) is never figurative (in the sense we usually mean). There are, in addition, other figures of speech that are ambiguous; one can consider them to be figurative, or one take them as just a way of playing with the syntactical structure of the sentence. Take the following syllepsis:

He drove off in anger and a Coup de Ville.

One can read this as figurative (as if he drove off in anger and drove off in a Coup de Ville in the same way) or as simply syntactic play (which has a comic effect because you could read it as figurative, even though you don't have to do so). It makes no difference to the meaning whether you treat it as figurative or not.

(2) Even with definitely figurative language its being so is not always particularly important for the meaning. In one of Aquinas's most interesting discussions, in a little-read article on whether the word 'lux' is properly used of spiritual things, Aquinas recognizes that the distinction between figurative and literal usage is one relative to how one takes the words in question. In some cases where the word has extensive normal usages, as in the case of 'lux' (this is true of the English 'light' as well), depending on how one takes the word the same sentence can be treated as figurative or literal and mean basically the same thing. God is Light is a figurative expression if one takes 'light' in its strict and primary meaning. But the way the word 'light' is actually used in language, it is not confined to this strict and primary sense alone. It also has an extended sense that is very common. And if taken in this extended sense, God is Light is a literal expression. Whether one takes it in the strict sense or the extended sense makes very little difference; they are both getting at the same thing. As Aquinas says, "Any word may be used in two ways--that is to say, either in its original application or in its more extended meaning." And the point is worth making because there are lots of words with very clear and standard extended senses: life, light, love, sight, soul, mind, and so forth.

(3) Contrary to what is still bandied about in some places, there is no reason to deny that metaphorical expressions can be true. I summarized an argument for this quite a while ago here. My own guess about the reason that people make this error is the distinction between sentence meaning and speaker's meaning; which, however, (1) is not as sharp as some people make it; and (2) does not correspond very closely to the distinction between literal and figurative usage at all. The sentence meaning/speaker's meaning is fairly useful for artful metaphor and some other sorts of figurative language, because they make use of a tension between expected meaning and actual meaning in use; but this is a fairly limited explanatory value. The error is probably also helped by the phrase 'the literal truth', which people don't always recognize is a figurative use of the word 'literal'.

(4) Despite Owen Barfield's rather conclusive refutation, people still think that the physical meaning is always somehow the literal meaning. 'Literal meaning' indicates the standards of expected usage; in a given language the literal meaning of the word meaning 'light' may be either physical light or spiritual light, depending on the way our expectations of usage work. Further, as Barfield rightly noted, the literal/figurative distinction is actually a breaking apart of what at least sometimes is an earlier holophrastic meaning -- that is, we have no reason to think that people took pneuma (=wind) as the anchor meaning and then extended the use to pneuma (=spirit); rather, they just used the word pneuma in both ways without bothering about literal and figurative senses. [Re-reading this, I realized that I sound much more confident about this particular than I am. My point is not that Barfield is right about this particular case -- I leave that to linguists -- but that Barfield seems quite right that we can use words 'holophrastically' in his sense, that he is right to reject the view that literal meaning is always a physical meaning, and that he seems to me to be right in his rejection of the view that originally there were only literal, physical meanings that were then metaphorically extended to non-physical meanings. --ed.] The concern to distinguish the literal and the figurative, the primary meaning and the secondary meaning, came later, for purposes of analysis; and outside this concern there was no literal or figurative meaning, just a holophrastic meaning that covered indifferently both of the meanings we distinguish. Barfield's own explanation of this was initial participation; but whether one agrees with Barfield or not, the point seems right that the literal/figurative distinction is not intrinsic to meaning but is instead an analytic tool for sorting out the verbal meanings that are already there, relative to expectations of usage.

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