Jacques Maritain Center : Studies in Analogy / by Ralph McInerny



I propose to discuss the applicability of the notion of metaphor to the way in which philosophy and its language are said to emerge from mythico-religious-poetic thought. "Fundamental ontology" is borrowed from Heidegger, but I am afraid I leave with him the meaning and importance he attributes (or attributed) to it. When I use the phrase, I have in mind nothing more exciting than the historical background out of which philosophy apparently came and much of my concern here could be summed up in the question, "Are dead metaphors the living language of philosophy?" My general guide in the discussion that follows is Aristotle. I shall rely on him for indications of the origins of philosophy and it is with his conception of metaphor that I will be dealing. Later on, certain positions of Owen Barfield will be considered at some little length. It will end by asking whether Aristotle and Barfield are at odds.

    In a well known passage of his Metaphysics, Aristotle says that wonder lies at the base both of myth and philosophy. Echoing the Theatetus, he writes, "For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e.g. about the phenomena of the sun and stars and moon, and about the genesis of the universe. And a man who is puzzled and wonders thinks himself ignorant (whence even the lover of myth is in a sense a lover of wisdom, for the myth is composed of wonders)..."{1} Wonder leads to philosophy insofar as it expresses itself in a problem or aporia which is resolved apodictically or, following the Oxford version, in "the language of proof." The philosopher is thereby opposed to mythical theologians like Hesiod. The latter, in attempting to explain the difference between the immortals and mortals says that the former are such due to a diet of nectar and ambrosia. "But into the subtelties of the mythologist it is not worth our while to inquire seriously; those, howevr, who use the language of proof we must cross-examine and ask why, after all, things which consist of the same element are, some of them, eternal in nature, while others perish."{2}

    Since Schelling{3} it is customary to classify views on myth under three headings: (1) myths are first steps toward a scientific explanation; (2) myths are deliberate allegories and must be interpreted to get at their literal truth, and (3) myths have their own truth which is irreducible to that of science. It is the first attitude which is exhibited in the passage last quoted; it would not be far-fetched to say that what Aristotle objects to in mythical thinking is that it is not literal. This can be gathered, it would seem, at least plausibly, from his criticisms of Plato. For example, he writes, "But, further, all other things cannot come from the Forms in any of the usual senses of 'from'. And to say that they are patterns and the other things share in them is to use empty words and poetical metaphors."{4} To put a literal interpretation on such statements gets one no place, Aristotle seems to suggest, and thus indirectly suggests that philosophy demands literal language.

    If Aristotle sometimes treats myth as not yet attaining the austere standards of philosophical language, he also adops the view that myths are allegories. "Our forefathers in the most remote ages have handed down to their posterity a tradition, in the form of a myth, that these bodies are gods and that the divine encloses the whole of nature. The rest of the tradition has been added later in mythical form with a fiew to the persuasion of the multitude and to its legal and utilitarian expediency; they say these gods are in the form of men or like some of the other animals, and they say other things consequent on and similar to these which we have mentioned. But if one were to separate the part from these additions and take it alone - that they thought fhe first substances to be gods, one must regard it as an inspired utterance, and reflect that, while probably each art and science has often been developed as far as possible, and has again perished, these opinions, with others, have been preserved until the present like relics of the ancient treasure. Only thus far, then is the opinion of our ancesters and of our earliest precessors clear to us"{5} On the assumption that the world is eternal,{6} Aristotle further assumes that intellectual progress is cyclic, with each science being gained and lost many times; in the barren periods between golden ages all that is left are the fables and myths the philosophers have concocted to proportion difficult but important matters to plain minds.{7} Myths, then, are seen on an analogy with exoteric writings and they have the value of allegory. That is, symbolic discourse conceals literal truths which can be disengaged. The interesting thing here being that the symbols and metaphors are considered to have been consciously constructed. One recalls Aristotles' belief that the study of philosophy makes the construction of fables easy.{8}

    When Aristotle approaches mythical accounts as allegories, he assumes that there are literal meanings lurking about; whether this is compatible with his view that mythological discourse is just bad explanation need not concern us. As to Schellings's third possibility, that myth has an irreducible truth of its own, some approximation to this is to be found in Aristotle's Poetics.

Were one to consult Bonitz, he would find that most of the entries under mythos or its variants refer to the Poetics. It is there of course that mythos takes on the meaning of plot. Scholars assure us that this is a new meaning of the term and that Aristotle may be partly responsible for it.{9} Mythos, in the Poetics, is the structure of events (συστασις τῶν πραγμάτων) in the tragic imitation. It is the soul and perfection of the tragedy, its formality. We might say that the plot is the logic of events, since at 1460a27-8, logos is used as a synonym of mythos. It is the principle of intelligibility of the events depicted on the stage, thanks to which they have a beginning, a middle and an end.

    This can of course be quite misleading. The mythos of the tragedy is not an appeal to reason alone nor directly; it is what it is because of what is done, what happens, as much as by what is said. The speeches and the diction proper to them are but elements of the tragedy. While talk is a kind of mimesis, the characteristic note of drama is that actions are imitated: the mythos is said to be an imitation of praxis.{10}

    Besides this new meaning of mythos, there is another and more familiar sense of the term operative in the Poetics. Thus, Aristotle will say that the tragedian takes the old mythoi and imposes a mythos on them. These old mythoi are taken to be the traditional stories and tales and we can unerstand Aristotle to be suggesting that these tales need only be adapted for the stage. What was narrative becomes dramatic. While this is true, it is well to recall that tragedy has its ultimate origins in the Molpe, which included a mimesis, a dramatic imitation, as well as the telling of a tale.{11} That is, the Molpe can be considered as a ritualistic song-and-dance performance. I mention this to indicate the way in which mythos in the Poetics as the structure of the actions with speeches subservient to deeds has its counterpart in ealier and less conscious myths. As to the irreducible truth of myth, at least in the limited sense myth has in the Poetics, Aristotle argues that we should not demand of tragedy (and indeed of poetry in general) a truth like that of science.{12}

    We  have said this much about the Poetics in order that our appeal to what is there said about poetic diction and metaphor will be seen somewhat in context. Insofar as the mythos of the tragedy reflects in a sophisticated way primitive rituals, poetic language is but one element of it. Thus, even in his extended use of mythos, metaphor will not be coterminous with mythos for Aristotle.

Here is Aristotle's definition of tragedy: "the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.{13}" This definition must be recalled so that the embellishments of language, poetic diction, will be seen to be only one element of the mimesis. When we turn to Aristotle's remarks on poetic diction, we  find him emphasizing metaphor. "But the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.{14}" What is metaphor?

    Metaphor falls within a group distinguished from familiar words and usage. The description of it is enigmatically brief. "By a current word (kurion) I mean one which is in general use among a people."{15} Metaphor," on the other hand, "is the application of an alien name by transference."{16} To use the name of Y when speaking of X is metaphorical. Four species of metaphor are distinguished according as the name of  a species is transferred to its genus, or that of a genus to its species, or that of one species of a genus to another species of the same genus. Finally, a metaphor can be based on analogy. Thus, as night is to day so death is to life. By transference, we are admonished not to go gentle into that good night and night is called the death of day. Sometimes such reciprocal transference is impossible because one of the terms has no name of its own. Still, transference in one direction is possible and then metaphor insures, as the ancients said, that everything will have a name. "Further, metaphors must not be far-fetched, but we must give names to things that have none by deriving the metaphor from what is akin and of the same kind, so that, as soon as it is uttered, it is clearly seen to be akin."{17}

    Of course Aristotle cannot give rules for the construction of metaphors; the ability is inborn, a matter of genius. The fittingness of a metaphor rests not just on kinship but on the way it "puts the matter before the eyes." In the third book of the Rhetoric this phrase is used again and again before Aristotle, in chapter eleven, attempts to say what he means by it. In order to put the matter before the eyes, the metaphor must signify actuality (energia). "And, as Homer often, by making use of metaphor, speaks of inanimate things as if they were animate" it is by speaking of things as if they were alive or capable of motion that acutality is achieved: Homer "gives movement and life to all, and acutality is movement."

    A word used metaphorically is not taken in its usual sense, its literal sense. Metaphor implies, consequently, a fund of words with literal meanings; when the poet sees something like what X literally names and calls that something an X or something usually associated with X, he is creating a metaphor.

    Aristotle's theory of metaphor is plausible enough when it is a question of poetic diction. We have brought it up to ask a further question: is metaphor of any use in discerning a rise of philosophical vocabulary? That is, can we accept without quibble the following views? "Every word which is used to express a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from material appearances. Right means straight; wrong means  twisted. Spirit primarily means wind, transgression, the crossing of a line; supercilious, the raising of the eyebrows. We may say the heart to express emotion; the head to denote thought, and thought and emotion are words borrowed from sensible things, and now appropriated to spiritual nature. Most of the process by which this transformation is made is hidden from us in the remote time when language was formed." Again: "Throughout the whole field of language, parallel to the line of what may be termed the material language, and expressed by the same words, runs a line of what be termed the immaterial language. Not that to every word that has a material import there belongs also an immaterial one; but that to every word that has an immaterial import, there belongs, or at least did belong, a material one." Both of these remarks are quoted by Owen Burfield in an article to be mentioned shortly; the first is from Emerson, the second from Jeremy Bentham. While it is quite easy to accept this as an explanation of some extended uses, it is not easy to accept as historically accurate the picture this invokes of primitive man. Barfield, perhaps better than anyone else, has pointed out the difficulties which await one who holds that philosophical vocabulary in its entirety arose in this way. For his views, we might make use of his Poetic Diction, first published in 1927 and re-issued with a new preface in 1951. I prefer the more concise statement to be found in his essay, "The Meaning of the Word Literal."{18}

    Barfield takes over from I. A. Richards the distinction between vehicle and tenor. In the metaphor, the vehicle is the literal meaning, the tenor is the metaphorical meaning or reference. With respect to the metaphor so viewed, Barfield suggests that there are two schools of thought. A first would maintain that the tenor can be separated from the vehicle and named literally. If the tenor could not be expressed literally, it is maintained, it could not be called a meaning at all. (Susanne Langer is given as representative of this school.) A second school holds that the tenor of a meaningful metaphor cannot always be expressed literally. "However, it may be with codes and allegories, there are also 'creative' or 'seminal,' or anyway some sort of metaphors and symbols, whose tenor cannot be communicated in any other way than through the symbol, and yet whose tenor is not purely emotive."{19}

    Turning to the view expressed in the passages from Emerson and Bentham, Barfield suggests that according to it all nouns which today have an immaterial import and no other, e.g. 'transgression,' 'supercilious,' 'emotion,' etc. have a history comprising four stages.

  1. A first stage, in which they have an exclusively literal meaning and referred to a material object.
  2. A second stage, where they have taken on concomitant meanings, have become vehicles with a tenor but with the vehicular meanings still predominant.
  3. A third stage, where the tenorial meaning predominates.
  4. A fourth and final stage where the vehicle drops out of sconsciousness and they become once more exclusively literal.

Barfield distinguishes the first from the fourth stage by calling the former the "born" literal and the latter the "achieved" literal. It is the achieved literal that he first questions. What does a literal word of immaterial import mean? The Positivist might reply that it means nothing, that it names a fictitious entity. The four-staged history suggests that our language is a repository of dead metaphors and that, until we get back to the born literal, we cannot know what we mean or cannot mean anything at all. "Now I believe," Barfield writes, "it will be found that our whole way of thinking about the achieved literal is based on a tacitly assumed analogy whith the born literal. We assume that it is not the natural, simple nature of a noun to be a vehicle  with a tenor, because nouns did not begin that way. They began life as plain labels for plain objects and that is their true nature. It was only later, as a result of the operation of human fancy in metaphor-making, that they came to be used for a time as vehicles with a tenor; and when that stage is over and they have once more achieved literalness, we feel that they have reverted to their pristine innocence and become once more labels for objects, even if we are firmly convinced that the new objects do not exist. Better a fictitious entity than none at all - f a name to be the name of."{20} What Barfield is really after, it emerges, is the notion of the born literal.

    The concept of born literalness entails that all words of immaterial import began life with an exclusively material reference. Barfield attemps to show that neither of the schools he mentioned earlier can accept this. The first school, which holds that the tenor is detachable and nameable literally, will be hard pressed to explain the origin of the names it then proposes to attach  to the detached tenor of immaterial import. As for the second school. Barfields's argument consists of little  more than a statement of his conviction that history provides us with no warrant for assuming that words begin life as literal labels for physical things. That primitive man (a concept Barfield elsewhere describes as "that luckless dustbin of pseudo-scientific theories") possessed a language the words of which had only literal meanings thanks to which they referred to material things, does not seem to be able to account for the fittingness with which such supposed literal labels are then used metaphorically. Barfield suggests that such terms were never semantically aloof from the immaterial import they now have. "If there was no prior, no 'given' affinity between the concept of 'wind' and the other immaterial concept of 'spirit,' the latter concept must have been framed without the aid of any symbol. It must moreover, as tenor, have been separable from its vehicle when it acquired one. The first of these two consequences is, in my view, epistemologically untenable on several grounds; but it is enough that the second is pointedly inconsistent with just that 'implicational' type of metaphor (i.e. the second school above) which is the only one we are any longer concerned with, since the explicational type (the first school) has already been shown to be incompatible with born literalness. If, on the other hand, there was any prior affinity between the concept of wind and the other (immaterial) concept, then the word must already, from the moment of its birth, have been a vehicle with a tenor."{21}

    What Barfield is getting at is that a more tenable view of the origins of language would have it that all literalness is achieved, that words at the outset have neither a purely material nor a purely immaterial import. Perhaps his point would be better expressed by saying that words do not have at the outset a purely material or a purely human reference: it is the inner and outer worlds that he holds were not originally distinguished. On this view, there is no need to decide on the direction of basic metaphors, whether they consisted in naming the world anthropomorphically or man cosmomorphically. If words do not at first distinctly mean the one world or the other, then to distinguish, to take words as having a vehicular reference to man and a tenorial reference to the world, or vice versa, is itself an accomplishment which constitutes the literal meaning of the term. To relate Barfield's point to an element in the title of this chapter, the language of primitive man is one which reflects the fact that the subject-object dichotomy has not yet been recognized. When it is recognized, literal meanings become possible. Then, "That which the physiologist takes to be the literal meaning of the word heart, for example, is no less achieved than that which the theologian takes to be the literal meaning of the word spirit. Whatever else the word 'literal' means, then, it normally means something which is the end-product of a long historical process."{22}

There is an undeniable attractiveness in Barfield's theory. Prior to philosophy, man's involvement in the world is such that the line between human and physical nature is simply not clearly drawn. There is a continuum of life, a homogeneity of man and the world and this confusion  or original unity carries over into language. When the philologist drives words like nomos and moira and dike back to an original agricultural reference, it is not necessary to understand that they then had some exclusively literal meaning. One's lot in life could be at one and the same time the field he tilled and his portion or fate (moira). Cornford has argued that such original mythical concepts carry over into Pre-socratic thought and tha t it is only gradually that words mean physical things in abstraction from their human and religious tenor.{23} He calls our attention to the significance of Thales' apparent identification of water, the besouled and the divine. Thales is not confusing what he knew to be distinct, the argument runs; the distinctions have simply not yet been made. So too when Simplicius, passing on the one fragment of Anaximander, comments on its poetical style, he is assuming as we need not that Anaximander had distinguished moral judgments in human affairs from judgments of cosmic events and is consciously speaking of the latter in terms of the former.

    The difficulty with Barfield's view is that he seems to be suggesting that there is at the outset a simultaneous if confused awareness of the immaterial and material. Doesn't this fly in the face of the known history of the difficulty men experienced in achieving the concept of the immaterial? To be able to distinguish soul from wind is not eo ipso to hold that the soul is immaterial. Barfield would perhaps reply: if we didn't already know the immaterial how could we come to know it? And, indeed, his underlying theory goes far beyond the scope of the nature of figurative language. "In the first place, although I have been dealing with words, it cannot said that my conclusions affect words only. If the word on its very first apperance was already a vehicle with a tenor, then the given affinity which I suggested between the concept of wind and the concept of spirit must have been 'given' in the nature of things and not by some kind of friction in the machinery of language"{24} That the very process of naming, of using language, involves the mind of man, which is immaterial, though this need not be recognized to name or to use language; that the things we first know, whatever kind of fusion we assert obtains between the inner and the other, between man and the world, are in the nature of things signs of and stepping stones to the immaterial - this the Aristotelian would concede Barfield. I think this is all his argument requires. Beyond the level of concession, there is much to be learned from Barfield - and from many other contemporary thinkers - on the matter of what man first knows and consequently first talks about. If man is a being-in-the-world, if in his knowledge and language, at their fundamental and original level, there is a kind of mutual implication of thing and self, the ability to use a term to speak with precision of things as opposed to man or of man as opposed to things, is the constitution of literal meanings of the sort the Aristotelian notion of metaphor requires. To speak of this as an achievement should not blind us to the fact that to travel too great a distance from the recognition of our fundamental involvement in the world invovles risks which, as Heidegger has warned, affect not merely our theories of language but our very being.


{1} A,2, 982 b 11 ff.

{2} B,4, 1000 a 19-20.

{3} Introduction a la philosophie de la mythologie, (trad. S. Jankélévitch) 2 vols. ubier: Paris, 1945.

{4} Metaphysics, A,9, 991 a 20 ff.; 997 b 5-12.

{5} Lambda, 8, 1074 a 38-b14.

{6} Cf. Topics, I, II, 104 b 8.

{7} Cf. Metaphysics, 995 a 3-6; De coelo, 270 b 5-9; 248 a 2-13 and b3; Meteor., 339 b 19-30. Plato, Cratylus, 397C; Philebus, 16C. So too the Fathers of the Church held that revealed mysteries should be veiled lest unbelievers ridicule them.

{8} Rhetoric, II, 20.

{9} Cf. Gerald Else, Aristotle's Poetics, pp. 242 ff.

{10} Poetics, 1450 a 3-4.

{11} Cf. Gilbert Murray, The Classical Tradition in Poetry.
{12} Poetics, chap. 25.

{13} 1449 b 24-8.

{14} 1459 a 5-9.

{15} 1457 b 3-4.

{16} 1457 b 7-8.

{17} Rhetoric, III, 2.

{18} In Metaphor and Symbol, edited by L. C. Knights and Basil Cottle, Butterworths Scientific Publication, London, 1960, pp. 48-63.

{19} Ibid., p. 49.

{20} P. 53.

{21} P. 55.

{22} Pp. 55-6.

{23} F. M. Cornford, From Religion to Philosophy.

{24} Barfield, art. cit., p. 56.

© 2011 by the Estate of Ralph McInerny. All rights reserved including the right to translate or reproduce this book or parts thereof in any form.

<< ======= >>