- The Germ of a Sense
I find the account of metaphor offered in Donald Davidson's "What Metaphors Mean" fascinating for a number of reasons. The overall argument, that metaphors mean nothing other than what they mean literally, strikes me in many ways as absolutely right, and corrective of a certain tendency both in the humanities and in more popular forms of criticism to use the word "meaning" where it doesn't apply. Of course, the other M word also has its history of abuse, whereby it often becomes a sort of last resort for closing down all discussion or counterargument: "You're missing the point—I was only being metaphorical." In these contexts "literal-mindedness" seems to take on a pejorative flavor, as though appealing to some clichéd stereotype of the math nerd whose every attempt to read a poem leaves him dumbfounded. While it is certainly true that metaphoric usages of words are more difficult to understand than their non-metaphoric counterparts, that there is something "extra" required in order to make sense of them, it is easy to fall into thinking that when we do succeed in making sense of them we are making use of a second species of meaning. Davidson's proposal is that we correct this sort of false picture by, as it were, uncrossing the wires; directing our attention to literal meaning is perfectly appropriate because it gives us a way of understanding more fully what metaphor is not.
In what exactly this extra machinery might consist is of course the impossible question, on which Davidson remains understandably silent. One would suppose his model to fit more or less exactly with a picture of language that takes meaning to be the currency of compositional [End Page 567] semantics, and that nameless "something else" ("use," or "implied meaning," or whatever) to be the currency of pragmatics. Let metaphors "mean" only what it is that they mean regardless of their context, and leave the question of what it is that they "do" to your preferred theory of implicature or performative acts, or relevance. Fair enough. We will return later to how this larger perspective leads his theory to be cast in the particular way that it is. What he does end up saying about this mysterious something extra is along these lines: metaphors invite us to make a comparison between two things; they direct our attention to a similarity between them, in much the same way as similes. 1 This is obviously not the first time that similes have been invoked as a way of explaining metaphor; indeed, the formula "simile – 'like' = metaphor" has even made it into the grammar school curriculum. And how does this work, exactly? Let us imagine the most banal of examples: The Bard writes, "Those are pearls that were his eyes," 2 and we are invited to make a comparison between eyes and pearls, noticing all sorts of similarities; roundness, whiteness, immense value, etc.
Further comparison between metaphors and similes yields the interesting observation that all similes are literally true, whereas their metaphoric counterparts are literally false. Our heavily schematized example, "His eyes are (like) pearls," seems to hold up to this claim. The idea appears to be that "similar" is really a trivial or vacuous predicate, because it is true of any pair of things that they are alike in some way. The way Davidson puts it, "This is like that—Tolstoy is like an infant, the earth is like a floor. It is trivial because everything is like everything, and in endless ways." 3 The problem is the following: when I say to you, "His eyes are like pearls," I am not really saying anything, because everything is like everything. All I am saying is that there exists some similarity between his eyes and pearls, when it is a given that there exists a veritable infinitude of rapports between any pair of things.
Davidson's claim about similarity opens onto a fundamental problem, for which he doesn't try to propose any solution. On the one hand he appears to have hit upon an important insight, one that for instance explains why genre theory's...