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  • Aristotle On Metaphor
  • John T. Kirby

Much Madness is divinest Sense—

To a discerning Eye—

Emily Dickinson

Ours is an age of metaphor. Wayne Booth, in his inimitable fashion, remarks,

There were no conferences on metaphor, ever, in any culture, until our own century was already middle–aged. As late as 1927, John Middleton Murry, complaining about the superficiality of most discussions of metaphor, could say, "There are not many of them." . . . Explicit discussions of something called metaphor have multiplied astronomically in the past fifty years. . . . students of metaphor have positively pullulated.1

In the postmodern era philosophers of language, particularly those outside the analytic tradition, tend to think more and more in terms of all language as being metaphorical. This trend, however, is not a new one; it seems to have its roots back as far as Heraclitus, and, in the modern world, was certainly espoused by Giambattista Vico in his Nuova Scienza (1725). What we may call the Viconian tradition was embraced on the continent by Nietzsche, and, in the Anglo–American world, by Ivor Richards.2 Nietzsche's thought had far–reaching consequences in terms of its influence on the work of Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida, who in the late 1960s and the 1970s found themselves in the center of a vortex of controversy over the notion of "deconstruction," and its interrogation not only of Western metaphysics but also of human language and thought generally. Now, it seemed, such simple formulae as "This X is Y" called into question the whole process of naming and predication. But even among those for whom this is an unconvincing position, the problem of metaphor continues to be a fascinating one. How to define [End Page 517] it? What are its uses? What is its relation to literal, or nonfigured, language? And what its relation to human cognition?3

Booth goes on to say, "there have been many more discussions of what people from the Greek philosophers on called metaphor than any bibliography could show."4 That being so, a sustained study of Aristotle's concept of metaphor needs no further justification, since it is to him that we owe the terms in which the debate was framed for many hundreds of years. Indeed, here as often, even those who wish to propose new or different parameters for the analysis of metaphor must do so against the grain of the Aristotelian tradition.5 This, if nothing else, is a measure of the tremendous influence Aristotle has had on the history of Western rhetoric and poetics.

As on many other topics, it is now fashionable to condescend to Aristotle for the limitations of his study of metaphor, or—more aggressively still—to find fault with its parameters. Certainly he did not preempt any further discussion on the issue; nor, I imagine, would he have wanted to. But I surmise that there is more to be learned from an appreciative study of his methods here than one might initially suppose. In this study, then, after a few remarks on recent studies of metaphor, I propose to examine the state of the question before Aristotle, and then [End Page 518] to look at what he has to say about metaphor in the Poetics and Rhetoric.

In their attempts to cope with the notion of language generally, and specifically with the questions of literal versus figurative language, scholars over the last hundred years or so have themselves appropriated a number of metaphors purporting to describe the phenomenon. These include (above all) models based on comparison and interaction. The comparison model, it is typically said, conforms more to the classical approach to metaphor, whereas those based on interaction stem primarily from the work of Richards and Black.6 Indeed it is from this notion of interaction that the terms "tenor" and "vehicle" were born, the former referring to the underlying idea that is illustrated or illuminated by the latter, which is "applied" to it; and Richards is right both to point out [1] that the word "metaphor" is sometimes used to signify what he means by "vehicle," and sometimes to mean the symbiosis resulting from the conjunction of tenor and vehicle, and [2] that...