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  • Metaphor Revisited
  • Dennis Sobolev (bio)

Already for several generations, the problem of Metaphor has been the constant focus of different disciplines: from literary studies and analytical philosophy to cognitive psychology and linguistics. For literary criticism, however, it has been especially significant. In order to evaluate this significance, one has to bear in mind that since the Prague group and French structuralism, and until the rise of different types of poststructuralist research, literary scholars had been working within the “literature as a language” paradigm.1 And since the same type of structuralist research considered metaphor as one of the two pivotal operations on which the whole system of language is based,2 it was used as a model for an extremely wide range of structures and functions empirically found in literature. Having this in mind, one may surmise that the significance of the problem of metaphor was doomed to become downplayed when the linguistic paradigm was replaced with “postmodern” ones. Indeed, the poststructural paradigms of literary analysis tend to view “the space of literature” as a product of the superposition of different cultural forces, structures, and partial determinations and thus tend to deny the linguistic model the role of a single, privileged hermeneutic strategy. However, from the theoretical point of view, this tendency is not an inevitable result of the replacement of analytical paradigms.

On the contrary, from the logical point of view, within a paradigm that tends to view culture as a field of partial and heterogeneous determinations, the significance of metaphor as a model must only grow. One of the operations central to the very being of culture, when viewed as such a field of heterogeneous determinations, is that of the creation of synthetic relations. Such operations of synthesis range from the narrative synthesis of heterogeneous historical and personal materials to the basic operations of the cultural construction of existential space and time. Therefore, being one of the simplest and most exhaustively studied operations of synthesis, metaphor may serve as a good case study and thus as a model of the analysis of the operations of synthesis in general. However, as will be shown, this exemplum demonstrates the high level of complexity of problems of cultural analysis. The studies of metaphor [End Page 903] carried out over the last decades have shown the extreme complexity of this seemingly simple operation of synthesis; metaphor has revealed itself to be an embodiment of analytical difficulties, as well as a source of irresolvable contradictions between different approaches.

Although most scholars who have written about metaphor agree that it is central to the understanding of poetic language, this seems to be the only subject upon which a relative consensus has been achieved. None of the theories propounded in the field has been able to convince the majority of the academic community; and for every theory that has been proposed, numerous counterexamples have been found. In light of this situation, two mutually exclusive hypotheses become possible. One can either state that the failure to find a sufficiently cogent solution to this problem is just a temporary difficulty, and thus the philosophers of language and literary critics should continue looking for it. Or, conversely, one can suggest that the whole discussion has been misguided and that there is no such thing as the structure of metaphor, or, similarly, that there is no such thing as metaphor in the traditional sense of the term. I believe, however, that both radical positions are misguided. This essay aims to demonstrate that metaphor, even though it is formally identifiable, is not a single unified structure, but rather a field of heterogeneous possibilities, which is organized along several independent axes and is limited by border parameters. Correspondingly, it is the culturally constructed possibility of “identifying” metaphor that is responsible for the illusion of the existence of its singular essence, while it is the heterogeneity and multiplicity of metaphorical functions that is responsible for both its actual applications and the proliferation of the theories of metaphor.

The first—“preliminary”—problem of metaphorical discourse is terminological. In order to account for the structure of metaphor, different sets of concepts have been proposed; the most known of them are I. A. Richards’s...


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