Home > Book Review, Philosophy > Exam Preparation – Davidson: “What Metaphors Mean” – Part 1.

Exam Preparation – Davidson: “What Metaphors Mean” – Part 1.

So, it’s exam preparation time, and in doing so I’m looking over previous exams given to us by the university – one parameter is that we are not allowed to write on authors we have before, since I have written on Frege, Heidegger, Husserl and Wittgenstein. This leaves me with only a few authors: Kant, Davidson, Foucault, Nietzsche, Patocka – in the example exams we’re given Davidson, Kant and Nietzsche are the only authors offered that I haven’t written on. Moreover the other authors (Patocka, Foucault) aren’t featured in the unit reader, hence we can reasonably assume they won’t be in the exam. This leaves me with Kant, Davidson and Nietzsche. I will be focusing on Davidson and Nietzsche – in Davidson’s case the example question given to us is the thesis question of Davidson’s main article, this seems a great place to start in my notes and preparation. Finally we are allowed to take in an A4 piece of paper with notes, no specific restrictions were given on the margin or font size, so I’m filling the page up with wide margins and small font.

The piece I will be focusing on today is from Davidson’s 1978 work On Metaphor, specifically the chapter entitled “What Metaphors Mean”. David begins by stating that:

Metaphor is the dreamwork of language and, like all dreamwork, its interpretation reflects as much on the interpreter as on the originator. The interpretation of dreams requires collaboration between a dreamer and a waker, even if they be the same person: and the act of interpretation is itself a work of the imagination. So too understanding a metaphor is as much a creative endeavor as making a metaphor, and as little guided by rules. (Davidson, p. 29, On Metaphor, 1978)

Davidson outlines his thesis in that to him metaphors do not use any semantic resources beyond those in which the ordinary depends, and that there are no instruction for devising or determining what a metaphor “means” – a metaphor requires artistic taste and relies on that artistic taste for its success. Davidson states that the goal of his paper is

… concerned with what metaphors mean, and its thesis is that metaphors mean what the words, in their most literal interpretation mean, and nothing more. (Davidson, p. 29-30, On Metaphor, 1978)

This is the example question given to us for our exam prep – in that we are asked to explain Davidson’s justification for this claim.

Davidson admits that his thesis is contentious, it flies in the face of contemporary views, hence most of his argument is a critical look at others – he believes that once he clears away the confusion, we can see metaphor for the interesting phenomena that it is. The central mistake he sees is the idea that metaphor has an addition to its literal meaning or sense- that of another sense or meaning.

Davidson critiques the idea of metaphor being a vehicle for the conveying of ideas: this is why metaphors cannot be paraphrased – for when we paraphrase we attempt to phrase another way. This is not because metaphors say something “too novel” for paraphrase, but rather, according to Davidson there is nothing there to paraphrase – it is also not to deny that metaphors express a point only that that point cannot be brought out with further words. In the past Davidson states others who have agreed with him that metaphors do not contain additional cognitive content beyond the literal have attempted to show that metaphor is “confusing, merely emotive, unsuited to serious scientific or philosophical discourse(.)” (p. 31) but this is not his view for he considers metaphor to be a legitimate device in science, law,  philosophy and literature – it is also affective in many forms of interaction such as praise, prayer, abuse, description and prescription according to Davidson.  He states his disagreements with these theories pertains to the explanation of how metaphor works, primarily relying on the distinction between “what words mean and what they are used to do.” (p. 31)

I think metaphor belongs elusively to the domain of use. It is something brought off by the imaginative employment of words and sentences and depends entirely on the ordinary meanings of those words and hence on the ordinary meanings ot the sentences they comprise. (Davidson, p. 31, On Metaphor, 1978)

To be able to explain what metaphorical truth or meaning is, we first need to understand a metaphor – they make us seek out likeness between things.  In the case of similarity Davidson explains that this is natural because it depends on “groupings established by the ordinary meaning of words” (p. 31) which he deems to be natural and unsurprising in that “familiar groupings of objects are tied to usual meanings and usual words.” (p. 32) . This familiar association leads us to conclude states Davidson that there must be some unusual or metaphorical meanings that can be used to explain the similarities metaphor suggests. What this means is that within metaphor words take on new, or extended meanings – but Davidson does not think this theory is complete, it evaporates all meaning from the metaphor. The example hes uses is of “the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” we would seem to need to regard “face” with extended meaning – this would mean that “face” would apply to ordinary faces and waters in addition. The problem is if we say that in this context face applies to water then waters really do have faces and all sense of metaphor disintegrates – there wold be no difference between metaphor and the introduction of a new word into our vocabulary. To Davidson any account of metaphor must allow for the primary or original meanings to “remain active in their metaphorical setting.” (p. 32)

Another theory Davidson looks at is that perhaps metaphor creates an uncertainty in which words take on a new or an original meaning and the strength of the metaphor relies on this as we waver between the different meanings. This he rejects too, as the supposed ambiguity can be explained by the fact that in “ordinary contexts it means one thing and in the metaphorical context it means something else; but in the metaphorical context we do not necessarily hesitate over its meaning.” (p. 33) The only hesitation that does come is when we need to decide which metaphorical context we are going to accept, not by the fact that we are dealing with a metaphor itself. Davidson begs we be careful of the use of pun in this context too, for sometimes a word will take on two meanings, but it is not the same device as a metaphor: in metaphor whatever meanings we give to words they keep through all correct readings of it, there is no need to reiterate.
Another extension from the two meanings idea is that of a literal and figurative one in which Davidson asks us to imagine that the literal meaning is latent in the sense of something we are aware of while the figurative meaning is of direct interest – Davidson states there must be a rule connecting the two otherwise the theory lapses into ambiguity theory.

The rule, at least for many typical cases of metaphor, says that in its metaphorical role the word applies to everything that it applies to in its literal role, and then some. (Davidson, p. 34, On Metaphor, 1978)

Frege had a very similar rule, that Davidson states as follows:

… the meaning of the word in the special contexts makes the reference in those contexts to be identical with the meaning in ordinary contexts. (Davidson, p. 34, On Metaphor, 1978)

This might be enough for Part one right now.


Davidson, D. (1978). “What Metaphors Mean.” On Metaphor. Ed Sheldon Sacks. Chicago: Chicago U P. Pp. 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34 .

Categories: Book Review, Philosophy
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