Home > Book Review, Philosophy > Exam Preparation – Davidson: “What Metaphors Mean” – Part 2.

Exam Preparation – Davidson: “What Metaphors Mean” – Part 2.

Here is Part 1.

Davidson moves to a similar critique to Wittgenstein’s ostensive (and part 2) teaching of words argument in which he talks of ostensive teaching – that of teaching a Saturnian what the word “floor” means. Upon transporting you to his planet you refer to the pale blue dot known as earth as “floor” using metaphorical language (similar to Dante when he calls Earth ” the small round floor that makes us passionate” (p. 35)) Under the theory under consideration would it matter at all to the Saturnian which way he took it? Davidson says not, as in this theory “floor” would take on a new meaning  in a “metaphorical context”. To Davidson metaphor can be either (1) something that draws our attention to language, or (2) to what language is about – he thinks it is the latter. This can be seen he says when we view dead metaphors as in the case of the mouths of rivers and bottles – once upon a time they did not literally have mouths: but now in common usage the ambiguity of the word “mouths”in the senses of rivers, bottles and animal apertures (or “if we think there is a single wide field application that embraces both” (p. 35)) is irrelevant. What is relevant to Donaldson is that when we apply “mouth” metaphorically to bottles the use points the hearer to a likeness between bottle and animal openings:

Once one has the present use of the word, with the literal application to bottles, there is nothing left to notice. There is no similarity to seek because it consists simply in being referred to by the same word. (Davidson, p. 35, On Metaphor, 1978)

To Davidson if there was a second meaning such as that of ambiguity there might be opportunity to specify the special meaning of a word in a metaphorical context by waiting until the metaphor dies, as he states: “The figurative meaning of the living metaphor should be immortalized in the literal meaning of the dead.” (p. 36) He rejects this idea however, and now he turns to how it might be saved in another fashion: by stating that “the figurative meaning of a metaphor is the literal meaning of the corresponding simile.” (p. 36) for example: “Thus “Christ was a chronometer” in its figurative sense is synonymous with “Christ was like a chronometer”.” (p. 36) Davidson states there is difficulty in putting a metaphor so closely with a simile as it can be sometimes difficult to locate the corresponding simile to go with the metaphor – this theory however should not be confused with the common theory that metaphor is an “elliptical simile” (p. 36) as:

This theory makes no distinction in meaning between a metaphor and some related simile and does not provide any ground for speaking of figurative, metaphorical or special meanings. It is a theory that wins hands down as far as simplicity is concerned, but it also seems too simple to work. (Davidson, p. 35, On Metaphor, 1978)

Davidson states that if we make the literal meaning of the metaphor the literal meaning of the simile we deny access to the meaning we originally took from the literal meaning of the metaphor, whatever else might need to be added to a non literal meaning, we agreed from the start that this meaning was essential.  Davidson states that this theory has a fatal flaw, it makes the hidden meaning found in a simple sense – by looking at the literal meaning of “what is usually a painfully trivial simile.” (p.  37) For example in the earth is like a floor simile to our “the small round floor that makes us passionate” metaphor, this is trivial because everything is like everything, and in endless ways, according to Davidson – if metaphors are difficult because they are impossible to paraphrase but this theory makes interpretation and paraphrase “are ready to the most callow.” (p. 37) Davidson also states that the comparison to simile sells the metaphor short, in that simile says there is a likeness and we are left to pick out the common features, but metaphor, if we accept it, are led to seek out common features:

Just because a simile wears a declaration of similitude on its sleeve, it is, I think, far less plausible than in thew case of metaphor to maintain that there is a hidden second meaning. (Davidson, p. 38, On Metaphor, 1978)

It is here that Davidson reiterates his argument thus far, and elaborates a little more on it:

The argument so far has led to the conclusion that as much of metaphor as can be explained in terms of meaning may, and indeed must, be explained by appeal to the literal meanings of words. A consequence is that the sentences in which metaphors occur are true or false in a normal, or literal way, for if the words in them don’t have special meaning, sentences don’t have special truth.  This is not to deny that there is metaphorical truth, only to deny it of sentences. (Davidson, p. 39, On Metaphor, 1978)

To Davidson metaphors lead us to notice what might otherwise not be, he does not feel that these “visions, thoughts, and feelings” (p. 39) have merit, or that they are true or false. Davidson states that there is a semantic difference between metaphors and similes in that metaphors tend to be (patently) false and similes tend to be (trivially) true. This falsity in metaphor is what leads us to search out its hidden implication , and shows us that it is in fact a metaphor which we must search to understand.

Davidson states that no “theory of metaphorical meaning  or metaphorical truth can help explain how metaphor works.” (p. 41) As we stated earlier what distinguishes metaphor is it use, not its meaning – moreover this special use is not to say something special as metaphor shows only what is on its face “usually a patent falsehood or an absurd truth” (p. 41) which needs no paraphrase as it is given in the literal meaning of the words. To Davidson the theories we have been discussing mistake their goal, they try to tell us a method for deciphering an encoded content within the metaphor, but they actually tell us something about the effects of metaphor. There is for Davidson, a simple way out of this dilemma,  we drop the idea that metaphors carry a meaning or content other than its literal meaning. Davidson does not deny that metaphor has effects on us, he quarrels with how they do it, he denies that they have “special cognitive content” (p. 44) metaphor can make us appreciate a fact (much like a bump on the head, joke or dream can), “but not by standing for or expressing the fact.” (p. 44)

Metaphor makes us see one thing as another by making some literal statement that inspires or prompts the insight. Since in most cases what the metaphor prompts or inspires is not entirely, or even at all, recognition of some truth or fact, the attempts to give literal expression to the content of the metaphor is simply misguided. (Davidson, p. 45, On Metaphor, 1978)


Davidson, D. (1978). “What Metaphors Mean.” On Metaphor. Ed Sheldon Sacks. Chicago: Chicago U P. Pp. 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 41, 44, 45.

Categories: Book Review, Philosophy
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