Back to Home Page
Back to Abstract


Theories of metaphors are traditionally concerned with two questions: How can one recognize a metaphor, and how can one offer a plausible explication of it. More recently, with the advent of generative linguistics, a hitherto neglected question has begun increasingly to draw attention: how can one account for the fact that human beings are capable of producing and understanding novel metaphoric constructions to which they have not been previously exposed. The present book assumes that metaphors have not only meanings and semantic and logical structures from which those meanings arise, but also perceived effects, which may have a substantial contribution to the poetic qualities of literary works. What is more, it assumes that these perceived qualities can systematically be related to meanings and structures, via the cognitive processes of a human perceiver. As a review of the contemporary critical scene may reveal, there are, on the one hand, impressionist critics who indulge in the effects of literary texts but have difficulties in relating them to their structures. On the other hand, there are analytic and structuralist critics who excel in the description of the structure of literary texts, but it is not always clear what their human significance is, or how their perceived effects can be accounted for. Cognitive Poetics, as practiced in the present work, offers cognitive theories to account for the relationship between the structure of literary texts and their perceived effects. Further, one of the main assumptions of this book is that neither the meanings, nor the perceived effects of metaphors can be satisfactorily accounted for with reference to conventions only. Reliance on conventions at best transfers the mystery from one place to another. It is essential to explain how metaphors are understood for the first time.

This book comprises roughly twenty years' work on metaphoring, brought up-to-date with my present position. Accordingly, one may distinguish several groups of papers in it, reflecting my changing approaches in the course of years. In retrospect, however, these approaches are complementary rather than conflicting: they tend to combine into a more or less comprehensive conception of metaphor, considering a variety of interrelated aspects of the phenomenon.

At the beginning of my critical career I was mainly interested in the question what does a metaphor mean, and how one can determine this meaning in a fairly reliable manner. Later, in my dealings with plays and longer poems I was influenced by Wilson Knight's studies of the contribution of imagery to the "spiritual space" of Shakespeare's plays. Since these works of mine have little to contribute to the cognitive study of figurative language, I have included neither kind in the present book. Only in the chapter "Semantic Information-Processing and Poetic Language" have I included a brief section on Wilson Knight's discussion of the mental-imagery in Julius Caesar and its contribution to the play's "spiritual space"in order to indicate the place of this approach within the cognitive model expounded there.

The first group of papers in this book (chapters 1-3) is a concise presentation of some far more extensive study I carried out in the late 'sixties and the early 'seventies, concerning the perceptual qualities regularly associated with certain figurative structures. These papers assume that the witty or emotional quality of a metaphor or simile is not determined only by the semantic elements included, but also by its structure, the "rhetorical manipulation" of those elements. Far from being idiosyncratic or arbitrary, these perceived qualities can be systematically related to certain structures; and when several readers report different or even conflicting qualities perceived in the same stretch of text, one may specify in what kind of performance a certain kind of poetic structure tends to give rise to one or the other perceived quality. When attention is drawn to the incompatibility of the terms, focus is split and the metaphor is perceived as witty; when attention is directed away from the incompatible terms to their joint effect, the focus is integrated, and the metaphor tends to be perceived as emotional rather than witty. The papers consider some of the rhetorical techniques, as well as some of the underlying cognitive and psychodynamic mechanisms which achieve this. The approach in these three papers is not exactly cognitive in the sense prevalent in Cognitive Science (one of them even takes its departure from a Freudian theory of jokes and caricature). But they already indicate the cognitive direction; and what is more, they suggest a general framework of great literary interest, in which the later cognitive work assumes its literary significance.

The second group of papers (chapters 4-7) apply componential analysis to poetic language in general, and figurative language in particular. This group of papers has three objectives. First, it has adopted from contemporary linguistic theory a semantic information-processing model in an attempt to account for the capability of human beings to produce and understand figurative expressions to which they have never before been exposed. It attempts to do so in a way that conceives of this capability as of a part of their general "linguistic competence", that enables them to produce and understand pieces of literal discourse to which they have never before been exposed. Secondly, it uses the same information-processing model to account for intuitions concerning the differences among a variety of metaphors. Some metaphors are "unmarked", some are "marked"; the former are perceived as more "natural", the latter as more "witty", or "modernistic". Third, such intuitions are part of the data that a "plausible hypothesis" must account for in any attempt to interpret a poem. In this way one may hope to account for intuitions that prefer one "plausible interpretation" to another. One may offer an almost infinite range of meanings as construals of figurative expressions or interpretations of whole poems. This group of four papers seeks "grounds for constraining their basis" - to paraphrase George Miller. The hierarchic model of meaning components or semantic features cannot do justice to the full richness of real-life categories; therefore there is an attempt to supplement it in three directions: Rosch and Mervis' conception of "good example", Collins and Quillian's model of semantic information-processing and the LNR group's conception of Cognitive Schemata (or Schank's Script).

The next group of papers (chapters 8-10) explores the relationship between the concrete and the abstract in poetry. They take their point of departure from the observation that abstractions and abstract nouns in poetry are typically "double-edged": in certain contexts they are the intellectual tool for generalizing across situations, whereas in other contexts they are the source of particularly lowly differentiated perceptual and emotional qualities. It is suggested that, paradoxically enough, school-books and certain literary schools commend concrete descriptions precisely because in concrete nouns a considerable number of abstractions are "grown together". In other words, concrete nouns appear to be the most efficient way for the cognitive coding of abstractions. In chapters 9-10 the potential sources of the lowly differentiated perceptual and emotional qualities of abstract nouns are explored at considerable length. By the same token, such cognitive mechanisms are considered as perceptual and conceptual categorization in responding to poetry, or rapid and delayed categorization in the critics' attempts to offer theoretical explanations.

In an attempt to account for the double-edgedness of abstract nouns, chapter 9 explores the application of orientation-mechanisms to poetry. In this respect, chapter 11, "Poetry of Disorientation", exploring certain extreme instances of mannerist (Mediaeval, Metaphysical or Modernist) poetry supplements the discussion in chapter 9. This chapter discusses three conspicuously puzzling poetic devices usually associated with varieties of the poetry of wit: a specific kind of application of sensuous metaphors, the metaphysical conceit and the grotesque. These devices are treated as adaptive devices turned to aesthetic ends. It is claimed that human beings need not learn the literary application and effects of these devices: the aesthetic quality of emotional disorientation is perceived whenever the smooth functioning of adaptive and defense mechanisms is disrupted for adaptive purposes in a physical or social environment in which self-specifying information is destroyed, and cannot be picked up by the perceiving consciousness. Such an assumption can explain more parsimoniously than the assumption of literary influence such facts as the recurrence of certain "unlikely" devices in poets reputed for their originality and inventiveness, as well as the tendency of the "Poetry of Disorientation" to become prevalent precisely in certain kinds of socio-cultural contexts. This discussion is reproduced in chapter 11 with minor additions from my pamphlet What is Cognitive Poetics? (pp. 40-56); I have already said there what I had to say on the cognitive nature of the sensuous metaphor and the metaphysical conceit, but the present book would have been outrageously incomplete had I ignored these issues.

The exceptionally long chapter 12 is a group by itself, and is devoted to Literary Synaesthesia. It carefully distinguishes literary synaesthesia from synaesthesia as a psychological phenomenon. The latter refers to an "involuntary awareness of sensation, perception, or 'image' of one sense which accompanies (perhaps invariably) the stimulation of a different sense or even the mental representation of that stimulation", whereas the former refers to the metaphoric attribution of a term derived from one sensory domain, to a term derived from another. It is far from being obvious that language in this sense merely reflects a psychological reality of the association of different senses. What is more, I argue that some of the most interesting aspects of literary synaesthesia are related to uses that do not refer to an actual co-presence of impressions from different senses in extra-linguistic psychological reality.

Finally, the Appendix "Thing-Free Qualities and the TOT Phenomenon" has a double function. On the one hand, it gives a more systematic overview of two notions to which I have recourse time and again in various chapters of this book. The notions thing-free qualities and thing-destruction have been borrowed from Ehrenzweig's theory of music and the visual arts (combining Gestalt-theory with psychoanalytic theory). The TOT Phenomenon appears to be a window into the organization of semantic memory and the hidden workings of the psycholinguistic mechanism underlying word-retrieval; here I summarize at considerable length Roger Brown's and David MacNeill's brilliant experiment in the psycholinguistic laboratory. On the other hand, the combination of these two notions may yield significant insight into the aesthetic use of words, as well as into the wider aesthetic purposes of the use of figurative language. It also seems to re-assert the psychological reality of the semantic-features model explored in chapters 4-7. As a matter of fact, this chapter seems to do much more; it seems to amount to a psycholinguistic model of poetry. Ehrenzweig's terms relate poetry to aesthetic processes in the other domains of art, whereas Roger Brown's analysis of the TOT Phenomenon shows how the notion of thing-destruction can be related to the "destruction" of words. Moreover, the TOT-experiment did not come up only with semantic findings, but also with some phonetic and phonological information that seems to be highly illuminating about the organization of the sound-patterns of poetry.

When one considers the perceived qualities of poetry in general and of metaphors in particular, one cannot escape facing a rather disconcerting issue. Words designate "compact" concepts, whereas some poetry and some metaphors at least are said to evoke diffuse emotions or vague moods. Furthermore, as brain-research of the last few decades seems to suggest, language is a predominantly sequential activity, of a conspicuously logical character, associated with the left cerebral hemisphere; whereas diffuse emotional processes are typically associated with the right cerebral hemisphere. Thus, while we can name emotions, language does not appear to be well suited to convey their unique diffuse character. Accordingly, emotional poetry ought to be a contradiction in terms. We know that this is not the case. But this presentation of the problem emphasizes that we have all too easily accepted what ought not to be taken for granted. There is no escape from the recognition that language is a highly differentiated logical tool by its very nature, and that it requires special manipulations to convey or evoke with its help lowly differentiated, diffuse emotional qualities. I have discussed elsewhere (e.g. Tsur, 1978; 1983b) the over-all convergent and divergent organizations in poetry, which result respectively in witty and emotional poetic qualities. In the present book I have made in several chapters only fleeting references to this distinction. On the other hand, many of the issues discussed in detail in the present book propose, in fact, solutions to the problem raised in this paragraph. Thus, for instance, the TOT-experiment has unearthed some psycholinguistic processes that keep the semantic and phonologic information in a diffuse state and prevent it from "growing together" into a compact word.

As I have said, abstract nouns are double-edged. They may designate a highly differentiated, compact concept, or some lowly differentiated, diffuse perceptual or emotional quality. This distinction is explored in chapter 9. It has been observed that abstract nouns are perceived as typically diffuse and lowly differentiated when they occur in the description of a concrete scene defined here and now, by some deictic device, where there are no concrete objects with characteristic stable visual shape. The reason for this seems to be as follows: Logic and language are typically associated with the left cerebral hemisphere, whereas emotions and spatial orientation are typically associated with the right cerebral hemisphere. The output of the left hemisphere is typically compact and linear, the output of the right hemisphere is typically diffuse and global. By evoking the mechanism of spatial orientation, the share of the right hemisphere in information-processing is increased. That is why poets, bards and prophets in several cultures tend to project their feelings upon the surrounding landscape. Chapter 10 explores another device for rendering abstract nouns lowly differentiated, diffuse, emotional: metaphoric constructions of the form "immersion in abstraction". The verb that contains [immersion] as one of its meaning components transfers the feature <+water> to the abstraction; whereas the abstraction cancels in <+water> the physical elements, retaining such feelings as the undifferentiated but intense accentuation of the whole outer surface of the body, the removal of barriers between one's self and not-self, heightened communication between the parts of one's body, etc. All this involves an heightened awareness of some lowly-differentiated sensation related to the tactile sense. Chapter 8 discusses poetic techniques for abstracting abstractions from concrete descriptions, which then are treated in ways discussed in the ensuing chapters. Chapter 12 presents one of the most powerful means for suggesting some undifferentiated quality: treating the more highly differentiated sense in terms of the more lowly differentiated sense.

The application of the findings of brain research to poetics is controversial both from the point of view of brain-researchers and from the point of view of the methodology of poetics. So I have decided, in the last minute before sending this book to press, to add a second appendix in which I defend my methodololgy.

Though aspiring to a rather many-sided view of metaphoring, this book is far from exhaustive. It does not even present all the cognitive approaches to metaphor, nor even all the cognitive aspects which I have been exploring during the past few years. Substantial parts of my recent book How Do the Sound Patterns Know They are Expressive? could be included here. My discussion of sound symbolism is obviously relevant to metaphoring, and the chapters "Some Spatial and Tactile Metaphors for Sound" and "A Reading of Rimbaud's 'Voyelles'" are, in fact, discussions of verbal and literary synaesthesia.

As I have said above, the ideas presented in the present book have lingered with me, and have grown for the past twenty years or so. During these years I had occasions to discuss them with many of my teachers, friends, colleagues and students: back in the late 'sixties and early 'seventies, with members of staff at the English Department of the University of Sussex, most notably with David Daiches and Laurence Lerner; more recently, with Zephyra Porat, David Gill, Yeshayahu Shen, Joseph Glicksohn, Chanita Goodblatt, Ruth Lavy and Hanna Lock. I had the privilege to have a paper of mine returned from College English for amendment by Richard Ohmann. Following his detailed and inspiring criticism I have reconsidered certain issues, expanded the paper for the present publication, and split it into two chapters (8 & 9). I am indebted to all these persons, but none of them should be blamed for the final outcome.

Back to Home Page
Back to Abstract

Original file name: Metroduction - converted on Friday, 25 July 1997, 18:57

This page was created using TextToHTML. TextToHTML is a free software for Macintosh and is (c) 1995,1996 by Kris Coppieters