Monroe C. Beardsley, Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism, 1st ed., 1958; 2d ed., 1981.

4. Meaning and Metaphor

Vigorous developments in the theory of meaning over the past couple of decades have made it possible to give a better account of meaning in literature than was given in the first edition (Chapter 3) -- though the distinctions made and used there, as well as in the discussion of literary style (Chapter 5), still need to be preserved. Not that universal agreement has been achieved even now; and the question of the relationship between meaning and intention (what a text, spoken or written, means and what the speaker or writer means in producing it) remains deeply controversial. For certain purposes, as with certain scientific uses of language, meaning can perhaps be adequately explained in terms of truth-conditions: the properties a person must have to be correctly called "an old gaffer" constitute the meaning of the term "old gaffer." But complexities arise for meaning taken in the somewhat broader scope required for the theory of literature, where, for example, we must take account of the special nonstandard sense of words used metaphorically (what "placid" means in the context-type "a placid sculpture," but not in the literal context-type "a placid disposition").

Various philosophers of language have contributed to the working out of a highly sophisticated intentionalistic theory of meaning (as it may be named), among them most notably H. P. Grice (see "Utterer's Meaning and Intentions" and previous essays referred to there). Quite roughly, the proposal is that what a text means as produced on a particular occasion (i.e., an "utterance") is what the producer intends others to understand that the producer intends to be understood by it. Refined and complicated in various ways, this theory of textual meaning is considered by some to be the most promising kind of theory. In my opinion it runs afoul of counterexamples in every form (cases of misspeaking, for example, seem to me to involve the speaker's uttering words that mean what he did not mean to mean) and in some forms its concept of intention leads into a vicious regress. But it deserves careful study and is very much alive. (For further discussion see John Biro, "Intentionalism in the Theory of Meaning.")

My inclination is to seek an account of meaning in a different direction, opened up by the development of a very fruitful doctrine in the philosophy of language that we owe initially to John Austin (How to Do Things with Words) but also to many others, especially William P. Alston (Philosophy of Language) and John R. Searle (Speech Acts). The new concepts provided by this "speech-act" theory have been applied in various ways to problems in literary theory with extremely interesting results (see, for example, "Verbal Style and Illocutionary Action" and "Aesthetic Intentions and Fictive Illocutions," and references therein). The central concept is that of an "illocutionary action," that is, an action performed in uttering an intelligible sequence of words (a text). In my version of this theory (which is close to Austin's, as I read him, but departs significantly from the versions of others), to utter the sentence "Please carry some of the groceries in" under certain conditions (that groceries and someone apparently able-bodied are at hand, and so forth ) generates (that is, becomes also) the act of asking for help in carrying in the groceries -- a kind of illocutionary action, and a special case of asking, which is a general type. Other types are praising, cheering (as for a team), threatening, refusing, taunting, encouraging, promising, stating, demanding, and so forth. Most illocutionary actions are performed intentionally (that is, with the intention of performing them, and generally also with the intention of obtaining results by performing them -- e.g., getting help with the groceries); and for some illocutionary actions, having a particular sort of intention is one of the generating conditions that must be satisfied for the action to occur. Very often someone intends to perform an illocutionary action but fails (the kids have already beat it and are out of earshot when the request for help is uttered, so that there is no "uptake" on their part).

The theory of meaning made possible by illocutionary-act theory (and proposed by Alston) regards the meaning of a sentence, and indirectly of the words that make up the sentence, as their "illocutionary-act potential," that is, their capacity (in accordance with the semantical and syntactical rules of the language) to be used in the performance of illocutionary actions. This proposal, too, requires a good deal of working out, but it seems to afford a good basis for dealing with the kinds of meaning -- such as connotations of words -- that are crucial in the explication of literature (see The Possibility of Criticism, Chapter 2).

Since the first edition, numerous studies have cast a great deal of light on the problems encountered in giving an account of metaphorical expressions and their role in poetry and in ordinary discourse. There persists a fundamental divergence of view. Those who hold a "conversion'' theory of metaphor maintain that words acquire fresh, even novel, sense when thrust into a metaphorical stance (see "Metaphorical Senses"). On this view, there are metaphorical senses, which are not standardized but linked to particular verbal context-types. Only in this way, I am convinced, can we explain the fact that metaphor is one of the importan ways in which changes of standard dictionary meaning occur: such a word as "largo" may be applied metaphorically to music of a certain character, in a variety of verbal contexts, and its metaphorical sense may come to be pared down and stabilized, so that it becomes a dead metaphor: its metaphorical sense becomes a new literal sense. But contrary to the position I proposed in the first edition (Chapter 3), I realize that the meaning of a metaphorical word cannot be limited to its pre-existing connotations: the metaphor transforms what were previously contingent properties of the things referred to (what we know and believe about placid persons and their dispositions) into meanings (see "The Metaphorical Twist").

Those who hold a "constancy" theory of metaphor try to explain how metaphors work, though the words in them retain, their literal senses (see J. J. A. Mooij, A Study of Metaphor). One way is to treat metaphorical sentences as abbreviated similes, as inviting us to compare two things or kinds of thing. Donald Davidson has recently defended a version of this theory ("What Metaphors Mean"), but only by minimizing the cognitive content of metaphors -- which, in view of the considerable amount of information, perspective, good judgment, and insight that has been conveyed by metaphorical sentences, I find hard to accept. Nelson Goodman ("Metaphor as Moonlighting") has advanced some effective and, to me, convincing criticisms of Davidson's essay.

One of the persistent problems about metaphor is to identify the features that throw a word or phrase into a metaphorical stance and thus give rise to a metaphorical sense. In the first edition I explained this in terms of logical incompatibility (plus, in special cases, absurd falsity): placidity entails being sentient, which sculptures are not, so that the combination "a placid sculpture" is literally barred. As Timothy Binkley ("On the Truth and Probity of Metaphor") and Ted Cohen ("Notes on Metaphor") have shown, among other things, these features will not account for all metaphors. Metaphors that are denials of metaphors ("Marriage is no bed of roses") are literally true, and necessarily so. Although this problem is still unsolved, I think it shows the second-order character of negations. The logical incompatibility involved in considering marriage as a bed of roses must play a crucial part in barring (and hence making metaphorical) even the statement of the logical truth.


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