Wednesday, February 02, 2005


Edgar Foster, currently writing a dissertation on the patristics, offers the two following paragraphs on Lactantius and the question of metaphor from the current draft of his dissertation. He also appends some observations by Ralph Earle. Foster:
Modern-day metaphorologists have developed terminology that attempts to clarify descriptive discourse concerning metaphorical utterances. For example, I.A. Richards introduced the nomenclature 'Tenor' and 'Vehicle' to metaphor theory in 1936. Tenor refers to the 'principal subject' in a metaphorical construction, Vehicle to the 'subsidiary subject' or concept that further describes the Tenor. Therefore, in the proposition 'God is the Father of Jesus Christ,' the constituent 'God' functions as the Tenor while 'Father' is the Vehicle. Of course, the Tenor-Vehicle method is limited. Yet, it has produced much fruitage in cognitive research.
I haven't researched as much as I'd like in the "serious" scholarship about metaphor, though I have some of it on my shelves, such as Ricoeur's study, and the work of Sokolowski's that I've recently reviewed. Phenomenologically, a metaphor is sometimes called an "ambiguous identity synthesis," and there are some fascinating features of it that can be isolated and analyzed, though the overall feature of metaphor that fascinates me is the way in which it seems to be a locus of meaning creation--one that Amy is particularly good at and which makes conversations with her particularly delightful. To work effectively, metaphor often seems to require a certain degree of strangeness or novelty; otherwise they become "unthinking" metaphors, like "God the Father," instead of delightfully engaging metaphors, like "Edgar the Teddy Bear" (Have you hugged yours today?).
Another important expression in modern metaphor theory is 'point of similarity,' or common domain factor, which refers to the intended focal point of a metaphorical utterance. To illustrate how the point of similarity differs from the Tenor or Vehicle, we can turn to the Sermon on the Mount. While recounting that famous discourse, Matthew records Jesus of Nazareth employing a metaphor wherein Jesus describes his disciples thus: 'You are the salt of the earth' (Mt 5:13). In this passage, the disciples are the Tenor, the Vehicle is 'salt' and the point of similarity (i.e. common domain factor) is evidently the preservative quality of salt and possibly its potential to accentuate the taste of food. In other words, just as salt may function as a preservative or enhance the taste of food, making it more palatable for consumption (Job 6:6; Col 4:6), so the disciples of Jesus (it would seem) are to preserve human lives by means of the Gospel and utter words of graciousness to both Christians and non-Christians alike. Regardless of what Jesus' intended-speaker meaning in Mt 5:13 is, his words illustrate the three distinctions (tenor, vehicle and point of similarity) that metaphor theorists commonly implement."

Fascinating. Another thing I've recently become interested in, though I forget to whom I've talked about this and may therefore be indulging your patience (!), is the connections between metaphor and what Wolterstorff (Art in Action, remember?) means by "fittingness" as "cross-modal similarity." Intra-modal similarity is similarity with respect to one modality-- say, speed, where you are comparing two cars: so the similarity is with respect to speed. Cross-modal similarity is where two things are being compared in different modalities (like color and heat in the metaphor "Red is a hot color") with respect to something else-- potency, preference, or--as in this case--activity. I'm not sure if Osgood's studies of the 1950s get at the root of all the relevant issues here, but the ability to compare ping and pong with ice cream and warm pea soup seems to me to involved a kind of "ambiguous identity synthesis" similar to that involved in metaphor. What is it, for example, that makes it fitting to suggest that there is something similar between Edgar and a Teddy Bear? The possibilities are delightfully endless here, and the surplus of meaning grows exponentially with brainstorming.
From Ralph Earle's Word Meanings in the NT:
"In the Greek comic writers the verb ARTUW, 'season,' referred to the seasoning with the salt of wit. But too often this degenerated into off-color jokes. Paul says that the Christian's speech should be 'with grace' or 'gracious'" (p. 362).

"Let your conversation be always gracious, and never insipid; study how best to talk with each person you meet" (Col 4:6 NEB).
I say we season our speech not only with that which is 'gracious', but that which exhibits "ambiguous identity syntheses" that are delightful and charming with respect to their cross-modal similarities.