Metaphor and Space

Franson Manjali Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

1. Spatial models
Along with the decline of the logicist paradigms, there has been increasing reference to spatial modeling and schemata in contemporary linguistics and semiotics. Perhaps, it is the need to rescue linguistic, and particularly, meaning analysis from the obscurely mentalist accounts, and to give it a physicalist or materialist orientation that has prompted such a shift towards spatiality. Parallelly, scholars have shied away from the definition of language as an abstract system consisting of arbitrary symbols and the rules of their computation. The semiotic field is no longer the container or the expresser of some otherwise indecipherable logical entities or processes, but it can henceforth be, so to say, stretched out on the ground in plain daylight. Language, which according to Saussure’s original idea, was analogically the substratum to which other cultural discourses could be compared and thus studied, now had to submit itself to an abstract or real space in order to render its structure clear. The guiding principle here is that by taking recourse to spatiality, the symbolic structure can be exteriorized. Consequently, The pre-symbolic base of the symbolic level is taken to be constituted of the spatial dimension. Further, in contrast to the mentalist approaches of the type followed by Noam Chomsky, which insisted on an uncompromising universalism, the spatial analyses were amenable to culturally specific accounts, while retaining for themselves the factum of the universality of ‘space.’ What Hjelmslev called the ‘localist hypothesis’ in grammatical theory, especially with reference to the debates within nineteenth century German scholarship (Hjelmslev, 1935; see Manjali, 1991 for a brief summary of the relevant sections of this work), seems to have returned as the methodological principle of ‘spatialization of form’ in the second


half of the twentieth century. Lucien Tesnière in his proposal for an ‘actantial’ theory of syntactic structure, had suggested that the syntactico-semantic part of sentences could be viewed as a vitalistic ‘little drama,’ characterised by a theatre-like, and hence, anthropomorphic performers or ‘actants’ and context-defining ‘circumstants.’ Edward Sapir had proposed a similar — actantial and localistic — model of sentencestructure. In the more recent American context, the spatialisation of form principle has been more seriously followed by Charles Fillmore, Ronald Langacker and Len Talmy.

The localist-actantial theory has been submitted to rigorous mathematical-topological formalisation in the works of the French scientists René Thom and Jean Petitot. Proceeding from Thom’s catastrophe-theoretical modelling, Petitot in his Morphogénèse du sens (1985) goes on to propose a Kantian-type of schematisation of linguistic and semiotic structures. In developing structur-alism as a cognitive theory of ‘morphodynamics,’ Petitot has also reinforced Gilles Deleuze’s idea that structures are essentially ‘topological and relational,’ that is, even before they are filled with any specific content. What is assumed in this approach is an isomorphism between the dynamics of the rational interiority of the human mind and the physical dynamics of the external world.

2. Iconicity and motivation
In order to understand the fundaments of the spatialisation project it is perhaps useful to take recourse, via Roman Jakobson, to Charles Sanders Peirce’s ‘Semiotic.’ The latter being a semiotics that subsists our logical understanding of the natural world, eschews Saussure’s imperative of a linguistic mediation between the ‘nebulous’ thought and the equally chaotic ‘reality’ of the world by the ‘system’ of discrete signs. At the top of Peirce’s ternarian hierarchy, signs are divided into icons, indexes and symbols. These are characterised by relations of ‘factual similarity,’

Discussed by Roman Jakobson in “Quest for the Essence of Language,” Selected Writings Vol. II, p. 351. Such models, especially the actantial ones, have an historical antecedent in the work of the 6th century Indian philosopher of language, Bhartrhari (see Manjali, 2000). According to Bhartrhari, sentence meaning is comprehended as a unified whole, like a picture.


‘factual, existential contiguity,’ and ‘imputed and learned contiguity’ respectively between the signifier and the signified (or, representamen and object in Peirce’s terms). In the symbol, its two parts are connected by a conventional ‘rule.’ Peirce avers that these are not names of pure sign-types, but are indications of certain predominant tendencies within each. These tendencies may and do exist as combinations in any given sign, including the linguistic sign. Jakobson notes in this context that according to Peirce “the ‘most perfect signs’ are those in which the iconic, the indexical and the symbolic characters are ‘blended as equally as possible.’” (Jakobson, “Quest,” p. 349) Equally important for our discussion is Peirce’s further division of icons into images, diagrams and metaphors. As per his definitions, the images are icons “which partake of simple qualities...”; the diagrams are “those which represent relations, mainly dyadic, or so regarded, of the parts of one thing by analogous relations in their parts;” and the metaphors are “those which represent the representative character of a representamen by representing a parallelism in something else.” (see Hiraga, 1994, p. 6, fn.) Thus, the specific properties characterising the three types of icons are qualitative imitation, structural analogy and imputed parallelism respectively. The images and the diagrams will have some objective correspondence between the representamen / signifier and the object / signified, while in the case of the metaphor-icons, the correspondence may be perceptually or experientially constituted on the basis of a parallelism. Peircean units seem to form a continuum starting from those having a maximum of objective correspondence between the object and the spatial / temporal form of the representamen as in the case of the image, and ending with the ‘arbitrary’ or law-like symbol, where such a correspondence is almost absent. In this continuum, the metaphor occupies a somewhat middle position, the nature of the correspondence here being a parallelism that is subjectively felt. The iconicity of the metaphor is thus part-objective, part-subjective. I.e., Obj. pole




Peircean semiotics is thus directly amenable to a spatial perspective. The icon and the index with the similarity and contiguity principles that govern them, are clearly signs that subscribe to a spatial dimension. So are the two subtypes of icons, viz., images and diagrams. And when it comes to the metaphors as the third subtype of icon, Peirce refers us to a quasispatial notion of ‘parallelism.’ Only the symbol, among the first five type of signs stands apart as primarily based on arbitrariness / convention (‘law’). Even these are not exempt from being iconically or indexically conditioned. Saussure addresses the problem of the natural or conventional relationship between the signifier and signified, not by way of a typology of signs à la Peirce, but in terms of two ‘principles,’ motivation and arbitrariness, the latter being the dominant one. Since signs, individually or in combinations, are all arbitrary (except for odd instances of soundsymbolism and onomatopoeia), according to Saussure, they do not resemble anything outside of language. Now, Jakobson, in his ‘Quest’ essay, makes it amply clear that iconicity or motivation can be attested not only at the level of unitary signs, but also at the level of syntax and morphology. Saussure himself was acutely aware of this issue, introducing it under the heading ‘Absolute and Relative Arbitrariness’ in his Cours de linguistique générale. Though he favours the ‘fundamental principle of the arbitrariness of the sign,’ he insists on the ‘limits of arbitrariness.’ As he outlines the problem:

...the whole system of language is based on the irrational principle of the arbitrariness of the sign, which would lead to the worst sort of complication if applied without restriction. But the mind contrives to introduce a principle of order and regularity into certain parts of the mass of signs, and this is the role of relative motivation. (Course, p. 133) (italics added) In any given language, though some signs (most of which appear to be individual ones) may be ‘absolutely arbitrary,’ other signs (which may appear in sign-combinations) can be spoken of only in terms of degrees of arbitrariness. Signs can be radically or relatively arbitrary, and

Though Saussure does not admit any direct extra-systemic similarity between the signifier and the signified, he accepts a principle of analogy working within the language system. The latter renders possible paradigms of (similarly) significant forms.


individual languages unpredictable ways:







There is no language in which nothing is motivated, and our definition makes it impossible to conceive of a language in which everything is motivated. Between the two extremes – a minimum of organization and a minimum of arbitrariness – we find all possible varieties. Diverse languages always include elements of both portions that vary greatly... (ibid., p. 133) The weight of evidence in favour of the new principle of ‘relative motivation‘ is indeed strong. Providing us with useful lexical and syntactic examples, Saussure states that one can speak of ‘relative motivation’ whenever a sign can be syntagmatically analysed into parts, and any of the part/s thus obtained can be associatively compared with other signs (of the same system). His well-known example in this regard is the opposition between vingt and dix-neuf. The former is radically arbitrary and the latter, because of the associations its two components, dix and neuf have with other words in the system of the French language, e.g., dix-huit and vingt-neuf, is relatively arbitrary / motivated. Let us follow Saussure’s argument more closely. Language is made up of discrete signs, which owing to fact that they emerge from ‘collective behaviour’ or by ‘convention,’ acquire the ‘irrational’ principle of arbitrariness, according to which there cannot be any natural connection between the signifier and the signified. The limited or partial motivation that the system of language has is due to our mind’s “contriving to introduce a principle of order and regularity.” And this is so because, the mechanism of language is but a partial correction of a system that is “by nature chaotic.” Saussure seems to be saying this: Because language arises due to convention, it possesses an irrational principle of arbitrariness, which makes it naturally chaotic. In other words, language’s being conventional gives it a chaotic nature. Mind introduces an order on it by reducing its arbitrariness, and making it partially motivated. It is because of the mind’s action that there are natural connections between some signifiers and the corresponding signifieds. Mind organizes the vast


and chaotic array of arbitrary signs into a relatively well-ordered system of language by means of the classical (Aristotelian) principle of analogy.

Without paying much heed to Saussure’s explanation of relative motivation in morphology and syntax in terms of the syntagmatic and associative axes of language, a method presumably forced on him by the linear and systemic character of language, Jakobson adopts a Peircean approach to the problem. True to the Peircean categories, Jakobson renames the Saussurean problem of relative motivation as the problem of iconicity in language. More precisely, in terms of the diagram-icon. And, correspondingly, he restates the problem as a problem of ‘parts and wholes’ within a syntagmatically analysable sign-unit:

Not only the combination of words into syntactic groups but also the combination of morphemes into words exhibits a clear-cut diagrammatic character. Both in syntax and morphology any relation of parts and wholes agrees with Peirce’s definition of diagrams and their iconic nature. (‘Quest,’ p. 352) Following Peirce and Jakobson, but in contradistinction to Saussure, contemporary Cognitive Linguistics tends to see iconicity in sentence structures. Consequently, even a correspondence between the order of the elements in a sentence, and that of the things / events in the referential world can be taken as a case of (diagrammatic) iconicity. Jakobson’s famous example in this regard are Julius Caesar’s words Veni, vidi, vici, which reflect the order of the emperor’s deeds. This


What Saussure is saying amounts to this: Individual signs which arise from ‘collective behaviuor’ and established by ‘convention’ may be arbitrary in the sense of not having any natural connection between the signifier and the signified. But as part of a system of signs, the originally arbitrary signs have been subjected, at least partially, to some sort of analogical ordering by the action of mind. Here, as elsewhere in the Course, the economic metaphor might be at work: individual notes or coins may be arbitrary in realtion to thier monetary value, but within a particular currency system, there is bound to be an analogical ordering based on the size of the notes, or the weight of the coins. Higher the denomination, greater the size of the notes, or the weight of the coins.

In contemporary Cognitive Linguistics, the Jakobsonian term ‘iconicity’ is widely accepted.

Saussure takes most sentences, except the formula ones, to be a unit of speech (parole), and not of the language system (langue).


‘correspondence in order between the signans and the signatum’ is regarded as a good enough principle of iconicity in Cognitive Linguistics. Now, we should note here that principle of analogy invoked by Saussure for accounting for the limitation of arbitrariness and the notion of diagrammatic iconicity suggested by Peirce and Jakboson are indeed parallel and conceptually proximate. Their difference is that whereas, the diagram, owing to its iconicity can function either within or without a system of signs, analogy lacks a direct and referential iconicity and suggests a parallelism that is merely system-internal. Thus the ‘relative motivation’ in morphology or syntactic structure, is strictly speaking, analogical and not diagrammatic. This iconicity principle has been used extensively by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their accounts of what they call the ‘conceptual metaphors.’ Lakoff and Johnson have argued that metaphors are not just linguistic entities or categories, but are in fact conceptual in nature. They claim that “metaphors partially structure our everyday concepts and that this structure is reflected in our literal language” (quoted in MacCormac, 1985: 57). The preponderance of metaphors in language use — dead, conventional, fresh, or poetic — and the systematic and networked relations among them suggest that metaphors are not just a matter of linguistic play, but are indeed the manner in which human beings conduct their thought or conceptualize. Metaphor is thus a universally prevalent and pre-eminent cognitive process. These conceptual metaphors, they further claim, function on the basis of iconicity, that is, their creation and use involve bodily experienced or perceived similarity, between items or events in the world. Further, in the creation of metaphors, they assume a clearly discernible directionality: they proceed from domains that are more concrete and more immediate to those that are less concrete or ‘abstract.’ Thus, they also conclude that our body is the ultimate and the most primitive resource of our more abstract perceptual and conceptual constructions. They also emphasize the importance of schemas derived from the structure and the basic functions and activities of the human body. Experientially-constituted ‘image-schemas’ based on the structure and basic actions of our body are at the root of our complex and abstract thought.


According to Johnson our “very basic and very complex range of bodily experiences... occurring at [the] experiential and pre-linguistic level” results in the “embodiment of meaning, which provides a semantic basis for linguistic forms, meaning and the structure of speech acts.” (Johnson, 1992: 348) Lakoff and Johnson’s basic argument runs as follows. Primitive bodily experience gives rise to the ‘image-schemas’ with their iconic quality, play structuring role in our cognition and language. Thus, our cognition, language and other social practices bear definite traces of the bodily image-schemas. Even most of our new experiences and novel use of language are coloured by these traces. Owing to their iconic or imageschematic character of these traces, which in turn is a basic part of our cognitive processes, their linguistic manifestation at the syntactic, semantic or pragmatic levels of language should be thought as widespread occurrence of conceptual metaphors. Thus, even the literal language is suffused with metaphors, which are not dead, but which come alive every time the latent conceptual metaphors are again put to work. Poetic metaphors are only further creative extensions of this inexorable (bodily and iconically rooted) metaphoricity in thought and language.

3. The classical approach: imitation and metaphor
Let us delve deeper into the problem. In Plato’s well-known dialogue, Cratylus, we find Socrates at first agreeing with Cratylus’ naturalist view on the origin and nature of language. Socrates argues that at the origin of language, a hypothetical name-giver must have employed some sort of sound-symbolism in order to arrive at the right names for things, just as the painter or the musician would employ the right forms and colours or the right sounds to undertake their respective artistic activities, with natural correctness. As Socrates puts it, the name-giver must have created: by letters and syllables a sign and a name for each and every thing, and from those names he compounds all the rest by imitation. The examples of such sound-symbolism that Socrates provides us with are indeed instructive. The consonantal sound r is (naturally) appropriate as ‘an excellent instrument for the expression of motion’ (many Greek words relating to motion containing this sound) because ‘the tongue is


least agitated and least at rest in pronunciation of this letter.’ He gives similar ‘natural’ reasons for the use of other consonants to express some primitive meaning essences: the sibilants and fricatives whose ‘pronunciation is accompanied by a great expenditure of breath’ are used for imitating ‘windiness’ involved in shivering, seething, shock, etc.; ‘the closing and pressure of the tongue in the utterance of d and t is expressive of binding and rest in a place’; ‘liquid movement of l, in the pronunciation of which the tongue slip, and in this he found in this he found the expression of smoothness. And as for vowels, Socrates mentions o, ‘which [is] the sign of roundness...’ Now, what is remarkable in these Socratic assertions, is not just the fact of imitation by sound, but indeed it is the specific character of the imitation. r imitates motion because of the agitation of the tongue, and its lack of rest. The windiness of the sibilants and the fricatives imitates the rapid expiration involved in emotions like shock, anger, etc. These imitations involve certain rhythmic or steady movement of the tongue in time, and are therefore appropriate for imitating events or actions that have a sudden temporal / dynamic character. As a converse of r, closing and pressure of the tongue in d and t, imitates ‘rest in a place.’ Here a certain steady spatial posture of the tongue imitates a state of rest. And similarly, and perhaps more apparently, the rounded shape of the mouth while pronouncing o, which is also imitated in the shape of the Greek letter o, is naturally appropriate for imitating the corresponding sound o! It is really not just a case of a sound that imitates the meaning, but rather it is the shape of the mouth-orifice while producing a particular sound that mimics the meaning. A particular sound has acquired a corresponding symbolic meaning, because there is a mimetic relationship between the spatial (and temporal) mode of articulating the sound and a certain (spatial and temporal) ‘essence’ of the thing referred to. The iconicity here is indeed that of the bodily, i.e., the oral, gesture. One may add here that the view pertaining to oral iconicity put forward by Socrates in quasidefence of Cratylus’ naturalism, if stretched to its impossible logical conclusion, would indeed seem to threaten the much avowed structuralist principle of double articulation. But this does not happen because any natural connection that may exist between a sound and its manner of articulation on the one hand and the corresponding meaning on the other,


is progressively attenuated by means of analogy, metaphorization and compounding in the larger discursive process. (The same phenomenon of bodily mimesis can be attested elsewhere too. For example, it has been noted by the present author that the syllable mu – which involves, in its articulation, a protrusion and near-closure of the lips – is present word-initially in the Malayalam language in a number words that contain the signification of pointed or sharp angularity, e.g. the point of a knife, thorn, breast, corner, etc. Here again, it is the shape of the mouth – and by extension the corresponding sound – that imitates the shape – an ‘essence’ – of the thing denoted.) If Socrates’ intuition in this respect is correct, then unlike in painting or music, immediate and intimate resources of the body are employed in linguistic imitation. Language, or ‘naming’ involves, according to Socrates, a ‘natural’ kind of action for imitating the essences of things. This imitation, he thinks, is different from the imitation in music and painting, which have to imitate only the sounds (in the former) and the form and the colours (in the latter) pertaining to events or objects in the world. Here, we notice that even when Socrates perceives a difference between the artistic imitation in such arts as music and painting, which is a kind of form-to-form imitation (where both the forms can be located in the spatial or temporal dimension) and the (art of ) linguistic imitation which involves an imitation of the essences of things by sounds, while speaking of the latter, he actually reduces these so-called essences to their spatial or temporal forms, which are in turn imitated by the manner of articulation of the speech sounds. These essences need not be a priori, but are constituted in our encounter with the objects and events, and the role of language is only to copy them with the given resources of our body. As per this account, at the very basic level linguistic articulation begins with mimesis, and language is essentially mimicry. (Strictly speaking, we notice that Socrates is concerned with two kinds of imitation in language, which correspond to the generic distinction between music and painting. For instance, when the sound r imitates motion, the type of imitation may be referred to as that involving a certain temporal-rhythmicity, because it is the rhythmic movement occurring in time that is imitated by the articulation of the sound r.


Whereas, when the sound o imitates roundness, the imitation may be that of a spatial-figurative kind.) What is significant about this account of mimicry at the origin of language is that it is not forced on him by the nature of things. Things do not cause imitation. The latter results from the correct matching of a property extracted from (the nature of) things and a sound unit extracted from the phonetic stream. As such, the initial imitation is neither caused or ‘motivated,’ nor is it random or ‘arbitrary.’ It is a creative action that man performs according to his sense of the fitness of things. The fundamental sound symbolism and mimicry is not just a process oriented to an objective truth, but rather a proto-æsthetic or phonæsthetic activity. The preceding discussion highlights only Socrates’ arguments in favour of naturalism. Later in the dialogue, he counterposes the thesis for an all-out naturalism with the anti-thesis of a strong conventionalism. He argues that the conception of natural correctness assumed by the hypothetical name-giver, could very well be wrong. And if that is the case, “we who are his followers” and have inherited his conception would also be wrong. It is at this point that Socrates distances from a position of strong naturalism: everyone should expend his chief thought and attention on the consideration of first principles:- are they or are they not rightly laid down? and when he has duly sifted them, all the rest will follow. Thus we see, at the base of language Socrates is arguing for a principle of natural correctness rooted in bodily mimicry, oral gesture. But, one may discover this principle to be wrongly founded. The historically later followers of the hypothetical name-giver may progressively correct this founding principle, or they may introduce more appropriate principles. Thus, there would be increasing movement (at least from a historical point of view) from nature to convention; from mere natural correctness to conventionally constituted truth without relinquishing the materiality and corporeality upon which imitation and similarity are predicated. The scenario Socrates presents us with is the following. The name-giver imitates the specific / assumed essences of things with his bodily / oral


resources. The recognition of the semantically-appropriate sounds is preceded by an analysis of the process of articulation. Articulation of sounds is appropriate for the expression of particular essences of things. There is a matching between the formal essences of things and the sounds at one level, and between the substantive form of the things and the manner of articulation at another level. Using Hjelmslevian terms, we can say that the first level involves an equivalence between the form of content and the form of expression, and the second level involves an equivalence between the substance of content and the substance of expression. The first results in ‘sound symbolism,’ and the second in ‘mimicry’: Essence of thing : (Sound symbolism) (Form of Content) : Imitating sound (Form of expression) (Mimicry)

Thing : Imitative action (Substance of Content) : (Substance of Expression)

But, such equivalencies may neither be adequate to begin with, nor would they hold for everyone and for all eternity. The correctness of the bodily and spatially articulated names are unstable. The names may not be equivalent to the things. The equivalence may be wrongly conceived by the name-giver. The names being given according to “the conception of the name-giver” may be more or less than appropriate to the things. The imitation may be more or less adequate. (This is not unlike metaphors, which are also signifiers that suggest an exaggeration or a diminution of the thing referred to.) In oral imitation or mimicry, the names are already distanced from and re-configured in relation to things. They are already deviant, tropes. Though there can be more and more of names, more or less deviant, Socrates warns us that “[h]e who follows names in the search of things, and analyses their meaning, is in great danger of being deceived.” Names can never be entirely true to things. Besides, since the first imitation is not a plastic imitation, it is transmitted socially from the name-giver to other possible users of language. And because naming is imitative action displayed for the benefit of the others, there is a going-beyond of the name from the self to the others. Socrates:


“And if [the name-giver’s] conception was erroneous, and he gave names according to his conception, in what position shall we who are his followers find ourselves? Shall we not be deceived by him.” But since ‘we’ also have just the same bodily and spatial resources and capacities for imitatively creating names, names which are ever-deviant, that is metaphors, these names constantly go beyond the things and our own selves, in a lateral process that can go on infinitely. Perhaps now we are in a position to better appreciate Aristotle’s discussion on imitation and metaphor in Poetics. According to Aristotle, imitation and metaphor are two special qualities that man is endowed with, and they are described as one of the two causes for the origin of poetry (the other is harmony and rhythm), and as the mark of poetic excellence, respectively. “Poetry has sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation he learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated. We have evidence for this... Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies.” Thus, in the Aristotelian syllogism implicitly at work here, the ‘instinct’ of imitation is linked with learning. And learning gives man the ‘liveliest pleasure.’ Therefore, Aristotle is able to conclude that “men enjoy seeing a likeness...” This ‘likeness’ returns later when Aristotle discusses metaphor as one of the modes of linguistic expression. Metaphor is defined as the “application of an alien name by transference.” Though, poetic excellence generally involves observation of ‘propriety’ in the use of the modes of expression, metaphor has a very special status. Here propriety is not the matter of a pre-given or natural correctness in the relationship between the signifier and the signified. It is that of an aptitude for noting likenesses on the


basis of which a name originally used for one signified can be transferred to another. Of all the poetic qualities, Aristotle notes, ...the greatest thing is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another, it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphor implies an eye for resemblances. Thus imitation, which is a natural human ‘instinct,’ is also an ideal tool for learning, and it therefore gives pleasure to all men equally. Whereas the poetic metaphor, though it too involves ‘an eye for resemblances,’ is something special, perhaps restricted to those with strong artistic sensibility. It is a ‘mark of genius’ and cannot be learnt by way of instruction.

4. Embodiment of speech and culture
Unlike Socrates, for whom iconicity is a matter of spatial or temporal form which is imitated by the spatial resources of the body, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a phenomenologist of our own times, views the perceptual process as a result of the interaction between a person’s body and the spatial dimension into which she is thrown from her birth. Merleau-Ponty’s theory of cognition, itself based in the primacy of perception, is informed by his principal notions of embodiment, enaction and embeddedness. A person uses her body as the central point of orientation while perceiving and conceptually describing both the space that surrounds her as well as the objects that appear in space. There is a continuous going back-andforth between the space outside and the figure-space of the human body, which involves a projection of the body of the subject into the world, and a corresponding introjection of the world on the subject. The relation between body and space, is not to be seen as the relation of interiority between an physically-existing body and an objective space in which the former is located. Beneath the objective space, there is a “spatiality… which merges with the body’s very being. To be a body, is to be tied to a


In his long and engaging discussion of the role of metaphor in philosophy, Derrida overlooks the fact that for Aristotle metaphor has simultaneously an aesthetic and an aletheic status. See Derrida, J., 1982, pp. 230-45.

See Varela, F. (1991) for a useful discussion of the relevant issues.


certain world, our body is not primarily in space: it is of it.” (MerleauPonty, M., Phenomenology of Perception, p. 148) Merleau-Ponty insists that this primitive ‘body-image’ plays a key role in our apprehensions of objects in space. “Body-image is …a way of stating that my body is in-the-world.” (ibid., p. 101) The presence of body-image in this manner is evident in our use of spatial prepositions: “When I say that the object is on the table, I always mentally put myself either in the table or in the object, and apply to them a category which theoretically fits the relationship of my body to eternal objects. Stripped of this anthropological association, the word on is indistinguishable from the word under or the word beside.” (ibid., p. 101) According to Merleau-Ponty, body and space are interrelated in two important ways. Firstly, a person recognises the spatial unity of her body enactively through perception and bodily movement in space. Secondly, a person’s body for her is not like any other object in the world. It is instead, the centre of the world. Space is like an extension or an organic envelope of the body which in turn sustains the unity of the body-space system, just as the heart sustains (and is sustained by) the body: Our own body is in the world as the heart is in the organism: it keeps the visible spectacle constantly alive, it breathes life into it and sustains it inwardly, and with it forms a system. (p. 203) That is why we also understand the spatiality of objects in terms of the body’s spatiality. For example, we understand a cube not in terms of its purely objective properties arrayed in a disconnected manner, but as a fragment of space ‘enclosed’ between its six equal faces, just as we can experience ourselves as enclosed between the four walls of a room. (ibid., p. 204) The whole philosophy of Merleau-Ponty is characterised by a corporeal and perceptual materialism. The experience of body-in-space and the inter-relationship between body and its ambient space is the most fundamental experience for an individual. A subject experiences the world through her body and perception. Further, the body is the affirmation of one’s existence in the world. This affirmation is expressive in a ‘certain


field of action’ formed by the external space and a person’s body. (ibid., p. 180) Merleau-Ponty would say, “the body expresses existence at every moment,” just as a word expresses thought, or a poem expresses its meaning. It is this capacity of body to be displayed in space, that makes it comparable to ‘a work of art,’ just as “in a picture or a piece of the idea is incommunicable by means other than the display of colours and sounds.” (ibid., p. 150) Language, according to Merleau-Ponty begins with the body’s (existential) expressivity, and in the perception of this expressivity in others. Therefore the source of speech is in bodily gesture. The oral organs which have other biological functions, are specialised in man for linguistic expressivity, giving rise to a more specific ‘oral gesticulation’ or a kind of ‘gestural onomatopoeia.’ Thus, in spoken language:

... a contraction of the throat, a sibilant emission of air between the tongue and teeth, a certain way of bringing the body into play suddenly allows itself to be invested with a figurative significance which is conveyed outside us. ... For the miracle to come about, phonetic ‘gesticulation’ must use an alphabet of already acquired meanings, the word-gesture must be performed in a certain setting common to the speakers, just as the comprehension of other gestures presupposes a perceived world common to all, in which each one develops and spreads out meaning. The spoken expression, thus, is not something that can be computed from its parts. It stands as a whole, as a relief against the background of the speaker’s body and the surrounding space. It is a ‘gesture’ in the figurative (iconic) as well as the deictic (indexical) sense of the term. The spoken word is a genuine gesture, and it contains its meaning in the same way as the gesture contains its. (ibid., 183) And, The spoken word is a gesture, and its meaning, a world. (ibid., p. 184)

Gill, J.H., 1991: 95.


Similarly, we understand the speech of others too as gestures, gestures again directed to specific tasks in the world. These gestures, MerleauPonty says, stand on their own, and cannot be reduced to some shared and pre-existing intellectual meanings. They too are ‘understood’ as body’s intentionally-oriented responses to tasks in the world. What takes place in a verbal gesture is a body-to-body communication in a specific spatio-temporal world. “The meaning of a gesture thus ‘understood’ is not behind it, it is intermingled with the structure of the world outlined by the gesture, and which I take up on my own account.” (ibid., p. 186.) History of the verbal gestures between individuals, and by extension between communities, sets up progressively a ‘common world,’ and any novel gesticulations refer to this fund of previous gestures, which function like a common spatial world within which every gesture is understood. Thus Merleau-Ponty believes that behind the conventional language there exists a primary and more direct form of bodily signification, which is inter-subjectively recognised. “This incarnate significance is the central phenomenon of which body and mind, sign and significance are abstract moments.” (ibid., p. 166) Behind ‘the conceptual and delimiting meaning of words,’ there exists an “emotional content of the word, which [is] its gestural sense, which is all-important in poetry, for example.” If this is really the case, then “words, vowels and phonemes are so may ways of ‘singing’ the world...and their function is to represent things, not as the naïve onomatopoeic theory would have it, by means of an objective resemblance, but because they extract and literally express, their emotional essence.” (ibid., p. 187) Our gestures, including our oral / phonetic gestures have an unmediated, and indirect meaning in the world. It conveys the subject’s position in the world of meanings, that constitute our ‘mental’ or cultural life, which “borrows its structure from the natural life” (ibid., p. 193). Thinking subject has its basis in an incarnate subject. Further, since the human body and its motility in space is responsible for the subject’s view of the world and for making this view come into existence, the body is also “the condition of possibility ... of all expressive operations and all acquired views which constitute the cultural world.” (ibid., p. 388) Now, since the expressive gestures take place in ever new spatial and cultural fields,


speech, especially authentic speech, “puts up a new sense.” Considering that even the acquired significances were once new, Merleau-Ponty claims that there is ‘an ultimate fact’ of “this open and indefinite power of giving significance – that is both of apprehending and conveying a meaning – by which man transcends towards a new form of behaviour, or towards other people, or towards his own thought, through his body and his speech.” (ibid., p. 194) And this process can tend towards some sort of a cultural universal, which is “no longer the overarching universal of a strictly objective method, but a sort of lateral universal which we acquire through ethnological experience and its incessant testing of the self through the other person and the other person through the self” (Merleau-Ponty, Signes, p. 150; Signs p. 120: quoted in Gill, J.H., 1991: 47; emphasis, the present author’s). Merleau-Ponty’s other name for this infinitely “lateral” process is ‘dialogue’: In the experience of dialogue, there is constituted between the other person and myself a common ground; my thought and his are interwoven into a single fabric (...). We have here a dual being, where the other is for me no longer a mere bit of behaviour in my transcendental field, nor I in his; we are collaborators for each other in consummate reciprocity Our perspectives merge into each other, and we coexist through a common world. In the present dialogue, I am freed from myself, for other person’s thoughts are certainly his... (Phenomenology of Perception, p. 354) This dialogue begins early in life with the child’s imitation of the (gestural) language of the adults in response to tasks for which common results are intended. In the process, a whole array of signs is acquired. Now, since communication is essentially inter-corporeal, the sedimented meanings of each of these signs are less relevant for individuals than the expressive effect that the signs can have over and above their permutations and combinations in actual speech. Here, what Merleau-Ponty calls the speaking speech (as opposed to the cognitively sedimented, spoken speech) becomes another layer of expressive gesture, which is like a personal or a specific cultural style. This style or perspective is what Merleau-Ponty in his unfinished last work, The Visible and the Invisible, views as the metaphoric mode. This second layer or reflective style is indicative of a certain “slacken[ing of] the intentional threads that attach


us to the world...” (ibid., p. xviii). In this slackening, what is otherwise opaque becomes visible, and what is visible, is so only through the transparency of the style. The first of these movements means that, Language can vary and amplify inter-corporeal communication as much as we wish: it has the same source and style as the latter. Here too, what was secret must become public and almost visible. In language, as in inter-corporeal communication, significations come through in whole packages, scarcely sustained by a few peremptory gestures. (Signes, p. 27) And owing to the style or the ‘metaphoric mode,’ which is also the cultural process of ‘slackening’: The effective, present, ultimate and primary being, the thing in itself, are in principle apprehended in transparency through their perspectives, offer themselves therefore only to someone who wishes not to have them, nor to hold them as with forceps, or to immobilise them as under the lens of a microscope, but to let them be and to witness their continued being... (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 101) Thus for Merleau-Ponty, the metaphoric, being closely related to reflective mode of thought and to cultural mode of being, is a specifically human mode of language, situated mid-way between the entirely mystical and the too positive. It is a mode wherein one is able to ‘transport’ oneself beyond the subjective and the objective, and by means of which one establishes infinite inter-subjective worlds.

5. The sense of metaphor
In the preceding sections we mainly focused on the spatial, the corporeal and the iconic dimensions of the linguistic phenomenon of metaphor. Whatever be the psychological and ideal aspects that it may be said to possess, fundamentally human language is an activity proceeding from

This idea, based on the etymological sense of metaphor as ‘transport’ has been eminently developed by E. Levinas, in his essay, “Meaning and Sense.” See reference below.


the human body situated in an ambient space and time. Therefore, language is a sort of gesture occurring in space (and time). However, it is not a gesture involving the whole of human body, but is specialised in and limited to the oro-oto-laryngeal region of the body. In addition to this communicative specialisation which man shares with many other species of animals, he is endowed with the unique property of being able to orolaryngeally produce an imitative fragment of certain essential properties of objects and events in the world around him. This imitation, as assumed by classical Greek thought, is not stimulus-bound, but is creative. Thus, the human vocal organs can produce non-instrumentally a copy of the forms and figures and in the world. Hence Socrates’ hypothesis about o replicating roundness, sibilants replicating windiness, and d and t replicating levelness, etc. However, the copies need not always be vocally iconic. Just as the iconically produced voice is already another substance standing for the thing / event in the world, other substances such as letters and pictures can copy the thing. Further, there need not be a relation of concrete iconicity between the thing and its copy, i.e., either of the image or of the diagrammatic kind, in the sense of Peirce. Thus, substances that are not directly meant for the representational purpose, but which resemble an original thing or its assumed property, can stand for the latter. Such is the case, for example, with the emblematic signs. By extension, words and other representations of such substances can stand for the original thing. And so on and so forth. The imitation that inaugurates human language is not forced on man. Language is an quasi-artistic activity, and thus in part comparable with painting and music. Many thinkers agree that at the root of language there is iconicity, similarity and figurativity, proceeding from the most easily available natural objects, especially the human body: For Socrates, certain essences of things in nature can be iconically reproduced by oral gestures. In due course, these iconic forms are subjected to intersubjective correction, and are conventionalised. For Merleau-Ponty, on the other hand, the verbal gesticulation is decidedly a type of bodily display of existential / subjective responses in the situated space. Use of conventional signs, he argues, is a “late form of relationship between


people, they presuppose an earlier means of communication.” JeanJacques Rousseau similarly believes that it is not physical needs like hunger and thirst, but moral needs and passions such as love, hatred, pity, anger, etc., that first resulted in language, and “figurative language was the first to be born.” Man’s “first words were singable and passionate before they became simple and methodical.”
10 11

There is implicit agreement among these philosophers that the source of language, one way or another, is physis, i.e., the body in and of nature. At the source, the truth of the linguistic signs is figurative. The figurative truth at first represented in iconic or indexical signs (in the Peircean sense of these terms) undergoes corrosion and dilution through repeated use of these signs whose values are relatively fixed by way of tacit convention. The task of philosophy in its classical sense is to discover truth with regard to and in language as a system of arbitrary signs. It is an “excavation” of the system of language. However, truth of the physis (nature / body) already figures in language. In Deleuzian terms, the series of the natural / figurative forms runs parallel to the series of the conventional / symbolic / arbitrary signs.
12 13

Thus, the figurative is neither before nor after the arbitrary signs. But it is something ‘other’ than the conventional. This is why Aristotle is full of praise for the use of metaphor. “An eye for resemblance” involves an abandonment of the conventionality and the arbitrariness of the given linguistic signs, and establishes new and previously unnoticed relationships of similarity between two objects or two words. Since

10 11 12

Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, p. 187. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Essay of the Origin of Language, 1966 edn, p. 12.

For a discussion of some of these issues, see Nancy, 2000.

This point, of course, is of great relevance for a theory of narrative as well as in psychoanalysis. Speaking of metaphor and metonymy in the context of structuralism, Deleuze says: “Ce déplacement relative des deux séries n’est pas du tout secondaire; il ne vient pas affecter un terme, du dehors et secondairement, comme pour lui donner un déguisement imaginaire des êtres et objets qui viennent secondairement occuper ces places. C’est porquoi le structuralisme porte tant d’attention à la métaphore et à la métonymie. Celles-ci ne sont nullement des figures de l’imagination, mais d’abord des facteurs structuraux.” (Deleuze, G., 1973: 321)

This rather positive cognitivist account of metaphors, though not without pitfalls, is assumed by many. Earl MacCormac (1985), for instance, notes that “internally, metaphors operate as cognitive processes that produce new insights and new


imitation and metaphor are related to learning, which in turn gives pleasure, the first two can what make our common and shared world other than what it conventionally is. Both cognitively and culturally, where the latter term encompasses both the aesthetic and the ethical, i.e., the intersubjective, dimensions of culture. While for Merleau-Ponty, on the other hand, the existentially-charged language is a theatre-like display of emotions in real life. And metaphor is that indirect language which though emanating from the space of one’s bodily existence, speaks beneath one’s speech and does not speak while one speaks. Metaphor is that which transports us not towards the vertical luminosity of an eternal truth, but in a ‘horizontal transcendence’ of infinite creativity.

References: Aristotle, 350 b.c. Poetics. (Tr.) S.H. Butcher. (Internet version) Deleuze, Gilles, 1973. “A quoi reconnait-on le structuralisme,” in F. Châtelet, Histoire de la philosophie, vol. 8: Le XXeme siècle. (299-335) Paris: Hachette. Derrida, Jacques, 1982. “White Mythology – Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy,” in, Margins of Philosophy. (tr.) A. Bass. Brighton: The Harvester Press. Gill, Jerry, H., 1991. Merleau-Ponty and Metaphor. New Jersey: The Humanities Press. Hiraga, Masako, K., 1994. “Diagrams and metaphors: iconic aspects in Language.” Pragmatics 22: 5-21. Jakobson, Roman, 1971. “Quest for the essence of language,” in Selected Writings. Vol. II: Word and Language. The Hague: Mouton. Johnson, Mark, 1992. “Philosophical implications of cognitive semantics,” Cognitive Linguistics 3-4: 345-66. Lakoff, George, 1993. “The contemporary theory of metaphor,” in A. Ortony (ed.) Metaphor and Thought (2nd edn.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
hypotheses,” and “externally, metaphors operate as mediators between the human mind and culture.” (p. 3)


Levinas, Emmanuel, 1987. “Meaning and Sense,” in A. Lingis (tr.) Levinas – Collected Philosophical Papers. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff. MacCormac, Earl, R., 1985. A Cognitive Theory of Metaphor. Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press. Manjali, Franson, 1991. Nuclear Semantics – Towards a Theory of Relational Meaning. New Delhi: Bahri. Manjali, Franson, 2000. “Body, Space and Metphorical-Cultural Worlds,” in Meaning, Culture and Cognition. New Delhi: Bahri. Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, 1962 edn. Phenomenology of Perception. (tr.) Colin Smith. New Jersey: The Humanities Press. Merleau-Ponty, M., 1960. Signes. Paris: Gallimard. Merleau-Ponty, M., 1968 edn. The Visible and the Invisible. (ed.) Claude Lefort; (tr.) A. Lingis. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. Nancy, Jean-Luc, 2000. “Entre deux,” Magazine Littéraire 392: 54-57. Paris. Petitot, Jean, 1985. Morphogénèse du sens. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Plato, “Cratylus.” in, Hayden, D.E. and E.P. Alworth (eds.) Classics in Semantics. London: Vision Books. (1965) Radwanska-Williams, Joanna, Pragmatics 22: 23-36. 1994. “The problem of iconicity,” in

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, 1966 edn. Essay on the Origin of Language. (tr.) J.H. Morgan and A. Gode. New York: F. Ungar. Saussure, F. de, 1974 edn. Course in General Linguistics. (tr.) Wade Baskin. Glasgow: Fontana. Varela, Francesco, Eleanor Rosch and Evan Thompson, 1991. The Embodied Mind. Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press. *****



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