I wrote this for an upper-level philosophy class at Dalhousie University.

When we utter a phrase such as ‘Juliet is the sun,’ our understanding of this phrase requires more than just knowledge of what the words mean. The hearer must draw upon other sources of information to figure out the metaphorical meaning. Searle reduces the problem of metaphor to one in which “the utterance of an expression with its literal meaning and corresponding set of truth conditions can, in various ways that are specific to metaphor, call to mind another meaning and corresponding set of truth conditions.”(Searle, 85) Although this does not approach the question pertaining to this week’s reading, his reduction of the problem illustrates that his core understanding of the question of a metaphor’s meaning is fairly standard.

His article shows that both the comparison and interaction views are problematic in their approaches to understanding both how a metaphor means, and how metaphors are constructed. His system is comprised of eight principles that, together, purport to solve the problem of metaphorical predication. He writes that his principles are “collectively efficient to enable speaker and hearer to form and comprehend utterances of the form ‘S is P’, where speaker means metaphorically that S is R.”(Searle, 112) It would appear that his system’s almost scientific reduction of computing the so-called ‘R’ value in the metaphorical statement would make metaphors largely uninteresting; I, however, will argue the exact opposite. His step-by-step account makes understanding the transition from the ‘S is P’ utterance to the ‘S is R’ utterance more accessible, and for the most part, metaphors can remain interesting. He accounts for the ways in which ‘R’ can be derived from ‘P’. The example of ‘Sam is a giant’ shows this nicely. This metaphor shows our derived understanding (Sam is big) comes from our knowledge that giants are big; in short, one word calls to mind another word. This first principle fits in nicely with the above definition of metaphor (85). Searle also shows that the ‘R’ value can be obtained through our knowledge of certain mythologies (he uses the example of comparing a person to a gorilla, and that this person is understood to be mean and nasty because of mythological associations). The ‘R’ value can also be obtained through odd derivations; he uses the example that ‘John is bitter’. The paraphrased meaning of this metaphor would be something like ‘John harbours bad feelings’. This is an example of our associations that tend to be scalar, like temperature metaphors (John came out of the room hot).

Searle’s paper does show that metaphors are replaceable, and I believe that placing several examples of paraphrased metaphors at the beginning of his paper was a conscious choice to illustrate this point. The fact remains that metaphors maintain their allure, and I think that Searle’s paper does not make metaphors uninteresting. If anything, his method of computing the ‘R’ value shows just how interesting and intricate even the simplest of metaphors are. Given the fact that the most basic metaphorical statements are so complex, I can only imagine the levels on which more complex metaphors work. Pursuing these intricate metaphors remains an interesting proposition.

Works Cited

Searle, John. Expression and Meaning. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1979.

Searle on the "Interestingness" of Metaphor

John Searle wants to answer how it is that a speaker can say “metaphoricallyS is P” and mean “S is R”, when P plainly does not mean R” (Searle 103). His answer, stated briefly,

“is that the utterance of P calls to mind the meaning and, hence, the truth conditions associated with R in the special ways that metaphorical utterances have of calling other things to mind.” (Searle 104)
This ‘calling to mind’ is accomplished by a number of generalized steps (they are generalized because Searle is dubious, and I agree with him, that there can be any firm and clear definition of how one ‘calls to mind’). First, we must recognize that a metaphor is present. Second, we attempt to discern what “R” could be by applying various principles. One of which is as follows: discover the relation of similarity between S and P, and search for things that S might have a similar relation of similarity to in order to find R. Searle gives a number of other possible principles: a salient, obvious, feature of P is R; P is sometimes R, etc. Searle ends up cataloging eight principles (with a tentative ninth) by which metaphors can be understood.

It seems to me that Searle convincingly broadens the somewhat reductionist account of metaphor we see in the comparison/simile view. While the comparison view holds that metaphors can be easily replaced by a more literal comparison (Juliet is like the sun) Searle’s account argues that thinking of the metaphor like a simile is one strategy, among many, that might help us understand just what the speaker is getting at. Thus, Searle is able to argue that simply replacing “Juliet is the sun” with “Juliet is like the sun” does not ‘explain’ a metaphor. If it did, metaphors would lose everything that makes them philosophically (not to mention aesthetically) interesting.

He would suggest that we do the ‘replacing’ only in an attempt to comprehend the metaphor; this does not logically entail that the truth conditions of the simile are the same as that of the metaphor. Thus, P does not ‘equal’(in any semantic sense) R, but thinking about it that way is one strategy (among at least 8) that helps us understand how P and R might be related. It seems that the lack of hard and fast rules in Searle’s account (like Max Black’s, in this respect) is a blessing rather than a problem. Instead of subjecting all metaphors to a sort of rigorous calculus, Searle understands that trying to explain or analyze metaphors unilaterally is a doomed project. Metaphors are interesting precisely because they are diverse, and exceedingly difficult to describe entirely. So, I think that by retaining this diversity, and difficulty, without relying on a general definition, allows Searle’s metaphors to remain interesting.


  1. John Searle, "Metaphor", chapter in Expression and Meaning (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1979).

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