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Max Black’s interaction view of metaphor and some possible counterexamples.

Black's interaction view of metaphor is an attempt to get beyond what he sees as the over-simplification inherent in earlier, classical accounts of metaphor that rely on comparison (or seeing metaphors as elliptical similes). Black sees a metaphor as composed of two subjects, a principal one (the least ‘metaphorical’ of the two) and a subsidiary. In the, by now very banal, example ‘Juliet is the sun’, ‘Juliet’ would be the principal subject and ‘sun’ the subsidiary.

Rather than a strictly straightforward comparison (as in the Aristotelian view), Black argues that the work of the metaphor takes place in the interaction between these two subjects. This interaction involves more than simply jamming one literal meaning up against another in a sort of brute-force metaphor (though he doesn’t deny this sort of metaphor its status either). Black’s view requires a further view of the meaning of individual terms.

He notes that for each word we have certain associated implications, or connotations, which allow the metaphor to function. Generally, these associations are simply the ordinary associations we attach to a word. For instance, we might think of ‘light’, ‘center’ or ‘gigantic gassy ball’ when we think of the sun. But Black also makes room for more site-specific metaphors: ones that have been given meaning non-commonplace sets of associations. He notes, for instance, that in a study on wolves, the implications of the metaphor ‘Man is a wolf’ will be different than they might be in everyday discourse.

Black argues that the actual work of the metaphor occurs when it “selects, emphasizes, suppresses, and organizes features of the principal subject by implying statements about it that normally apply to the subsidiary subject” (Black, “Metaphor”, 44-45). Which is to say that, the success of a metaphor hinges on fruitful, and specific, alignments and dis-alignments between the sets of associations of its two subjects. Thus, simply paraphrasing a metaphor (in the comparative view’s sense) by stating ‘Juliet is like the sun’ or ‘Juliet is like (an exhaustive list of the properties of the sun)’ does not have the same effect as the simple metaphor does.

The most important aspect of Black’s view is that he sees metaphor as containing positive cognitive content. As mentioned above: simply paraphrasing a metaphor, even if one captures precisely the same connotations/associations as the metaphor, does not convey the same meaning as the metaphor itself. This is because

the implications, previously left for a suitable reader to educe for himself, with a nice feeling for their relative priorities and degrees of importance, are now presented explicitly as though having equal weight. The literal paraphrase inevitably says too much—and with the wrong emphasis (Black, “Metaphor”, 46).
So, in addition to the regular, literal meaning a metaphorical sentence may have (Juliet is the sun…) there is another meaning with positive cognitive content that cannot be drained simply by literal paraphrase.

The case could be made that this account relies too heavily on a primary subject that is ‘acted upon’ by a subsidiary subject. I would argue that in a number of cases this distinction may become entirely untenable. This can be most sharply seen in metaphors where two very obviously ‘subsidiary’ or metaphorical terms are used against each other. Here is a hastily concocted example: let’s say we are displeased with a newly built house, and the carpenters who built it: “The asses built us a tomb!” Here it is unclear which subject (‘asses’ or ‘tomb’) is being acted upon by the subsidiary subject. Should we picture here donkeys building us a shoddy house, or should we picture a tomb being built by incompetent workers? These are obviously oversimplifications for the sake of brevity, but I think Black relies too heavily on a distinction that may often prove questionable. (In the end I do find his view rather convincing ).


    Max Black, "Metaphor," pp. 25-47 in Models and Metaphors (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1962).

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