This is now my third installment of Paul Ricoeur's Interpretation Theory, a series of foundational lectures on hermeneutics that he gave in 1973 at Texas Christian University.
1. Language as Discourse
2. Speaking and Writing
Now for the third chapter: Metaphor and Symbol
Ricoeur considers a treatment of metaphor and symbol important for a theory of verbal signification to have its "greatest possible extension" (45). There were those in the early twentieth century, easily following the trajectory of Aristotle and others, who saw metaphors as non-cognitive and emotional, rather than cognitive features of language. By contrast, Ricoeur means to show that "metaphor is the touchstone of the cognitive value of literary works."
In this essay, Ricoeur will revisit a topic from his earlier work as well--the symbol. What distinguishes the symbol from the metaphor, in his view, is that symbols are not merely semantic (like metaphors). Symbols involve something non-semantic as well. More on this topic in a moment.
2. The Theory of Metaphor
In Ricoeur's day, it was common to see a metaphor as "bereft of any cognitive significance" (46). Metaphors were analyzed on the model of denotation and connotation. In this approach, "only the denotation is cognitive and, as such... of a cognitive order." Denotation refers to the basic meaning of a word.
I personally think of connotations as overtones beyond the basic meaning. The older approach to metaphor saw connotation as "extra-semantic because it consists of the weaving together of emotive evocations, which lack cognitive value" (46). He visits Aristotle, where metaphor is merely a matter of naming. For Cicero, metaphor is simply an abridged comparison.
Aristotle isolates words from one another (he thus can be critiqued by Ricoeur as not looking at meaning from the standpoint of the sentence). In the ancient rhetoricians, the function of rhetoric is to please or perhaps seduce the audience, to persuade them, and in that sense a metaphor might prove of some value.
Ricoeur sums up how the ancients treated metaphors: 1) as a trope, a simple substitution of one word for another, a figure of discourse relating to the "denomination" of an individual word or two, 2) as an extension of the meaning of a name, derived from the literal meaning of the word or words, 3) based on a resemblance of some kind, 4) with the literal word easily being substituted for the metaphor instead and the meaning remaining the same. Thus, 5) there is no semantic innovation with the use of metaphor and 6) no new information involved. It serves a merely emotive function (49).
Ricoeur's move is ingenius. He "shifts the problem of metaphor from the semantics of the word to the semantics of the sentence" (47). This move will allow him to provide a purely semantic definition for all literature in its three essential classes, poetry, essays, and prose fiction.
Ricoeur proceeds to reject the above presuppositions about metaphor. "Metaphor has to do with semantics of the sentence before it concerns the semantics of a word" (49). That is to say, it is a "phenomenon of predication, not denomination" (50). Metaphors involve a tension, not between two words or names, but between two interpretations. "A metaphor does not exist in itself, but in and through an interpretation." Ricoeur thus undermines the second presupposition above.
Now he attacks the third. A metaphor is not the clothing of an idea in an image based on comparison or similarity. Rather, for him the key semantic feature of a metaphor derives from the dissimilarity. How can these two dissimilar things be connected, we ask ourselves? The act of "reducing the shock engendered by two incompatible ideas" helps us find the resemblance that gives meaning.
The tension between two interpretations of meaning brings the creation of new meaning. There is no mere substitution of one word for another as in #4, and a new meaning takes place, against #5 and 6. "A new signification emerges" (52). "A metaphor is an instantaneous creation, a semantic innovation which has no status in already established language and which only exists because of the attribution of an unusual or an unexpected predicate."
Ricoeur thus does not include dead metaphors as metaphors any longer. There is no longer a tension in their use ("the foot of a chair"). Their extended meaning has become part of our lexicon. "There are no live metaphors in a dictionary" (52).
Therefore, "real metaphors are not translatable" (52). They can be paraphrased in many ways but a single word cannot be substituted for them. And metaphors are not mere ornaments of discourse.
3. From Metaphor to Symbol
Ricoeur now switches to a treatment of symbols, a topic which has not long been studied by rhetoricians and which, unlike metaphor, moves beyond the merely linguistic and semantic. For example, psychoanalysis deals with things like dreams and other symbols relating to deep psychic conflicts. Poetics in the broad sense can engage persistent figures within a culture or a school of literature. Then there is the religious use of symbols that engages symbols of space and time, of transcendence, and the wholly other.
Symbols thus belong to too many and too diverse fields of research for their study to be as easy as the study of metaphor, and they bring together the linguistic order together with the non-linguistic order.
Nevertheless, Ricoeur believes that his approach to metaphor can clarify the significance of symbols. He aims first to identify the semantic kernel of a symbol. This move in turn will help him isolate the non-linguistic stratum of symbols. This will finally allow him to complete his theory of metaphor.
The Semantic Moment of a Symbol
To begin with, "the symbol, in effect, only gives rise to thought if it gives rise to speech" (55). Within language, the tension theory of metaphor he is laying out can provide an entry point for understanding the semantic dimension of symbols. "The metaphorical twist, which our words must undergo in response to the semantic impertinence at the level of the entire sentence, can be taken as the model for the extension of meaning operative in every symbol."
There is an "excess of signification in a symbol," just as there is in a metaphor. "It is the recognition of the literal meaning that allows us to see that a symbol still contains more meaning. This surplus of meaning is the residue of the literal interpretation" (55). "Yet for the one who participates in the symbolic signification there are really not two significations, one literal and the other symbolic, but rather a single movement."
As a side note, he takes a moment here to distinguish symbol from allegory. "Allegory is a rhetorical procedure that can be eliminated once it has done its job. Having ascended the ladder, we can then descend it. Allegory is a didactic procedure" (56). I'm not sure if this will do, but it is suggestive.
In symbol, we speak of assimilation rather than apprehension. "The symbol assimilates rather than apprehends a resemblance" (56). "All the boundaries are blurred--between the things as well as between the things and ourselves." "There is more in a symbol than in any of its conceptual equivalents" (57).
But it gives rise to concepts. Ricoeur disagrees with those who make us choose between symbols and concepts. Rather, "symbols give rise to endless exegesis" (57). "No given categorization can embrace all the semantic possibilities of a symbol. But it is the work of the concept alone that can testify to this surplus of meaning."
The Non-Semantic Moment of a Symbol
After clarifying the semantic dimension of symbols, Ricoeur now seeks to clarify the non-semantic dimension of symbols. "The opacity of a symbol is related to the rootedness of symbols in areas of our experience that are open to different methods of investigation" (57). Psychoanalysis, for example, delves into sleep. Poetry, he says, connects to a global form of behavior. And religious symbols engage engagement with supernatural forces, "which dwell in the depths of human existence, transcending and dominating it" (58).
"It is the task of many disciplines to reveal the lines that attach the symbolic function to this or that non-symbolic or pre-linguistic activity" (58).
The rest of this section analyzes the symbols of these three areas: psychoanalysis, poetics, and religious symbols. Ricoeur's basic conclusion is that "what asks to be brought to language in symbols, but which never passes completely into language, is always something powerful, efficacious, forceful" (63). They involve a "dialectic of power and form... which insures that language only captures the foam on the surface of life."
For psychoanalysis, symbols skirt the boundary between desire and culture, the boundary between primary repression (of our impulses versus reality) and secondary repression (the restrictions of society and culture). "Psychoanalysis must develop a mixed language," a mixture of the inner and the outer (58). Dream accounts involve a kind of "palimpsest, riddle or hieroglyph," a distorted presentation of a mixed inner and outer reality.
Thus while "metaphor occurs in the already purified universe of the logos... the symbol hesistates [sic] on the dividing line between bios and logos. It testifies to the primordial rootedness of Discourse in Life. It is born where force and form coincide" (59).
Ricoeur's treatment of poetic language seems a little more forced, but we can see that he is engaging it with a hint of the same psychological underbelly as he approached psychoanalysis. "The poetic project is one of destroying the world as we ordinarily take it for granted" (59).
Boundedness is significant for Ricoeur in this section. As he will say of religious symbolism, "The bound character of symbols makes all the difference between a symbol and a metaphor. The latter is a free invention of discourse; the former is bound by the cosmos" (61). So in poetics, "the poem is bound by what it creates" (60) just as in dreams and deep psychology, there is a boundedness of the symbols to our psychic reality.
Yet, in regard to poetics, the hypothetical realm created brings to life new meanings, "new ways of being in the world" (60). "What binds poetic discourse, then, is the need to bring to language modes of being that ordinary vision obscures or even represses."
His discussion of religious symbolism brings this discussion of the non-semantic boundedness of symbol home. He references Rudolph Otto's sense of the numinous (the transcendent that creates awe, as in Isaiah 6) and Mircea Eleade's sense of hierophany (manifestation of the sacred). There is a power to the sacred that cannot be captured in speech. It does not "pass over completely into the articulation of meaning" (61).
"The numinous element is not first a question of language, if it ever really becomes one, for to speak of power is to speak of something other than speech" (60). There is a preverbal character of such experience.
"The bond between myth and ritual attests in another way to this non-linguistic dimension of the Sacred" (61). Perhaps Ricoeur again goes too far, but his fundamental point is that there is a logic of correspondences between the universe and the Sacred and this law of correspondences makes religious language bounded by the universe rather than freely composed, as in metaphor.
"A temple always conforms to some celestial model" (62). There are intrinsic correspondences between the body, houses, and the cosmos. The skull is like a roof. Our breath is like the wind. A rite of passage is like a bridge.
But without language, "the Sacred would remain unmanifested" (62). Ritual is also a "modality of making or doing--a doing of something marked by power." But it would "lack the power to organize space and time without an instituting word." "Symbolism only works when its structure is interpreted... a minimal hermeneutic is required for the functioning of symbolism" (62-63). But the interpretation presupposes the symbol. "The revealing grounds the saying, not the reverse" (63).
4. The Intermediate Degrees between Symbol and Metaphor
Having explored the character of symbols, Ricoeur now returns to the metaphor, to see if his venture might in turn further clarify his starting point in the essay.
Ricoeur suggests three ways in which the foray into symbols shows how certain metaphors--especially those that have a connection to symbols--can have staying power beyond the moment of invention. How can the metaphor of the moment, a moment of invention in an event of discourse, resist simply becoming trivial and then a dead metaphor? And why is it that symbols seem to have staying power, that symbols never die.
The first potential extending factor is the fact that metaphors can function in a network or chain of metaphors. This is when "one metaphor, in effect, calls for another and each one stays alive by conserving its power to evoke the whole network" (84). Ricoeur uses the imagery of God in the Hebraic tradition--he is King, Father, Husband, Lord, Shepherd, Judge, Rock, Fortress, and so forth. These interconnections create a kind of equilibrium.
There is a "root metaphor" here of sorts, Ricoeur claims, that both assembles and scatters. The network "assembles subordinate images together, and they scatter concepts at a higher level" (64).
A second factor that potentially extends the life of a metaphor is a potential hierarchical structure. "Certain fundamental human experiences make up an immediate symbolism that presides over the most primitive metaphorical order" (65). "This anthropological and cosmic symbolism is in a kind of subterranean communication with our libidinal sphere."
Then there can be metaphors that build on these more fundamental metaphors--what Philip Wheelwright calls archetypes. "Everything indicates that symbol systems constitute a reservoir of meaning whose metaphoric potential is yet to be spoken" (65). "The most insistent metaphors hold fast to the intertwining of the symbolic infrastructure and metaphorical superstructure."
The final factor that extends the longevity of metaphor is its potentially referential dimension, the use of metaphor as a model for interpreting the world. Here Ricoeur recaps Frege, whom he mentioned in the first lecture. The sense of a statement is "the pure predicative relation, the reference its pretention to say something about reality, in short, its truth value" (66). The sense is what it says. The reference is what it says it about.
As in science, metaphors can serve like a theoretical model in science, a way of exploring a complex domain of reality by way of a heuristic, somewhat imaginary perspective. Such a model is "an instrument of redescription" (66).
Ricoeur uses this notion in the remainder of his analysis. Metaphor can be an instrument whereby we redescribe the world. We "describe a domain of reality in terms of an imaginary theoretical model" (67, Max Black's sense of metaphors as models). It is a "way of seeing things differently by changing our language about the subject of our investigation." "Thanks to this detour through the heuristic fiction we perceive new connections among things."
So "poetry creates its own world" (67). Both poetic and scientific language "aim at a reality more real than appearances." We suspend the reality of ordinary language in the metaphor so that we can gain the benefit of a "second degree of reference" (68). We redescribe reality. From this tensive apprehension, "a new vision of reality springs forth." "the eclipse of the objective, manipulable world thus makes way for the revelation of a new dimension of reality and truth."
"Poetic language does not tell how things literally are, but what they are like" (68). "The literal 'is' is overturned by the absurdity [of the comparison and representation] and surmounted by a metaphorical 'is' [that is] equivalent to 'is like.'"
Therefore to conclude this section, he writes, "Can we not then call insistent metaphors--those metaphors that are closest to the symbolic depths of our existence--metaphors that owe their privilege of revealing what things are like [referential dimension] to their organization into networks and hierarchical levels?" (68).
Then to conclude the entire essay, he asserts to contrary propositions. "On the one side, there is more in the metaphor than in the symbol; one the other side, there is more in the symbol than in the metaphor" (68).
On the first score, a metaphor "brings to language the implicit semantics of the symbol" (69). Thus the metaphor brings out more meaning. But, on the other hand, "metaphor is just the linguistic procedure--that bizarre form of predication--within which the symbolic power is deposited" (69). "Metaphors are just the linguistic surface of symbols," while "symbols plunge us into the shadowy experience of power."