“Classical” Western Theory of Metaphor: Aristotle

Is there a “classical” western theory of metaphor? This is an interesting question because until recently no one has attempted to present a formal theory of metaphor or of language. To suggest that such was the case would be anachronistic. Yet, if one reads most current works in my field, New Testament hermeneutics, it seems that they all rely on a similar, or a “classical” understanding of metaphor. This series of posts is going to follow the development of the “classical” theory of metaphor from Aristotle to the present day over the next few weeks.

While Plato is commonly regarded as the progenitor of Western philosophical tradition’s anti-metaphorical bent, Aristotle first gives sustained reflection to the nature of metaphor in human cognition. Two revealing statements from Poetics can help boil down his thoughts on metaphor:

Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else; the transference being either from genus to species, or from species to genus, or from species to species, or on grounds of analogy.

But the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.

By looking at these two statements together we can cobble together a basic understanding of metaphor:

  1. Metaphor works at the level of individual words. The process of transfer might occur at different levels (species or genus), but metaphor is the transfer of names between two words (most often nouns).
  2. A quality of perceived similarity between the two objects enables the transfer. Metaphoric connections must draw from similarities actually present in the world. A good metaphor corresponds rightly to the thing be signified.
  3. And yet the objects cannot be obviously related or it lessens the impact of the metaphor. In this sense, metaphor is both the realm of the genius (one who can perceive the similarity) and a linguistic deviance.

To summarize, Aristotle’s view of metaphor focuses on single words that deviate from ordinary, literal language to evoke a change in meaning based on perceived similarities.

Compare this to a summary of the common view of metaphor held today by many: metaphor is a linguistic devise useful for explaining something abstract by referring to something more concrete.

It does not take a genius to perceive the similarities between these two definitions. Aristotle’s view of metaphor forms the foundation on which the “classical” view of metaphor is built.

Next week we will look at how the “classical” view developed further in the works of Augustine and Aquinas.



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