Metaphor and The Enlightenment

The modern theory of metaphor is colored with Aristotelian ideas but filtered through the Enlightenment lens. The first four installments of this series on metaphor (1, 2, 3, 4) focused on Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquianas. Today’s offers a brief view of three figures (Hobbes, Nietzsche, Kant) from the Enlightenment to provide a snapshot of Enlightenment’s view of metaphor. In effect, Hobbes and Nietzsche represent the opposite ends of the spectrum while Kant gives a moderate perspective.


Thomas Hobbes – ‘Scientific’ thinkers of the Enlightenment struggled to see any use for metaphor. As Hobbes states, “Metaphors, and senslesse and amibguous words, are like ignes fatui…and their end, contention and sedition, or contempt” (Leviathan 1.5.22). According to his “literal-truth paradigm” (Mark Johnson), metaphor only confuses rational argument because it cannot add any meaning to what is already fully explained literally. Thus, metaphors are not simply rhetorical flourishes as other supposed they are actually harmful. While Hobbes view comes to different conclusions, it is still built upon Aristotelian foundation. The biggest difference is he does not agree with Aristotle’s view of metaphors as fitting or as useful for explaining the abstract.


Friedrich Nietzsche – Nietzsche represents the opposite end of the Enlightenment’s view of metaphor. Nietzsche questioned the existence of ‘literal-truth’ leading him to reassess the use of metaphors. He recognized metaphors as a cognitive process (meaning building) where meaning is socially constructed (not based on literal association). Metaphor, according to Nietzsche, has a ubiquitous quality and must not be examined as if tied to an external structure of truth, especially not a divine being. The differences between Nietzsche and Hobbes are obvious.


Immanuel Kant – Kant is a bridge between the two extreme views of Hobbes (solely tied to literal truth) and Nietzsche (entirely socially constructed). Kant recognized metaphor as a crucial piece of the human capacity for creativity. As a figurative expression, metaphor could help express and generate conceptual work thus serving as critical means for human reasoning. Metaphor, therefore, served as a way to apply the pure moral law (literal) in actual situations (social). Kant saw both the limits of metaphor and the usefulness of metaphor.


This post ends the historical review of the western theory of metaphor. The next installment will begin to unpack the modern theory of conceptual metaphor.