Excerpt from D. PHILIP CARNEY Tropological Language (Forthcoming, 2008)
A semiotic perspective on the interpretation of metaphor, which views the phenomenon as an unstable or dynamic sign, is offered by the philosopher, historian and semiotician Umberto Eco in his 1984 book ‘Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language’. Eco’s treatment is interesting not only for the semiotic lexicon he brings to the discussion of metaphor, but also for the depth to which he plumbs Aristotle’s original theory, in doing so demonstrating a clear link between many modern theories of metaphor and the classical theory which was proposed by Aristotle over two thousand years ago. In particular, I draw from Eco’s analysis a significant parallel between Aristotle’s theory and the dynamic type hierarchy (DTH) model of Eileen Cornell Way, a modern computational theory which I shall consider in some depth later in this chapter. In general, Eco makes a somewhat uncharitable (though well-argued) claim that mirrors, in its dismissive sweep, White-head’s famous reduction of the European philosophical tradition to ‘a series of footnotes to Plato’:
" ... of the thousands and thousands of pages written about the metaphor, few add anything of substance to the first two or three fundamental concepts stated by Aristotle. In effect, very little has been said about a phenomenon concerning which, it seems, there is everything to say." [Eco, 1984]
In Eco’s opinion, then, the basic metaphor research agenda was initially founded by Aristotle, and most thought that has since followed on the subject has remained largely faithful to the tenets established therein. The idea that a well-structured concept hierarchy in itself provides a suitable basis for metaphor interpretation (what Eco might himself call the Porphrian Fallacy) has, as a result, become somewhat of a mind-set to researchers in the field, as can be witnessed by the number of different theories which depend, ultimately, on either an explicit or implicit taxonomy of world knowledge, against which the operations of metaphoric analysis can be conducted (I say implicit here as even the features employed in markerese schemes such as that of Aarts & Calbert can be viewed as the superordinates of an ontological world model).
However, if most metaphor researchers are caught in the grasp of an idae fixe, Eco’s own perspective is not itself entirely untrammelled by this fixation of vision. This is apparent from the five semiotic rules he provides to sketch a basic interpretation process (note: Eco seems to describe here an interpretative process for dealing with metaphors in which the tenor is not explicitly provided, but has to be eked out of the narrative context; for instance, the "house of the birds" refers to, but does not mention, the sky):
1) Derive a componential representation of the vehicle, focusing on those components (markerese features, slots, attributes, predicates, etc.) which are deemed germane in the current co-text (narrative context).
2) Look abductively in the encyclopaedia (world knowledge-base) for some other sememe (concept symbol) that possibly shares some of the focused properties of the vehicle, but exhibits other, interestingly different properties of its own (presumably these interesting differences supply the emotive tension of the metaphor). The sememe found in this way is a plausible candidate for the tenor of the metaphor.
3) Try to link the opposing (interestingly different) properties of tenor and vehicle via a shared superordinate in the knowledge-base taxonomy. Pre-sumably, such a link legitimises the opposition and thus the metaphor.
4) Evaluate the metaphoric reading. The higher up the knowledge-base taxonomy these oppositions are united, the more interesting the metaphor is deemed. Presumably, this is a criterion for establishing metaphoric quality, inasmuch as the more obscure the opposition, the more novel the metaphor will seem.
5) Establish new predications - attributions - relations in the tenor as a result of the metaphor, ‘so as to enrich the cognitive power of the trope’.
On the whole, Eco’s five rules put forward a liberal agenda for metaphor interpretation, one that acknowledges its cognitive centrality and rôle in acquiring new conceptual structure. My only complaint with his formulation, as suggested previously, is that it is not entirely free of the taxonomic mind-set which I consider a failing in other models of metaphor. Steps three and four of his scheme should (and can) be generalised so as to avoid unnecessary commitment to omnicompetent concept hierarchies. Determination of a shared superordinate is not the only plausible manner in which an opposition of interestingly different properties in the tenor and vehicle may be reconciled; they may instead share some common attributions, partake in the same predications in the same contexts, etc., or indeed, the commonality may not be explicable at the symbolic level at all before the metaphor is interpreted, if the perspective of Harnad is the correct one to adopt.