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A Note on the Notion of Metaform and Its Implications for Semiotics

Marcel Danesi
p. 397-407

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1. Introduction

1The view of language as a system of concepts grounded in metaphorical processes comes today under the general rubric of conceptual metaphor theory (CMT). Even though the term surfaced in the early 1980s, after the ground-breaking book by Lakoff and Johnson at the start of that decade (Lakoff and Johnson 1980), the theoretical notions that it embodies, and the insights it provides into verbal semiosis, have a long history behind them, starting in the ancient world and elaborated periodically throughout the centuries.

2Since the inception of CMT, overwhelming empirical evidence has come forward in the human sciences to validate the premise that many abstract concepts are knowable primarily (if not exclusively) as metaphorized forms, that is, as sign-forms that are constructed cognitively through figurative reasoning. By the 1990s and early 2000s the research paradigm investigating the relation between metaphor and conceptualization laid the foundation for the emergence of a new kind of interdisciplinary linguistics, based on the view that cognition and representational systems — language, gesture, narrative, mathematics, the arts, etc. — are interconnected by figurative reasoning (see, for instance, Gibbs 1994, Goatley 1997, Lakoff and Núñez 2000, Fauconnier and Turner 2002). However, this trend within linguistics (and some branches of psychology) has only sporadically been taken into serious consideration by semioticians as bearing significant implications for sign theory. The purpose of this paper is to amplify what I have previously called metaform theory, which is but one attempt among several others to amalgamate the work in CMT with work in sign theory (Danesi 1998, Sebeok and Danesi 2000, Danesi 2004). Specifically, I will put forward the notion that there is a level of cognition that undergirds the metaphorical process, which manifests itself not only in the verbal domain, but also in all semiosic domains. The manifestations — verbal and nonverbal — of this feature of cognition can thus be called metaforms. These are the words, concepts, rituals, symbols, and so on that are based on the same pattern of metaphorical reasoning and which are thus connected to each other semiosically. Lakoff himself has always been intuitively aware of this level of cognition, writing as follows: “metaphors can be made real in less obvious ways as well, in physical symptoms, social institutions, social practices, laws, and even foreign policy and forms of discourse and of history” (Lakoff 2012, pp. 163-164). But, with few exceptions (Tilley 1999), Lakoff and others have never really formalized the implications that the “making real”, as he puts it, entail, nor engaged in conducting empirical research to investigate it.

2. Background

3Basically, CMT is a theoretical framework that describes how metaphorical reasoning underlies how we come to understand abstractions such as life and love in tangible ways. Unlike concepts referring to things that can be seen, heard, touched, and so on, an abstract concept cannot be perceived directly by our sensory apparatus. Take life as a case-in-point. We know what life is, but we cannot see it, taste, it, touch it, and so on, as we can the referents represented by the words candy or cat. But, it would seem to be a tendency of the human brain to grasp all concepts, including abstract ones, in a sensorial fashion. This tendency is now studied under the rubric of blending theory (Fauconnier and Turner 2002), which claims that the areas of the brain involved in sensory perception and in experiential processing are enlisted systematically to help us grasp abstractions. The end result of this process is a blend, and metaphor is now seen as one of the modes of cognition that manifests the blending process in language.

4By thinking of life as a stage, for example, we can gain a concrete understanding of what this concept entails, since we have presumably experience with what takes place on stages. With its characters, plots, and other theatrical accouterments, the stage is a metaphor for life. From this blending of life and the stage we gain a unique understanding, which manifests itself in derivative metaphors such as My life is a comedy or My life is a farce, from which we can draw real inferences about a person’s life. Incidentally, blending theory suggests that the two parts of a metaphor are cognitively interactive. By saying that life is a stage we are also implying that stages are life. They imply each other — what happens on a stage is construed as telling us what happens in real life, and what happens in real life is suggested to us by the experience of the theater.

5CMT has shown that metaphorical expressions are systematic, not exceptional. It is useful to go over the basic outline of CMT here for the sake of argument. Consider the metaphorical statement My friend is a snake. When we hear this, we know that a human being is not a reptile in a literal sense. We extract meaning from the statement because we sense that humans and reptiles are life forms and, thus, interconnected in the natural world. To use the terminology of biosemiotics (Uexküll 1940), metaphors connect the Umwelt (outer world of sensory, experiential, and other forms of information) to the Innenwelt (the inner cognitive world of modeling the Umwelt). Models are products of this connection, as Lotman (1990, 1992) and others have claimed. The Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico also emphasized that metaphor was evidence of how knowledge of the world originates from inside. He called metaphor a manifestation of poetic logic: “It is another property of the human mind that whenever men can form no idea of distant and unknown things, they judge them by what is familiar and at hand” (Vico 1744, p. 122).

6In his groundbreaking 1936 book, The Philosophy of Rhetoric, I.A. Richards was among the first modern-day theorists to argue that metaphor was not a simple replacement for literal meaning for stylistic or comparison purposes. Rather, it encapsulated how abstract notions are commonly, not randomly or exceptionally, conceptualized — a theory that was corroborated a little later by the empirical work conducted by the Gestalt psychologists of the 1950s and early 1960s (Osgood and Suci 1953, Brown and alii 1957, Asch 1950, 1958, Werner and Kaplan 1963). The philosopher Max Black (1962) then introduced a critical distinction, namely that a specific metaphor such as Life is a stage or My friend is a snake is really a token of a more general conceptualization process. The distinction between linguistic metaphors and conceptual metaphors was thus introduced in Black’s book. A widely-known 1977 study conducted by Pollio, Barlow, Fine, and Pollio then showed that linguistic metaphors pervade common everyday speech, suggesting strongly that they were not simple or individual tokens of linguistic fancy, but rather, as Black suspected, manifestations of a conceptual system. At that point, it became obvious to many that the view of metaphors as decorative forms of speech or deviations from literal semantics could no longer be held. Two volumes published shortly thereafter, Metaphor and Thought (Ortony 1979) and Cognition and Figurative Language (Honeck and Hoffman 1980), set the stage for Lakoff and Johnson’s (1980) work introducing CMT.

7Lakoff and Johnson continued the work of Richards and Black, differentiating linguistic from conceptual metaphors. In the example above, My friend is a snake, the vehicle (snake) chosen could have been any other animal or insect. The result would have been a different connotative portrait of the friend’s personality: My friend is a gorilla, My friend is a weasel, My friend is a cockroach, and so on. In other words, each one of these linguistic metaphors reflects a more general concept: people are animals, which blends human personality with animal perceptions. This is an example of a conceptual metaphor. It has the same overall structure of a linguistic metaphor, but it works at a more general conceptual level. To differentiate conceptual from linguistic metaphors, Lakoff and Johnson named the parts as follows: People was termed the target domain and animals the source domain. The source domain is the domain of concrete animal concepts that can be employed to deliver the target domain of human personality in language, painting, and other codes. Depicting people as animals in the visual and narrative domains is a product of the same conceptual thinking. Source domains are not singular, however. The domain for conceptualizing human personality is not limited to animals. It can be anything that is linked to it via blending: for example, tactility (My friend is a softie), electricity (My friend is always wired), matter (My friend is a rock), and so on. As can be seen, each source domain implies a different model of human personality.

8The psychological source of conceptual metaphors is traced to a mental mechanism called image schemata (Lakoff 1987, Johnson 1987, Lakoff and Johnson 1999). These are mental forms that convert experiences (like perceived animal behaviors) into source domains for understanding abstractions (like human personality). Whatever their neural substrate, or their cultural source, they manifest themselves systematically in metaphorical forms. For example, the experience of orientation — up vs. down, back vs. front, near vs. far, etc. — is an image schema underlying how we conceptualize such abstractions as happiness (Lately my spirits are up), responsibility (You have to face up to your problems), among many others. The common experience of how containers work and what they allow us to do, on the other hand, underlies such concepts as mind (My mind is full of good memories), emotions (My heart is filled with hope), and so on. Such image schemata seem to guide the blending process. Obviously, it is impossible to determine which came first — the metaphor or the image schema. Perhaps this is a moot question, since the occurrence of a metaphor implies a specific mental image schema and vice versa. One cannot exist without the other. This topic is one that is being examined empirically by cognitive scientists and neuroscientists and is, thus, beyond the objective of the present discussion.

9Johnson (1987) sees the presence of schemata like the container one as evidence of how we experience our own bodies as containers — as containers themselves, as contained in rooms, vehicles, etc. — and that we perceive objects as containing one another. Through metaphor container schemata are then projected onto all kinds of abstract domains: we understand our bodies as containers of emotions, our minds as containers for ideas, and so on. In purely semiotic terms, it is obvious that some schemata are iconic and others indexical (such as the orientation one). Rarely has the correspondences between CMT and sign theory been investigated. This is left for future work, since it is beyond the objective of the present discussion. For the present purposes, suffice it to say, as the psychologist Fincher (1976, p. 25) states, that “the brain’s ability to manufacture mental images was originally more important than its ability to produce language.”

10Metaphorical expressions are largely unconscious, because they have become systematic through protracted usage. Edie (1976, p. 165) offers the following perspective on how they crystallize in the mind:

A word which primarily designates a perceptual phenomenon — for example the perception of light — once constituted is available for a new purpose and can be used with a new intention — for example to denote the process of intellectual understanding, and we speak of (mental) illumination. Once established, the metaphorical use of the original word is no longer noticed; its essential ambiguity tends to fall below the level of awareness from the moment that it is taken as designating another, now distinguishable, experience.

11The systematicity of blending manifests itself not only through the creation of specific conceptual metaphors, but also in the production of higher-order concepts that link different source domains, which Lakoff and Johnson call idealized cognitive models (ICMs). Consider the conceptual metaphors delivering the notion of ideation (how ideas, theories, etc are understood). The source domains below, among many others, reveal how this notion is conceptualized in English:

Sight
(1) I cannot see what you are saying.
(2)
Seeing is believing.

Geometry
(3) The views of Plato and Descartes are
parallel in many ways.
(4) That theory is
diametrically opposite to the one we learned in class.

Plants
(5) That theory has deep roots in philosophy.
(6) That theory is a
budding new one.

Buildings
(7) Your theory is well constructed.
(8) That notion is the
cornerstone of relativity theory.

Food
(9) The class did not
digest everything the professor said.
(10) That is an
appetizing idea.

Fashion
(11) His theory went
out of style years ago.
(12) Dualism is back in
fashion these days.

Commodities
(13) I don’t quite
buy those new ideas.
(14) You must
package your ideas differently.

12The ICM is, clearly, the result of « blending the blends, » so to speak. It constitutes a higher-level cognitive blend for producing and comprehending many interconnected utterances. Some of the source domains seem to cross cultural boundaries; others seem to be culture-specific. That is to say, it is likely that languages across the world commonly use source domains such as sight and food in the construction of ICMs for delivering the concept of ideation, but only those cultures that have traditions of Euclidean geometry and marketplace economics are likely to use source domains such as the geometry and commodities.

13In CMT, there are two other figures of speech that are considered to be cognitively different from metaphor — metonymy and irony. Without delving into this aspect of the theory here, suffice it to say that metonymy, and its counterpart synecdoche, are viewed as revealing a pars pro toto reasoning. She loves Hemingway (= the writings of Hemingway). In parallel with the notion of conceptual metaphor, the term conceptual metonym can be adopted to refer to generalized metonymic concepts (Danesi 2004). Here are some examples:

the face for the person
(15) Your friend is nothing more than another pretty face.
(16) Look at all those happy
faces in the classroom.

a body part for the person
(17) Get your butt over here!
(18) The Yankees need a
stronger arm in left field.

the producer for the product
(19) I’ll have a Heineken.
(20) We bought a
FIAT.

the object used for the user
(21) My violin is squeaky today.
(22) The
filet mignon is a lousy tipper.

the institution for the people in it
(23) Shell has lowered its prices.
(24) The
Church must lead by example.

14Conceptual metonyms are found in nonverbal domains as well. For example, the use of the face as a symbol of personality can be seen in the use of theatrical masks, in portraits that focus on the face, and so on. Irony is constrained in CMT to designate a strategy whereby words are used to convey a meaning contrary to their literal sense — for example I love being tortured would be interpreted as ironic if it is uttered by someone experiencing unwelcome pain. The intent of the speaker, including his or her mode of delivery (tone of voice, accent, etc.), the speaker’s relation to the listener, and the context are all factors that establish the ironic meaning of an utterance. Irony is the basis for the construction of satirical and parodic texts, among other things.

3. Metaform Theory

15As the art critic Rudolf Arnheim (1969, p. 233) has aptly observed, the categories of thought have experiential/perceptual origins: “Human thinking cannot go beyond the patterns suppliable by the human senses.” Metaphor is the trace to these patterns, appearing in both verbal and nonverbal domain, bearing the imprint of experience and perception within its simple structure. Because it comes from experience it can subsequently guide further experiences and perceptions. Watson (1990, pp. 42-43) puts it as follows:

Metaphors are living things. They are slices of truth, evidence of the human ability to visualize the universe as a coherent organism. Proof of our capacity, not just to see one thing in another — as Blake saw the world in a grain of sand — but to change the very nature of things. When a metaphor is accepted as fact, it enters mythology, but it can also take on an existence in the real world.

16Blends are metaforms. This is not just a replacement of terms. Blending occurs in the brain, metaforms are what result from this process. This is why metaforms occur across the spectrum of semiosis, from language to mathematics and art — they spring from the same neural source. And when the metaform comes into existence, it is available for incorporation into additional blends. A major mode of thinking mathematics, for instance, is to build metaform upon metaform. In this way, to quote Turner (2005), mathematics progresses through new blends that bring what is not at human scale, not natural for human stories, back into human scale, so it can be grasped.

17As mentioned above, blending theory provides a neural-empirical rationale for explaining the production of forms of thought based on same pattern of metaphorical thinking. These forms can be given the name metaforms, and defined as unconscious mental extrapolations of experiences and perceptions that are blended with abstractions of all kinds. My claim is that the use of this notion will allow semioticians to investigate more specifically how language, symbolism, artistic practices, social rituals, and all the other forms of meaning-making that constitute a culture are connected to each other through figurative (blending) cognition. To use Lotman’s (1990) well-known term, it can be claimed that the cognitive « glue » that holds together the meaning networks of the semiosphere is composed of metaforms. Consider the meaning of the rose as a symbol for love in Western culture (Danesi 1995). The rose can be seen readily to interconnect with three conceptual source domains — smell, color, and plants — domains that commonly deliver the concept of love in discourse. The rose symbol itself is essentially nothing more than the physical counterpart to these domains. Similarly, a chocolate candy is a metaform of love that embeds the same meanings found in metaphorical expressions such as I love my sweetheart. In other words, all forms — linguistic metaphors, conceptual metaphors and actual physical objects — are metaforms that encode the same figurative meaning.

18The use of metaforms can also eliminate the need to distinguish between conceptual metaphors and conceptual metonyms, among other tropes. In Western and other cultures, for instance, the metonym of the face, which manifests itself in language (as we saw), is the basis for mask-wearing (also as mentioned). The original meaning of the word person reveals this very conceptualization. In ancient Greece, the word persona signified a “mask » worn by an actor on stage. Subsequently, it came to have the meaning of “the personality of the mask-wearer.” This meaning still exists in the theater term dramatis personae “cast of characters” (literally “the persons of the drama”). Eventually, the word came to have its present meaning of « living human being.” This diachronic analysis of person brings out perfectly how metaforms emerge and are diffused over different meaning systems.

19Metaforms are evident in scientific reasoning. Science often involves things that cannot be seen — atoms, waves, gravitational forces, magnetic fields, etc. So, scientists use metaforms present in their experience to get a look, so to speak, at this hidden matter. That is why atoms are described as miniature solar systems in early physical theories and why invisible waves are said to undulate through empty space like water waves ripple through a still pond (see also Gentner 1982). And this is why scientists also use diagrams and images that show waves in the same way. When a metaform is accepted as fact, it enters human life, taking on an independent conceptual existence in the real world, and thus can suggest ways in which to bring about changes in and to the world. Euclidean geometry, for instance, gave the world a certain kind of visual structure for millennia — a world of relations among points, lines, circles, etc. But this structure can be changed to suit new conditions and ideas. This is precisely what happened when Nicholas Lobachevski literally imagined that Euclid’s parallel lines would « meet » in some context, such as at the poles of a globe, thus giving the visual world a different structure.

4. Concluding Remarks

20The notion of metaforms challenges the Saussurean (1916) arbitrariness view of meaning. Needless to say, this view of semiosis is not new. It has been implicit in the work of various semioticians, linguists, and philosophers for quite some time, especially in the writings of Charles Peirce (1931-1958). Many of the findings that are now discussed under the rubric of CMT and blending theory can also be discerned in the work of Bühler (1908), Staehlin (1914), Vygotsky (1931, 1962, 1978), and Arnheim (1969), to mention but a few. What CMT and blending theory achieve is a systematic treatment of the semiosic phenomena generated by figurative cognition.

21The main purpose of this brief paper has been to show that the notion of metaform can be used to provide a more comprehensive framework for relating signs in different codes (verbal and nonverbal) to each other. It is offered here as a target for discussion among semioticians and linguists as a way of relating sign forms in the semiosphere as diverse manifestations of the same blending process. In evolutionary terms, the crystallization of metaforms in human thought suggests that sensory perception was originally at the root of many of our notions. If this is so, then work in semiotic theory cannot ignore metaformal phenomena and should attempt to either corroborate its main implications, modify them, or even reject them, as Sebeok and Danesi (2000) argued over a decade ago.

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Marcel Danesi, « A Note on the Notion of Metaform and Its Implications for Semiotics »Signata [En ligne], 4 | 2013, mis en ligne le 30 septembre 2016, consulté le 25 janvier 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/signata/1028 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/signata.1028

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Auteur

Marcel Danesi

Marcel Danesi is professor of semiotics and linguistic anthropology at the University of Toronto. He is also been a visiting professor in various universities, including La Sapienza – University of Rome, the Catholic University of Milan, the University of Lugano, the University of Perugia, and Middlebury College. He has published extensively in various areas of semiotics and linguistics. Among his most recent books are: Brands (2006), The Quest for Meaning. A Guide to Semiotic Theory and Practice (2007), Popular Culture: Introductory Perspectives (2007), and X-Rated! The Power of Mythic Symbolism in Popular Culture (2009). He is currently Editor-in-Chief of Semiotica, the journal of the International Association for Semiotic Studies.

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