Figuration of the folk: the nature and use of a universal linguistic category Public Deposited

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  • March 20, 2019
  • Phelan, Mark
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Philosophy
  • If Sally knows Sid to be a hard worker, she might make the point by asserting, Sid is a hard worker. Or she might say, Sid is a Sherman tank. We all recognize the first as an instance of literal language and the second as an instance of figurative language, specifically, a metaphor. This distinction is common even to people remote from us in space and time. But what does this distinction amount to? Theorists have often tried to explain the distinction in terms of different kinds of meaning or understanding. Davidson claims that metaphors simply mean what they literally mean, but they could have various distinctive effects upon us, and understanding a metaphor consists in being affected in these ways. Grice and Searle claim that literal meanings are somehow composed out of the meanings of the pronounced words, whereas metaphorical meanings are implicatures arising when it would not be rational for the speaker to mean her words literally in the context in which she uttered them. Contextualists, such as Sperber and Wilson, contend that insofar as there is a figurative/literal distinction at all, it consists in the presence of various interpretations for figurative utterances, no one of which is essential for understanding. I argue that attempts to explain the distinction between literal and figurative utterances in terms of distinctive kinds of meaning get the order of explanation backwards. Accounts of metaphorical meaning and understanding fall out of a prior account of what it is to speak figuratively (in general), and metaphorically (in particular). By saying, Sid is a Sherman Tank, Sally may express her belief that Sid is one who cannot be deterred from achieving his goals. She might also amuse her audience with the thought that Sid is an armored assault vehicle. Very roughly, the account I offer holds that if she intends to do both of those things, Sally speaks figuratively. More precisely, I contend that the distinction between figurative and literal utterances can only be explained through recourse to Austin's (1962) fundamental distinction between illocutionary and perlocutionary speech acts. Figurative utterances involve two propositional interpretations. One's aim with one of these interpretations is essentially 'illocutionary'. One aims to make an assertion, or to ask a question, or to pronounce sentence, or to perform some other conventional or psychologically expressive act. But one's aim with the other interpretation is essentially only 'perlocutionary.' With the other interpretation, one aims to affect the psychology of one's hearer--perhaps to frighten her, or to shock her, or to cause her to be entertained. To understand a figurative utterance fully is to grasp both expressed contents, as well as a speaker's intentions in expressing these. With my account of figurative utterances in place, I can explain the differences between metaphors and other subclasses of figurative utterances using various resources, such as those of classic rhetoric theory. My view suggests a distinctive argumentative function for figuration. Speakers unconsciously use figurative utterances to produce subtle affective reactions in their audiences. These reactions sometimes lead addressees to attribute more credence to what is actually asserted, which suggests a new explanation for a traditional claim about the pernicious effects of figurative language. My view offers a nuanced account of how we understand artistic metaphors, such as those appearing in poetry, as well as the more pedestrian metaphors appearing often in ordinary conversation. The order in which we grasp the illocuting and perlocuting contents reverses, depending on speakers' and hearers' distinctive goals in these distinct kinds of cases. My view also suggests a continuous account for certain non-verbal actions which are similar to figurative utterances.
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  • In Copyright
  • "... in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy."
  • Lycan, William G.
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  • Chapel Hill, NC
  • Open access

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