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March 01, 2008, 3:30 PM

The Motive for Metaphor

Participants: Ted Cohen, Paul Fry (moderator), Susan Stewart, Frederick Turner, Rosanna Warren

Ever since Aristotle defined metaphor as the gift of finding similitude in dissimilitude (and warned poets against using it too often), the trope has grown in prestige, and is sometimes viewed as the hallmark of an active imagination. This extends not just to the literary imagination—equation in science and law have been described as metaphorical, at least in their origins. Others have violently disagreed, especially with this latter claim. The Royal Society in 18th-Century England and the radical wing of logical positivism in the 20th century, called General Semantics, tried to banish metaphor from correct usage. A related attitude leads post-structuralist literary theory to link the fragility and contingency of knowledge with the inescapability of metaphor. The interest of this roundtable is not so much to evaluate metaphor as to ask what it is and what role it may play in human psychology and creativity. To this end, the discussion will embrace the diverse perspectives of philosophy, cognitive science, psychoanalysis, literary criticism, and the practice of poetry.

Ted Cohen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago, a past president of the American Society for Aesthetics, and a past president of the Central Division of the American Philosophical Association. He is the author of the book Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters, and of the essays "Identifying with Metaphor" and "Metaphor, Feeling, and Narrative." His book Thinking of Others will be published later this year.

Paul Fry is William Lampson Professor of English at Yale University. He is the author of A Defense of Poetry: Essays on the Occasion of Writing and editor of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. His new book, Wordsworth and the Poetry of What We Are, will appear in May 2008.

Susan Stewart is a poet and critic and the Annan Professor of English at Princeton University. Her most recent book of poems, Columbarium, won the 2003 National Book Critics Circle Award; a new book, Red Rover, is forthcoming this year. Her works of criticism include Poetry and the Fate of the Senses and The Open Studio: Essays in Art and Aesthetics. She is a former MacArthur Fellow and a current Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

Frederick Turner is Professor of Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas. A poet, critic, translator, philosopher, and former editor of The Kenyon Review, he has authored 27 books, including The Culture of Hope, Genesis, Hadean Eclogues, Shakespeare's Twenty-First Century Economics, Paradise, and Natural Religion. His work has been translated into over a dozen languages.

Rosanna Warren is the author of the chapbook Snow Day, and three collections of poems: Each Leaf Shines Separate, Stained Glass, and Departure. Her forthcoming critical book is Fables of the Self: Studies in Lyric Poetry. She is Emma MacLachlan Metcalf Professor of the Humanities at Boston University, and translated Euripedes’ Suppliant Women with Stephen Scully.


Discussion Board

This forum allows for an ongoing discussion of the above Philoctetes event. You may use this space to share your thoughts or to pose questions for panelists. An attempt will be made to address questions during the live event or as part of a continued online dialogue.
Benjamin Snyder says:
I found the talk delightful and thank all who made it possible.

I am sad that Ms. Warren did not get to read from her book of Rimbaud that sat on the table during the discussion. I have recently been exposed to his work in my studies and was struck by something that he does on a few different occasions that would have been of great interest to me to hear the pannel address. What I am wondering about is Rimbaud's poetic use of the verb 'savoir'. I think it is in 'The Druken Boat' where he says something along the lines of 'Je sais le soir', and, after the sort of obvious profundity of a claim like that, there seemed to be some commentary on Rimbaud's part on the power of the poet, or perhaps the power of metaphor, that I do not understand. This confusion of mine was furthered when I read a letter of Rimbaud's where he discusses that which one ought to do to be a poet. In talking about the necessity of understanding one's soul, Rimbaud says something like "Des qu'il la sait..." ( sorry there are no accent marks on this keyboard) and goes on to make a point about how the soul needs to be cultivated. I was struck again by this "Des qu'il la sait", because to me that meant that Rimbaud thinks soul is something that can be known in a straightforward sense (in a 'savoir' sense), and I do not quite understand how this gets flushed out.

I wonder if talking about soul in relation to metaphor is fruitful. For me it seems so, if for no other reason than that they both look like forms that go outside of themselves for the sake of themselves. Does this seem right? Like a metaphor, I feel as though a soul perpetually tries to get a bird's eye view of itself, without ever being able to do so fully. In other words we try and use the external world as a means of understanding something that is fundamentally internal. If metaphor and soul share this quality, I suppose I am wondering if metaphor then could be a means of understanding something about our lives that is at once both quotidian and profound.

All of the references to Shakespeare during the talk makes me want to share just a few lines of a choral ode that I like very much and which I think are particularly connected to my questions, the discussion, and even the Philoctetes Center itself.

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts:
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance.

Prologue, Henry V

Please address and/or take issue with anything I raise here, and thanks again for a good talk.

- Drew Snyder
Paul Fry says:
Drew, the question of Rimbaud's complex take on "savoir" does indeed take us to the heart of the problem we kept wrestling with during our round table: if the poet and perhaps the critic lay claim to metaphorical knowledge or "knowing" or wisdom, is there any. But we also do need to find a way to convince the philosopher that this mode of insight (philosophers usually accept that word) counts as "meaning," in the sense of saying something verifiable or falsifiable. I had frankly hoped that we'd have rather less focus on that dispute precisely so that we could feel our way a little more into the ways metaphor functions.
As to the soul, perhaps the philosopher again would say that the soul being an indeterminate or at best intuited entity leaves no choice but to address or describe it metaphorically--for better and worse. Your own interest concerns a possible analogy between the soul's attempt to know itself from the outside and metaphor's attempt to do likewise: the soul's metaphors for itself and metaphor's efforts to view all objects recursively. Yes, and part of the interest is our recourse to metaphors for the soul: the soul is a butterfly, and so on. Freud's "metapsychology" is of course metaphorical.
Your Shakespeare citation would make for a fine epigraph. --Paul Fry

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