Metaphor in Political Theory

  • Frank R. Ankersmit


Perhaps no field is richer in metaphor than political theory. Plato, who is often seen as the first political philosopher in history, incorporated numerous metaphors in his Republic and in his Laws. No less metaphorical are the books written during the Golden Age of Western political philosophy. Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and so many others all founded the political order on an original contract or covenant entered into by its members. Often they admitted that this contract was a mere historical fiction; but that was of no consequence as long as the ideas of the original contract could function as a metaphor in terms of which the legality of the existing political order could be analyzed. Especially in the political writings of that fierce opponent of metaphor, Thomas Hobbes, 1 metaphors abound. For what is the notion of ‘the body politic’ other than an organicist metaphor exploited as such throughout Hobbes’s work; and is the commonwealth, the State or that ‘artificiall Man’ (another metaphor) that forms the subject of Hobbes’s book really the monster which Job and the Psalmist refer to by the name of Leviathan? Coming to our own age, we are struck by the force of Foucault’s metaphor of ‘the capillaries of power’ and by the Rawlsian metaphor of ‘the veil of ignorance’ behind which our conception of the just society is formed. Most important of all, in these cases even a superficial awareness of the function of these political metaphors forces us to recognize that they do not merely touch the surface but form the essence of the political theories in which they are proposed. Metaphor is no mere ornament or didactic device: the conviction carried by the argument itself depends upon an open or tacit acceptance of the metaphor in question. If metaphor is eliminated the argument of the political philosopher degenerates into a meaningless chaos.2 Metaphor is the heart that pumps the lifeblood of political philosophy.


Civil Society Political Power Political Theory Political Reality Slum Area 
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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1993

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  • Frank R. Ankersmit

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