Metaphor and Cognition

  • Arthur C. Danto


Discussing diction in Poetics,Aristotle writes: “the greatest thing by far is to be master of metaphor”, which is “the one thing that cannot be learned from others; and it is also a sign of genius.”1 Even if genius means something considerably less than it came to mean in romantic times, if Aristotle is at all right here then making metaphors cannot form part of ordinary linguistic competence, if only because we do acquire from others our knowledge of language — it is a paradigm of something taught and learnt. Moreover, it is widely accepted that linguistic competence entails a symmetrical capacity to form and to understand sentences, where no such symmetry is implied in metaphoring activities, in which you presumably do not have to be marked by genius to grasp metaphors once made. I suppose it must be roughly parallel to humor, in that making jokes is a gift of a certain order whereas getting jokes is ordinarily not. Still, there is evidently room for education, as Aristotle’s discussion in the Rhetoric, Book III, suggests, where he lays down a number of principles that might be thought of as refining metaphorical talent, or as the principles of criticism, as if making metaphors were parallel in certain ways to the exercise of taste. We learn the differences between good metaphors and bad ones, or between inappropriate and appropriate ones: it is almost like a discourse among makers of haiku poetry. But this again has little to do with linguistic competence: it is, rather, more a matter of verbal etiquette, or learning how to modulate metaphors in order to achieve desired effects, something the rhetorician is anxious to learn. Aristotle says that metaphors, like epithets, must be “fitting” — he explicitly uses the analogy of the kinds of clothing it is fit for one to wear; and it is instructive to think out why, to use his example, a young man’s crimson cloak would not suit an old man, as though costume itself were metaphorical, or nearly so.


Linguistic Competence Dead Bird Visual Metaphor Metaphorical Representation Evening Star 
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  1. Barnes, Jonathan (ed.): 1984, The Complete Works of Aristotle,Vol. II, Princeton University Press, Princeton.Google Scholar
  2. Danto, Arthur C.: 1981, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace,Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.Google Scholar
  3. Davidson, Donald: 1968, `On Saying That’, Synthese 19, 130–146.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1993

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  • Arthur C. Danto

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