NOTES on Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005): The Metaphorical Process

Paul R

Paul Ricoeur is an important philosopher of language who investigated the use of metaphor in religious and poetic language.

Definitions of Metaphor

Before seeing what Ricoeur has to say about metaphor, let’s make sure we understand what a metaphor is. We can do that by looking at what a few reference books say about metaphor.

A) According toA Handbook of Literary Terms(H. L. Yelland, S. C. Jones, and K. S. W. Easton), a metaphor is a “figure of speech in which a comparison is made between two objects by identifying one with the other.” There are two ways in which this can be done:

1) The metaphor can be made as a “definite statement”; for example, “The moon was a ghostly galleon, tossed upon cloudy seas” (Alfred Noyes), and

2) The metaphor can be inferred; for example, “Tiger, Tiger, burning bright / In the forests of the night” (William Blake). The implied metaphor here is the comparison between the tiger and a fire.

Obviously, the two things being compared are “not really alike.”

A Handbook of Literary Termsalso identifies many everyday metaphors, such as:

1) a cutting remark,

2) to shadow somebody,

3) the heart of the matter, and

4) a hard-boiled person.

B) A Handbook to Literature(C. Hugh Holman) defines “metaphor” as “an implied analogy which imaginatively identifies one object with another and ascribes to the first object one or more of the qualities of the second or invests the first with emotional or imaginative qualities associated with the second.”

A Handbook to Literaturegives as an example of a dead metaphor “transgression.” Formerly, the word meant “to cross a line,” but the metaphorical meaning has been lost.

In addition, A Handbook to Literaturepoints out that metaphor is one of the tropes. It defines “trope” as “a figure of speech involving a ‘turn’ or change of sense — the use of a word in a sense other than its proper or literal one; in this sense figures of comparison (… metaphor, simile) as well as ironical expressions are tropes or figures of speech.”

C) W. L. Reese’s Dictionary of Philosophy and Religionstates that in a metaphor “we are presented with an unusual identification.” For example:

1) “The man is a rock.”

2) “The skies are angry.”

In addition to what we have learned from looking at the above reference books, it may be useful to list a few metaphors used in religious language:

1) “A mighty fortress is our God.”

2) “The Lord is my shepherd.”

3) “Our Father Which art in Heaven.”

Paul Ricoeur: The Metaphorical Use of Language

In other essays, we looked at two contrasting views of language:

1) For A. J. Ayer, the literal meaning of words is of primary importance. Ayer was very scientific in outlook and felt that philosophy should serve as a tool for science.

In contrast to Ayer, Frederick Copleston believed that statements about God can be meaningful, even if they are nonliteral. Copleston, like other people who defend religious language, believes that we must use nonliteral language to express meanings that cannot be expressed with literal language.

2) For Paul Tillich, the symbolic function of words is also important. Symbols serve as a way of talking about important things that cannot be expressed otherwise.

We will now look at yet another view of language. Paul Ricoeur wrote the article “Biblical Hermeneutics.” In it, he argues that metaphor creates new levels of meaning. The word “hermeneutics” refers to principles that we can use to interpret a written text.

The Semantics of Metaphor

Ricoeur wrote about “The Semantics of Metaphor,” so immediately we must ask what “semantics” means. The word “semantics” means the investigation of language, especially how its meaning and form develops and changes.

Previously, rhetoricians had believed that metaphor is not innovative, gives no information about reality, and is only an ornament to language; however, Ricoeur argues vigorously against these beliefs.

Ricoeur’s Main Ideas

1) “Metaphor proceeds from the tension between all the terms in a metaphorical statement.

According to Ricoeur, a metaphor includes tension. For example, “A mighty fortress is our God.” Here the term “mighty fortress” is in tension with the word “God.” The person who first hears or reads this sentence may wonder how these terms can be related.

2) “… metaphor does not exist in itself, but in an interpretation. Metaphorical interpretation presupposes a literal interpretation which is destroyed.”

Literally, the sentence “A mighty fortress is our God” doesn’t make sense. Imagine taking the sentence literally. We would end up worshipping a castle — a bunch of stones on a hill — if we took the sentence literally. Nevertheless, the sentence has meaning, but the meaning is discovered in an interpretation that is not literal.

3) Metaphor “is a calculated error. It consists in assimilating things which do not go together. But precisely by means of this calculated error, metaphor discloses a relationship of meaning hitherto unnoticed between terms which were prevented from communicating by former classifications.”

The sentence “A mighty fortress is our God” is a calculated error. The writer of the sentence knows that the sentence is not true literally. But the error is calculated. The sentence does have content; it does make sense.

4) Ricoeur’s Theory of Tension: “True metaphors are metaphors of inventionin which a new extension of the meanings of the words answers a novel discordance in the sentence.”

Ricoeur makes a distinction between live metaphors and dead metaphors. Dead metaphors have lost their metaphorical meaning. We now speak of the foot of a chair and the leg of a table without knowing that we are using metaphors. Live metaphors, however, open up new levels of meaning for us.

Ricoeur’s fifth and sixth points are the two conclusions that follow from the above points:

5) “… true metaphors are untranslatable. … Tension metaphors are untranslatable because they create meaning.”

To see if this is true, take a poem that uses metaphors and try to translate it into a passage that does not use metaphors. Has some of the meaning of the poem been lost? True, we can paraphrase the poem, but we lose some of the meaning of the poem.

If you are looking for a poem to paraphrase, try “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23). You can paraphrase it as “God will take care of me,” but the poem is saying much more than that.

6) “… metaphor is not an ornament of discourse. Metaphor has more than an emotional value. It includes new information. … In short, metaphor says something new about reality.”

The literal use of language is not enough. It can’t capture everything that we wish to express in language.

With a true metaphor, we are not just substituting words for other words; for example, when we say “A mighty fortress is our God,” we are not just substituting the phrase “mighty fortress” for “God.” Instead, we are expressing a meaning that cannot be expressed literally.

Metaphor and Reality

Ricoeur makes a distinction between sense and reference. In Ricoeur’s words, “Meaning [that is, sense] is whata statement says, reference is that about whichit says it.”

So, we can ask, What is the referenceof metaphorical language? What exactly is it that a metaphor is referring to?

Here Ricoeur makes a hypothesis that is at odds with the hypotheses of the rhetoricians. The rhetoricians felt that metaphor is merely ornamental; however, for Ricoeur, “… the suspension of the referential function of ordinary language does not mean the abolition of all reference, but, on the contrary, that this suspension is the negative condition for the liberation of another referential dimension of language and another dimension of reality itself.” Here Ricoeur is speaking specifically about poetic language, but his insight holds true for other metaphorical language as well.

In other words, in ordinary language when I refer to a chair, I am referring to a physical object I can point to. However, a true metaphor does not have that kind of reference. If I say “The Lord is my shepherd,” I should not go outside and roam the hills and pastures looking for a shepherd.

Ricoeur also makes two suggestions (here he speaks about poetic language, but what he suggests can be applied also to religious language):

1) “The general idea is that metaphor is to poetic language as model is to scientific language. In scientific language a model is essentially a heuristic device which serves to break up an inadequate interpretation and to blaze a trail toward a new, more adequate interpretation.”

We can think of two models of the solar system. One model is that of Ptolemy, in which the Earth is at the center of the universe. The other model is that of Copernicus, in which the Sun is at the center of the solar system. The newer model replaces the older model and is a better interpretation of the physical universe.

Other models include Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity, which was superceded by Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, which has since been superceded by quantum physics.

(By the way, the word “heuristics” refers to something that will stimulate interest in the further investigation of a topic.)

2) “a language of the artsexists and does not differ fundamentally from the general language.” According to the philosopher Nelson Goodman, “a painting represents reality no less than a discourse on reality does.”

So what can we conclude from all this? Ricoeur writes, “Poetic language also speaks of reality, but it does so at another level than does scientific language. … poetry imitates reality only by recreating it at a mythical level of discourse.”

What reality? The life world — the world of persons, beauty, love, feelings, and values. Most of us consider such things as the emotions and love to be real. Scientific language can’t describe them — the only way to describe them is through poetic language.

To conclude, Ricoeur writes, “Poetic language does not say literally what things are, but what they are like. It is in this oblique fashion that it says what they are.”

Note: The quotations by Paul Ricoeur that appear in this essay are from his “Biblical Hermeneutics,” in Semeia 4, edited by John Dominic Crossan (Missoula, Montana: Scholars Press, 1975).


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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