Metaphor is a Problem

Wittgenstein asked ‘Why do we feel a grammatical joke to be deep?’. It was rhetorical, it was by way of revealing and enlightening what he was saying. But, since theories of meaning within language diverge from likelihood in inverse proportion to their departure from the general realm of the aforementioned writer’s contentions, I have one ill-favoured notion to advance by way of reply.

Tedious, bloodless analysts would have us believe meaning derives from truth, and draw up tables showing statements, or propositions, matching their factual counterparts to show how a statement, or proposition, means what it does. However, I may say ‘hello’; I may write “hello”; or I may wave my hand. What meaning inheres in them all? The first two are easier. Examples invented to vary from the general practices therein sound artificial. But the third? Hello, or goodbye, or good lord this wasp is keen?

My point, nodding to Wittgenstein, is that meaning is contextual, dependent upon and derived from usage. Semantics lodges mostly within words, but also within actions, ritual or bodily etc. and makes sense, means something, only within its practical adherents, even if it cannot work in every case, given the nature of its users. I say that last because ‘we’ philosophers often take individual failures as disproof of a general principle.

So. Metaphor. How does a truth-condition favouring philosopher of language account for this? The truth is a shining sword, after all. I’d love to say I have made sense of how they do. But I have not.

And so I wish to stress context. And banality, or, as you know it most, life. You describe a chilly temperature as ‘sharp’. Why? Because it cuts you? Like a blade, which cuts more obviously? No. It is an adaptation. A sliver of moving air seems appositely described thus. But we have heard this before, and the more we do the closer it comes to something like love as warmth, and the sense of metaphor is hidden.

All words, all usages of words, are advancements upon their earlier usage. The more common, the venerable, the entrenched, are accepted as commonplace, no matter their derivation. The newer, the expressions that stretch accepted meanings, the ones which make us imagine, picture, which entice our cognition to work in order to grasp meaning… which, sadly, you often get in poetry, or, better, in wit, is often metaphor.

How much more beautiful, and sensible, to understand this concept this way? And this answers the initial rhetorical question: when a joke is not merely transmitted via language, but itself plays with the vehicle in which it inheres, we again work harder than the rote apprehension of language which typifies most exchanges. We touch upon the rich complexity of language so easily lost through inurement and, briefly, wonder.


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