In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Metaphor

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Modern Founders
  • Paraphrase
  • Metaphor and Psycholinguistics
  • Metaphor, Analogy, and Scientific Models
  • Metaphor in Continental Philosophy
  • The Philosophical Community

Philosophy Metaphor
David Hills
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0362


Metaphor is a poetically or rhetorically ambitious use of words or concepts or images. With it we contrive to talk about two different things or systems of things at once; two different, sometimes spectacularly different subject matters are mingled to rich and unpredictable effect. One of them is already under discussion or up for consideration when a speaker resorts to metaphor in the first place; it is the metaphor’s primary subject or tenor. The other is newly introduced with an eye to affording us fresh resources for thinking and talking about the first; it is the metaphor’s secondary subject or vehicle. In metaphor, we speak and think about the primary subject as and in terms of the secondary subject; we compare the primary subject to the secondary subject; language that initially concerned the secondary subject alone comes to concern the primary subject as well in some shadowy, temporary way or sense. The simplest and most familiar way of managing all this is to link a primary subject noun phrase with a secondary subject noun phrase by means of a form of the verb “to be”: “I am a moth and you are the flame.” But there are other ways to do the trick. I can refer to primary-subject items by means of familiar secondary-subject language, as Antony does when he declares about Cleopatra: “The witch shall die.” Or I can mingle primary subject language and secondary subject language pretty much as I please, as long as my audience can effortlessly sense which is which. For a metaphor to achieve its characteristic double aboutness, some of its constituent words or phrases or concepts or images must get reconstrued—taken in a special way that is informed by yet departs from some familiar routine way of taking them; these expressions constitute the metaphor’s focus (the remaining constituents are its frame). Metaphor is thus a nonliteral or figurative use of language or concepts or imagery, related to but contrasting with such other recognized figures of speech as metonymy, irony, hyperbole, etc. A metaphor compares its primary subject to its secondary subject in some sense or other, yet the details remain controversial: not everyone thinks metaphors always turn on similarities or analogies between otherwise disparate subjects, and debate continues about how they differ from the poetically interesting explicit comparisons known as similes.

General Overviews

Martin 2012, Hills 2016, and Goyet 2014 are encyclopedia entries with detailed bibliographies (Wallace Martin and Francis Goyet are literary scholars; David Hills is a philosopher). Wolosky 2001, Alter 1989, and Wood 2008 are introductions to the interpretation and appreciation of poetry and prose fiction that include illuminating example-based discussions of metaphor. Cooper 1986 and Geary 2011 are book-length overviews of empirical and theoretical work. David Cooper focuses on the philosophy of metaphor and writes for a mostly philosophical audience; James Geary writes in a popular science style, looks in on a wider variety of disciplines, and offers extensive coverage of recent developments.

  • Alter, Robert. “Style.” In The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age. By Robert Alter, 92–106. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

    A concise introduction to metaphor in prose fiction.

  • Cooper, David E. Metaphor. Aristotelian Society 5. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.

    An overview of mid-20th-century work on metaphor in and around philosophy, focusing on Donald Davidson’s work, its background, and its reception.

  • Geary, James. I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.

    A clear, vivid overview of contemporary empirical work on metaphor in many different disciplines.

  • Goyet, Francis. “Comparison.” In Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon. Edited by Barbara Cassin, Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood, 159–164. Translated by Steven Rendall, Christian Hubert, Jeffrey Mehlman, Nathaniel Stein, and Michael Syrotinski. Translation/Transnation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.

    Comparison, simile, and analogy have important places of their own in Western intellectual history; Goyet helpfully coaxes them out of metaphor’s shadow.

  • Hills, David. “Metaphor.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2016.

    Accounts of metaphor in linguistics and philosophy of language.

  • Martin, Wallace. “Metaphor.” In The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. 4th ed. Edited by Roland Greene and Stephen Cushman, 863–870. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.

    A helpful overview by a literary scholar, with splendid bibliography.

  • Wolosky, Shira. “Images: Simile and Metaphor.” In The Art of Poetry: How to Read a Poem. By Shira Wolosky, 29–40. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    A concise introduction to metaphor in poetry.

  • Wood, James. How Fiction Works. London: Jonathan Cape, 2008.

    Chapter on language contains a fine discussion of metaphor in prose fiction. Wood pays close attention to metaphor throughout his critical writing.

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