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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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1. Special Use of Metaphor in Philosophy. Meta-
phor in philosophy may be distinguished from meta-
phor in poetry by being primarily an explanatory
rather than an aesthetic device. Its explanatory func-
tion is to aid in conceptual clarification, comprehen-
sion, or insight regarding a mode of philosophical
thought, a problem or an area of philosophical subject
matter, or even a total philosophical system. However,


the boundary between the aesthetic and the explana-
tory use of metaphor is admittedly vague. A philoso-
pher may even deliberately select a metaphor for its
aesthetic vividness and impact (as with Bergson's élan
or William James's stream of consciousness; and
notoriously the Mystics), but the question of the meta-
phor's having philosophical relevance depends on its
explanatory function. Does it contribute to an under-
standing of the philosophy?

There are relatively superficial uses of metaphor in
philosophy, and there are permeating uses. The super-
ficial uses occur when figures of speech are scattered
along the written pages to vivify some other unusual
conception, and drop out when the conception is
grasped. But when the metaphor's use is permeating,
it may never completely disappear even after it gets
ritualized and deadened under an accepted technical
vocabulary within a philosophical school.

It has been frequently noticed that a new mode of
thinking or a new school of philosophy as it is emerging
and finding itself tends to be expressed in figurative
language. This is inevitable before a technical vocabu-
lary is developed with clear definitions and specific
designations. Generally, this preliminary tendency is
to be regarded as a superficial use of metaphor in
philosophy. It is the more permeating use that deserves
most attention.

In this connection the term “metaphor” should not
be taken in too literal accordance with a definition
often found in elementary books on prosody. It is not
just a simile with the preposition “like” left out. It
is rather the use of one part of experience to illuminate
another—to help us understand, comprehend, even to
intuit, or enter into the other. The metaphorical ele-
ment may ultimately be absorbed completely into what
it is a metaphor of. The one element, as frequently
explained, is “reduced” to the other. The paradox of
a metaphor is that it seems to affirm an identity while
also half denying it. “All things are water,” Thales
seems to say. In so saying he would be affirming an
identity and yet acknowledging that it is not obvious,
and that what is more obvious is the difference. He
claims an insight beyond the conventional view of
things. It becomes incumbent on him to show how the
identity can be justified. The same is true of Lucretius'
identifying all things with atoms and the void, and of
many other philosophers' modes of identification of the
whole of reality with some general aspect of it.

2. The Root Metaphor Theory. The thought was
bound to arise sooner or later that metaphor in the
above sense was the characteristic mode of developing
philosophic theories. Perhaps the first emphatic ex-
pression of this thought is in Francis Bacon's discussion
of the “idols,” in particular the “idol of the theater”
which he described as man's tendency to develop
comprehensive systems in the language of myth and
fantasy far beyond the data of observation. He was
pleading for a method of solid empirical cognition in
terms of collecting diverse instances of a subject to lift
out the “form” that held them together. His intention
was to disparage the use of metaphors, and he virtually
excluded their use in hypotheses as means of cognition,
although he did recognize them as “anticipations of

However, in recent times with a more generous
conception of the use of hypotheses as constructive
instruments for both scientific and philosophical think-
ing, the metaphorical conception of the origin and
development of philosophical thinking has been re-
vived without any pejorative connotations.

In World Hypotheses (1942), this view is called “the
root metaphor theory.” It is itself an hypothesis about
the origin and development of schools of philosophy
or, more specifically, of world hypotheses. World
hypotheses are distinguished from the more limited
hypotheses of the special sciences by being “unre-
stricted” in their subject matter or in the scope of the
evidence the hypotheses are expected to cover. An
hypothesis in optics can reject as irrelevant any items
that do not bear on optical phenomena or laws, as
would be the case for so many observations in acoustics,
geology, astronomy, linguistics, or social psychology.
But a world hypothesis cannot be exclusive in this
manner, for it cannot evade a group of items that do
not seem to fit nicely into its system by declaring them
outside its field and so irrelevant. Everything is relevant
to a world hypothesis.

The root metaphor theory gains a good deal of
credibility if one is persuaded that methods of deriving
philosophical systems from claims of certainty (such
as those of infallibility, self-evidence, or indubitable
and incorrigible data) have proved unreliable. Once
such methods of philosophizing from supposedly cer-
tain bases of knowledge have been given up, methods
for seeking probable knowledge by way of hypotheses
and their confirmation become acceptable. And this
is the point of departure for the root metaphor theory
of philosophic thought.

The problem then arises as to what are the sources
of world hypotheses. The suggestion is that world
hypotheses get started like any man's everyday hy-
pothesis framed to solve some puzzling practical prob-
lem. The man looks back over his past experience for
some analogous situation which might be applicable
to his present problem. Similarly, a philosopher, puz-
zled about the nature of the universe, looks about for
some pregnant experience that appears to be a good
sample of the nature of things. This is his root meta-


phor. He analyzes his sample, selects its structural
elements, and generalizes them as guiding concepts for
a world hypothesis of unlimited scope. This set of
concepts becomes the set of categories of his world

If the world hypothesis proves fruitful in its appli-
cation to the varied items of the world, it will be
adopted by other men, and a school of philosophy
comes into being, dedicated to the development of this
world theory (Weltanschauung). Its categories will be
refined and modified to render them as adaptable as
possible to the total range of the world's facts to which
they are applied. The root metaphor itself becomes
refined by this process. There evolves a give-and-take
between the categories and the facts to which they
are applied. The categories are modified to fit the facts,
and the facts are interpreted in terms of the categories.
The philosophers of the school will then perceive the
facts as they are structured by their categories, and
the ultimate facts in terms of their categories will come
to appear to these philosophers as indubitable. Then
it can become almost impossible to disabuse them of
the certainty of the foundations of their philosophy
except by introducing them to an alternative but
equally justifiable world theory constructed with an-
other set of categories yielding a different inter-
pretation of the facts and a different group of apparent

Only a limited number of categorial sets, however,
according to this root metaphor theory, have proved
fruitful enough to acquire a relatively adequate inter-
pretation of the full scope of the world's facts. The
position held in World Hypotheses was, up to the time
of its publication, that the fruitful root metaphors could
be reduced to four: (1) formism, based on the root
metaphor of similarity, or the identity of a single form
in a multiplicity of particular exemplifications; (2)
mechanism, based on the root metaphor of material
push and pull, or attraction and repulsion culminating
in the conception of a machine or an electromagnetic-
gravitational field; (3) organicism, based on the root
metaphor of a dynamic organic whole as elaborated
by Hegel and his followers; and (4) contextualism,
based on the root metaphor of a transitory historical
situation and its biological tensions as exhibited by
Dewey and his followers. None of these is fully ade-
quate. There are also several less adequate root meta-
phors, and in World Hypotheses it is suggested that
still more adequate ones may appear in the future.

3. The Extensiveness of Metaphor in Philosophy.
One corollary of the root metaphor theory is that any
treatment of the topic of metaphor in philosophy
would spread over the whole history of the subject.
Not only are the great traditional systems caught up
in the action of metaphorical interpretations, but the
cultural concepts and institutions dominating the
beliefs and values of ordinary men are impregnated
with them. Common sense and ordinary language have
long been saturated with the presuppositions of
Platonic, Aristotelian, and Cartesian metaphysics, and
lately in many cultures with the Hegelian dialectic
and contextualistic operationalism. If to these relative-
ly adequate philosophies are added the metaphorical
presuppositions of a number of humanly fascinating
inadequate philosophies such as animism and mysti-
cism, the spread of the influence of philosophic meta-
phors in the cultural thought and practices of men is
enormously extended.

The mention of animism leads one inevitably to think
of mythology. Here metaphor runs rampant—and with
cosmic references also. Its intent is apparently to be
as philosophically explanatory as Aristotle's categories
of form and matter or A. S. Eddington's Space-Time
and Gravitation. This close relation of primitive myth
to the relatively adequate philosophies named above
in respect to the explanatory use of metaphor should
not prejudice one against the relatively adequate world
hypotheses or their presuppositions incorporated in
modern common sense and in modern science and
logic. As long as men must make hypotheses to solve
their problems, they will seek analogies to stimulate
their invention, and when these analogies generate
explanatory categories, these immediately function as
explanatory metaphors. The important thing is to find
explanatory hypotheses that are widely confirmable,
and here is where the difference lies between primitive
myth and adequate hypothesis.

4. Categories and Metaphors in Philosophy. The
close connection brought out above between a set of
categories for a world hypothesis and their generating
root metaphor raises the question as to how the meta-
phorical basis of a set of categories could ever come
to light. For the categories are inevitably conceived
by the indoctrinated exponents of the philosophy as
the actual structural framework of nature. The meta-
phor is amalgamated with what it is a metaphor of.
To a philosopher fully immersed in his system, other
interpretations of the world than his are treated simply
as errors or meaningless or, perhaps charitably, as
partial approximations to the truth. To become aware
of the metaphorical nature of one's philosophical in-
terpretations, there is need of a certain amount of
cognitive “distance” like the “aesthetic distance” re-
quired in the arts to appreciate the realism of a play
or a novel or a picture. Yet the distance must not be
so great as to convert the object into pure fantasy and
absurdity. In art one must recognize the conventions
which support and sustain the aesthetic realism. So in


philosophy one must recognize the categories that
maintain the truth or interpretive adequacy of the
world theory. The categories must be taken seriously
as constructive instruments serving, like glasses to
astigmatic eyes, to reveal reality truly or effectively
in ways we have not previously seen. Bacon completely
missed the significance of comprehensive philosophy
through his lack of recognition of this cognitive dis-
tance. He noticed correctly the metaphorical interpre-
tive action of the traditional philosophies, but failed
to appreciate the revelatory power of the great systems
and the fruitfulness of their metaphors.

At what point in the history of philosophy did an
appreciation of the metaphorical action of categories
emerge? The ground was laid by Kant when, in his
Critique of Pure Reason, he argued that the structures
of space, time, causality, etc. attributed to nature in
scientific cognition were provided by the mind and
should not be taken as the intrinsic structures of things-
in-themselves. He introduced a little “distance” be-
tween phenomena and the interpretive action of his
categories (and also space and time which he distin-
guished as a priori forms of intuition). But he regarded
his categories as a priori, and inescapable, and incor-
rigible in cognition. As C. I. Lewis later pointed out
in his Mind and the World Order (1929) there was more
than a paradox implicit in Kant's view. There was a
self-contradiction—that of being at the same time real
and not real operations among cosmic events. For how
could a thinker distinguish his interpretive categories
from the structure of nature itself unless he had at least
one other set of categories with divergent inter-
pretations with which to compare them. In short, the
categories must be regarded as corrigible. They must
be open to error and correction. They cannot be
posited as wholly a priori and inescapable in human
cognition. They must be allowed enough “distance”
between themselves and what they are interpreting to
permit of alternatives and judgments of their adequacy.
They must be treated in some degree as explanatory
hypotheses, or metaphors.

That Kant had some awareness of this dilemma is
obvious from his treatment of moral and aesthetic
experience as distinct from that of scientific experience.
In moral experience particularly he found he could
bypass the categorial restrictions of scientific cognition
and obtain some authoritative disclosures about the
non-perceptual world. He accepted in a questionable
way the ideas of God, freedom, and immortality for
the moral life and its justification. Here, in a way, were
the two sets of categories which revealed to him that
the deterministic scientific categories clearly could not
be attributed to such structural features of things-in-
themselves as God, freedom, and immortality.

It should be acknowledged that there were many
earlier premonitions of some sort of mental projections
upon external things. Descartes' mind-matter dualism
had already raised the issue, and Spinoza's theory of
“attributes,” Locke's stress on the distinction between
primary and secondary qualities (a distinction that can
be traced as far back as Democritus), and finally
Hume's analysis of impressions, causality, and habit,
and his reluctant admission that he just could not help
believing in an external world although he could not
understand how he could justify any belief in it.

Following Kant, Hegel's dialectic can be viewed as
a proliferation of Kantian categories ordered according
to their increasing degree of scope and adequacy till
they culminated in the total synthesis of the Absolute.
But still the categories were not entirely shaken loose
from the actual structure of things they categorized.
The dialectic was not only a history of increasingly
adequate cognition but also a history of a kind of
cosmic growth.

It was not till pragmatic or contextualistic modes
of thought began to be influential that enough “dis-
tance” was introduced between the instruments of
cognition and what they cognized for sets of categories
to be viewed as metaphors. It was the typical prag-
matic theory of concepts as instruments that made this
possible. The pragmatic analysis of categories by C. I.
Lewis has been mentioned. And Hans Vaihinger's
Philosophy of As If (Die Philosophie des Als-Ob, 1911)
may have helped too, though his doctrine of fictions
was cognitively ambiguous in leaving one in doubt as
to their cognitive function. If the “useful” concepts
are rendered too fictional, the sense of metaphor may
be almost totally lost. In order to maintain the meta-
phorical character of a set of guiding concepts, the
structure of the concepts must in some degree be
identified with what the concepts are applied to. A
committed contextualist may accordingly be as un-
aware of the metaphorical relations of the categorial
presuppositions of his own philosophical view as any
of the traditional philosophers of the earlier schools.
The service of contextualism in revealing the explana-
tory use of metaphor in philosophy is due solely to
its theory of the instrumental role of concepts in
knowledge. Emphasis on this role revealed just the
degree of cognitive “distance” that has to be recog-
nized before the metaphorical character of a set of
categories can be consciously realized.

Once this is realized, a set of categories acquires the
role of a useful hypothesis and a philosopher becomes
wary of regarding the categories as a priori or incor-
rigible features of the world or of the mind's way of
looking at the world. Yet one is aware that the cate-
gories direct one's view of the world and one can


become critical of the adequacy of the view, and can
deliberately seek out other sets of categories offering
other views. Then it is possible for one to see that these
views are functioning as cognitive metaphors. And if
one seeks out the core and origin of these world meta-
phors, he reaches what may be called their root meta-

5. Cognitive Metaphors of Restricted Scope. The
term “root metaphor” seems to have entered the lan-
guage of philosophy in other ways than that of the
source of the categories of world hypotheses. It has
come often to refer to any central idea about which
any complex problem can be organized. It becomes
then the point of reference for a restricted or special
hypothesis. When so used it overlaps the function lately
assigned by extending it over what has come to be
known as the “paradigm case.”

The term “paradigm case” acquired importance in
philosophy mainly through an analysis by Ludwig
Wittgenstein of the meaning in ordinary language of
such terms as “chair,” “leaf,” “game.” He found that
such terms are used to refer to a group of objects which
as a group are not characterized by a set of common
characteristics. But as a group they have “family re-
semblances.” During childhood men learn the range
of application of these family resemblance concepts,
which become perfectly well understood by all who
speak that ordinary language. Such a concept can be
identified or pivoted on any one of its typical objects
from which the family resemblances can be traced out
to the other members of the group. Such a conveniently
selected member would be the “paradigm case” for
the group. The paradigm case furnishes the analogy
from which the family resemblances of the other
members can be traced. It could be called the root
metaphor of a family resemblance concept. Some
writers appear to be using the term “root metaphor”
in much this way. It is one important way of using
metaphor in philosophy. It is clearly an explanatory,
not an aesthetic, use of metaphor, and falls well within
the topic of this article.

It can even be argued that the root metaphors of
world hypotheses should better be described as
paradigm cases of groups of world hypotheses making
up the various schools of philosophy. Thus the world
hypotheses of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and many
others are easily recognized as having family resem-
blances pivoting on the relation of form and matter.
When one type of formism is presented as repre-
sentative of the group, this might be offered as a
paradigm case for the group.

The chief difference between this interpretation and
the root metaphor theory is that in this view a philo
sophical school exhibits a development of a root meta-
phor towards a more nearly adequate structure for a
comprehensive view of the world. The Wittgensteinian
family resemblance concept does not suggest any such
developmental process, or allow that the paradigm case
which might be selected possesses any special explana-
tory superiority in respect to the precision and scope
of the application of the concept to what may be called
its field of application. Indeed the case is quite the
reverse. All members of a family resemblance group
are on a par, and there is no presumption of the group
yielding any special explanatory insight beyond the fact
of the family resemblances which the concept records
in the usage of ordinary language.

However, some recent writers have spread the use
of “paradigm” so as to include the progressive degrees
of adequacy exhibited by the paradigm to its field of
application. Thomas S. Kuhn in particular has devel-
oped this conception in his The Structure of Scientific
(1962). According to his exposition there
is practically no difference between the function of
the paradigm as a guiding conceptual pattern in scien-
tific procedure and that of the root metaphor as a
guiding conceptual pattern in world hypotheses except
the restricted scope of the former.

A paradigm for Kuhn is a model or pattern accepted
in science like a “judicial decision in the common law
... an object for further articulation and specification
under new or more stringent conditions.” At the time
of its first appearance it is “very limited in both scope
and precision.” The survival and endurance of a para-
digm depends upon its success in solving problems
which the practitioners in the field regard as acute.
“The success of a paradigm... is at the start largely
a promise of success discoverable in selected and still
incomplete examples. Normal science consists in the
actualization of that promise, an actualization achieved
by extending the knowledge of those facts that the
paradigm displays as particularly revealing, by in-
creasing the extent of the match between those facts
and the paradigm's predictions and by further articu-
lation of the paradigm itself” (pp. 23-24).

According to Kuhn's description, the history of sci-
ence can be almost equated with the history of the
metaphors of limited scope in their pursuit of adequacy
through their predictions and articulations in revealing
the facts of their special fields. To what extent Kuhn's
philosophy of science pivoting on the paradigm will
be found acceptable, remains to be seen. It has the
virtue of putting emphasis on the practicing scientists'
use of “models,” which no treatment of scientific
method in the philosophy of science can safely ignore.
For if on Kuhn's view a scientific model is not quite


equated with a paradigm, it must be regarded as at
least a material or conceptual embodiment of one.

If some form of the root metaphor theory for unre-
stricted hypotheses is combined with a form of para-
digm theory like Kuhn's for restricted hypotheses, it
would suggest that the basis of all productive empirical
theory is in principle metaphorical. This would be no
disparagement of it. It comes down simply to being
realistic about what theories are as products of human

There is, of course, also the formal logical and math-
ematical aspect of theory which is perhaps properly
regarded as the ideal terminal formulation of any em-
pirical theory whether in science or philosophy. But
however contrasted the formal approach may be to
the metaphorical, there seems to be no necessary in-
compatibility between the two in their joint pursuit
of some control and understanding of our world. If
there is an issue, it lies beyond the scope of this article.


The root metaphor theory of the basis of metaphysical
thinking was developed by S. C. Pepper in his World
(Berkeley, 1942) and later exemplified by a
deliberately chosen new root metaphor in his Concept and
(La Salle, Ill., 1967). A somewhat similar theory
was developed independently by Dorothy Emmet in The
Nature of Metaphysical Thinking
(London, 1945), extending
the analogical principle also to myth, religion, and theology.
The Compass of Philosophy (New York, 1954) by Newton
P. Stallknecht and Robert S. Brumbaugh carry on much the
same idea by their stress on “key concepts” in metaphysics.
And Charles Morris' Paths of Life (New York, 1942) is also
relevant for a sort of statistical confirmation of the influence
of “key concepts” in the attitudes of ordinary men.

C. I. Lewis' Mind and the World Order (New York, 1929)
has already been mentioned for stimulating the metaphori-
cal conception of metaphysics. Hans Vaihinger in his Die
Philosophie des Als-Ob
(Berlin, 1911), trans. C. K. Ogden as
Philosophy of As If (New York, 1924) was influential by
distinguishing between scientific hypotheses, which could
be true, and fictions (As If's), which could not be true but
had useful semi-cognitive functions. And metaphysical sys-
tems fell in the latter category. Philip Wheelright in his
The Burning Fountain (Bloomington, Ind., 1954) and Meta-
phor and Reality
(Bloomington, Ind., 1962) speaks of the
language of metaphor and the language of science as two
equally legitimate ways of gaining cognitive insight into
two different aspects of the world. Max Black, on the other
hand, in his Models and Metaphors (Ithaca, N.Y., 1954)
makes no such cognitive division but regards metaphors and
models as valuable explanatory devices whether in the
special sciences or in comprehensive metaphysics. This leads
to Thomas Kuhn's still stronger view in The Structure of
Scientific Revolutions
(Chicago, 1962), which, as pointed out
already, regards models and paradigms (virtually in the role
of root metaphors) as central explanatory instruments in
science. For an exceptionally intensive and original treat-
ment of metaphor in metaphysics and science (and poetry
too) the two articles by D. Berggram on “The Use and Abuse
of Metaphor” in the Review of Metaphysics, 16 (1962/1963)
are recommended.


[See also Ambiguity; Analogy; Antinomy; Form; Literary
Paradox; Metaphor in Religious Discourse; Myth; Pragma-
tism; Symbol.]