Metaphor Research Paper

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Metaphor has resisted any wide agreement as concept, yet the last few decades have witnessed a burgeoning of work and interest in metaphor and its related tropes. The many attempts to theorize metaphor have included, inter alia, characterizations of metaphor as ‘comparison,’ as ‘without meaning,’ as ‘anomaly,’ ‘speech act,’ ‘loose talk,’ ‘interaction,’ and ‘intentional category mistakes.’ These attempts have had the form of trying to assimilate metaphor under a previously existing understanding of language—a move that is itself metaphorical. This resistance to conceptualizing suggests that it might be more helpful to consider metaphor in terms of its uses.

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1. Aristotle

For most of its life metaphor has had its home in rhetoric, and it has been to Aristotle that writers have usually turned for the earliest considerations. He understood it as ‘giving a thing a name that belongs to something else,’ and thought that ‘the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor.’ Not all writers have heeded the contexts within which Aristotle wrote. His teacher, Plato, had sufficient doubts about the value of metaphor that he barred poets from his Republic. Aristotle, by contrast, found uses for metaphor, not only in politics where rhetoric enabled a man to be heard effectively in public, but also in law, where juries were suspicious of evidence that could be faked, and witnesses who could be bribed. They were, rather, influenced by arguments turning around a balance of probabilities, providing an important context for rhetoric. Aristotle cannot easily be read as limiting metaphor to the realm of ornament, or efficiency of utterance: he sees clear cognitive uses:

… strange words simply puzzle us; ordinary words convey only we what we know already; it is from metaphor that we can best get hold of new ideas (1984 Rhetoric, lll,1410b).

We may suppose that Aristotle’s description of metaphor as giving something a name which belongs to something else, detailed as: ‘the transference being either from genus to species, or from species to genus, or from species to species, or on grounds of analogy’ (1984 Poetics, 1457b), also owed something to his practice as taxonomist of the natural world. Although Aristotle’s comment on Plato’s forms that ‘(to say) they are patterns and the other things share in them is to use empty words and poetical metaphors’ (1984 Metaphysics 991a21), may be taken as evidence of his ambivalence to metaphor, but should rather be understood as evidence of a variety of rhetorical uses. His reference to analogy and his remark that ‘to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances’ has led his theory to be dubbed ‘the comparative theory.’ Aristotle may be understood, in short, as praising metaphor in poetry and drama, in law, in politics, and in what we might now refer to as natural science.

The subsequent history of metaphor until the end of the Renaissance may best be understood as part of the history of rhetoric.

2. Early Modernity and Early Resistance to Metaphor

Part of the development of rhetoric in seventeenth-century Europe was a ‘simplification’ of the tropes to just four: metaphor; metonymy in which the name of an attribute or other adjunct is substituted for the intended object as with ‘scepter’ for ‘authority’; synecdoche in which a part signifies the whole; and irony where a term is used which is opposite to the one intended to be read.

The first major philosophy written in English, credited to Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and his Le iathan (1651), published a year after Descartes’ death, is severe on metaphor and claims that, of the seven causes of absurdity ‘The sixth, (is) to the use of metaphors, tropes, and other rhetorical figures, instead of words proper.’ Yet the opening paragraph of the English version of the text elaborates what Black (1962) would later call the ‘associated commonplaces’ of the title image, Leviathan, Hobbes’s metaphor for the State. Hobbes was writing in complicated, changing, and dangerous times, with differing purposes, addressing different audiences and with changing beliefs, about which Quentin Skinner has written elucidating the use of rhetoric in a context of humanism, of the growth of science, and the growing tensions with the church (1996). John Locke (1632–1704), following Hobbes, thought that ‘all the artificial and figurative application of words … (are) in all discourses that pretend to inform or instruct, wholly to be avoided; and where truth and knowledge are concerned, cannot but be thought a great fault.’ Here began a tradition later called the ‘purity thesis,’ still sustained in the British Isles at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Meanwhile, in continental Europe, other voices were heard in praise of metaphor. Giambatista Vico (1668–1744) used metaphor as a tool within philology to produce a theory of ‘poetic logic.’ This included the notion that names were given to features of the natural world that were already well known, drawing for example upon the body—rivers and bottles were given ‘mouths,’ etc.

Whence we derive the following (principle of) criticism for the times in which the metaphors were born in (various) languages. All metaphors which, by means of likenesses taken from bodies, come to signify the labors of abstract minds, must belong to times in which philosophies had begun to become more refined. This is shown by the following: that in all languages the words necessary to cultivated arts and recondite sciences have rural origins (Vico 1968, para. 404).

Vico’s view led him to reverse the standard relationship of the poetic to the literal.

From all this it follows that all the tropes (and they are all reducible to the four types discussed) which have hitherto been considered ingenious inventions of writers, were necessary modes of expression of all the first poetic nations, and had originally their full native propriety. But these expressions of the first nations later became figurative when, with the further development of the human mind, words were invented which signified abstract forms or genera comprising their species or relating parts with their wholes. And here begins the overthrow of two common errors of the grammarians: that prose speech is proper speech, and poetic speech improper; and that prose speech came first and afterward speech in verse (Vico 1968, para. 409).

Vico’s theory links the actions of metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche. Metaphor identifies a new domain of human experience making it possible for metonymy to identify its parts, synecdoche to elaborate the relations between the attributes of parts to the whole, and irony to inspect the earlier practices for their adequacy, by a test of opposition. When irony is correctly detected the new object may be regarded as appropriately established in the consciousness of the person or group. Vico’s views were not fully effective until the nineteenth century but views in some respects similar to his were held by Herder (1744–1803), born in the year Vico died. Herder’s application was not the diachronic one of Vico, but rather the synchronic, through which he came to celebrate difference in cultures and provided an intellectual basis for the beginnings of anthropology and ethnology.

Some dissident voices were also heard in England. Coleridge (1772–1834), when asked why he attended Davy’s chemistry lectures, replied that he wanted to renew his stock of metaphors. Shelley (1792–1822) provided a connection between metaphor, language, and culture:

Language is vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension, until words, which represent them, become, through time, signs for portions or classes of thought instead of pictures of integral thoughts: and then, if no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have thus been disorganized, language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse.

3. Nietzsche and Freud

Nietzsche (1844–1900) marks a significant development. Moving beyond both Herder and Vico and their celebration of cultural plurality, extending Shelly’s view, and in a Darwinian context, he proposed that metaphor serves a creative and critical plurality. With earlier writers we may be tempted to observe that with a change of view of metaphor there seems to be a linked change of the theory of the human being. With Nietzsche, however, the linkage is explicit:

The drive toward the formation of metaphors is the fundamental human drive, which one cannot for an instant dispense with in thought, for one would thereby dispense with man himself. This drive is not truly vanquished and scarcely subdued by the fact that a regular and rigid new world is constructed as its prison from its own ephemeral products, the concepts (Nietzsche 1979, p. 88).

Turning towards the domain of philosophy, he remarks in an early writing:

What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions that we have forgotten are illusions; they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins that have lost embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins (Nietzsche 1979, p. 84).

The metaphor for truth, of coin which loses its face, has attracted many writers, few of who have commented on the phrase ‘a sum of human relations’ as applied to the tropes, a perception yet remaining to be developed.

Freud (1856–1939), some 12 years younger than Nietzsche, with mutual intimate acquaintances, made the claim that Nietzsche’s ‘guesses and intuitions often agree in the most astonishing way with the laborious findings of psychoanalysis.’ Whatever that relationship might yet turn out to have been, Freud’s work had the effect of applying Nietzsche’s perceptions to the ‘unconscious,’ a new metaphor of depth, drawing upon the classical myths for his lexicon—which, in turn, made available rich seams of linked metaphors. I. A. Richards (1893–1979) who provided terms for the study of metaphor: ‘tenor,’ ‘vehicle,’ and ‘tension.’ These terms, though by no means unambiguous, and failing to encompass the full range of metaphors, nevertheless helped to revive talk of metaphor. Richards linked psychoanalysis to metaphor.

The psychoanalysts have shown us with their discussions of ‘transference’—another name for metaphor—how constantly modes of regarding, of loving, of acting, that have developed with one set of things or people, are shifted to another. They have shown us chiefly the pathology of these transferences, cases where the vehicle—the borrowed attitude, the parental fixation, say—tyrannizes over the new situation, the tenor, and behavior is inappropriate. The victim is unable to see the new person except in terms of the old passion and its accidents. The victim reads the situation only in terms of the figure, the archetypal image, the vehicle. But in healthy growth, tenor and vehicle—the new human relationship and the family constellation—cooperate freely; and the resultant behavior derives in due measure from both. Thus in happy living the same patterns are exemplified and the same risks of error are avoided as in tactful and discerning reading. The general form of the interpretative process is the same, with a small-scale instance—the right understanding of a figure of speech—or with a large-scale instance—the conduct of a friendship (Richards 1936, 135ff ).

More recently, Freud’s writing has begun to be redescribed in ways that reveal its tropical basis (e.g., Lacan The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis).

4. The Tide Turns, Natural Science Exposed as Metaphor-dependent

Quine (1908–2000) writing as an empiricist nevertheless thought it: ‘a mistake, then, to think of language usage as literalistic in its main body and metaphorical in its trimming. Metaphor, or something like it, governs both the growth of language and our acquisition of it’ (1979, p. 160). Mary Hesse has extensively described the work of metaphor in science as compatible with this view. Max Black (1962) offered an ‘interactive’ theory of metaphor as a development of the ‘comparison’ view, and further linked metaphor and model, thereby linking the worlds (languages?) of literature and science. In the same year, Thomas Kuhn (1962), offered a sociological description of natural science, one recognized more by sociologists and historians than by philosophers, which had as one of its central notions that of a ‘paradigm’ which, in some uses, may be taken as a synonym for metaphor. This provided a stimulus for developing a social critique of natural science. In 1970, Rom Harre distinguished models in science into two kinds, homeomorphs which are modeled upon its subject, as is a doll, and paramorphs where the model is only distantly related, Harre’s examples included Harvey’s use of hydraulics to model, and discover, the circulation of blood. Paramorphs, close cousins to metaphor, are creative: homeomorphs have heuristic uses only. It is perhaps ironic that the stimulus for much work on metaphor may have come from this identification of the place of metaphor in science.

5. The Tide Turns, Within the Philosophy of Language

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) within his structural view of language, made a distinction between paradigmatic and syntagmatic axes that can be seen to correspond to a distinction made by Roman Jakobson (1896–1982) between two types of aphasia. In one, the victims have difficulty with the selection of a term and are dependent upon the context, which is on the contiguity of the discourse to continue to be part of it. By contrast, other aphasics, were seen to substitute equivalent terms e.g., table for lamp, smoke for pipe. Jakobson saw these as examples of metonymy and metaphor on the grounds that these were the most condensed expression of the contiguity or similarity distinctions. This changed perception of the relation between metaphor and metonymy led to developments in structuralism for example, by Levi-Strauss (1908–) in anthropology, and by Jacques Lacan (1901–81) in psychoanalysis. Accepting Jakobson’s suggestions, David Lodge offered a typology of modern writing based upon an opposition between metaphor and metonymy (1977).

Heidegger’s writing is rich with metaphor yet he denied it. He construed the sensory nonsensory distinction as belonging to metaphysics and drew the conclusion that ‘the metaphorical exists only within the boundaries of the metaphysical.’ By expressing a preference for the ‘poetical’ over the ‘mathematical,’ Heidegger has been influential in offering a reading of Nietzsche recovering a role for philosophy by means of what we might identify as metaphor of the kind which, as a sentence, is obviously false: ‘Philosophy is essentially untimely because it is one of those few things that can never find an echo in the present.’

Derrida (1930–) radicalized Saussure’s structural description of language, both in his conceptualizing and also in the style of his writing—in so doing, he matched the congruence in Nietzsche who linked his valuation of metaphor to his style of writing. Derrida’s view of language relies upon a play of differences, and understands metaphor as operating within that play of differences—he was unable to use the otherwise conventional distinction between the metaphorical and the literal. His identification of phallogocentrism undermined the metaphor of depth for more perspicuous knowledge, paving the way for a metaphor of breadth. Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–) understood as a major contributor to hermeneutics also wrote of metaphor.

It is the genius of linguistic consciousness to be able to give expression to these similarities. This is its fundamental metaphorical nature, and it is important to see that it is the prejudice of a theory of logic that is alien to language if the metaphorical use of a word is regarded as not its real sense (Gadamer 1989, p. 429).

This view strengthens the possibility of substituting a metaphor of breadth for that of depth to describe knowing and understanding, begun by Derrida. Paul Ricoeur (1913–) in a conservative review of the principal writers, sees metaphor as the continuing source for the redescription of the world, but only in a perspective within which philosophy would be concerned to manage the legitimacy of its uses, limiting its influence and restricting any epistemological damage. While it may be interesting to speculate what part the earlier publication of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s (1889–1951) Tractatus (1922) might have played in making the Philosophical In estigations (1953) as influential as it has proved, the former, though built upon metaphor, has no place for it within its closed system, whereas the latter uses metaphor throughout, but without attempting an explicit theory of it. The style of the Philosophical In estigations is as if we hear just one side of a conversation—simply a limitation imposed if the writing is not to be that of drama or a novel? Perhaps the In estigations will come to be judged as the writing which, more than any other, licensed the growth of academic interest in metaphor.

6. The Tide Turns, The Broader Academic Response

Kenneth Burke (1897–), following Vico, selected ‘metonymy, irony, metaphor and synecdoche’ and labeled them the ‘Four Master Tropes’ and set them to new (as he thought) uses:

I refer to metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony. And my primary concern with them here will be not with their purely figurative usage, but with their role in the discovery and description of ‘the truth.’ It is an evanescent moment that we shall deal with—for not only does the dividing line between the figurative and literal uses shift, but also the four tropes shade into one another. Give a man but one of them, tell him to exploit its possibilities, and if he is thorough in doing so, he will come upon the other three’ (1969, p. 503).

Four influential interdisciplinary conferences were held in the academic year beginning September 1977, following the publication of a  Bibliography, Metaphor (Shibbles 1971). Later, some 3,500 publications were identified in the period 1985–90 (van Noppen and Hols 1990).

In one, came a significant moment with a sharp difference between Max Black and Donald Davidson. Following Richards and Black, it had been normal to speak of ‘literal meaning’ and ‘metaphorical meaning.’ Davidson relied upon a distinction between what words mean and what they do, and took metaphor to belong exclusively to the domain of use. The terms used in metaphor should be held to mean exactly what they mean in their literal use.

Andrew Ortony collected an influential number of papers representing a variety of perspectives on metaphor (1979). The rate of change merited a second edition as early as 1993 (1993). Within philosophy, Cooper provided a comprehensive and well-received discussion (1986). Seen by many as a significant event, the publication in 1980 by Lakoff and Johnson (1980) of Metaphors We Li e By, copiously illustrated the endemic nature of metaphor in everyday understanding and extended metaphor’s claim to cognitive uses. More recently, this has been developed and broadened by Raymond Gibbs (1994).

By the end of the twentieth century there was scarcely a field of academic enquiry within the behavioral sciences which had not begun to explore its areas of interest with the benefit of an analysis using metaphor and its related tropes as tools e.g., Brown (1977) in sociology, Leary (1990) in psychology, McCloskey (1986) in economics, and much is owed to Hayden White who developed Vico’s insights and applied them to the writing of history providing a most virtuous circle (1973, 1985).

7. Metaphor and ‘The Social’

We have, almost in passing, encountered pointers towards a closer association between the metaphorical and the social. Darwin’s Origin of Species provided the opportunity to replace a view of language as correspondence with reality, with that of a series of tools to support survival. Metaphor in this view is a toolmaking tool. Nietzsche referred to the tropes as ‘a sum of human relations.’ Cohen (1979) drew attention to similarities between metaphors and jokes, and to the experience which he calls the achievement of intimacy:

There is a unique way in which the maker and the appreciator of a metaphor are drawn closer to one another. Three aspects are involved: the speaker issues a kind of concealed invitation; the hearer expends a special effort to accept the invitation; and this transaction constitutes the acknowledgment of a community.

This description may easily be extended into a research program. Davidson has recently maintained that thought itself absolutely depends on a three-way relationship between at least two people and a series of events that are shared in the world.

Critical both of Saussure’s ‘objectivist’ linguistics and of ‘subjectivist’ perspectives, Bakhtin (1895–1975) developed a view of language as sustained and developed in particular social relationships, in turn embedded in wider political and economic conditions and, paradigmatically, with consciousness being thought of as inhering in the person-within-the-group. This view allows for full social interaction, including the non-verbal, to be understood as modifying the associations which attached to the terms deployed in conversation. Wittgenstein’s style in the Philosophical In estigations is reminiscent of Bakhtin’s view.

Although computer technology has made possible the assembly of large corpora of searchable language texts drawn from a variety of publications, it seems not yet to be practicable to incorporate significant contextual detail into these databases, other than of an immediate textual kind, providing a limitation on the development of a social understanding of metaphor, by this route. For the time being, it would seem that some kind of ethnographic research will be most suited to explore the human-relational sources of metaphor use, with Bakhtin’s perspective suggesting the possibility of developments in ethnomethodology. Some suggestions, focusing on ‘conversational realities,’ have been made by John Shotter (1993) and a comprehensive, utopian, and pragmatist redescription of modern culture and politics drawing upon the changing status of metaphor, has been offered by Richard Rorty (1989). Metaphor is the meeting place of the human with the natural.


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