Elisabetta Gola – Metaphors for reasoning

Metaphors for reasoningLogo_Università_di_Cagliari

Elisabetta Gola
Department of Pedagogy, Psychology and Philosophy
University of Cagliari

When is a metaphor also a good argumentation? Are we always able to distinguish the truth in literal and metaphorical sentences? Such questions address the relation between metaphor and argumentation, a topic about which little is known. The ways in which specific aspects of metaphors influence the quality of argumentation still needs to be clarified (Gola 2014; Ervas & Sangoi 2014).

One thing, however, is clear. In order to understand the reasonableness and persuasiveness of figurative language, it is crucial to analyse the relationship between metaphor and argumentation. This is the focus of a broad research program currently led by a multidisciplinary group of scholars at the University of Cagliari. The group is composed of experts in philosophy of language, logic, pragmatics, psychology, sociology and epistemology.

In classical argumentation theory, metaphors are usually perceived as fallacious (Sergioli & Ternullo 2014; Tindale 2006). As a result, when evaluating argumentative discourse, a sentence in which a metaphor occurs is almost always literally false or unacceptable. While the context of its usage might create a perception that metaphors are true, or at least plausible, they governed by heuristic rules that never guarantee the preservation of truth, thus giving rise to systematic fallacies (Fischer 2011, 2014). This may explain why metaphors are highly persuasive by nature, but cannot be trusted from a truth-functional logic perspective (Ervas & Ledda 2014).

The view of metaphors as being persuasive but unreasonable is exemplified in so-called quaternio terminorum argumentation, a syllogism in which the middle term assumes a different meaning in each premise. Consider the following example (the middle term is indicated in bold):

(P1) Clooney is a star

(P2) A star is a celestial body


(C) Clooney is a celestial body

Quaternio terminorum argumentation actually relies on the intrinsic ambiguity of the middle term, which is used in the premises with two different meanings. We have found that the persuasiveness of an argument varies as the ambiguity of the middle term moves through such a spectrum (homonymy, such as bank in the example above, polysemy, dead metaphors, live metaphors) (Ervas, Gola, Ledda & Sergioli 2015).

Furthermore, in recent decades, the frameworks of cognitive linguistics and embodied cognition have strongly influenced the concept of language and reasoning, which are no longer conceived as the processing of logic-formal systems. Varied disciplines have demonstrated the productive use of metaphors in reasoning: physics (Hesse 1996), biology (Keller 1995), and psychology (Gentner & Grudin 1985), to name but a few. Metaphors are highly creative and might have a positive role in reasoning, as the history of science testifies (Storari & Favrin 2014) and scientific texts show (Steen, 2015). Metaphor is indeed based on a cross-domain mechanism of projection (mapping), which preserves relations from a source to a target domain, thus favouring analogical reasoning (Black 1993; Lakoff & Johnson 1980).

As metaphors might require imagination as their own main source of understanding, they have been considered too subjective and emotionally-driven to be investigated under the lenses of argumentation theory. It has been supposed that the intuitive nature of metaphors clashes with the reflective nature of argumentation (Ervas, Rossi & Gola 2015). However, they are not necessarily antithetical and, in case of live metaphors, imagination might deeply influence the intuitions of truth in argumentation (Carston 2002, 2010). In this perspective, metaphors could elicit a more creative and productive argumentation style. Under this aspect, metaphor should not be interpreted as a trap leading to fallacies, but as a helpful mean for creative thinking (Blackburn 1984; Ervas, Ledda & Pierro 2016).

In this general framework, “LinguisticaMente” research group is working at the University of Cagliari on the following topics and objectives:

1) Extending an empirical study, already done for the quaternio terminorum fallacy (Ervas, Gola, Ledda & Sergioli 2015), to other kinds of argumentation structures, in order to measure the influence of lexical ambiguity and metaphor on our understanding and reasoning (Ervas & Ledda 2014; Ervas, Gola, Ledda & Sergioli 2015; Ervas, Ledda & Pierro to appear).

2) Examining the logical and pragmatic aspects of argumentation processes to evaluate their impact on education, critical thinking, journalism and management. The persuasiveness of an argumentation, indeed, does not rely only on its logical soundness, but also on the way in which the argumentation is actually expressed and on the role of imagination in creative thinking (Research project on Argumentation and Metaphor 2015-2017; Storari & Favrin 2014; Ilardi-Ceccherelli 2013).

3) Related to this second topic it is important be aware that human reason is not only formal and ‘cool’. In particular, emotions play a relevant role in our communication and decision-making processes. But usually we consider this role in a ‘negative’ way. Another important side of our research is instead to show the positive role of emotions and metaphors in reasoning. This against the long-lasting prejudice consisting in the idea that reasoning (especially within normative domains, such as moral and political reasoning) must be independent by embodied cognitive processes, since they might play a ‘negative’ role in our decision-making processes (Ervas, Rossi & Gola 2014).


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Carston, R. (2010). Metaphor: Ad hoc concepts, literal meaning and mental Images., Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 110(3), 295-321.

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