Cihua Xu – The use of metaphor in argumentation

Cihua Xu
Center for the study of Language and Cognition, Zhejiang University
Hangzhou, China

Metaphor is often used in daily communication. A number of studies focus on how metaphor may enhance the persuasive power of discourse (e.g. Cameron & Deignan, 2006; Charteris-Black, 2011; Hauser & Schwarz, 2014). But since these studies approach to metaphor from a purely rhetorical perspective, the question as to how metaphor is used in argumentation remains unanswered. In our research, we study metaphor from the perspective of a rational discussion, focusing on questions such as: What representations do metaphors have in argumentation? How do metaphorical expressions function in different types of arguments? Below, I discuss three projects that focus on these issues.

Reconstructing metaphorical expressions

In argumentation studies, there have been various proposals regarding the reconstruction of metaphor used in argumentative discourse (e.g. Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1969; Juthe, 2005; Garssen, 2009; Xu & Wu, 2014; Wagemans, 2016). But these studies are not fully satisfactory. Our approach is aimed at solving the problems pertinent to the use of metaphor in argumentation by incorporating insights from cognitive linguistics and relevance theory. Taking a pragma-dialectical perspective (van Eemeren & Grootendorst, 2004) on metaphor, we propose a paradigm for reconstructing the use of metaphor in argumentative discourse. Our paradigm is premised on the idea that when metaphor is used in argumentation, what is mapped from the source domain to the target domain is the relationship between these two domains, rather than the semantics or the attributes of them. Based on this relationship, the metaphor A is B constitutes a new, non-figurative proposition A’ is B’.  Having thus created optimal relevance by lexical broadening, the reconstructed metaphorical expression functions as a symptomatic or casual argument scheme. It follows that an argument by metaphor should always be evaluated from one of these schemes.

Multimodal metaphor used in argumentation

According to Kjeldsen, “[rhetorical figures] are not only ornamental, but also support the creation of arguments […]” (2012, p. 239). That rhetorical figures may help to promote acceptance of a certain point of view by the audience, does not only apply to verbal arguments but also to visual or multimodal ones. Such multimodal arguments and the corresponding inferences are significantly harder to identify and understand than verbal arguments. Things become even more complicated when multimodal arguments contain metaphorical expressions, which is sometimes the case in advertisements.  In order to give an adequate evaluation of the argumentative discourse at issue, in this project we focus on analyzing the connection between metaphorical expressions and arguments. We do so by applying the pragma-dialectical notions of ‘strategic maneuvering’ (van Eemeren, 2010) and ‘argumentative pattern’ (van Eemeren, 2016) to visual argumentation in the commercial context.

Framing by metaphor

The past three decades have witnessed the ‘cognitive turn’ in metaphor studies (Steen, 2011). It has been found that metaphor is not only a figure of speech, but also a basic cognitive mechanism. Metaphor is a vital way for framing (Gamson, 1981), which, to some extent, influences how people perceive the world. In our studies, we assume that framing by metaphor helps enhancing the argumentative effectiveness of the discourse in three ways: a) foregrounding concepts, b) expressing concepts in euphemism, and c) consolidating memory. In this project, we use the extended pragma-dialectical notion ‘strategic maneuvering’ (van Eemeren, 2010) and deliberate metaphor theory (Steen, 2008; 2011) in order to analyze how to improve the appropriateness of metaphorical framing and how to resist an unreasonable metaphorical frame (e.g. Zhang & Xu, 2017).


Cameron, L., & Deignan, A. (2006). The emergence of metaphor in discourse. Applied Linguistics, 27(4), 671–690.

Charteris-Black, J. (2011). Politicians and rhetoric. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Eemeren, F.H. van (2010). Strategic maneuvering in argumentative discourse. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Eemeren, F.H. van, & Grootendorst, R. (2004). A systematic theory of argumentation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gamson, W.A. (1981). The political culture of Arab-Israeli conflict. Conflict Management and Peace Science, 5(2), 79–84.

Garssen, B.J. (2009). Comparing the incomparable: Figurative analogies in a dialectical testing procedure. In F.H. van Eemeren & and B.J. Garssen (Eds.). Pondering on problems of argumentation: Twenty essays on theoretical issues. (pp. 133-140). Dordrecht: Springer.

Hauser, D.J., & Schwarz, N. (2014). The war on prevention: Bellicose cancer metaphors hurt (some) prevention intentions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(1), 66–77.

Juthe, A. (2005). Argument by analogy. Argumentation, 19(1), 1-27.

Kjeldsen, J.E. (2012). Pictorial argumentation in advertising: Visual tropes and figures as a way of creating visual argumentation. In F.H. van Eemeren & B. Garssen (Eds.), Topical themes in argumentation theory (pp. 239-255). Dordrecht: Springer.

Perelman, C., & Olbrechts-Tyteca, L. (1969). The new rhetoric: A treatise on argumentation. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Steen, G.J. (2008). The paradox of metaphor: Why we need a three-dimensional model of metaphor. Metaphor & Symbol, 23(4), 213–241.

Steen, G.J. (2011). The contemporary theory of metaphor—now new and improved! Review of Cognitive Linguistics, 9(1), 26-64.

Steen, G.J. (2017). Deliberate Metaphor Theory: Basic assumptions, main tenets, urgent issues. Intercultural Pragmatics, 14(1), 1–24.

Wagemans, J.H.M. (2016). Analyzing metaphor in argumentative discourse. Rivista Italiana di Filosofia del Linguaggio, 10(2), 79-94.

Xu, C., & Wu, Y. (2014). Metaphors in the perspective of argumentation. Journal of Pragmatics, 62, 68-76.

Zhang, C., & Xu, C. (2017). Argument by multimodal metaphor as strategic maneuvering in video advertising: The case of the Lin Dan Commercial. Journal of Argumentation in Context, 6(3), 359-380.

Simone Wolfswinkel • January 10, 2018

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