Metaphor in language and literature: A genre perspective

The special relation between metaphor and literature has come under pressure in recent decades because of the launch of the cognitive-linguistic approach to metaphor by Lakoff and Johnson’s (1980) famous book Metaphors we live by. The strong version of that approach, called Conceptual Metaphor Theory, says that metaphors are a general conceptual tool instead of a specific rhetorical or poetic device, undermining the idea that metaphors are the privileged domain of poets and other rhetorically gifted language users. Instead, even some psychologists now hold that all people display a Poetics of mind, the title of another famous book, by Ray Gibbs (1994). This is reflected in the ubiquitous presence of metaphor in all language use across all domains of discourse.

In recent years I have developed an extended version of this theory, emphasizing that not all metaphor in language is an automatic reflection of conceptual metaphors in thought, but that some metaphors are used deliberately as metaphors in communication for specific communicative purposes (e.g., Steen, 2008, 2011a). In this talk I will develop the most important aspects of Deliberate Metaphor Theory and address its implications for Conceptual Metaphor Theory (cf. Gibbs, 2015a, b; Steen, 2015). I will focus on the description and explanation of deliberate and non-deliberate metaphor use in literary versus non-literary genres, and argue that all metaphor use can be understood from such an encompassing genre perspective, including the use of metaphor in literature. The special relation between metaphor and literature can hence be seen as one specific variation on the theme of the relation between language use and discourse from the perspective of genre (Steen, 2011b).

Gibbs, R.W., jr. 1994. The poetics of mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gibbs, R.W., jr. 2015a. Do pragmatic signals affect conventional metaphor understanding? A failed test of deliberate metaphor theory. Journal of Pragmatics.

Gibbs, R.W., jr. 2015a. Does Deliberate Metaphor Theory have a future? Journal of Pragmatics.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. 1980. Metaphors we live by. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

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

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

Steen, G.J. 2011. Genre between the humanities and the sciences. In M. Callies, W.R. Keller, & A. Lohöfer (Eds.), Bi-directionality in the cognitive sciences: Examining the interdisciplinary potential of cognitive approaches in linguistics and literary studies (pp. 21-42). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Steen, G.J. 2015. Developing, testing, and interpreting Deliberate Metaphor Theory. Journal of Pragmatics.