Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Novels as metaphors

William Egginton doesn't do his side any favors when he writes that:
The literary historian Luiz Costa Lima has argued that prior to the invention of fiction, narratives were largely measured against one overriding standard: the perceived truthfulness of their relation to the world. That truth was often a moral or theological one, and to the extent that narratives related the deeds of men, proximity to an image of virtue or holiness would be considered worthy of imitation, and distance from it worthy of opprobrium.
Shifting from "perceived truthfulness" to "truth" (when what seems to be meant is "truth", not truth) is shifty, and the kind of either sloppiness or playfulness that encourages others to regard literary theory as providing fun but not knowledge.

This is much better:
For a prose narrative to be fictional it must be written for a reader who knows it is untrue and yet treats it for a time as if it were true. The reader knows, in other words, not to apply the traditional measure of truthfulness for judging a narrative; he or she suspends that judgment for a time, in a move that Samuel Taylor Coleridge popularized as “the willing suspension of disbelief,” or “poetic faith.” Another way of putting this is to say that a reader must be able to occupy two opposed identities simultaneously: a naïve reader who believes what he is being told, and a savvy one who knows it is untrue.
Compare Davidson on metaphor:
The most obvious semantic difference between simile and metaphor is that all similes are true and most metaphors are false.  The earth is like a floor, the Assyrian did come down like a wolf on the fold, because everything is like everything.  But turn these sentences into metaphors, and you turn them false; the earth is like a floor, but it is not a floor; Tolstoy, grown up, was like an infant, but he wasn’t one.
Most fiction is false, but not all of it. There are novels closely based on fact, after all, and at least some sentences in such novels are probably quite true. This might seem to be a difference between metaphors and novels though:
A metaphor makes us attend to some likeness, often a novel or surprising  likeness,  between two or more things
But a) is this claim of Davidson's really true?, and b) don't novels do something like this as well? Metaphors do not usually make us attend to the likeness they imply. "All the world's a stage" might make us stop and think about how life is like a play, but "Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life" does not, surely, make us stop and think about how similar something (what?) is to dust. Maybe that's a sign that this isn't a good metaphor, but then most metaphors are not likely to be very good. What I want to say is this: most metaphors do not make us attend to a likeness in the sense of stopping and thinking about it. Shakespeare's do not do that. If they did, we would not be able to follow the plays. Usually we take metaphors in our stride, which is a point I think Davidson himself makes. Metaphors show or present things in a certain way, as like this or that, but we see without having to stop and make out what we are being shown. And novels do something similar. They show us the world as being like this, like themselves.

There is at most one world, as Davidson has said, so fictional claims about what happened (i.e. what we typically get in novels) are not about some other world. They are false claims about this world. (I realize that this is, shall we say, an odd thing to say, but I'm trying to speak Davidsonian here.) But we all know that they are false, so they aren't lies or mistakes. They are like the sentence "Jones is a pig," metaphorical. Being false, I suppose that novels don't provide us with knowledge in any obvious or simple sense. But can't it be true that Jones is a pig? Must we think that such expressions are nothing but fun ways of saying things that ought to be expressed without metaphor? We can think that, I think, but to do so is to insist on using only a very limited range of linguistic possibilities. Why would we do that? It seems very much like the insanity that Chesterton sees in materialism:
As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of the madman's argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out... His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cogwheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world. Somehow his scheme, like the lucid scheme of the madman, seem unconscious of the alien energies and the large indifference of the Earth...
I don't know how to argue about such things though. Egginton is responding to Alex Rosenberg's appalling defense of naturalism. (I don't mean that Rosenberg argued appallingly badly but that the view he defends is appalling. Witness the appalled reactions here.) It's like Schopenhauer's contrasting of two nothings:
we freely acknowledge that what remains after the entire abolition of will is, for all those who are still full of will, certainly nothing; but conversely, to those in whom the will has turned and has denied itself, this our world which is so real, with all its suns and Milky Ways, is nothing.
What apparently appears as nothing to Rosenberg (nothing but fun, at least) seems like pretty much everything to me. And what seems like everything to him is as nothing to me. But perhaps I'm exaggerating, blinded by the worst things Rosenberg says.


  1. i don't know the davidson well (at all?), but i notice that one thing you didn't mention in your remarks about the truth of similes and falsity of metaphors is the idea of 'literal' meaning. does he appeal to that in saying that metaphors are false?

    the novel closest to my computer, 'the mill on the floss', starts out, 'a wide plain, where the broadening floss hurries on between its green banks to the sea, and the loving tide, rushing to meet it, checks its passage with an impetuous embrace'. if i wanted to talk about whether such a sentence, as fictional, or part of a fiction, were true or false, i think it would be odd to reach immediately for the idea that it's not LITERALLY true. i wonder if that has something to do with… something.

  2. I think Davidson's "true/false" point is, at best, very badly put. A metaphor can be good or bad, apt or wide of the mark, but it cannot be "false" because it's not trying to be "true". He is attempting to cash out one language-game in terms of another and gets into quite a mess as a result.

    "Was Tolstoy at 60 really a child in a man's clothing?"
    "No - not literally."
    "So that sentence is false?"
    "No, it's not false; it's metaphorical."

    To say something false is either to lie or to be wrong about the truth. Neither of these apply in the case of a metaphor.

  3. One of the main things Davidson wants to do is combat the idea that metaphors have some kind of "metaphorical meaning". He wants, instead, to say that they say and mean what they say. This is why they can't be put in other words--they already say what they mean as accurately as it can be said. This, as various people have noted, is very similar to what Wittgenstein says about the secondary use of words, or the use of words in a secondary sense. Taken in this way metaphors are usually obviously false, but this doesn't matter (says Davidson) because it is their use rather than their meaning that is relevant. What a metaphor means is false, but what it does is to get us to see things differently.

    It sounds odd to call fiction or metaphor false, and fictionalists (at least sometimes) say that such things are neither true nor false, but fiction is surely at least closer to being false than it is to being true, as courage is closer to rashness than cowardice, even though it is neither of these vices. Davidson's point is right, it seems to me, and how he makes it is not so important.

    If we still want to say that a certain metaphor is true, perhaps even literally true (although I think that would be a misuse of 'literally'), or that a novel is true then I think we will be using 'true' in a non-Davidsonian way. But that's OK, as far as I can see, as long as the difference is clear enough. So a true metaphor is an apt one, a false one is inapt. But if I say that someone is a pig this is unlikely to be true taken literally, even if, qua metaphor, it is perfectly true. Davidson's point is that this does not mean that the sentence has some non-literal meaning that is literally true. Rather, it is a metaphor. Realizing that the words are being used in a metaphorical way (i.e. as metaphor) is more important than, or prior to, understanding whether they are literally true or false. If we take them literally then they are false, but that is the wrong way to take them. Although, as Egginton says, we sort of have to take them as both true and false at the same time, having appropriate disbelief but suspending it.

    At least I think this is compatible with Davidson's position, even if it might not be exactly what he says.

  4. I often hear authors claim that they make their living by telling untruths and lies. I always want to reply along the lines of Philip Cartwright. "What you write isn't a lie. You're not trying to trick me into believing you're telling the truth. In fact, your novel written without any question of what is true or fals, isn't it?" Which would make an author of fiction sound awfully like a master of Bullshitting, according to Harry Frankfurt's definition. Of course, her fiction may still be false on a deeper level (in her depiction of human nature, say), but this would be a much harder question to settle than a question of plain right or wrong.

    I absolutely agree with you on Rosenberg. I'm no expert on Naturalism, but no, I don't think you were "blinded by the worst things Rosenberg [said]". Or, rahter, I think most of it was of that kind. Timothy Williams has now repied, and puts his finger on many of my instant objections to it.

  5. Fiction is certainly not lies, I agree. But I'm still tempted to agree with Davidson, as long as the falseness of fiction's sentences (and of course he talks about metaphor: it's me that brings fiction into it--maybe that's why I agree!) is taken as a very basic or early point to note about it and not at all as the last word. Sticking to Davidson's subject, in a definition of metaphor one of the first things one might mention is that metaphors are not literally true. Even when they are true (i.e. apt), they aren't true in the same way that non-metaphorical claims can be. But perhaps this kind of thing is so basic that it ought to be left unsaid. Saying it might be at best confusing or misleading, and at worst simply wrong. And arguably metaphors are neither true nor false, but that sounds wrong to me too.

    Williamson's response to Rosenberg seems good to me--thanks for the link. But the support for Rosenberg here is worrying.

  6. DR: I'm suspicious of the notion of being closer (or further from) truth in this case. Your simile regarding courage/rashness/cowardice expresses an internal relationship between concepts. But I'm not sure approximation to truth works that way. There it's more a case of establishing levels of accuracy appropriate to a particular activity.

    But fiction (usually) just isn't playing that game. Consider these three sentences:

    i. The battle of Waterloo was in 1817.
    ii. Once there was a town called Ug whose mayor was very shy.
    iii. Imagine that once there was a town called Ug whose mayor was very shy.

    (i) is a false statement.
    (iii) is neither true nor false because it's not a statement at all. It could be more or less like something that actually happened (eg, there was a real town called Ag with a shy mayor). But that doesn't make it any closer to the truth.
    (ii) could be like (i) or (iii) depending on the circumstances - and actually (i) could be like (iii) too in the right context.

    We have a highly developed and deeply established custom of fiction. We don't need to start our novels or films "Imagine that..." or even "Once upon a time..." But that's because we've all been brought up to understand what's going on here.

    As for metaphors, they (usually) proudly announce that they're not playing the true/false game by being unmistakable for plain assertions of facts. They scream out "don't mistake this for a sentence which is true or false in the standard way - those rules don't apply here".

  7. Thanks, this has got me thinking. I'll see whether I can express my thoughts properly, and whether they are any good.

    Take a sentence like "I have two hands" or "I have never been to the moon." In most circumstances it would be nonsensical for me to say such things. But there are circumstances, e.g. talking to a young child who has not yet learned what is obvious or to be taken for granted, I might reasonably say them. And they would be true. So, although I might agree that these sentences are really neither true nor false (because they are nonsense), they are the kind of nonsense that might be called (at least by me) closer to being true than being false. That might be a misleading way to put it, because really when they are nonsense they are nonsense (and so not at all true) and when they are true they are true, not merely close to being true. But I like to think that as long as we can still see the facts it doesn't matter too much how we express them.

    Fiction is neither true nor false in a way that is similar to nonsense's being neither true nor false. Which is not to say that fiction is nonsense. But if I were called on to explain fiction to someone, again perhaps a child, I might start by distinguishing fiction from non-fiction and saying that non-fiction is (meant to be) true and fiction is not. I might even say that it is false, although I'm starting to think that would be a mistake. But its not being false seems like a somewhat technical or philosophical matter, the kind of thing I might not want to get into with a child, whereas its not being (straightforwardly) true seems fairly simple. "Did that really happen?" "No, it's just a story" sounds like part of a normal conversation. Basically I think I'm coming round to your point of view on this, but I'm still hanging on a little bit to the way I've been talking.

    Metaphors are trickier because they die. And then they can be literally true or false. But while they're alive perhaps they should be treated as neither true nor false, as not playing that game. So I don't think I really disagree with you much after all.

    It's still possible, as far as I can see, to think of metaphors and fiction as belonging in the same category, and to think that they don't have anything like a special "fictional meaning" or "metaphorical meaning." They just mean what they say. And that, I think, is Davidson's main claim about metaphors.

  8. Cartwright: "To say something false is either to lie or to be wrong about the truth."

    This seems simply wrong. I can say false things for all sorts of reasons: reporting what another said, assuming a premise for reductio, presenting an example of something that isn't so, sarcasm, kidding around, etc.

    I think Davidson's deepest reason for denying metaphorical meaning (and claiming that metaphors have their normal literal meaning, which is most often either obviously false or trivially true) is that he doesn't want to have a sharp line between things that "are" metaphors and things that "aren't". He thinks that this way of viewing language, as having a core of sentences which are "literally" true or false and a penumbra of sentences which are not, is a mistake.

    A literal truth can perfectly well serve as a good metaphor ("The man Cheney shot in the face defended him to the media"), and "dead" metaphors do their work in the same way "normal" literal truths do ("A stitch in time saves nine" doesn't do its work by getting its hearer to think about stitching; many people who know the saying nowadays can't imagine what the original image was supposed to be, but take the point anyway -- preparedness now saves time later). Something's working as a metaphor is orthogonal to questions of its truth or falsity, or even of whether it's something usually thought of as a "metaphor". Truth and convention are the wrong things to look at in thinking about metaphor. They are just different issues, and we shouldn't run them together in our thinking about language.

    In Davidson's view, metaphoric functioning is a general possibility of language as such, not the special province of a peculiar sort of utterance we sometimes make. Whether something functions as a useful metaphor depends heavily on the particular contexts of its hearing, uttering, surrounding words, etc. A "good" metaphor can simply fail to move someone, and a "bad" or "silly" metaphor can be just the one that's wanted to get your hearer to see the light. And metaphoric functioning is not a rival to other sorts of linguistic functioning: Hearing a truth reported on can change the way one views things in a way which is not rational, not subject to being shown to be correct or incorrect by laying out the truth-conditional or inferential contents of what was reported, but which is nonetheless important and valuable. It can do this while reporting a truth in a perfectly ordinary manner.

  9. It took me way too long to figure out the reason I couldn't post a comment was that it was too long, and needed to be split into parts.

    DR: You're right to expand Davidson's treatment of metaphor to discussions of fiction; he himself makes the moves you attribute to him in his essays on Joyce, and Rorty made those moves (which were then approved of by Davidson) in his "Unfamiliar Noises".

    Davidson does say that sentences in novels are (usually) false, and have their normal truth-conditions, and acknowledges that this can seem a little squirrely. One of the reasons he gives for thinking it's nonetheless correct is that when you read something like "The Capulets live in Verona", you're supposed to call to mind Verona (the city in Italy), and not some other, fictional city (which could be anything -- maybe it's Verona Base Research Station and is orbiting Venus, and the Capulets are sentient fungi). Fiction draws on things you believe about the world and how you expect things to function in it to be able to be understandable, and so at least some of the words used in it have to mean what the reader takes them to mean on first encountering them. The inferences which would strike us as natural to draw when presented with the sentences used in fiction, were they to be used in a newspaper report, are also being drawn on: If Shakespeare tells us that the Capulets are a powerful family in 16th-century Verona, we're supposed to be able to tell that they're wealthy, Catholic, don't have magical powers, etc. Fiction can toy with some of our expectations, but only by leaving a lot of them untouched: a fictional world entirely unlike our own would be impossible to work our way into, and the book would be unreadable, its plot nonsensical. So Davidson says that the sentences in fiction have their apparent truth-conditions, as it is in truth-conditions that Davidson articulates the relation of words to world.

    Something which I think might be muddying up this discussion is the idea that true sentences have a special purpose in our linguistic practices: we use true sentences to make claims (assertions, statements, judgements...), and using false sentences to do this is wrong. Davidson explicitly argued against Dummett's defense of this idea, insisting that we do not misuse words if we make use of them to utter falsehoods; words do not prevent us from lying or fabulating or being sarcastic, but serve those purposes as well as anything. Semantics doesn't settle how words are to be used; questions of meaning don't settle the morals of truth-telling. If lying is a form of asserting, truth is no norm of assertion. A successful lie plays on its hearer's expectations, not the demands codified in language as such.

    If I say something sarcastically or in the course of telling a fable, then you would err if you took my word for it that things are as I (my words) had said they were; if I am trying to tell you about the details of some essays I've read, then taking me (and my words) on my word is just what I want you to do, and what I want you to come to know things by doing. If I lie to you, then what I want you to do is take me (my words) at face-value, but I want you to come to believe a falsehood by so doing (without your knowing that this has happened to you). Things can get even more complicated (like with Freud's joke about the two Jews at the Galician train-station). All of these are things we do with true and false sentences. There is no such thing as the true/false game. There are lots of them, related to each other in lots of different ways.

    And words used in those various games can all potentially change the way we view the world, not by alerting us to new facts but by shifting the physiognomy of (possible) facts, shifting the meaning those facts can have for us. The work of metaphors on us cannot be shown to be defensible by logic or decision theory, and so Davidson calls its "arational", but he does not use this as an insult.

  10. Thanks, Daniel. I read that essay of Rorty's soon after I read Davidson, so I guess I'm really just repeating what I read and then only half remembered. You have articulated it all much better than I could have. And it was you who encouraged me to read Davidson and that Rorty essay, so thanks for that too. Now I'll have to read Davidson's essays on Joyce.

    I can't really repay the favor, but have you read Stoutland on Davidson and Anscombe on reasons and causes? I haven't had a chance to read it carefully and think it all through, but it seemed pretty good to me. Basically, Stoutland argues that Davidson and Anscombe are much closer than people usually think. I think it's the essay listed on his CV as "“Reasons and Causes” in Pasquale Frascalla, Diego Marconi, and Alberto Voltolini, eds.,
    Wittgenstein: Mind, Meaning, and Metaphilosophy (Palgrave-Macmillan, forthcoming)," but it's not forthcoming anymore. It's out.