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A New Understanding of Metaphor: Theory and Practice

Metaphors abound in our ordinary conversation, especially in fun, and even more in poetry. Where metaphor is inappropriate, perhaps, is in analytical and legal discourses, which require precision of meanings. So, when and where should be use metaphor, how should we use them and which metaphors is it useful to use and which, not? This page first seeks understanding of metaphor, from the fields of linguistic, literature and philosophy, opened affirmed, critiqued and enriched by Dooyeweerdian philosophy. It then discusses reading and writing of metaphors and how Dooyeweerd can help us do so.


What Is Metaphor? How to Metaphors Work?

From Aristotle's time, metaphor has been understood as a transfer of meaning to a primary from a secondary, and in some (e.g. "Man is a wolf") the transfer is almost immediate, in others it takes some working out (e.g. "Bill is a barn door") [Sobolev 2008]. Richards [1950] saw metaphor more interactively as "fundamentally a borrowing between and an intercourse of thoughts, a transaction between contexts" and Black [1962], as a filter through which we see the primary through the secondary.

"Commonplaces" (ordinary, well-known meanings) of the secondary are transferred to the primary, so for example "If the man is a wolf, he preys upon other animals, is fierce, hungry, engaged in a constant struggle, a scavenger, and so on" [Lakoff & Turner 1989 cited in Sobolev), whereas it is not so clear which commonplaces of the barn door apply. How can we understand what is the meaning of the commonplaces when transferred?

Sobolev discusses a number of issues that arise with metaphors, ===== [get them].

Metaphors cannot always be said to be true or false, but they can usually be said to be successful or unsuccessful. For example, in analysing Big Data (huge volumes of data of wide variety, from databases, new feeds, photographs, videos, etc.) metaphors like Volume, Velocity, Volatility and Viscosity [Khan et al. 2019] work well, while Vexed and Venturesomeness do not because it is not clear what meanings in vexation or ventures are relevant. For the latter, much depends on the description that accompanies them, which defeats most of the object of using metaphors.

Some argue that there is no distinction between metaphorical and non-metaphorical meaning, some maintain a distinction, and some even maintain that metaphor is a deviant form of language that should be avoided [Ortony 1993], but both those extremes impede understanding and analysis. One limitation of most of the discourse about metaphors, of either camp, is that it presupposes the primary is a thing, like "man", Bill or a painting, whereas here most of the metaphors are about properties. So not all the extant discourse can be assumed to apply, and we adopt a slightly different approach, which takes direct account of meanings more than things. We look at meanings behind words directly rather than via the kinds of thing expressed by words.

A Dooyeweerdian Understanding of Metaphor

Here is a suggested set of points by which Dooyeweerd might help us understand metaphor and how it works, referring to the discussion above. The following are only pointers, and need to be developed into a proper theory. (Opportunity for future research.)

Reading Metaphors

In reading metaphors that someone else has written, we need to uncover what meaning relevant to the topic the authors intended each metaphor to carry. We need, therefore, a sound way to get behind metaphors. For this, it is not sufficient to understand the mechanisms like transference or filtering, but we need to understand the content, the specific meanings, of the secondary of the metaphor and how this might transfer to the primary (as relevant to big data), and what these meanings are to both author and readers.

This is where it becomes very useful to understand aspectual meaningfulness, both the kernel, original meaningfulness of each, and also those analogical echoes of other aspects within its constellation of meaningfulness.

Dooyeweerdian Guidance on Reading Metaphors

Here is an example:

"Man is a wolf"

Now, some of those observations are clearer than others, which may be a little forced. I include the latter in order to demonstrate how aspectual analysis may take two forms, direct and nuanced, and how the full meaningfulness of things involves nuance.

Writing Metaphors

Using metaphors increases the fun and can be motivating [Friedberg & Wilt, 2010]. Hence it is widely used in the arts, which are constituted in playing with a material like words or pictures. Indeed, it is an essential device in the arts.

It is also used in ordinary speech where some kind of familiarity or fun is appropriate. Mother sits by the fire. Young son comes in from the outside, rushes over to hug her. "Hey, were you born in a tunnel?" she chides him? What she means is: "Please shut the door; you have left a draught in, and it makes me and the room cold." There are several metaphors there. "Tunnel" is a draughty place (in Sweden the word used is "church"). "Born" is a metaphor for the inner nature of the person, which emerge in their unthinking behaviour.

Metaphor is usually problematic in analytical and scientific writing where clarity of meanings is important, and also in legal writing for the same reason. With increased reliance on analogy for its meaning the reader often misjudges the analogy intended, more so when unnatural words are chosen, which might not be helpful even to memory. For example, when Khan et al. [2019] characterizes Big Data as Voodooism, Vogue, Vulpine, Verve [Khan et al., 2019] or [Patgiri & Ahmed, 2016] or as Vendee and Vase, the meanings are not clear. Though such words might be found in dictionaries, some are not widely known, and are not useful.

Somewhere between analytical and everyday or poetic writing lies informative writing, in which pleasure and interest are important to ensuring the reader continues to read and understands more fully the multiple meanings involved. Here, mild use of metaphor is appropriate for two reasons. Metaphors can delight, and metaphors can carry more meanings than just a main one, almost smuggling them in by a back door, into the reader's intuition.

Dooyeweerdian Guidance of Writing Metaphors


Dooyeweerd might help us understand what metaphors are and how they work, in ways that contribute to the field, and can also be used to offer guidance on the reading and writing of metaphors. However, these are only initial suggestions, and require research, reflection, discussion and exploration by Dooyeweerdian thinkers in order to progress this and contribute to both theory and practice of metaphors.


Black M (1962) Models and metaphors: Studies in language and philosophy. Cornell University Press.

Friedberg R and Wilt L (2010) Metaphors and stories in cognitive behavioral therapy with children. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 28(2), 100 113.

Khan N, Naim A Hussain M Naveed Q Ahmad N and Qamar S (2019) The 51 V's Of Big Data: Survey, Technologies, Characteristics, Opportunities, Issues and Challenges. In Proceedings of the International Conference on Omni-Layer Intelligent Systems (pp. 19 24).

Mihalcea R Strapparava C (2006) Learning to laugh (automatically): Computational models for humor recognition. Computational Intelligence, 22(2), 126 142.

Miller G (1956) The magic number seven plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological review, 63, 91 97.

OED Online. Oxford Online Dictionary. Oxford University Press.

Ortony A (ed.) (1993) Metaphor and Thought, 2nd Edition. Cambridge University Press.

Richards I A (1950) The Philosophy of Rhetoric. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

This page, '', is part of a collection of pages that links to various thinkers, within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

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Copyright (c) at all dates below Andrew Basden. But you may use this material subject to conditions.

Created: 7 April 2022. Last updated: 19 April 2022 corrected link.