Nicholas Allott: Our theory of communication needs a literal/metaphorical distinction

Nicholas Allott presenting joint work with Mark Textor

Intuitively, figurative uses deviate from literal ones. But work on lexical modulation and polysemy shows that meaning deviation is ubiquitous, even in cases of literal use. Hence, it has been argued, the literal/figurative distinction has no value for theorising about communication. A prominent example is the relevance theoretic claim that “[m]etaphorical interpretations are arrived at in exactly the same way as literal, loose and hyperbolic interpretations: there is no mechanism specific to metaphors, and no interesting generalisation that applies only to them.” (Sperber and Wilson 2008: 84)

In this talk, we focus on metaphor and argue that here the literal/figurative distinction has theoretical importance. The distinction between literal and metaphorical needs to be captured by our account of communication because literal uses transmit information in a way that metaphorical ones do not. We argue that there is a way to explain the literal/metaphorical distinction that preserves the core of the intuition we started with and gives the distinction theoretical relevance. We propose that literal uses of a word are made with the intention to conform to an established practice of use, while metaphorical uses do not so conform, but depend on this pre-existing practice. Our account can deal with data that are problematic for other theories. A further advantage is that it extends naturally to other non-literal uses of words, including metonymy.