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Davidson’s Razor, Vico’s Magnet



Ὁ ἄναξ οὗ τὸ μαντεῖόν ἐστι τὸ ἐν Δελφοῖς, οὔτε λέγει οὔτε κρύπτει, ἀλλὰ σημαίνει.

The lord whose oracle is at Delphi, neither tells nor conceals, but indicates.
– Heraclitus, fragment 93



This study takes as its basis the stark distinction made by philosopher Donald Davidson in his essay “What Metaphors Mean”: what metaphors mean is exactly what they say, literally, and that what they mean is patently false. Thus, “That man is a wolf” is false. Davidson, in an assertion that has caused much debate, denied that there is any other kind of meaning in a metaphor besides this literally false one. And in this way he confines both meaning and metaphorical truth to seemingly irreconcilable domains. It is not my contention that such a distinction need be true, but only useful in delineating formal, near context-free aspects of language use, and the seeming operational fluidity with which such meanings are produced.

A turn to the 18th century philosopher and historian Giambattista Vico’s work New Science is also made to possibly shed some light upon the nature of this chasm between the formal and the performed. It was Vico’s ambition to unlock through historical investigation the secret of the rational nature of human truth, the limits of what can be known. Key to his understanding of history as a progression of constructed truths, was his discovered belief that humans did not always think as modern people did. They did not categorize things by properties that they shared, as is exemplified by Aristotle’s logic, but had a primitive logic of their own, as they organized the world in pictures, figures and images. He called these classifications “Imaginative Universals”. And as Vico saw it, these universals exhibited themselves in literatures and institutions, as an expression of human needs. Following this theme of pragmatic need, the capacity to imagine identities in terms of images and figure, and the exemplification of such in institutions and texts, gave Vico a gateway into the minds and past cultures, and also the means for narrating the progression to contemporary times.

Because Vico’s concept of “Imaginative Universals” shares with Davidson’s concept of metaphor an alogical character, this makes for a readily available axis of comparison. I start with Davidson’s sharply drawn distinction between a metaphor’s literal meaning and its use, it is my tact to use such a polarity to clear theoretical ground which is particularly fertile to Vico’s conception of the “Imaginative Universal”. In focusing on the univocal character of identities asserted by such universals—the ability to state two or more things to be identical which no rational logic would support—I hope to bring forth both the affective and ideological character of metaphorical speech. Because figurative thinking in Vico was essential to human organization, as it is institutionally and textually expressed, so too may the identities asserted by such universals still be essential to that continued process. The affective nature of figurative identities, that that thing makes me affectively feel the same as that other thing makes me feel, may prove to both shed light on an archaic means of social organization, as Vico theorized, but also a contemporary means of language growth, as Davidson might suggest. As a modern, near-deflationary theory of truth comes is put in contact with the 18th century discovery of the historical foundation of truth, the product of the two puts metaphorical thought both at the forefront of discovery and invention, and at its root.





As our blood labours to beget
Spirits, as like souls as it can ;
Because such fingers need to knit
That subtle knot, which makes us man ;

So must pure lovers’ souls descend
To affections, and to faculties,
Which sense may reach and apprehend,
Else a great prince in prison lies.

“The Ecstasy”, John Donne


In the debate over metaphors, when Donald Davidson asks what metaphors mean, he is asking a particular question (α) . He is questioning the popular view of metaphorical truth, and controversially answers that there is no such thing as the truth of metaphorical sentences. Metaphors have long been used to communicate what is thought to be that which could not be said otherwise, and for that reason the commonsense view of metaphors is that they render clear, meanings that resist plain language statement. It is particularly upon this gap between the reported insight of metaphors and plain language statement that Davidson lays his focus. What ultimately comes into question is, Are there truths, is there meaning, beyond things that can be stated literally?

Davidson says that metaphors have no non-literal meaning. He does not equivocate: “The concept of metaphor as primarily a vehicle for conveying ideas, even unusual ones, seems to me as wrong as the parent idea that a metaphor has special meaning”; he continues on to link this restriction to the sense in which metaphors cannot be more plainly said, “I agree with the view that metaphors cannot be paraphrased, but I think this is not because metaphors say something too novel for literal expression but because there is nothing there to paraphrase” (246). Taking to task any attempt to explicate the meaning of a metaphor, he quotes Max Black’s making explicit what seems implicit:

When Schopenhauer called geometric proof a mousetrap, he was, according to such a view, saying (though not explicitly): ‘A geometrical proof is like a mousetrap, since both offer a delusive reward, entice their victims by degrees, lead to a disagreeable surprise, etc.’ (254)

Davidson argues that, Schopenhauer actually said none of these things that Black attributes to him. What he said was solely that geometric proof is a mousetrap. He points out that Max Black lists three similarities, but the list could go on forever (255).

Paraphrase restates what has already been stated. The inefficacy of metaphorical paraphrase for Davidson points directly to the fact that no meaning has been strictly been stated in the first place. He takes as an illustrative example the sentence ‘Tolstoy is a great moralizing infant’, a thought expressed by a literary critic (248). If metaphors call our attention to some likeness, what such a sentence tells us to do is picture a class of objects which includes all infants, plus Tolstoy. The temptation is to say that given enough time and intelligence we could come up with the right words to define what infantness is, the property which all these objects, infants and Tolstoy, share. Davidson’s claim is that no matter the perfection of the words one comes up with, one could never exhaust the implications of such a phrase. His conclusion will be that such an ambition is misguided.

I think, that we imagine that there is a content to be captured when all the while we are in fact focusing on what the metaphor makes us notice. If what the metaphor makes us notice were finite in scope and propositional in nature, this would not in itself make trouble; we would simply project the content the metaphor brought to mind onto the metaphor. But in fact there is no limit to what a metaphor calls to our attention, and much of what we are caused to notice is not propositional in character (262-63)

When we are caused to imagine Tolstoy as an infant, the qualities of infantness give rise to an endless stream of possible propositional statements. An unlimited flow of associations and images come to mind, but Davidson denies these cognitive status as meanings. In order to understand this denial one must first appreciate Davidson’s concept of the truth of sentences—that only propositions can be true—and therefore his restrictive understanding of what can qualify as meaning.

Digging into the idea that metaphors contain two kinds of meaning, a literal and a figurative one, he asks for the rule that connects the figurative to the literal, for otherwise the metaphor just slides into ambiguity (250). He tells us to imagine teaching a visitor from the planet Saturn the meaning of the word “floor.” Through various tappings, pointings and other ostensive gestures, coupled with our speaking of the word “floor”, pretty soon our Saturnian appears to get the idea of the word “floor.” Its use gives it its meaning. Davidson then asks us to imagine that our friend transports us to Saturn, and that “looking back remotely at the earth you say to him, nodding at the earth, ‘floor’…as you were remembering how Dante, from a similar place in the heavens, saw the inhabited earth as ‘the small round floor that makes us passionate’” (251). Davidson questions, how our Saturn friend is to know if you are teaching him a new use of the word “floor” (continuing your point-and-speak method), or teaching him something new about the world. It is a subtle distinction, but for Davidson an important and illustrative one. During the “lesson” the Saturnian was learning something about language, how it connects to the world; but in referring to the earth as ‘floor’ from Saturn, if this is to be understood metaphorically, he is no longer learning something about language, but about the world and one’s relationship to it. It is not simply a new literal use of an old word, but a use whose falseness invites invention. It is upon this differential that Davidson applies the full force of his interpretation of how metaphors work. They work through literal falsehood, by being propositionally untrue. Hence, metaphors cannot be said to have expanded, or even second-order meanings that reference the same thing that literal meanings reference: “That man is a wolf,” is distinctly different from “That man is very much like a wolf” (257), though they both call our attention to similar things. One states something literally false, the other something trivially true (258).

In keeping with the uniqueness of metaphorical play—and its resistance to literalization—Davidson stresses that unlike new literal uses of an old word, the novelty of a metaphor does not wear off. He calls it a “built-in aesthetic feature we can experience again and again, like the surprise in Haydn’s Symphony No. 94, or a familiar deceptive cadence” (253). So when Yeats writes, “That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea,” the effect seems to re-enact itself no matter our explanation of its meaning or the repetition of it. This eternal youth of a metaphor, Davidson argues, is due to its patent falseness. Only fabric is literally torn, only living things can be literally tormented by gongs. So, specific to Davidson’s interpretative enterprise is his restrictive sense of what meaning means: truth is a property of propositions (not of ideas, intuitions or feelings) and as such, requires truth conditions (β) ; for a statement to be said to have meaning, for Davidson it must be a meaning free from immediate context, and be of a propositional nature.

Eva Kittay, while presenting an alternate theory of metaphor in her book Metaphor, usefully summarizes Davidson’s position in this way:

1). Meaning in language is context-free (γ).
2). Aspects of language which are not context-free are not questions of language meaning but of language use.
3). Metaphorical interpretation is context-bound hence it is not a question of meaning, but of use.
4). Therefore there is no meaning of metaphorical utterances beyond their literal meaning.
5). If there is only literal meaning of metaphorical utterances, then any cognitive content they possess must be expressible in a literal utterance.
6). Whatever is interesting about metaphor must therefore lie in a use of language and cannot be a question of an unparaphraseable cognitive content. (97)

She further adduces for Davidson the Tarski-like sentence limitation, “‘Man is a wolf’ is true if and only if man is a wolf.” One can see the conceptual base from which Davidson is denying the meaning of metaphors, and from which he is attributing their unique power in use (δ) . But more interestingly, Kittay recognizes that Davidson may be at a nexus of a change in his idea of rule-governed, formal linguistic meanings, and what will be made more evident in his not-yet-written 1986 essay “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs,” where he moves from “truth-condition semantics” to a provocative concept of language as the convergence of “passing theories” sharing inferential methods (118). One is left with the impression that Davidson, while in theory explicitly restricting the realm of metaphor to literal falseness and linguistic use, in the gap between formal/literal meanings and linguistic performance, he has opened the door to a larger meaning-field, that in terms of a potentiality of meanings produced.

So as one comes to grapple with what “use” means in the world, and how metaphors may come to eventually “die” after long periods of a “figurative” life—in the way that bottles and rivers have come literally to have “mouths”—one might see how falsity can have a productive effect on the future use of words, and thus how something literally false may be taken as the causative basis of future literal truths. In this way the prospects of understanding language itself as an institutionalized limit of social capabilities, a formal grounds or horizon whose very broken formality, of which metaphor is a primary example, constitutes the possibility of its growth and capability through repair and inclusion. Between the formal truth of propositions, and the richness of linguistic performances, lies, one might claim: invention. This could be called the difference between Okham’s Razor and Vico’s magnet (ε) .




…it is naturally beyond our power to form the vast image of this mistress called “Sympathetic Nature.” Men shape the phrase with their lips but have nothing in their minds, for what they have in their mind is a falsehood, which is nothing; and their imagination no longer avails them to form a vast false image.

– Giambattista Vico, New Science §378


When considering the possibility and consequence of meanings that are not literally true in the Davidsonian sense—as we draw out from the narrowness of an academic debate, to the relevance of the social organization of the world that philosophy and sociology seek to describe—it may be instructive to look to the original concepts employed by Giambattista Vico in his Scienza Nuova. Vico’s work rests at the nexus when philosophy first came to realize the possibility of historically constructed truths. And while it is not necessary to take in the full scope of this remarkable and imaginative work, it will pay to unlock the novelty of his approach to history, truth and ideas, and examine the constitutive role given by him to kinds of human thinking in the concretization of events and institutions. For it was this role of kinds of thinking that he imagined he had discovered, and which he called “the master key” to a new science (New Science §34).

It is helpful to first retrace Vico’s epistemic turn from the world of Nature, to the world of man-made things. In this way his ideas of the imagination can best be situated in his discovery that what’s ‘true’ can be known through history (ζ) . Vico’s New Science (1730/1744) was aimed broadly at—yet beyond—his realization that “the true and the made are transposable,” (verum et factum convertuntur), or more simply put, “the true is the made,” a principle he first presented in Ancient Wisdom (1710). This was his radical break from Descartes’ claim to have internal knowledge which could be a foundation for the sciences. By the logic of this stated principle, Vico argued that God alone was given the possibility of a knowledge of the physical world, for only God had made it (Verene 37-40). Yet, though this verum-factum principle indeed cleaved man from scientifically knowing the intelligibles of the universe, it also placed mathematics and geometry within the purview of the knowable, because as he argued, points, lines and planes were in fact made by men. In this way, by analogy, as God had made the universe and so knows it, so men have made geometry and know it. It is intelligible to them. So this division between Nature and the things man has made was the first logical move that would allow Vico to turn his attention to other things understood also to be made by men.

This verum-factum principle had prepared the ground for a second seminal thought, first presented in Universal Law (1720), ten years later. “The certain is part of the true” (certum est pars veri), a necessary connection seen between the rationally true, and the historically known, between ideas and language, and between ratio and auctoritas (Fassò 4-6, Fisch 408, Verene 56). The emphasis had shifted from the distinction between the divine and the human, to two aspects of the humanly made: the true and the known. By the time of the New Science Vico’s distinction is such that, The true is still the intelligible; the certain now is the ascertainable. The intelligible is that which may be understood by reason, in terms of causes, universals, laws. The ascertainable is that which may be witnessed, or suffered, or known by testimony of witnesses or from competent authority (Fisch 412).

These two principles—that the objects of science are only things made, and then the realization that Nations are made by laws, languages and customs produced by human choice as the world is experienced and rationally conceived—allow Vico the full scientific shift from the natural world, to history itself, as accomplished in his New Science:

§138 Philosophy contemplates reason, whence comes knowledge of the true; philology observes that which human choice is author, whence comes consciousness of the certain [163, 325].

§140 This same axiom shows how philosophers failed by half in not giving certainty to their reasoning by appeal to the authority of the philologians, and likewise how the latter failed by half in not taking care to give their authority to the sanction truth by appeal to the reasoning of the philosophers. (η)

Vico conceives of a geometry “more real than just points lines, surfaces and figures,” a geometry of choice-made history, that brings reason and authority together in analysis (§349, §392), achieved through a verstehen (θ), or imaginary re-experience of the sensus communis of past Nations through the rational consideration of the historical evidence it has produced (Verene 55). Central to this analysis, and lastly more germane to our issue of metaphor, is his claim that humanity has gone through distinct historical stages, and that at each stage, as reflected in their laws, institutions and texts, human beings have thought, and even perceived, fundamentally differently. Strikingly, for Vico the abstractions that distinguish modern thought were not at all possible for the first kinds of humans, who were like beasts; (for example the classification of objects, for instance “lions,” by virtue of a property that can be attributed to them, “are four legged,” is not available to earliest humanity). The obvious and significant questions are: How would such kinds of humans organize their sensations; how would they see the world, if classification by properties was not part of their capacity? What kind of “thinking” were such primitives capable of if not the categorical thought that modern humans habitually seem to use? Giambattista Vico’s answer was that the first two stages of humanity, the Age of Gods and then the Age of Heroes, used “Imaginative Universals,” which he contrasted with “Intelligible Universals,” the kinds of thought genera clearly laid out by Aristotle. Earliest humans simply could not think like Aristotle, nor even perhaps like the average Greek of the agora of Aristotle’s day.

Vico had a variety of terms for “Imaginative Universals”: caratteri poetici, generi fantastici, and universali fantastici, (Verene 65-66), but these terms all coalesce around a fabulous use of language in which several particulars are condensed into the identity of a single ideal thing, a portrait, a picture, an image. What is core to this idea for our purposes is that though this condensation defies the modern logic of semantic meanings—in that particulars have a shared identity and not shared properties—such aboriginal universals would still be a mode of thinking, and so might give clue to the way contemporary metaphors work to organize meanings that when put into plain language can be read by Davidson as literally false (ι).

Vico makes his starting place the attempted difficult verstehen of the past, “…we can now scarcely understand and cannot at all imagine how the first men thought[,] who founded gentile humanity. For their minds were so limited to particulars that they regarded every change in facial expression as a new face” (NS §700). He glimpses how original humanity was dramatically charged with the need for separating out the instances of sensation, immediacy, without having the conceptual tools of modern abstractions. And though his fantasy of an infinity of faces in the same face betrays perhaps believability, the trope of its meaning is clear. The uniting of the dissimilar as One is the first metaphorical act of human understanding (κ). There is for Vico a bodily force of human need, of utility, which drives the archaic class of images in a pragmatism of making (λ); he is wrestling with proto-conceptual perception at the level of emotions, as passions bring needs to the world in situ, and order it pictorially, that is, make/invent it in terms of a poiesis that would come to be in history literally sung (μ). He extends the power of this originary clustering of the real in the sung, to the second Age of Heroes, and sees it exemplified in Homeric metaphorical language, and even seen in reason-deprived men of the modern age:

§227…natural speech was succeeded by the poetic locution of images, similes, comparisons, and natural properties.

§228. Mutes utter formless sounds by singing, and stammers by singing teach their tongues to pronounce.

§229 Men vent great passions by breaking into song, as we observe in the most grief-stricken and the most joyful.
§230 …it follows that the founders of the gentile nations, having wandered about in the dumb state of wild beasts and being therefore sluggish, were inexpressive save under the impulse of violent passions, and formed their first languages by singing.

To give sight into how Vico conceived that such metaphorical, indeed fabulous thinking might work, and remain focused on metaphor, one must examine the univocal character of that kind of thought, that is the ways in which it is able to assert a truth that is logically nonsensical.

If we consider the matter well, poetic truth is metaphysical truth, and physical truth which is not in conformity with it should be considered false. Thence springs this important consideration in poetic theory: the true war chief, for example, is the Godfrey that Torquato Tasso imagines; and all the chiefs who do not conform throughout to Godfrey are not true chiefs of war (New Science §205).

Donald Verene brings into bolder relief this univocal quality, pushing forward the kinds of alogical truths that fabulous thoughts present. Universali fantastici declare identities, not similarities:
The poetic mind can make assertions that are nonsense for the rational mind. It can assert meaningfully for or to itself that each member of the class of wise men is literally Ulysses, not that each individual is a Ulysses or is like Ulysses, but that each is identical with Ulysses. Each individual can be said to be Ulysses in the sense that Ulysses is their reality (77).

The very epistemic reality of a particular thing is found in its ideal pictorial form. A “wise” person actually has existence—that is, we at a fabulous and primitive time would be aware of his existence, our ability to assert it as a thing—only as Ulysses, a reality to which all physical truth must yield. Hillard Aronovitch rightly expresses the bodily source of this univocality, as coming out of the sensus communis of a people, “imaginative universals are sensed and felt, and so brought into being” (220-221) (ν). In the shadow of Davidson’s prohibition of attributing literal meaning to metaphorical statements, one can see that Vico’s universali fantastici potentially step in to fill the void where Davidson has permitted only linguistic use and not meaning. For it is through this vertical apparatus of imaginative identities that statements that are literally false in semantic terms, can be seen as assertively true.

The facticity of metaphorical truth can be followed as Vico makes the requisite bridge from the fantastic thinking of primitives to the literary use of the tropes and metaphor in particular:
All the first tropes [metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony] are corollaries of this poetic logic. The most luminous and therefore the most necessary and frequent is metaphor. It is most praised when it give sense and passion to insensate things…by which the first poets attributed to bodies the being of animate substances, with capacities measured by their own, namely sense and passion, and in this way made fables of them. Thus every metaphor is a fable in brief (§404).

If one’s analytic gaze remains upon the construction of metaphorical meanings, upon their non-analogical nature, being clear that when fabulous identities are made, in that particularities are brought under a single ideal image, one sees that they are essentialized. It is metaphor’s “unity-in-difference”, and not analogy’s “combination of elements” (Verene 41) (ξ). Because this univocal nature is not the predication of properties by the minds of distant poets, but rather of identities themselves, Vico’s is not a euhemeristic theory of myth, that is, myths are not fabulous “embellishments” of events otherwise first perceived in a historical, “empirically ordered” way (Verene 70-71). Poets do not ornament but rather record. Fables are vera narratio, they tell us exactly how sensations are produced by perceiving minds, in real, literal histories. Again the strict believability of such an insistence will not prove necessary to feel the weight of Vico’s theory; it will not matter if in Homeric times the mind was only capable of organizing perceptions precisely as the poet “Homer” was able to express them—though it is Vico’ contention that the sensus communis of Greece wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, and not a man named Homer (§780ff). What is pertinent is that fabulous language has a univocal effect upon perception itself, as it asserts and expresses essentializing identities through portraiture; it both shapes and enables the lens of epistemic witness. In this way, Vico’s is the possibility that primitive humanity—much as animals themselves might—organized sensation entirely through images, a process of which modern metaphorical language, and even contemporary arts, can be seen as a powerful remnant.

Vico turns this exploration into fabulous perceptions back onto the histories of peoples themselves. He sees in myth a reflection of the actual needs and their institutions, given the perceptual capacities of the humans of their time. This is his New Science,

It follows that the first science to be learned should be mythology or the interpretation of fables… By such a method the beginnings of the sciences as well as of nations are to be discovered, for they sprang from the nations and from no other source. It will be shown throughout this work that they had their beginnings in the public needs or utilities of the people and that they were later perfected as acute individuals applied their reflection to them [498] (§51 italics mine).

For Vico scientific thought can trace two ways: up to universaling truth of made rational principles, which is the pursuit of philosophy, or back down to the particular of the “certain,” which he calls the field of philology, but which we might call sociology, or historical ethnography. The relatedness of bodily sensations which are expressed in the earliest pictorial universali fantastici, is for Vico joined in a double progressive move to the concretized linguistic, legislative and institutional forms—all the civic things that humanity produces, what Cicero called the res publica—and as well to the reflective categorical abstractions of philosophical understanding. He describes the direction up from bodily metaphor and then down to rational reflection this way,

§208 Men at first feel without perceiving, then they percieve with a troubled and agitated spirit, finally they reflect with a clear mind.

§209 This axiom is the principle of poetic sentences [703f], which are formed by feelings of passion and emotion, whereas philosophic sentences are formed by reflection and reasoning. The more the latter rise toward universals, the closer they approach the truth; the more the former descend to particulars, the more certain they become.

What remains to be uncovered—if indeed Vico’s metaphorical “thought” fits into the aporia of use left by Davidson’s strict exclusions—is the way in which univerali fantastici become or co-exist with universali intelligibili; and if so connected, do the univocal operations of Vico’s fabulous language identities still function in present day? A baseline for a linking such interpretative imaginations of the past with contemporary meanings can perhaps be found in Cohen and Nagel’s discussion of the “logic of fictions,” from their book An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method, as Donald Verene suggests,

Metaphors may thus be viewed as expressing the vague and confused by primal perception of identity, which subsequent processes of discrimination transform nto a conscious and expressed analogy between different things, and which further reflection transforms into the clear assertion of an identity or common element (or relation) which the two different things possess (qtd. in Verene 79).

Vico was under the view that he lived in the age of men, cut off from the poetry of past ages, a rational realm of ironic distance that lacked the ability to percieve somatically as ancient humanity once had. Yet if we are to consider the degree to which imaginative universals are not just past identities, but perhaps active consolidations of social meanings in language and figure that later become literalized, we might do well to distinguish just what these “subsequent processes of discrimination” are, and how, beyond the simple breakdown of pictures into categories, do such pictures become real? In this way the firm line that Davidson draws in metaphor might become a line of luminance, one that allows us to set into bold relief the factual, institutional, literal constituents of life, the things agreed upon in practice, and the affective unions that underwrite and give birth to them.



5.472 The description of the most general propositional form is the description of the one and only general primitive sign in logic.

7 Whereof one cannot speak, therefore one must remain silent.

– Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus


A Juxtaposition of the Two Views (ο)

1. A Vico-inspired sociological reading of Davidson’s dichotomy of literal meanings and use is aided by a return to his parable of the teaching of an alien visitor the meaning of the word ‘floor’. (Recall that this involved pointing at various floors, and speaking the word ‘floor’ aloud.) There is in this example something of what is involved in the use of use that metaphor is supposed to entail. Davidson writes:

Should we call this process learning something about the world or learning something about language? An odd question, since what is learned is that a bit of language refers to a bit of the world. Still it is easy to distinguish between the business of learning the meaning of a word and using the word once the meaning is learned. Comparing these two activities, it is natural to say that the first concerns learning something about language, while the second is typically learning something about the world. If your Saturnian friend has learned how to use the word ‘floor’, you may try telling him something new, that here is a floor. If he has mastered the word trick, you have told him something about the world. (251)

Note that he re-inflates the distinction that he momentarily collapses: “An odd question…” becomes “Still it is easy to distinguish…”. Learning that some bits refer to other bits indeed is important. When one has learned meaning, in particular how these bits are used, one can then learn something about the world, that is you can use them. What is missing from this dichotomy of the things you can learn about when learning language—and this is key to an ideological component of metaphors—is that when learning language you are learning something also about one’s relationship to the world.

2. When you turn to earth from the distance of Saturn, and metaphorically point saying ‘floor’, the reason why this is not simply a new use for an old word, a simple adding to its meaning and the things we know about language, is that one is telling our Saturn friend how we relate to earth, and inviting her to, at least empathetically, relate to it in the same way.

3. “Earth makes me feel the same way that floor makes me feel, it puts me in a similar state.”

4. This is not to say that this is the cognitive content of the metaphor, or meaning, but rather its effect. Body states are invited to be superimposed, and this effect is most efficiently accomplished through literal falsity. When a statement is literally false, but still presumed by situation to be of communicative value, the fuller affective status of figurative “meanings” can take place. The invitation is to affectively and non-systematically feel about this bit of the world in a non-literal fashion, to experience a sensus communis. Because of this socialization through affect, the viewer, reader, listener becomes ideologically fixed, affectively oriented.

5. The work of a metaphor is compared by Davidson to that of a joke, and this is a good point for comparison:

A metaphor does its work through other intermediaries—to suppose that it can be effective only by conveying a coded message is like thinking a joke or a dream makes some statement which a clever interpreter can restate in plain prose. Joke or dream or metaphor can, like a picture or a bump on the head, make us appreciate some fact—but not by standing for, or expressing, the fact. (262)

Upon the hearing of a politically incorrect joke, the simple occasion of “getting of it”, of finding the humor, puts one in an affective state that orients oneself to the world, completely without one’s choice. The “logic” of the joke comes through as true or real, implicating the listener however vociferously she or he might protest its factuality. Those that don’t “get” the joke are simply the ideologically uncoded, and those offended by it are the ideologically polarized, dissonantly recognizing the affective unity that it represents.

6. Because Davidson’s point about meaning and use is one of effect, one can see that there is no strict “logic” of the joke at all, nor of the metaphor or the dream. There is no propositional content—though the use of explanatory sentences could get one to “see” its point if one missed it; jokes can be explained, metaphors analogized, dreams interpreted.

7. Thus, the sensus communis produced by metaphors, jokes and pictures is an affective sociological move, a power move, the binding of bodies through sub-linguistic states. It is precisely because they are not literally true that they are so productive in their use. They foreground the use of meanings, but cannot justify them. Yet, what is the nature of this “finding it” or “getting it”, the seeing of the connection?

8. In looking to make clear the distinction between the literal and the figurative—to bring out both the formal and ideological-affective components—examine an illustrative story from my childhood. From a very young age, perhaps four of five, I learned chess by watching my father and his playing partner play for hours at the kitchen table. They would spend the entire day and night in contest. Some of my earliest memories are of being at the board and watching the pieces move. In the beginning my father was a bit like the Davidson’s earthling, teaching me between games what things were by pointing to them and pronouncing their names. Learning to set up the board in the starting position was perhaps my first formal achievement. At times I cannot remember, surely the rules were then explained to me: the way that pieces moved, the aims and restrictions involved, the literal limits of the game. Beyond this I would watch silently for hours, and learn more about the game, guessing at strategies and counter-strategies, discovering rules of thumb, recognizing opening patterns. It came to the point that I had a fairly literal sense of how the game was played: all the actions could be explained recursively within the vocabulary of the “game” (π).

9. Yet my father’s partner had a certain verve for life, an intensity with which he would move the pieces, the way he would say “Check!” with authority. And he had a particular anomalous habit. At times of game importance, when attacking the queen, instead of saying with customary etiquette “Queen check,” he would baritone “Guard your whore!”, snapping his piece down so it would rap. Putting aside the argument that the piece name ‘queen’ already has a figurative component, and also the convention of informing an opponent of a queen attack, in this proclamation one can see that “whore” ideologically codes the affective experience of the literal piece called the “queen”. The affective associations of attack, defense, honor, femininity, excess, lewdness, power, dignity all coalesce in a single literal move and pronouncement. The figurative force of the name ‘queen’ also is brought into play, yet all of the capabilities of the piece remain the same. No literal change has occurred (ρ). Yet participants are put into a sensus communis. As a child I am not sure how much I understood this then, but this example captures something of the invitation to see-as that metaphor brings about.

10. Such a move in chess accomplishes the two dimensions of “seeing” that Davidson uses to distinguish meaning from use: seeing-that and seeing-as. To illuminate these Davidson recalls Wittgenstein’s famous duck-rabbit, and writes:

[if I say] ‘It’s a duck’, then with luck you see it as a duck: if I say, ‘It’s a rabbit’, you see it as a rabbit. But no proposition expresses what I have lead you to see. Perhaps you have come to know this without ever seeing the drawing as a duck or as a rabbit. Seeing as is not seeing that. Metaphor makes us see one thing as another by making some literal statement that prompts or inspires insight (263, italics mine) (σ).




My father’s sailor-mouthed chess partner lead my father to see-that his queen was checked by the rules of chess, but also caused him—and to some degree me—to see the queen as a “whore”. To draw the comparison, Vico had ostensibly argued that earliest man lacked even the capacity to see-that, only engaging the world in the seeing-as of Imaginative Universals.

11. The distinction of seeing-as, when put up against the seeing-that categories of formal reasoning and literal truths, seems to require a theory that incorporates creative capacities into the very definition of what is human knowing. Only such a theory could serve to buttress this distinction, for there are no rules to follow in order to see something as something else.

12. With this need in mind let me turn to the discipline of Rhetoric. In his book Rhetoric as Philosophy Ernesto Grassi seeks to rehabilitate the Italian Humanist tradition. In doing so he reflects upon the aporia at the roots of deductive proof, a long standing rational approach to truth. In this way he addresses something of the formal characteristics of truth that Davidson is using to distinguish the meaning of metaphors from its use (υ). He contends that first-principles argument—the deduction of truth from originally true premises—can never be justified in the rational sense; one rather is forced in such occasions to rely upon a non-demonstrative (that is non-apodictic), non-deducible persistence of premise. Such premising is a principle glimpsing of similarity. He summarizes his seeing-as point in terms of indicative speech,

…indicative or allusive [semeinein] speech provides the framework within which the proof can come into existence. Furthermore, if rationality is identified with the process of clarification, we are forced to admit that the primary clarity of the principles is not rational and recognize that the corresponding language in its indicative structure has an ‘evangelic’ character, in the original Greek sense of this word, i.e., ‘noticing’. (20)

Such speech is immediately a ‘showing’—and for this reason ‘figurative’ or ‘imaginative,’ and thus in the original sense ‘theoretical’ [theorein—i.e., to see] It is metaphorical, i.e., it shows something which has a sense, and this means to that figure, to that which is shown, the speech transfers [metapherein] a signification: in this way the speech which realizes the showing ‘leads before the eyes’ [phainesthai] a signification. This speech is and must be an imaginative language. (65)

13. Grassi traces this capacity to “see” back to Aristotle, through the authors of Rhetoric Pico, Polizano, Quintilian and Cicero. There he comes to what Aristotle describes as a fundamental search for “topics” or topoi or common places, which are required when forming syllogisms and arguments (enthymemes) (φ); When approaching a topic one has to recognize relevant distinctions. There are no rules for this recognition. Or as a Wittgensteinian might say, there are no rules for how to follow a rule. The discovery of relations or commonplaces that are necessary for persuasion or proof requires a creative act. It requires a seeing-as; differences must be seen as the same. This creativity is what Cicero called ingenium (Grassi 8, 43, 96), and it was ingenium that Vico had in mind when picturing earliest humanity as primordial poets (χ).

14. With such a view of indicative language, an inventive, metaphorical act is not only at the root of philosophical proof and knowledge, but antecedent to social organization itself. Communal holdings of recognition, a fundamental seeing-as, appear to consolidate, and then later to develop, into a literal and institutional seeing-thats; in this way arguments from first principles, and arguments of persuasion fall back into a rhetorical domain, that of language and its uses.

15. A consequence of this emphasis on use and inventive finding is the unlikely, but possible pairing of latter-Wittgenstein and Cicero. Grassi puts the use/public aspect of Cicero’s thinking briefly in this way:

Since the essence of res (things) is revealed only in their ingenious utilization [usus] in the context of the social and political community, res proves to be res publica, and the state, in its concrete historical situation, turns out to be its original horizon. Only with his efforts on the res publica does man grasp the deep meaning of his labor (9).

By virtue of these homologies of use, it could be said that the Wittgensteinian formation of meaning as use—words of course are public things—is prefigured by Cicero to some degree; and one could also suggest that just as the historic State is seen as the original horizon of meaning for Cicero, so does Wittgenstein see the Lebensform (a Life-form produced by the practices of living) (ψ) as the horizon of meaning (ω). What for Wittgenstein is a form of shared language use, for Cicero is a shared political state.

16. And is not the realization that the “thing” is ultimately the “public thing”, exactly the means by which Wittgenstein denies the possibility of a Private Language—that is a language that one could only speak to oneself, impossible to translate (75-79; prop. 243-264)?

17. Because “first principles” argument cannot ground itself in anything other than the invention of a non-demonstrable, purely indicative source, can it really be that philosophy has found its way back to Cicero and rhetoric through Pragmatism, Wittgenstein, Holism and Davidson, with their combined emphasis on use and public meanings?

18. Because in Davidson’s rather technical point the use of metaphors is at stake, and not their meanings, disagreements over the possibility of the content of any figurative form of expression really fall into a sociological or psychological domains. Exiled from philosophy is a whole host of questions of meaning that long had been held in its purview. Such questions become questions of value and function; and insomuch as they become questions of value, they become questions of social justification and of politics. In that they are things held in common, they are res publica.

19. Consider Richard Rorty’s treatment of Davidson’s approach to metaphor. It is helpful, for he connects it to later developments in Davidson’s philosophy, opening its applicability to a more thorough vision of language as use. In order to get Davidson’s point Rorty asks us to understand language use as the philosopher W.V.O. Quine once expressed it in terms of meaning:
In Quine’s image, the realm of meaning is a relatively small ‘cleared’ area within the jungle of use, one whose boundaries are constantly being both extended and encroached upon. To say, as Davidson does, that ‘metaphor belongs exclusively to the domain of use’ is simply to say that, because metaphors (while still alive) are unparaphrasable, they fall outside the cleared area.” (Rorty 1991, 164)

By talking about language use in such spatial terms, incorporating ideas of domestication and institutional order—the kinds of agricultural and urban practices that delimit an actual jungle from what is not the jungle, the predictable from the unpredictable—Rorty is treading upon Vico-friendly ground; the “word” as it was used and institutionalized, in Vico’s view, is exactly what tames the jungle.

20. Rorty’s interpretation draws on the reasoning behind Davidson’s speculative essay, “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs” (αα). In this essay Davidson is looking to explain language use in terms of communicative competence and coping strategies alone (ββ): Rorty summarizes Davidson’s attempt to radically describe how language could work without any formal rules in this way:

Davidson tries to undermine the notion of languages as entities by developing the notion of what he calls “a passing theory” about the noises and inscriptions presently being produced by a fellow human being. Think of such a theory as part of a larger “passing theory” about this person’s total behavior – a set of guesses about what she will do under conditions. Such a theory is “passing” because it must constantly be corrected to allow for mumbles, stumbles, malapropisms, metaphors, tics, seizures, psychotic symptoms, egregious stupidity, strokes of genius, and the like. To make things easier, imagine that I am forming a theory about the current behavior of a native of an exotic culture into which I have unexpectedly parachuted. This strange person, who presumably finds me equally strange, will simultaneously be busy forming a theory about my behavior. If we ever succeed in communicating easily and happily, it will be because her guesses about what I am going to do next, including what noises I’m going to make next, and my own expectations about what I shall do or say under certain circumstances, come more or less to coincide, and because the converse is also true. She and I are coping with each other as we might cope with mangoes or boa constrictors – we are not trying to be taken by surprise. (1989, 14)

21. This reprise of Davidson places us in a situation similar to the one Vico’s fantasizes about when picturing how human ur-speech developed, a realm of universali fantastici and invention. Questions of coping, ordering and prediction are paramount. The domain of literal truths insisted upon by Davidson in “What Metaphors Mean” has vanished such that only pure use remains, and no formal “meaning”. This apogee of sense is important, not for its literal value—whether we really are only making passing guesses at each other’s meanings, left and right—but as an aid to understand the nature of the distinction that Davidson draws regarding metaphors in his earlier essay. The cleared away ground within the jungle of use, is a particular way of using language under specific conditions. What Rorty sees Davidson arguing against, when depriving metaphors of any meaning other than their literal falsity, is the possibility for the hidden content of metaphors and figurative language to serve as justification for, that is the reason behind, beliefs.

22. Thus, the effects of metaphors are causal. They lie in the jungle of linguistic events like phenomena of the world, outside of explanatory reasons and cleared-away meanings (γγ).

23. A turn to Vico’s conception of the first word, the first universali fantastici may perhaps serve to subsidize this phenomenalization of metaphorical speech. Before abstract rational thought, it may be reasoned, Imaginative Universals operated more like causes rather than reasons. The first Imaginative Universal was, according to Vico, “JOVE” (§193), an onomatopoeic representation of a thunderclap—which Joyce on the first page his of Finnegan’s Wake, in homage to Vico, rendered as a hundred-letter word:

 “bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthuntrovarrhounawwntoohoordenenthurnuk”—and for the Greeks it was DSUES, the sound of its lightening strike (Verene 83-84).

24. Apart from the fantastic and projective aspects of these re-imaginations, what is significant is the affective nature of this condensation into an image and word. As Vico saw it, when thunder and its lightening happened, there was an affective, that is bodily reaction among the giants of earliest humanity, and it was this sensus communis (δδ); this shared-body state that produced the ability to project such a thing upon the sky, came to signify the power that bound them. From this primordial condensation of human fear, the gradual literalization and institutionalization of that Universal produced human organization itself. Pervasive JOVE became Jove became law (§398), as theocracies and priests-poets, and then aristocracies and heroes, and then senates and scientists, came into existence to facilitate and interpret the socially constructed signs of the divine. Upon this fundamental trope of an affective sensus communis projected into forms of increasing abstraction, articulation, and institutionality, Vico builds a conception of a history of man.

25. Taken in this way, present-day metaphors—because they are literally false in the Davidsonian formal sense—could be seen as new Vichian affective identities, a breaking of the laws of strict meaning, the figurative intrusion of seeing-as that works to inform the seeing-that of institutional and literal discourse that establishes an inter-objective world. They are the creation of affective possibilities through the very things they cause us to notice. In their causal nature, they are much more like man-made happenings, and as such would have no more a secondary or systematic meaning than thunderclaps or dreams would (εε).

26. As metaphors and other univocal affective identities become actualized in literal and institutional uses, as things one has been brought to notice in sensus communis are formulated in factualizations and legal acts of endowment, they participate in a process by which such identities become effective, dependable means of communication and social organization.

27. When a literal falsity in even the simplest metaphor is put forth in situations of presumed communication about the world, the rationality of the discourse grants weight to that utterance. Thus…


28. “Man is a wolf,” (for instance homo homini lupus est), invites us to form an Imaginative Universal, to project the affective state we feel in regard to wolves, upon what we should feel in regards to “man”. Man literally is a wolf, for all affective intents and purposes, in the brevity of that consideration. This identity allows “knowledge” to grow, as one is called to notice wolfish things about man (producing an attribution of shared properties perhaps), to imagine that others see them as well, and as these things noticed add to our ability to socially organize the “truth” of such a metaphor, it becomes more real. It gives us a sense that the metaphor had a meaning in the first place.

29. This “reality” of the metaphor can exhibit itself in models of how the universe analogically might work, such as in the phrases “the brain is a computer,” or “the heart is a pump,” causing us to notice things that lead to pragmatic pursuits of operational knowledge…or it can show itself through social organization alone, such as the affective Universal identities, “that man is black”, or “she is a whore” wherein we are invited to experience one thing under the affective state of another (that one thing makes me feel the way that other thing makes me feel), and literalize that “truth,”—for instance in legal actualizations such as the Octoroon or Indecency which instantiate and codify, literalizing univocal identities. It is the foundational status of this power that is at stake in the seemingly benign question as to whether metaphors have meaning.

30. Davidson’s deflation of metaphorical meaning can be seen in the context of a larger project of the deflation of philosophy itself, in the way that what is called “true” becomes much more an expression of our human ends, and not the metaphysical authority of “the nature of things,” or “how things really are,” to which philosophers or even scientists are special attendants (ζζ). In this way Davidson can be seen in harmony with Vico’s view of human truths, in that the institutional manifestations of human needs, the constant invention and imposed rationality of social organizations, serve as a limit of what we can know. What we know, is a product of what we value. Prescription precedes description. And the true is the made.

31. Primordial affective universals that Vico theorized had once dominated earliest human beings—so that they thought in ways which he said we could hardly imagine—still are prevalent and bind us today. Perhaps only the complexity of our interrelation, (the resonant changes of connection in fields of linguistic abstraction, technology and law) has changed, as the ways in which two or more bodies can be linked have been multiplied.

32. The some form of concept universali fantastici perhaps belongs within philosophical circulation and debate, in recognition of non-justified univocal identities that are occasions of seeing-as that take on importance in a post-Wittgensteinian era when meaning is defined as use, and use is a public affair. Those seeing-as universals, in the figures of metaphor, depiction and visual portraiture, in condensations of bodily states that become literalized and formalized in institutional uses, can be said to still guide us. They may be the fount of our capacities and the limits of their domain. And this sensus communis such that it readily appears, there, eventually and literally true, is both the means, and the barrier, for achieving change.

33. “…it neither tells nor conceals, but indicates…οὔτε λέγει οὔτε κρύπτει, ἀλλὰ σημαίνει” Heraclitus, fragment 93.





α. Davidson is responding to the view forwarded by Max Black in his influential essay “Metaphor,” in which Black seeks to resolve the unsatisfying vagueness of simply calling metaphors “comparisons”. Black put forth an “interaction theory of metaphor”, giving metaphors “irreducible meaning” and “cognitive content” (following Kittay’s summation, 6). By breaking down metaphorical meaning into “principle” and “subsidiary” subjects, and theorizing a cognitive interaction between them, Black is asserting that there are “systems of implication,” (181), and it is against this systemic claim, with a deflationary concept of the kinds of things that can be claimed, that Davidson is staking out his ground.

β. A distinction is set forth in Davidson’s “Radical Interpretation”:

The first step identifies predicates, singular terms, quantifiers, connectives, and identity; in theory it settles matters of logical form. The second step concentrates on sentences with indexicals; those sentences sometimes held true and sometimes false according to discoverable changes in the world. This step in conjunction with the first limits the possibilities for interpreting individual predicates. The last step deals with remaining sentences, those of which there is not uniform agreement, or those whose truth value does not depend systematically on changes in the environment (136).

By knowing only under the conditions under which speakers hold sentences true, we can come out, given a satisfactory theory, with an interpretation of each sentence. It remains to make good on this last claim. The theory itself at best gives truth conditions (137).

γ. This is a contentious description. Stout, Godlove, Rorty and Penner all dispute this claim (177 Frankenberry).

δ. Alfred Tarski put forward a deflationary theory of truth that has been credited with making clear the “disquotational property” of truth. This is a theory of truth in formal languages such that ‘P’ is True if and only if p. It is upon this formal definition of truth, that a measure of Davidson’s theory rests, in that the disquotation of a metaphorical sentence does not satisfactorily seem to result in its factuality. There is between the disquotation effects of translation for instance: “‘Snow is white’ if and only if la nieve es blanca” seems to provide a basis for truth that “‘He has a heart of ice’ if and only if he has a heart of ice” does not.

ε. Citation unknown.

ζ. This is a larger issue point for Rorty with which I am in agreement. “If one holds a different conception of the limits of semantics and of philosophical explanation, as Black and Hesse do, one has a different conception of the reach of philosophy. Davidson’s metaphilosophical approach differs from theirs, as Newton’s metascientific approach to dynamics differs from Leibniz’s” (Rorty 1991 164).

η. Guido Fassò argues that Vico’s preoccupation with this differential goes as far back as 1708, in his study of Roman Law, (De nostril temporis studiorum ratione): “Here Vico insists above all on the contrast between Roman ius civile, based on authority alone, and the ius honorarium, based on equity or reason: on the contrast in other words, between the certain and the true in law (10). Indeed, when extended to the scientific study of the world, this is nothing other than history, instead of merely law, read as it is both synchronically ideal and as it is diachronically produced.

θ. Aronovitch questions the capacity of an imaginary, that is empathetic, re-making put forth by Donald Verene, as well as the space/time transcendence of the imagination espoused by Sir Isiah Berlin in Vico and Herder (Viking Press, 1976), “…that really to think with or like the primitive mind we should have to treat metaphorical truth as literal truth, signs and symbols of things themselves, and personified types as actual existences, whereas the interpretive understanding depicted above depends on employing these very distinctions to show how the first men apprehended differently from us in not keeping to them (221).” I will propose that the literalization of the metaphor is precisely the process that bifurcates our understanding, and allows historical knowledge. By reading metaphors as bodily effects, the univocality of their reality is re-experienced, but in the context of present day meanings. Though we will lack the complete collapse of distance to our subject that a Homeric man might have had when seeing an army move like flies over a bucket of milk, or Athena implanting a flame in one’s brow, it is that bodily re-experiencing of the literal via the imagination, that leads to the explanatory forces felt in a commonality of senses. It is the very immanence of those affects, which were literalized in language and custom (§313), that poetic thought creates, and hence that provide historical reflection. Even when recollecting the past of one’s own life, the affects of experience are repeated, and reimagined, but in new rational contexts; they carry with them the immance of the rationalities of the past as real and affective, but that immanence need not eclipse the rationality of our own comprehension. One feels in part what the past felt in whole. Or perhaps prospectively put in Vician terms, one experiences the certum of the past in the verum of the present.

ι. In this way metaphorical sentences can prospectively be read as sentences of identity, identity expressed through affective experience, and not literal, or even figurative truths of shared properties.

κ. Nietzsche makes a similar point regarding metaphor and the use of any word or idea, primitivizing rationality: “A nerve stimulus, first transformed into a percept! First metaphor! The percept again copied into a sound! Second metaphor! And each time he leaps completely out of one sphere right into the midst of an entirely different one” (178), and “As certainly as no one leaf is exactly similar to any other, so certain is it that the idea “leaf” has been formed through an arbitrary omission of these individual differences” (179).

μ. Ernesto Grassi sees that for Vico, the originality of the imagination, the ingenium, occurs in a fundamental and creative nexus between human needs and the sensed, which are joined through the invention of similarities: “The ingenious act of imagination is original because the capacity to lend meanings (meta-phe-rein) – the imaginative activity – itself presupposes seeing similarities (similitudines) between that which the senses reveal and human needs that must be satisfied: ‘Ingenium enables man to recognize similar things and to create them.’ ‘Imagination is the eye of the ingenium’.” (Ernesto Grassi, “Vico Versus Freud: Creativity and the Unconscious” p.147. Grassi’s quoted material is from: De antiquissma Italorum sapient, in Opera di Giambattista Vico, ed. Fausto Nicolini. Milan and Naples: Ricciardi, 1953, p.300 and 303).

ν. Grassi expresses the “musical” core of the fashioning of communal awareness: “Musike-not musi, but the organizing power of the muses and poets-creates the measure for everything that is not merely ‘outside’ of man in the form of ‘external nature,’ but which also manifests itself in him, in his drives and passions. Poetic, figurative, and hence ‘metaphorical’ activities provide the possibility of mankind liberating himself from the immediate strictures of nature. This possibility proves itself in the ‘festival’; humanity is celebrated in the freedom that is attained in the power of the metaphor” (1980, 75).

ξ. I shall leave behind for the moment the apparent ideological component buried in this example of Ulysses, only to return to it later (for as unrealistic as this kind of perceptive mode may sound at first blush, it does bear notable resemblance to ideological thinking on race, gender and class).

ο. Vico makes this distinction explicit when he compares mythologies, of which metaphors are of but an example, to allegories which in the modern mind are based on the attribution of predicates:

“…the mythologies must have been the allegories corresponding to them. Allegory is defined as diversiloquium [210], insofar as, by identity not of proportion but (to speak scholastically) of predicablity…So that they must have a univocal signification connoting a quality common to all their species and individuals (as Achilles connotes an idea of valor common to all strong men)” (§403). In that mythologies do not share properties in the abstract, as their imposed allegorical interpretations do (First New Science §23), poetic identities carry a vertical, essentializing truth.

π. It should be noted from the start that Davidson’s position would deny Vico’s universali fantasitici any cognitive status. While this would be central in terms of the justification of beliefs, the universali fantasitici are here considered as univocal awarenesses of “same” which help socially organize behaviors which fall into Davidson’s category of “use”.

ρ. Consider Wittgenstein’s musing: “The question ‘What is a word really?’ is analogous to ‘What is a piece in chess?'” (40, prop. 10eight)

σ. One is reminded of Wittgenstein’s observation of the “meaning” of a word that changes with emphasis, “When I pronounce this word while reading with expression it is completely filled with meaning.–“How can this be, if meaning is the use of the word?” Well, what I said was intended figuratively. Not that I chose the figure: it forced itself on me.–But the figurative employment of the word can’t get into conflict with the original one” (183).

τ. (166).

υ. This is what Wittgenstein calls “noticing an aspect” (165):

“I suddenly see the solution of a puzzle-picture. Before, there were branches there; now there is a human shape. [or a rabbit when one had only seen a duck]–My visual impression has changed;–what was it like before and what is it like now?-If I represent it by means of an exact copy-and isn’t that a good representation of it?-no change is shown.
And above all I do not say “After all my visual impression isn’t the drawing; it is this-which I can’t shew to anyone.”-Of course it is not the drawing, but neither is it anything of the same category, which I carry within myself. (167)”

φ. What in Davidson can be characterized as a literal semantics of truth-conditions, in Grassi would be the indicative assertion of premises from which deduction can be performed.

χ. Yarbrough summing and quoting Jacques Brunschwig, “. In the Topics , topoi “are not retrospectively related to a number of already produced syllogisms, but prospectively related to a number of syllogisms still to be produced out of them” (1996, 41). Whereas in the Rhetoric the focus is upon finding the appropriate, because habitually used, topoi for a given problem…(1996. “Aristotle’s Rhetoric as a ‘Counterpart’ to Dialectic.” In Essays on Aristotle’s Rhetoric , ed. Améle Oksenberg Rorty, 34-55. Berkeley: U of California P.); (81-82).

ψ. Providence has well arranged human things by awakening in the human mind first topics, and then critique, just as cognition of things precedes judgment about them. For topics is the faculty which makes minds ‘ingenious’, just as critique makes them precise; and in early times the question was, above all, to find those things that are necessary for human life, and finding is a property of ingenium (Vico, Scienza nuova, qtd. in Grassi 45).

ω. Wittgenstein writes: “Proposition 241-‘So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?’-It is what human beings say that is true or false; and they agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in Lebensform” (75); compare this to Cicero’s proto-Holism put in the mouth of Crassus: “…there exists no class of things which can stand by itself, severed from the rest, or which the rest can dispense with and yet be able to preserve their own force and everlasting existence” (de Oratore III, 19).

αα. Grassi brings out Cicero’s redress of the Greek philosophical interest first principles argument, and the consequential devotion to the “res obscurae” and “non necessariae”. This produces a dichotomy between the “knower” and the one “capable of speaking” [“alii nos sapere, allii dicere docerent,” Cicero De oratore 3.61] (9). It is precisely this division between the knower and the rhetor that Wittgenstein works to dissolve.

ββ. Note that this is the very place Eva Kittay had argued Davidson was eventually heading towards, but had not yet reached in his formulations on metaphor (118).

γγ. Stephen R. Yarbrough in “Passing Theories through Topical Heuristics” takes up the same essay, forming a connection between Davidson and Aristotle, using Aristotle’s concept of topoi as a nexus point (the very same topoi which Grassi had independently stressed in his interpretation of Vico). He explains that what Davidson calls the “mysterious process” of a shared inferential method between language users is actually the recognition and use of such topoi, allowing speakers to form passing yet converging theories on the fly, that is, “communicate”. Thus, the constant invention of solutions to pragmatic questions of everyday communication, through the inferential grasp of topical relations, places ingenium at the core of linguistic competence.

Davidson will claim that communicative competence “cannot be taught.” By “cannot be taught,” it should now be clear, Davidson means that the process cannot be conveyed merely formally in the way one can convey, say, mathematics. Discourse, like all intercourse, is a skill that can be developed not through “book learning” but through a process of interaction with things and people. We may learn in abstraction what a topical relation is formally, but we can learn what it means pragmatically only through discursive interaction, through the back and forth of anticipation and revision of our words’ effects. The chef ephebe must learn through trial and error, through attempt and correction, through question and answer with the master how and to what degree each ingredient, temperature alteration, and so on, affects the balance of tastes, the consistency, and the texture of a base and so the very meaning of “First you make a roux.” A recipe hardly conveys this knowledge, this skill of adjustment and interaction, and the recipe alone means little if anything to anyone who does not already understand the topical relations the recipe implies. The beginner cook cannot really understand the language of the recipe, the intention of the writer, until he has made the étouffée, and made it properly (88-89).

That Grassi finds Aristotelian topoi at the center of metaphor use, and Yarbrough finds it integral to Davidson’s evolved emphasis on discourse competence, suggests that that it is a productive conceptual link between the two aspects of Davidson’s thinking.

δδ. “Metaphors often make us notice aspects of things we did not notice before; no doubt they bring surprising analogies and similarities to our attention…’ But notice that the same can be said about anomalous non-linguistic phenomena like platypuses and pulsars. The latter do not (literally) tell us anything, but they make us notice things and start looking for analogies and similarities” (Rorty 1991, 167).

εε. Heraclitus’,”The thunderbolt steers the totality of things,” (fragment 64), now points toward both an affective community of bodily states, and the institutional practices of authority set up to interpret and literalize these states.

ζζ. “Davidson lets us see metaphors on the model of unfamiliar events in the natural world-causes of changing beliefs and desires-rather than on the model or representations of unfamiliar worlds, worlds which are ‘symbolic’ rather than ‘natural’. He lets us see the metaphors which make possible novel scientific theories as causes of our ability to know more about the world, rather than expressions of such knowledge” (Rorty 1991, 163).

ηη. This is a larger issue point for Rorty with which I am in agreement. “If one holds a different conception of the limits of semantics and of philosophical explanation, as Black and Hesse do, one has a different conception of the reach of philosophy. Davidson’s metaphilosophical approach differs from theirs, as Newton’s metascientific approach to dynamics differs from Leibniz’s” (Rorty 1991 164).


Works Cited

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Rorty, Richard. Contingency, irony, and solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
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Verene, Donald Phillip. Vico’s Science of Imagination. Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1991.

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Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. Third edition, revised. Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004.

Yarbrough, Stephen R.. “Passing Theories through Topical Heuristics: Donald Davidson, Aristotle, and the Conditions of Discursive Competence.” Philosophy and Rhetoric. Volume 37, Number 1, 2004.

[written May 6, 2006]