Thursday, July 27, 2006

Metaphorical commitments

I like the story that Brandom put forward in Making It Explicit and his Locke lectures. The focus on commitment and entitlement of assertions in a social practice seems like a good direction to go in. The constant focus on the truth of an assertion and cashing things out in terms of truth-values or truth conditions, while useful, seems to miss something, namely a lot of the interaction between people. That being said, the story isn't perfect.

One example is that it isn't really clear what I'm committing myself to when I make an assertion containing a metaphor. Suppose I assert, "You are my sunshine." I'm not committing myself to the claim that you are made of photons. I think all of the examples in the book and lectures were of literal, fairly straightfoward sentences. There is nothing wrong with startint there, but there are several things that still need accounting for. Metaphor is one of them. I think I am committing myself to the claim that you are important to me, but we need some story to get us from my usage of that to that particular claim. I'm not familiar with the metaphor literature, so I'm not sure what the canonical ways of dealing with metaphor are. The one I'm familiar with is a quasi-Gricean way that I don't think applies here since Brandom reverses the order of explanation that Grice requires. Brandom is starting with the pragmatic force and then gets to the semantic content while Grice went the other direction. A more interesting question to me is when am I entitled to make an utterance with a metaphor instead of a literal utterance that expresses roughly the same content? Are the entitlement conditions for "you are my sunshine" and "you are very important to me" different or is this just a matter of taste? There aren't going to be any extra epistemological conditions placed on the entitlement to one over the other and I don't think there are any particular collateral beliefs that would support using one rather than the other. An exception might be a belief about whether you think your addressee has a preference for poetic flattery, but could that be the only difference?

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