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Metaphors

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Metaphors

With the possible exception of completely formal exercises in logic, philosophy is thoroughly metaphorical and largely conditional. Moreover, the purposes served by metaphors and conditionals in it are similar. Metaphors ask us to imagine the world in a new way, while conditionals may ask to imagine a new world. Yet some conditionals and metaphors are incompatible. There are limits to how metaphors can occur in conditionals, and how conditionals can themselves be metaphors. Specifically, only certain kinds of metaphors can be accommodated in the antecedents of conditionals, and even then only within a restricted class of conditionals. This paper focuses on the linguistic tension between metaphors and conditionals. I argue that this echoes a tension at the heart of philosophy between two modes of philosophizing: a speculative-revisionary mode that is metaphorical and an analytic-explanatory mode that is conditional. The tasks are generally complementary so that the difference can be ignored with impunity. However, if we do not respect that difference, we may find ourselves analyzing metaphors and seeing logical analyses as metaphorical, and thus missing the point on both fronts.

Life is not really a bowl of cherries, and kangaroos do have tails. We know this full well, and yet are willing to entertain their negations in one way or another--the former as metaphor, the latter as counterfactual hypothesis. These are common moves to make in trying to understand the world — indeed, characteristically philosophical moves — but they are very different in kind. Their similarities, differences, and conflicted interaction reveal something about metaphors and conditionals, but mostly about philosophy itself.

Specifically: (1) "Philosophy" is a term that covers an extraordinary array of discourses, but with the possible exception of completely formal exercises in logic, philosophy is thoroughly metaphorical and largely conditional. (2) Some conditionals and metaphors, however, are incompatible. There are limits to how metaphors can occur in conditionals, and how conditionals can themselves be metaphors. Thus, (3) there is a tension at the heart of philosophy between two moments to philosophy or modes of philosophizing, a speculative, radical-revisionary mode that is metaphorical, and an analytic-explanatory mode that is conditional. Philosophers have special reason not to mix their metaphors (at least not with their conditionals). In this paper, I will focus on that linguistic tension.

§1. Metaphors in Philosophy: Metaphors are invitations to see things in a new way — Communism as a spectre haunting Europe, philosophy as a series of footnotes to Plato, or all the world as a stage.
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