Metaphors as Imaginative Propositions

by D. Lynn Holt

D. Lynn Holt recently received the BA. degree from Mississippi State University, where he was an Honors scholar and an Undergraduate Teaching Fellow.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 252-256, Vol. 12, Number 4, Winter, 1982. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


How and where does the phenomenon of metaphor “fit” in Whitehead’s speculative scheme, and what contributions, if any, does the philosophy of organism provide for contemporary discourse on metaphor? The author maintains that the irreducible metaphor is a verbal approximation of a species of imaginative propositions.

Contemporary language theorists have isolated several philosophically provocative linguistic components, portions of language which are logically and/or epistemologically problematic. One such category is that of metaphorical expression. Philosophers of language, specifically nonellipsis theorists of metaphor, have zeroed in on a type of expression they refer to as "vital" or "irreducible" metaphor; i.e., metaphor that is not reducible to literal expression without loss of impact and, most importantly, meaning. This is to say that any attempted literal translation fails to give the cognitive insight which the original metaphor yields. A vital metaphor is not an elliptical condensation of a prolix literal assertion; this special type of metaphor, it is held, generates meaning which is not, and cannot be, literally linguistically encoded, either on-the-page or in-one’s head. Its novel cognitive significance is the product, in some fashion, of epistemologically significant metaphorical expression.1

What I will attempt to show is how and where the phenomenon of metaphor "fits" in Whitehead’s speculative scheme, and what contributions, if any, the philosophy of organism may provide for contemporary discourse on metaphor. Specifically, I will maintain that the irreducible metaphor is a verbal approximation of a species of imaginative propositions. In order to facilitate this attempt, a synopsis of Whitehead’s view of language as a whole will be required, as well as an adumbration of nonellipsis metaphor theory.


The important distinction to be made with regard to Whitehead’s general view of language is that between verbal phrases and the propositions they are meant to express. Propositions, while proposing a particular state of affairs, must also propose the "general character of the universe required" for that state of affairs (PR 11/ 16); this follows from the notion of generic organism, that propositions, qua propositions, cannot be abstracted from their systematic cosmological context. A verbal phrase, however, does precisely that -- it abstracts a given proposition it attempts to express without reference to its cosmological status, its relational character. Hence, verbal statements are indeterminate, for the system of relations which gives propositions their determinate character is not present in language: language is inadequate as a means of definite expression. This inadequacy does admit of degrees, ranging from the merely insufficient to the wholly misleading.

The common-sense distinction between literal and metaphorical expression thus collapses, for if no verbal statement can he the adequate expression of a proposition, then all language is, in a sense, metaphorical. "Words and phrases . . . remain metaphors mutely appealing for an imaginative leap" (PR 4/6). Verbal statements err on the side of indeterminate omission; they are elliptical abstractions lacking a systematic character. At best, language can only approximate propositional meaning.

The nature of this abstraction is, however, inverted; Whitehead calls it "abstraction from possibility" (SMW 167). One normally thinks of abstraction in terms of higher and vaguer generalizations: cow is more abstract than "Bossie," "mammal" is more abstract than cow. But what a verbal abstraction from a proposition omits is the general systematic character of the proposition, not the particular details. In this sense, the more "abstract" a statement is, the less it exhibits generality. Thus, "Bossie" is more abstract than "cow," "cow" is more abstract than "mammal," etc. This notion ofthe inverted abstraction of language has important implications for metaphorical expression which will be discussed in part IV.


A representative view of the epistemological significance of irreducible metaphor is to be found in the work of Max Black. According to this view (the "interaction view"), novel meaning is generated by the interaction between the focus (the word or words used nonliterally in a metaphorical expression) and the frame (the literal setting of the focus). The frame is to be treated as a system of implications, or an "implicational complex." The interaction between the focus and the frame takes the form of the suppression and/or evocation of certain sets of predicates (predicable of the focus, in the case of evocation, and impredicable, in the case of suppression) from the implicational complex, and "projecting" the evoked sets onto the focus. A "vital" metaphor thus proposes, nonliterally, that a certain subject be viewed in a radically different light; it also proposes that a relationship exists where one is not normally thought to be (1:438-40).

Consider the sentence: The chairman plowed through the discussion." In this case, the focus is "plowed," and the remainder of the sentence, taken literally (but perhaps not unambiguously) is the frame, or implicational complex. If "plowed" is to be taken nonliterally (which must be the case unless the chairman happened to be practicing agricultural techniques while the discussion was taking place), then "chairman . . . through the discussion" must provide grounds for possible construals of "plowed," such as dealing summarily with objections, harshly censuring irrelevance, etc. The frame provides a system of implication which both frees and limits he potential meanings of the focus.

One of the major questions, however, that the interactional view and other theories of metaphor have to answer is whether a literal statement such as, "The chairman ran the discussion strictly," or a collection of like literal statements, captures the meaning of a metaphorical statement like, "The chairman plowed through the discussion." Although most schools of metaphor theorists (with the exception of the substitution view) regard metaphorical meaning as irreducible to any set of literal statements, they have difficulty in describing just what it is that constitutes metaphorical meaning. As Black puts it:

One of the points I most wish to stress is that the loss in such cases [of a literal translation] is a loss in cognitive content; the relevant weakness of the literal paraphrase is not that it may be tiresomely prolix or boringly explicit (or deficient in qualities of style); it fails to be a translation because it fails to give the insight that the metaphor did. (MAM 46)


What, then, is the position of the irreducible metaphor with respect to Whitehead’s scheme? If all language is depicted by the philosophy of organism as being in some sense metaphorical, can "vital" metaphor still retain its special epistemological status? If so, an irreducible metaphor must be an approximation of a proposition which is unlike those propositions expressed by literal language.

A likely candidate is the imaginative proposition. An imaginative proposition arises when, at the conceptual pole, an eternal object is felt which characterizes a nexus in the datum of the physical recoginition2 not felt in the indicative feeling. In an imaginative proposition, a predicative pattern is proposed of certain logical subjects which do not exhibit (in degrees ranging from complete irrelevance to near identity) the eternal object of the predicative pattern as a determinant of their nexus.3

An imaginative proposition is a "tale that might be told" (PR 256/ 392), a potential proposal, about the logical subjects of the proposition. It projects a predicate derived from one nexus onto the occasions which constitute the logical subjects of the proposition, which, in turn, are elements of another nexus: an ontological "sort-crossing," if you will. Those actual occasions which are the logical subjects of an imaginative proposition may properly be called the focus of a verbal metaphor; likewise, the predicative pattern of the imaginative proposition may be called the frame, or implicational complex, of a verbal metaphor. If you reread the preceding two paragraphs, and substitute the following words and phrases, you will get a fair account of an interaction analysis of metaphor at the level of language. Substitute: "metaphor" for "imaginative proposition," "focus" for "logical subjects," "implicational complex" for "predicative pattern."

We have yet to account for conscious entertainment of metaphor and emergent novel meaning, however. Consciousness only enters into the higher phases of feeling; for our purposes, it enters into the intuitive judgment as the subjective form of the comparative feeling, When an affirmative intuitive judgment is involved, the subjective form takes on a "belief" character. When a negative intuitive judgment is involved, it takes on a character of "disbelief"; however, when a suspended intuitive judgment is involved, belief character is suspended also, and the proposition, in our case imaginative, is entertained; merely: it is proposed as a "lure for feeling," and the truth or falsity of the proposition is secondary or irrelevant to its intrinsic interest for the subject occasion. When an imaginative proposition is an element in the datum of a suspended intuitive judgment, the feeling is of a contrast between the "facts," or the patterned nexus of the indicative feeling, and the proposed relation between logical subjects and imaginative predicate. It is the feeling of what "is," as opposed to what "could not be (literally), but what is interesting, nonetheless."

There is now, at the level of conscious imagination, a dual tension: there is tension between the imaginative predicate (implicational complex) and the logical subjects (focus), and between the imaginative proposition (metaphorical expression) and the objectified nexus of the indicative feeling (literal facts). Judgment is suspended on the contrast between the way things seem to be and the way they could be viewed, and a free play of conscious imagination occurs.

Arising from this dual tension and the play of conscious imagination is novelty. The tension between the imaginative predicate and the logical subjects produces a novel propositional feeling, and tension between the objectified patterned nexus and the imaginative proposition produces a novel satisfaction. On the level of language, nonliterally encoded meaning is generated by the degree of abstraction of the imaginative proposition as embodied in the language, and by the conscious imagination or "imaginative leap" (PR 13/ 20) involved in the contrast between the facts and the metaphorical expression.


It remains to be shown what sort of interpretation maybe given as a summary contribution to contemporary metaphor theory in particular, and to language analysis in general.

Foremost, the dual nature of novel meaning evoked by vital metaphorical expression has perhaps been overlooked by theorists of metaphor. A metaphor generates meaning primarily by the degree to which it approximates an adequate expression of an imaginative proposition, which is its index of abstraction. A "vital," "irreducible" metaphor is an expression with a low degree of abstraction (and a high degree of connectivity, correspondingly). Because it points to relatedness, the relatedness of notions which at face value seem irrelevant, a metaphorical expression echoes the systematic character of the imaginative proposition and hints at its relatedness with more of experience than it would seem.

The concept of inverted abstraction also operates at the level of the "imaginative leap." By pointing to relations, relatedness, and consequently hinting at the systematic character of propositions, a metaphorical expression, because of its low level of abstraction, provides a cue that an imaginative leap is required to appreciate the contrast between metaphorical and literal expression. It is its own harbinger.

Further, it should be pointed out that although the common- sense distinction between metaphor and literal expression is collapsed, the distinction remains between irreducible metaphor and other semantic components of language. However, although metaphor is one mode of expression of imaginative propositions, others may be distinguished as well. In particular, the counterfactual conditional expresses an imaginative proposition with a high degree of relevance between the predicative pattern and the objectified pattern of the nexus composed of the logical subjects of the proposition entertained by a nascent occasion.

Finally, if this account of the distinction between verbal statements and propositions is correct, and the gradations of inverted abstraction entail degrees of adequacy of expression, then it follows that language is best suited for the framing of general, systematic categories rather than the strict analysis of isolated phenomena. Though these generalizations seem vague and unwieldy, when formulated with logical precision, they represent the closest that language can possibly come to depicting reality with any determinacy.



MAM -- Max Black, Models and Metaphors. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1962.

1. Max Black, "More About Metaphor," Dialectica 31/3-4 (1977), 431-57.



1To say that a metaphor expresses something differently than a literal statement is unexceptionable. But to say, as nonellipsis theorists do, that a metaphor expresses something different than a literal statement does, or any conjunction of literal statements can, is to claim an epistemologically separate category for metaphor.

2A physical recognition is the physical feeling of a complex eternal object as the determinant of a nexus objectified in the conformal feeling.

3 The complex eternal object which is the predicative pattern of an imaginative proposition may arise from a nexus outside of the indicative feeling but prehended in the physical recognition, or by the category of conceptual reversion. However, I think that reversion is unnecessary for an imaginative proposition which serves as that-to-be-expressed by a metaphor, for the novelty required (epistemologically speaking) is the novelty of not being linguistically encoded.