Truth Is a Mobile Army of Metaphors: An Interview with Andrew Hines

by contributing editors Jonathon Catlin and Andrew Hines

By Jonathon Catlin and Andrew Hines

Andrew Hines is Lecturer in World Philosophies at SOAS University of London and the Thyssen Research Fellow at the Centre for Anglo-German Cultural Relations at Queen Mary University of London, as well as a contributing editor to the JHI Blog. His first book, Metaphor in European Philosophy after Nietzsche: An Intellectual History (Legenda, 2020), traces the development of the concept of metaphor in philosophical thought from Aristotle to Jacques Derrida. He argues that the classical paradigm of metaphor as a rhetorical figure expressing similar meaning transferred across difference was “transformed to reflect the view that the linguistic operation described by Aristotle is in fact a fundamental phenomenon in thought and discourse.” Hines traces this insight in the work of thinkers including Friedrich Nietzsche, Hans Blumenberg, Derrida, and more recently the cognitive linguists Mark Johnson and George Lakoff, who each defend, in their own philosophical idiom, the idea that “metaphor conditions concepts and not the other way around” (1). Fellow contributing editor Jonathon Catlin interviewed Hines about his new book.

Jonathon Catlin: Our past collaborations for the JHI Blog have centered on the work of Hans Blumenberg (1920–1996), a German philosopher and intellectual historian whose work on myth and metaphor serves as a powerful counterweight to more rationalistic strands of anglophone history of ideas and German Begriffsgeschichte, or conceptual history. I want to start with your own intellectual biography. How did you come to figures like Blumenberg and Jacques Derrida?

Andrew Hines: My interest in Blumenberg came about through an interweaving of a theoretical concern and a practical concern; like a sturdy garment, the theoretical and practical concerns strengthened each other and added to the overall “look” of the project. The theoretical concern was partly a response to my MA dissertation on Derrida’s philosophy of metaphor. While incredibly rich, I felt Derrida’s theoretical articulation of the problem of metaphor, which places an emphasis on the undecidability of metaphoric meaning, didn’t provide the tools I needed to understand how metaphor oriented thought and action in cases such as those I was seeing unfold amidst the political sea change of the last few years in the USA and Europe. Instead, I was drawn to how Blumenberg considers rhetoric as an anthropological tool and to the way metaphors are an essential component of cognition through which to form a consensus of meaning. Both meaning and subjectivity may be illusory, but we certainly think we are in command when we use language. While Blumenberg doesn’t have the last word, he provides a useful framework to begin thinking about how we use metaphor to orient our understanding of the world.
However, I didn’t see in Blumenberg’s thought the tools to chart out a different path until I started to consider him as a part of the intellectual history of his period. This book is also born out of a practical concern about the anglophone reception of European philosophy and the types of thinkers and debates that are prioritized within continental philosophy in the U.S. and the U.K. I grew up in the States and started my BA in philosophy there, but I spent the last two years of my degree in Tübingen, Germany. Besides learning German on the go, I took a few philosophy courses and was surprised to find that even though I was taking courses on figures like Hegel, not all roads lead to Derrida, Spivak, Butler, or Žižek. Sometimes the anglophone reception of continental thought can imply that there is a particular ideological path European philosophy follows. For example, Simon Critchley in his introduction to continental philosophy argues that continental philosophy is “the expression of an antagonism at the heart of something like ‘Englishness.’” However, as a student in Europe, first in Germany and then in Dublin, where my lecturers had done their PhDs on the continent with figures like Ricoeur, Derrida, and Habermas, I saw not one particular “antagonism” within Englishness, but rather several antagonisms within Europeanness. All of this led to an interest in intellectual history and a desire to understand ideas in a historical and cultural context that may add depth, nuance, and polyphony to the English-language reception of European philosophy.
I encountered Blumenberg at the prompting of my PhD supervisor Angus Nicholls, who had just published the first English-language book on Blumenberg’s theory of myth as well as co-edited Hans Blumenberg’s Praefiguration: Arbeit am politischen Mythos. When I first read Blumenberg’s Paradigms for a Metaphorology, it was like opening up a door to a room that I didn’t know existed within the house of European philosophy. I only discovered that there was a wave of English-speaking interest in Blumenberg at a conference in Leipzig in 2017. While I’m thrilled, of course, that English-language audiences are getting more exposure to this essential postwar German thinker, I’m also cautious, lest this wave of interest turns into the same issue that led me to Blumenberg in the first place: the tendency for the English-language reception of European philosophy to essentialize continental thought around a handful of thinkers or issues.

JC: Your book centers on Nietzsche’s Janus-faced view of metaphor: “on the one hand, looking back to the origins of meaning and relativizing them”—after Nietzsche, the cord is cut, so to speak—“and on the other hand looking forward to the horizons of human experience and pragmatically orienting cognition through providing stable, if ultimately relative, meanings”(3). Nietzsche answers the question, “What, then, is truth?” with a rich metaphor of his own: “A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms, in short a sum of human relations which have been subjected to poetic and rhetorical intensification, translation, and decoration, and which after they have been in use for a long time, strike a people as firmly established, canonical and binding” (4). On the one hand, this relativizes meaning by detaching it from a stable source. On the other, it makes metaphors, to gloss Lévi-Strauss, “good to think with” by providing “pragmatic service to cognition” (4). You plot this on an axis, with Derrida emphasizing the relativizing function of metaphor and Blumenberg emphasizing the pragmatic. On another axis, Blumenberg tracks diachronic (historical) semantic shifts in metaphors over time, while the cognitive linguists and Derrida (as a poststructuralist) focus on synchronic analysis of present semantic networks. I found it interesting that Blumenberg and Derrida were writing almost simultaneously yet represent opposite ends of these spectrums. Did one pole win out in the end?

AH: I should stress that when I talk about the pragmatic pole of metaphor in the book, I don’t mean the philosophical movement of pragmatism in the form of figures like John Dewey or Richard Rorty (though the latter gave Blumenberg a very interesting review), I mean metaphor’s capacity to provide a functional service to human cognition. In terms of intellectual history, this “pragmatic” approach to metaphor in European philosophy seems to have evolved separately from the “relativizing” pole. I tried to find evidence of a connection between Derrida and Blumenberg in the latter’s Nachlass in the form of letters or references, but I couldn’t find any. One of the things I hope to draw attention to in the book is that both the pragmatic and relative poles come from the same intellectual-historical moment—Nietzsche’s philosophy—but developed in isolation from one another. This theoretical isolation is one of the main problems I find in metaphor theory today, because both sides arise from a common root: the transformation of the Aristotelian view of metaphor to a view that recognizes metaphor as a fundamental phenomenon in thought and discourse. This transformation holds both the pragmatic and relative sides within it, but most descriptions of how this occurs tend to privilege one over the other.
One reason I would suggest deconstruction hasn’t supplanted the privileging of metaphor’s pragmatic pole is the prevalence of cognitive linguistics, which, through an empirical methodology, highlights the pragmatic service metaphor provides to cognition. This approach to metaphor research rose to prominence in the 1980s with George Lakoff and Mark Johnson and, while it has inevitably evolved and splintered, forty years on the basic core of providing an empirical method to map out the way in which metaphors pragmatically orient human cognition is still alive and well in the form of organizations like RaAM and the prevalence of the cognitive approach in Routledge’s most recent Handbook of Metaphor and Language (2016). In both of Lakoff’s and Johnson’s key works, Metaphors We Live By (1980) and Philosophy in the Flesh (1999), they state that they have been inspired by several insightful continental philosophers I discuss in the book and now have the ability to empirically verify those earlier claims. So, in many ways you could see cognitive linguistics as an heir to the Nietzschean problem of metaphor. The privileging of the pragmatic pole of metaphor is still very much alive and well!

JC: Your book is a work of judicious intellectual-historical reconstruction, but I want to ask where you as a thinker come down on usefulness of metaphor. You are careful to note the danger of purely pragmatic use of metaphor in ideology, which is when a false immediacy of meaning unreflectively takes effect. Does that point contain a critique of Nietzsche and Blumenberg’s praise for the pragmatic view of metaphor?

AH: I think we grasp the usefulness of metaphors, whether as writers, academics, politicians, or public speakers, when we realize that we are never fully in command of them. The tendency for ideological metaphors to create false immediacy is the tendency to forget that metaphor, like myth, is never attributable to a single author. When Romeo metaphorically compares Juliet’s beauty to light in the famous balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet, we can attribute Shakespeare as the author of that bit of verse. However, the metaphor of light, whether for beauty, goodness, truth, or knowledge, is the province of the history of the English language and, more broadly, an abundance of languages who use similar metaphors. Therefore, I think a criticism of Nietzsche or Blumenberg could be raised not so much because they themselves overemphasize a pragmatic view of metaphor, but rather because of vulgarized uses of their ideas. Both thinkers recognize the inevitability of metaphor. It has been their followers, particularly in Nietzsche’s case, who have attempted to make metaphor speak with false immediacy.
If anything, in academic circles, it’s the relative side of Nietzsche’s view of metaphor that has been overplayed by thinkers like Sarah Kofman, Foucault, Spivak, and, to a certain extent, Derrida. Concerning Blumenberg, I think your criticism is fairer. I’d like to see outlined more precisely how he reconciles, on the one hand, a very Nietzschean view that metaphors are inevitable to the point that there is no line between metaphor and reason, and on the other hand a very Kantian view that metaphors are an aid to reason—the pragmatic aspect. He even roots his definition of metaphor in Kant’s definition of the symbol from the third Critique. However, Blumenberg’s emerging political writings have highlighted his commitment to understanding how metaphors and myths—which cannot be reduced to a purely functional view—are used to justify practical, political aims. Blumenberg hints at the active role of the intersubjective creation of meaning and at the historical evolution of meaning in such cognitive mechanics, but I’d like to see him flesh out the psychological and cognitive claims his philosophy implies.

JC: At the other end of the spectrum, your portrait of Derrida is sympathetic compared to that of Ricoeur, who worried that the “unbounded” deconstruction of Derrida’s “White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy” (1971) jeopardized all linguistic meaning, including Ricoeur’s own hermeneutical project. In your reconstruction, Ricoeur and other hermeneuticians like Hans-Georg Gadamer, following Martin Heidegger, attempted to “sidestep” the fundamental tension posited by Nietzsche between the relativizing and pragmatic poles by positing immediacy in the “ground” of the human capacity to generate metaphoric meaning. Yet as Derrida writes in “The Retrait of Metaphor” (1978), “we are not in metaphor like a pilot in his ship” (173). We may think that we control metaphors, but in fact metaphors control us. At the same time, you push back against a facile reading of Derrida that holds metaphors open to infinite interpretation by pointing to ideologies in which metaphors rapidly achieve consensus and semantic stability, constituting a practical limit. You thus incorporate Derrida’s insight without needing to expel him from the philosophical canon, lest we not be able to say anything at all. What do you think paranoid readers of Derrida like Ricoeur (if we can call them that) miss?

AH: I actually share many of Ricoeur’s concerns about Derrida. However, it’s also true that I am harsh on Ricoeur in the book. This is partially polemical in an attempt to decenter Ricoeur’s Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language (1975). It’s an indispensable masterpiece of comparative study. However, some of its conclusions rely far too heavily on Heidegger, in my view, and fail to help us adequately understand the way in which we see metaphor at work in the political arena at the moment. On the other hand, I share Ricoeur’s desire to give an account of how meaning is created in language through metaphor, like the title of his book suggests. Just as I’m concerned that an overreliance on Heidegger doesn’t provide an adequate account of metaphor’s current role in the political arena, nor does an overreliance on the relativizing tendencies within Derrida’s thought. However, I’m not sure that Derrida would think that his thought should be applied that way, which is why I’m more charitable to him. Echoing my answer to your first question, while he may be a difficult writer to read and his style may not be one’s preference, the problem is often not Derrida but the anglophone reception of Derrida. That’s why I feel intellectual-historical reconstruction is essential.

JC: Your book seeks to provide a conceptual history of metaphor as a concept in its own right, oriented around the methodological question, “How do we interpret the meaning of metaphor if all semantic gestures are metaphoric?” (6). You address this problem of relativism with a turn to pragmatism. If, as you and Blumenberg suggest, metaphors rather than concepts form the basis of thought, some might object that we would end up in an unintelligible hall of mirrors; yet the opposite seems to be the case, as metaphors instead practically orient cognition and provide intellectual clarity. Do you still see relativism as a philosophical problem, or do you think your Nietzschean, Janus-faced, or perhaps even dialectical view of metaphor helps to resolve it?

AH: It’s a good question, and I don’t have a clear-cut answer. But this is one area where I find a reevaluation of Nietzsche’s Janus head view to clarify some key aspects of the concept of metaphor. For example, metaphor is ever-present in language and thought to the point that we cannot speak about metaphor without using metaphor. Yet this constant flux of new meanings seems to stop and is given stability by those very same metaphors. How is this possible? Nietzsche’s view holds these seemingly opposing theses together, like the Janus head, in suggesting that metaphors create “peace treaties” for cognition. However, the metaphor of the “peace treaty” doesn’t explain how the semantics for such a model might work on a level that would make sense in neuroscience (even though Nietzsche was influenced by Gustav Gerber).
In my view, not all philosophy needs to (or should!) be empirically verifiable, but it can clarify issues within applied fields like neuroscience and cognitive linguistics. The presuppositions and logical moves underpinning those methods of analysis are not stabilized once and for all; to a certain extent, each is a “peace treaty.” There are limitations to how they frame problems of semantic change—both in terms of the historical evolution of meaning and also in terms of swift changes brought about by ideology.
Nietzsche is a useful starting point for revisiting assumptions we may have about how the semantics of metaphor work. You don’t have to agree with him to acknowledge that metaphor’s relativizing and pragmatic tendencies appear to be in conflict. Yet somehow these tendencies also coexist. One tentative conclusion I draw from Nietzsche is that often we frame semantic and epistemological problems in terms of where meaning or understanding is coming from. Early cognitive linguistics is an example of this in that it attempted to ground the meaning of cognitive metaphors in embodiment. But as Zoltán Kövecses points out in Metaphor in Culture (2012), embodiment often doesn’t account for cultural relativity. While the problem of cultural relativity highlights semantic change between symbolic orders, changes to meaning also happen within the same symbolic orders in the form of historical changes to meaning and the changes brought about by political ideology. The semantics underpinning the current cognitive model often doesn’t account for this, but I think Nietzsche does. This is, again, why I feel like intellectual history is such an indispensable companion to philosophy; it helps us clarify points of navigation in the past that are causing theoretical gridlock in the present.

JC: Blumenberg is in a way the hero of your study because he develops Nietzsche’s insight about the pragmatic function of metaphors into a theory of how meaning emerges, shifts, and becomes stabilized through what you call “provisional rhetorical consensus” (149). This is what you are referring to when you employ your own metaphor of metaphor as a kind of “ceasefire” or “peace treaty for cognition” in the battles of relativism (190). In the context of postwar German intellectual history, it’s remarkable to see a theory of consensus that does not run through the work of Jürgen Habermas. Can you develop this idea a bit and speak to its broader implications?

AH: One key aspect of Habermas’s project is to clarify the problem of understanding meaning in the social sciences and the role reason plays in understanding meaning. While I’m gripped by Habermas’s philosophy, I tend to diverge from his assumptions about the nature of reason. I also think Blumenberg’s philosophy provides useful questions and tools through which one can chart a different path as to how communication shapes society. In fact, these are actually at the heart of my current research project at the Centre for Anglo-German Cultural Relations at Queen Mary University of London, where I’m evaluating the model through which we measure misunderstanding between nations and what role metaphor may play in that model.
Ultimately, the role of metaphor in reaching consensus must be worked out on two levels. Firstly, the level of how we use metaphor in the public sphere. This is the role of political discourse analysis in thinkers like Andreas Musolff. However, the theoretical foundations of this first level also relate to how far we take interpretation. I agree with Habermas that it’s essential to distinguish between empirical and hermeneutic knowledge, but this claim concerns how we assess information, not how we assess cognition, where things aren’t so clear-cut. I think it’s essential to make a distinction between information and cognition, because the way metaphors work to form consensus, not in terms of whether the information is true or false, but in terms of how the understanding works, suggests that we never have a clear error-free ground through which to understand the world. The process of transference and substitution is there from the beginning, a fact that Nietzsche reminds us of. So, if we affirm the metaphoric basis of thought, we shouldn’t be asking about the grounds of metaphoric meaning, the where question. Rather, we should be asking about how metaphoric meaning helps us reach consensus, the how question.
This leads to the second level where we need to work out the role of metaphor in reaching consensus: how metaphor relates to the understanding. If there is one overriding critical aim of the book, it is to suggest that both post-Kantian European philosophy and cognitive linguistics are broadly post-Nietzschean in that they don’t attribute meaning to a singular, Universal ground. Yet, often in an effort to preserve the public sphere, both traditions try to highlight where the meaning of metaphor comes from, whether from ideology, discourse, or embodiment. I wonder if this conflates the creation of meaning with understanding, as well as information with cognitive processes. For me, the urgency to unravel such conflations comes back to the need to understand how metaphor orients both thought and action in the current zeitgeist. If the ability to judge a metaphor as false or destructive is tied too closely to a particular model of either cognition or semantics, then we risk losing the ability to pick apart that model to better understand how false and destructive metaphors may be operating. Because of this, I don’t think our models of the understanding should be tied too closely to unmasking falsehood. There is always a difference between false knowledge and the messy cognitive processes, partially underpinned by metaphor, that lead one to understand or reject that knowledge. If anything, Nietzsche teaches us that truth is simply a mobile army of metaphors. He wasn’t, however, referring to facts.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) at Princeton University. His dissertation is a conceptual history of “catastrophe” in modern European thought. He tweets @planetdenken.

Andrew Hines is Lecturer in World Philosophies at SOAS University of London and the Thyssen Research Fellow at the Centre for Anglo-German Cultural Relations at Queen Mary University of London.

Featured Image: Edvard Munch, The Sun (circa 1910), courtesy of Wikimedia.

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