The legacy of the Enlightenment

Suspicion of metaphor and the figurative generally belongs to the mentality of the Enlightenment. As we shall see when we discuss metaphor specifically, this suspicion can be traced back to Aristotle. But its author in modern thought is the founder of empirical science, Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Bacon is the originator of the analytical view of language, a tradition that runs through Descartes, Hobbes, Locke and Bentham to the linguistic analysis of the twentieth century. Bacon advocated a literary style to match the rigour and self-discipline of his empirical method. It was to be a style marked by 'chastity'. This austere ideal of expression was premised on the view that words were 'counters' or 'signs' and had an exactly quantifiable value. Metaphor and other figures of speech were an encumbrance to the truth. 'And for all that concerns ornaments of speech, similitudes, treasury of eloquence, and such like emptinesses, let it be utterly dismissed' (Bacon, 1905, p.403). Though Bacon spends considerable time elucidating the wisdom concealed in myths, he regards the figurative generally as primitive: 'As hieroglyphics came before letters, so parables came before arguments' (ibid., p.822; cf. Rossi, 1968, ch. 3). Vico adopted the chronology but made the opposite valuation: 'The first nations,' he asserted in his New Science, 'thought in poetic characters, spoke in fables and wrote in hieroglyphs' (Vico, 1961, p. 139, para. 429). These were the wellsprings of insight.

Fundamental to the analytical view of language are the two criteria of clarity and distinctness. When Descartes (1596-1650) set out to eliminate all that he could not be certain of and to build his knowledge from scratch by indubitable stages, his first rule was 'never to accept anything as true that I did not know to be evidently so: that is to say.. .to include in my judgements nothing more than what presented itself so clearly and so distinctly to my mind that I might have no occasion to place it in doubt' (Descartes, 1968, p.41). His momentous conclusion, Cogito ergo sum, was the paradigm of a clear and distinct idea. Descartes inferred from this that 'I could take it to be a general rule that the things we conceive very clearly and very distinctly are all true'—though there remained the problem that it is difficult to recognise for certain which things we do see distinctly (ibid., p.54). Elsewhere Descartes elaborated his germinal insight. An idea is clear when it is 'present and apparent to an attentive mind' and distinct when it is 'so precise and different from all other objects that it contains within itself nothing but what is clear' (Schouls, 1989, p.21, citing Principles of Philosophy). Though Descartes' criteria have been judged, ironically, to be far from clear and distinct themselves (see Ashworth, 1972), they were destined to have a long and interesting history right up until they were explicitly challenged by the later Wittgenstein.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was Bacon's secretary and colleague. Though he developed a conception of science that diverged radically from Bacon's, being determined by the deductive rather than the inductive method, he shared Bacon's atomistic view of language as made up of counters or signs with a designated meaning. Hobbes asserts in Leviathan: 'Words are wise men's counters, they do but reckon by them; but they are the money of fools' (Hobbes, 1962, p.78). Metaphor, for Hobbes, is at best an aberration, at worst pathological. A metaphor is a word used in a sense other than the intended or ordained one and is therefore deceptive (ibid., p.75). Rhetorical figures such as metaphors usurp the function of 'words proper' and lead us astray (ibid., p.85). They are a will-o'-the-wisp and 'reasoning upon them is wandering amongst innumerable absurdities' (ibid., p.86). For Hobbes language is a matter of naming, as Adam named the creatures. It is a product of the will and is therefore arbitrary. Names are mechanical devices for tagging and recalling thoughts. From names we construct definitions and by computing definitions we pursue rational thought. Hobbes' method consists in reasoning from definitions by what he calls adding and subtracting.

John Locke (1632-1704) combines Bacon's empirical method, Descartes' critical principle of clear and distinct ideas, and Hobbes' passion for precision and suspicion of metaphor. For Locke thinking is conscious, explicit cogitation—there are no subliminal creative depths—in which the units of thought are the familiar Cartesian and Hobbesian clear and distinct ideas. Locke, however, takes this approach a step further when he puts forward the notion of 'determinate' or 'determined' ideas, meaning that we have an idea and we know exactly what we mean by it (Locke, 1961, vol. 1, pp.xxxviii, 306ff.). The 'articulate sounds' that we call words have 'no natural connection with our ideas, but have all their signification from the arbitrary imposition of men' (ibid., vol. 2, p.77). Locke finds the imperfection of words in their incorrigible vagueness and advocates the counsel of perfection that 'men should use their words constantly in the same sense and for none but determined and uniform ideas' (ibid., vol. 2, p. 106). The aim is the conjunction of clear and distinct ideas with precise and unambiguous terms: let us, he urges, 'fix in our minds clear, distinct, and complete ideas, as far as they are to be had, and annex to them proper and constant names' (ibid., vol. 2, p.239). Figurative language is mere adornment and poetry a waste of time (cf. James, 1949, Part II; for further discussion on Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes and Locke, see Avis, 1986b).

All these thinkers were harbingers of the Enlightenment: they shaped the philosophical assumptions of the philosophes of the eighteenth century. Lacking an integrated psychological model in which reason and imagination could be seen as two interrelated aspects of the mind working as a whole, analytically and synthetically, the philosophes privileged reason at the expense of imagination. For them the notion of imaginative truth was a contradiction in terms. As Voltaire (1694-1778) wrote in the Philosophical Dictionary: 'Ardent imagination, passion, desire—frequently deceived—produce the figurative style.too many metaphors are hurtful, not only to clarity but also to truth, by saying more or less than the thing itself (White, 1973, p.53). This self-denying ordinance excluded myth, legend and fable from the category of evidence that should be taken seriously. Manuel tells us that Turgot 'was ultimately led by his worship of reason to prefer the purest mathematical abstraction over all other forms of knowledge and to look upon metaphors and images.. .as a sort of baby-talk' (Manuel, 1962, p.32).

The Utilitarians Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and James Mill (1773-1836) perpetuated the Enlightenment's rationalistic view of language and its hostility towards imaginative truth into the nineteenth century. Bentham believed that metaphors, such as 'body politic', applied to society had led to numerous 'false and extravagant ideas' as 'poetry had invaded the domain of reason'. Metaphors of the health, vigour, corruption, dissolution, death and resurrection of a society are sheer mystification. 'Simple language' is best fitted to convey the truth (Preyer, 1958, pp.52f.). Bentham's scorn for 'vague generalities' was discussed by John Stuart Mill, son of James Mill. 'He did not heed,' observes the younger Mill, '.that these generalities contained the whole unanalysed experience of the human race.' While the assertion of a generality does not constitute an argument, adds Mill, 'a man of clear ideas errs grievously if he imagines that whatever is seen confusedly does not exist: it belongs to him, when he meets with such a thing, to dispel the mist, and fix the outlines of the vague form which is looming through it.' The proper use of words, for Bentham, was to articulate precise logical truth and anything less than this, say in poetry, was a perversion of their purpose. The dictum 'All poetry is misrepresentation' is attributed to Bentham. The obsessive striving for logical precision and clarity rendered Bentham's later works obscure and unintelligible according to Mill, who regarded this as the nemesis of Bentham's hostility to figurative language. In striving to avoid anything that savoured of a poetic turn of phrase 'he could stop nowhere short of utter unreadableness and after all attained no more accuracy than is compatible with opinions as imperfect and one-sided as those of any poet or sentimentalist breathing' (Mill, 1950, pp.59, 61, 95, 97).

Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-59), in his critique of James Mill, commented on the illusions entailed in the striving for clarity and distinctness:

It is one of the principal tenets of the Utilitarians, that sentiment and eloquence serve only to impede the pursuit of truth. They therefore affect a quakerly plainness, or rather a cynical negligence and impurity of style... They do not seem to know that logic has its illusions as well as rhetoric—that a fallacy may lurk in a syllogism as well as in a metaphore [sic].

When the mathematico-deductive method is applied to the great moral themes of human experience, claims Macaulay, the results are ludicrous: 'When men begin to talk of power, happiness, misery, pain, pleasure, motives, objects of desire, as they talk of lines and numbers there is no end to the contradictions and absurdities into which they fall' (ibid., p.107).

However, Macaulay (who has a foot in both the Enlightenment and Romanticist camps) is not entirely consistent in his view of imaginative truth. In his essay on Milton he suggests that as civilisation advances, poetry almost inevitably declines. To write poetry in these enlightened times requires 'a certain unsoundness of mind'. The truth of poetry is 'the truth of madness'. Shakespeare's Hamlet and King Lear represent 'the despotism of the imagination over uncultivated minds'. Macaulay capitulates to Bentham and James Mill when he claims: 'We cannot unite the incompatible advantages of reality and deception, the clear discernment of truth and the exquisite enjoyment of fiction' (Macaulay, 1905, pp.3f.). The rationalist assumption that metaphor, symbol and myth—which are the constituents of poetry—are the antithesis of truth and reality could hardly be more clear.

The cul-de-sac into which the Enlightenment's suspicion of imagistic thinking led, has been well summarised by Gouwens:

Neither continental rationalism, with its emphasis on clear and distinct ideas, nor British empiricism, with its stress on the concreteness and vividness of sense-impressions, could adequately account for the faculty of imagination or for aesthetics as a realm of activity. For rationalism, the imagination did not possess the clarity of rational ideas; for empiricism, the imagination seemed to lack the concreteness and vividness of sense-impressions.

The modernity that stems from the Enlightenment assumes a dichotomy between rational discourse, on the one hand, and imagistic thinking, on the other. It privileges logos over against eidos. The former is hailed as the vehicle of knowledge, mastery and progress; the latter dismissed as the source of ignorance, superstition and illusion. The first is the path to truth; the second to falsity. The burden of my argument in this book is not to reverse that (as postmodernism does) and to set image over logic, but to challenge the dichotomy—to argue that rational discourse and imagistic thinking are not mutually exclusive but actually entail each other, because discourse is composed of images and metaphors are the stuff of thought.

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