Tag Archives: Davidson

Metaphor: Davidson IS the analytic Nietzsche

Metaphor… Would a concept with any other name sound as deep, as meaningful?1 Though what is this depth, this meaning, which we understand in hearing a metaphor? Theories surrounding metaphor abound, and many exist on either side of a supposed analytic / continental divide. However, this divide often creates unfortunate misunderstandings and misrecognition of similarities. Consider the work of Davidson and Nietzsche; the accounts of metaphor expounded by both of these thinkers appear counterintuitive; on one hand, Davidson’s theory of ‘no separate meaning’ seems to miss the mark, and yet Nietzsche, with ‘everything is metaphor’ seems to go too far. Instead of assuming opposition, these thinkers will be considered, in order to find relevant similarities, particularly focusing on the meaning of metaphors, their truth, and their interpretation. These issues have seemed to present an insurmountable gap between these two theorists; if all language is metaphorical, and there is no ‘truth’, it would indeed appear that Davidson and Nietzsche could never be reconciled. However, while not fitting perfectly, they are not so far different as they have been portrayed. Perhaps through unpacking these theories, it will become possible to see that Davidson is the analytic Nietzsche; even if this metaphor is too strong, a new appreciation of these thinkers will be achieved.

Davidson ‘What Metaphors Mean’

Davidson is often criticised2 for his ‘causal’ theory of metaphor3. Under Davidson’s theory, metaphors are the ‘dreamwork of language’, in that they evoke thoughts and affects which come down to interpretation. Metaphors ‘mean what the words, in their most literal interpretation, mean, and nothing more’4. Contra ideas of metaphysical ‘Forms’, meaning is not found at an ‘ultimate or pure reality’5. Meaning, for Davidson, particularly with regards to metaphor, is grounded in the experienced world, and is triangulated between agents and objects. Metaphor, like language, is grounded in its use. Davidson is denying the existence of a message to decode, a ‘hidden meaning’ within a metaphor; Metaphors are non‐linguistic, in that it generates affect in the receiver, like a ‘bump on the head’6, forcing us to see something as another7. Metaphors are the sentences which prompt recognition of a resemblance between dissimilar things they cause the speakers and hearers to ‘see [something] as’ another, rather than ‘seeing that something is the case’8. This however, is not meaning; none of the affects can be found in the metaphor. As Davidson tells it, this is a ‘common error’, that of attaching the content and affect which ‘a metaphor provokes […] into the metaphor itself’9. Instead, he argues that “what metaphor adds to the ordinary is an achievement that uses no semantic resources beyond the resources on which the ordinary depends”10.

In order to ‘meaningfully’ communicate with one another, Davidson considers it is necessary to recognise a common language11, and usage; their most literal interpretation is a maximisation of agreement, a ‘principle of charity’12 between the sender and receiver. Davidson’s emphasis on ‘literal’ stems from his expectation that all sentences must have truth values. Davidson assumes that we initially try to interpret statements literally, expecting truth in our interactions, and when a statement is made which seems false, trivially true, or nonsensical, we search out a ‘hidden’ meaning. Since this, along with the general use of a phrase as a metaphor as ‘beyond literal’, metaphors are considered ‘false’; they usually affirm identity relations between disparate things, generally held to be unrelated. This distinction between literal and figurative language is important to Davidson, because without being able to contrast the usual, or literal understanding of a sentence, he claims that ‘all sense of metaphor would evaporate’13. He claims this because of two related features: active literal meaning, and the nonparaphrasability of metaphor. First, Davidson claims that the common meaning behind our phrases must remain ‘active’:

Whether or not metaphor depends on new or extended meanings, it certainly depends in some way on the original meanings; an adequate account of metaphor must allow that the primary or original meanings of words remain active in their metaphorical setting14.

Second, for Davidson, a ‘good’ metaphor cannot be paraphrased, because we find that ‘there is no limit to what a metaphor calls to our attention’15. Any attempt at paraphrase will fail to capture everything the metaphor brings to attention16. Also, by considering the non‐propositional nature of the metaphor content, there can be no singular, correct paraphrase. This, for Davidson, is the key reason why metaphors cannot contain ‘cognitive content’; if a metaphor truly gave information, then that information could be paraphrased into ‘literal’ or propositional language.

Nietzsche ‘On Truth and Lies in a Non‐Moral Sense’

Nietzsche describes the very act of being aware as a metaphorical process:

[A] nerve stimulus is transferred into an image: first metaphor. The image, in turn, is
imitated in a sound: second metaphor. And each time there is a complete overleaping
of one sphere, right into the middle of an entirely new and different one17

Metaphor is the ‘carrying over’ of words used in one sphere, to a different one. It gives us no knowledge; we have only the metaphors we create to express our interpretation of our subjective experience, what we see, and the ways in which we understand the world. However, we have forgotten that this is all that the representations of the world are. We tell ‘truths’ with metaphors. However, Nietzsche claims that this truth is simply:

A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and; anthropomorphisms […]. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins 18.

In saying that truth is metaphor Nietzsche is saying that the truths we claim to know are simply inventions, substitutions that were made so long ago that they have been forgotten, and they are not actually part of some objective ‘reality’. Our language is seemingly unfit for articulating experience; our language cannot give us truths about an objective reality, to reach an understanding of a ‘thing in itself’19. Human understanding and knowledge is feeble, because it is man‐made; instead of understanding the nature of things, we are simply seeing a limited human perspective. The possibility of expressing ‘the correct perception’ of reality is impossible; all we are capable of is speaking ‘the usual metaphors’ if attempting to speak ‘truth’, or using rhetoric and persuasion through other metaphors. Truth is anthropocentric – objective truth is unattainable because there is always language, and humans in the way. Knowledge of ‘actual reality’ is impossible. However, this perspectivism is not without some alleviation of this; no single perspective is absolute, and yet some perspectives are better than others. it is possible to have a ‘better’ perspective, closer to ‘truth’, by submitting our impressions, and ideas to constant questioning and reinterpretation20 by ourselves and others:

There is only a perspectival seeing, only a perspectival ‘knowing’; the more affects we are able to put into words about a thing, the more eyes, various eyes we are able to use for the same thing, the more complete will be our ‘concept’ of the thing, our ‘objectivity’21

We form concepts based on our perspective, and claim knowledge of things as they really are. However, all our concepts are formed from metaphor; metaphors are ‘what the intellect presents as ‘truth’22, even though ‘[e]very concept originates through our equating what is unequal’23. We see one thing as equal to another and subsume the particular in generating universals. This also means, for Nietzsche, that there is no ‘literal’ language, or perhaps, avoiding dogmatism, that we are unable to know what is literal.

[W]e believe we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we only possess nothing but metaphors for things – metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities24.

For Nietzsche, concepts are formed through either omitting, or downplaying the differences between objects, as in the case of the leaf25, or the cherry‐picking of similarities between them, as in ‘analytic’ or ‘continental’ philosophers; leading to a word once ‘tied down to a single item is carried over and used to refer univocally to other items which are not identical with the original one’26.


In this analysis, I want to argue against the idea that Davidson and Nietzsche’s accounts of metaphor are antinomic. I would like to present some points toward bridging the gap between these two thinkers.

An area of contention between Davidson and Nietzsche is their apparent differences with regards to the status of metaphor; where Nietzsche claims all language is fundamentally metaphor, and Davidson requires there to be literal language. However, consider this more closely. What is it that Davidson requires of literal language? Davidson is claiming is that the meanings of words depend on common language, specifically how the words are used in a community of speakers. Davidson admits that there are a lot of ‘dead metaphors’27 that are subsumed into ‘literal’ language. In Nietzschean terms, he is referring to the speaking of ‘truths’ as ‘the usual metaphors’28. This is all Davidson actually needs; a pragmatic ‘truth’, a triangulation between a speaker and hearer, and the object of discussion29.

The matter of ‘Truth’ also concerns both of these thinkers, and is also held as a significant difference between Davidson and Nietzsche. Davidson presents a theory of metaphor which is based around ‘T Statements’ and ‘Radical Interpretation’30, suggesting that we can assign truth values to speech31, and further, that when attempting to interpret someone, we should use the ‘principle of charity’32; Nietzsche seems to consider any ‘truth’ difficult, bordering on impossible to achieve. However, this is an oversimplification of their views. While Davidson indeed does place truth as a cornerstone of this theory, this is not a ‘metaphysical’ truth, but instead a pragmatic one. Wheeler33 claims that while there is a necessity for truth conditions in Davidson, this is often overplayed; He considers Davidson’s position that truth need not be known34; it could be argued that the idea of truth being used is simply what passes for ‘truth’ in a community of speakers35. Nietzsche would have less of

an issue with this proposition, since what he was arguing against was the idea of ‘truth’ as a metaphysical ideal, an entirely objective ‘truth’ about a ‘thing in itself’36. Nietzsche holds that our language cannot provide any ‘absolute truth’37, and, since reality is mediated through human experience and language, anthropomorphic truth cannot be known to correspond to reality38. Seen above, his perspectivism, allows ‘better’ perspectives from a collection of perspectives, getting closer to the idea of objectivity.

Nietzsche’s perspectivism too, counts towards Davidsons idea of non‐paraphraseability leading to the impossibility of misinterpreting a metaphor. If we accept that all language is interpretation, a thesis both of these thinkers would accept, then perspectivism allows us to understand why one cannot paraphrase, or misinterpret a metaphor; the metaphor speaker has no control over the interpretation of the listener, and cannot determine what the listener will ‘hear’. While Davidson doesn’t necessarily accept perspectivism, he does accept the requirement for triangulation, and operation under a ‘principle of charity’, assuming maximum agreement in translation, and indeed, speech generally39. These would permit a measure of bridging between the two theorists, allowing common ground from which to build.

The objective behind this essay was to take the usual opposition of these two thinkers and attempt a bridging of the apparent ‘analytic/continental divide’. The metaphor I began with was ‘Davidson is the analytic Nietzsche’; while obviously a metaphor, in an essay on metaphor, it is worth clarifying that it is not intended that this be taken literally, in claiming identity relations between Davidson and Nietzsche; neither is ‘cherrypicking’ intended, as was alluded to in Nietzsche’s explanation of concept formation. Instead, the objective was to show that the constant opposition put forward often swings too far in the opposite direction. The concepts ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ are as Nietzsche said – the equation of particulars into universals – which serve to both emphasise certain aspects, whilst hiding others. This essay has attempted to begin the process of balancing the viewpoints, and bring them together on the metaphorical ‘level playing field’, where we can indeed see Davidson as an analytic Nietzsche.

Word Count: 1846 (minus long quotations)


Davidson, Donald. “The Folly of Trying to Define Truth.” The Journal of Philosophy 93, no. 6 (1996): 263‐78.

———. “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.” Chap. 13 In Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.

———. “What Metaphors Mean.” In On Metaphor, edited by Sheldon Sacks, 29 ‐ 45. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1979.

Hinman, Lawrence M. “Nietzsche, Metaphor, and Truth.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 43, no. 2 (1982): 179‐99.

Malpas, Jeff. “Donald Davidson.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy edited by Edward N. Zalta Stanford: Stanford University, 2012 http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/davidson/.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Nietzsche: ‘On the Genealogy of Morality’ and Other Writings Student Edition. Translated by Carol Diethe. edited by Keith Ansell‐Pearson Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

———. “On Truth and Lies in a Non‐Moral Sense.” Translated by Daniel Breazeale. In Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870s, 79 ‐ 97. Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities P International, Inc., 1997.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, and Jacques Derrida. “Translators Preface.” Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. In Of Grammatology. Baltimore, Maryland: JHU Press, 1998.

Wheeler III, Samuel C. Deconstruction as Analytic Philosophy. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Wheeler, Samuel C. “Language and Literature.” Chap. 7 In Donald Davidson, edited by Kirk Ludwig, 183 ‐ 206. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. 2nd ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963.

1 The allusion here, barely concealed, is to Shakespeare, well known for the use of metaphor.

2 Works by Lakoff & Johnson, cognitive linguistics, in addition to various philosophers with their own theories.

3 Jeff Malpas, “Donald Davidson,” ed. Edward N. Zalta, vol. Winter, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Stanford: Stanford University, 2012 ), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2012/entries/davidson/.

4 Donald Davidson, “What Metaphors Mean,” in On Metaphor, ed. Sheldon Sacks (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1979). 30.

5 Samuel C. Wheeler III, Deconstruction as Analytic Philosophy (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), 91.

6 Davidson, “What Metaphors Mean.”

7 This is reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s ‘duck-rabbit’, in Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963).Space precludes full discussion, however I would like to note that Wittgenstein could provide several bridges between Davidson and Nietzsche.

8 Davidson, “What Metaphors Mean.”

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Space limitations preclude a discussion of Davidson’s ‘Radical Translation’, which itself has some impact on metaphor interpretation.

12 Donald Davidson, “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme,” in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984).

13 “What Metaphors Mean,” 32.

14 Ibid.

15 “What Metaphors Mean.”

16 Ibid.

17 Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense,” in Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870s (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities P International, Inc., 1997).

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 Nietzsche: ‘On the Genealogy of Morality’ and Other Writings Student Edition, ed. Keith Ansell-Pearson, trans. Carol Diethe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), Essay 3, 12; p.87.

21 Nietzsche: ‘On the Genealogy of Morality’ and Other Writings Student Edition, ed. Keith Ansell-Pearson, trans. Carol Diethe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 87.

22 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Jacques Derrida, “Translators Preface,” in Of Grammatology (Baltimore, Maryland: JHU Press, 1998).

23 Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense.”

24 Ibid.

25 “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense,” 83.

26 Lawrence M. Hinman, “Nietzsche, Metaphor, and Truth,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 43, no. 2 (1982): 187, 88.

27 Davidson, “What Metaphors Mean.”

28 Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense.”

29 Radical Translation, triangulation, in Malpas, “Donald Davidson.”

30 Ibid.

31 Samuel C. Wheeler, “Language and Literature,” in Donald Davidson, ed. Kirk Ludwig (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 186.

32 Malpas, “Donald Davidson.”

33 Wheeler III, Deconstruction as Analytic Philosophy.

34 Ibid; see also Wheeler, “Language and Literature,” 186.

35 Donald Davidson, “The Folly of Trying to Define Truth,” The Journal of Philosophy 93, no. 6 (1996): 278.

36 Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense.”

37 Ibid.

38 Ibid.

39 Malpas, “Donald Davidson.” Space precludes full discussion of the implications of Radical Translation for this item.