Culture Magazine

Poetry, Science, and Felicity Conditions

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
I’ve just been looking at Margaret Freeman’s recent paper, The Role of Metaphor in Poetic Iconicity (downloadable PDF). No sooner had I read the intro than I had a thought, a little thought to be sure, but a thought nonetheless.
Here’s the first paragraph of Freeman’s introduction:
Contemporary theories of metaphor present a challenge to literary scholars, like Cleanth Brooks, who believed that it was metaphor that differentiates poetry from prose (Brooks 1965 [1939]). Once the almost exclusive province of literature, metaphor has become a legitimate province of linguistics (Lakoff and Johnson 1980, 1999, Kövecses 1986, Fauconnier and Turner 2002). If the same cognitive metaphors can be shown to structure both literary and everyday language, then wherein does the difference lie? If there is a difference, is it linguistic or conceptual? A matter of kind or degree? Of entrenchment or innovation? A function of communicative (commercial) discourse or expressive (aesthetic) utterance? Or is it the case that all these questions miss the mark, that to understand poetic metaphor, one needs to probe more deeply into the nature of poetry itself?
My thought concerns a more restricted version of her question, poetry vs. prose. The question arises, as Freeman points out, because metaphor is fundamental to both camps. If the camps are different – and they ARE – metaphor alone will not tell us what that difference is.
The two camps I’m thinking about are literature (and the arts in general) and science – shades of the old Two Cultures Brouhaha! Literature, prose as well as poetry, is pervaded by metaphor. So is science.
Think of a cathedral – my current all-purpose metaphor. We have the materials, blocks of stone, the wooden beams, frames, and doors, the pieces of colored glass, the lead binders, and so forth. But we also have the overall design and methods of construction. Without the latter, the former are just a pile of high-class junk.
Well, metaphor, I’m afraid, is a building material. And one can build all sorts of discourses using metaphors. The crucial difference between scientific and literary discourse is in what Bruno Latour calls the “felicity conditions” (a notion he has from ordinary language philosophy) of their social circulation and acceptance. Freeman alludes to such conditions when she asks: “A function of communicative (commercial) discourse or expressive (aesthetic) utterance?”
While we can attempt to state what these felicity conditions are – much of the philosophy of science is a search for the felicity conditions of science – what we really need to understand are the social processes involved. How are these discourses used? What social institutions are organized around them?

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