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Category mistakes and figurative language

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Category mistakes are sentences such as ‘The number two is blue’ or ‘Green ideas sleep furiously’. Such sentences are highly infelicitous and thus a prominent view claims that they are meaningless. Category mistakes are also highly prevalent in figurative language. That is to say, it is very common for sentences which are used figuratively to be such that, if taken literally, they would constitute category mistakes. (Consider for example the metaphor ‘The poem is pregnant’, the metonymy ‘The White House decided to change its policy’, or a fictional use of ‘The tree was happy’.) In this paper I argue that the view that category mistakes are meaningless is inconsistent with many central and otherwise plausible theories of figurative language. Thus if the meaninglessness view is correct, the theories in question must each be rejected, and conversely, if any of the theories in question is correct, the meaninglessness view must be wrong. The debates concerning the semantics of figurative language and concerning the semantic status of category mistakes are closely connected.

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  1. For an extensive discussion of the topic of category mistakes see Magidor (2013).

  2. That is, assuming one attempts to read them literally (because of the infelicity of such attempted literal interpretations, category mistakes often invite non-literal—e.g. metaphorical or metonymical interpretations).

  3. For other contemporary endorsements of the view see Lyons (1995, p. 136), Steward (1997, p. 96), Shapiro (1997, p. 79), Diamond (2001), Givón (2001, p. 10), Hodges (2001, pp. 7–8), Sorensen (2001, p. 89), Fine (2003, pp. 207–208), Stern (2006, p. 252), Asher (2011, p. 5), Carnie (2011, p. 16) and Ludlow (2011, p. 65).

  4. I defend this conclusion in Magidor (2009) and Magidor (2013) ch.3. For further defence of this view see also Camp (2004). For someone who endorses the other horn of this dilemma see Stern (2006, pp. 252–253) who argues that both Davidsonian and Gricean views of metaphor should be rejected because they are inconsistent with the claim that category mistakes are meaningless. I argue in Sect. 2 below, though, that Stern’s account of metaphor is also ultimately inconsistent with the view.

  5. Davidson (1978). For a more recent defence of the view see Lepore and Stone (2010).

  6. Note that Davidson is quite explicit that he takes the literal meaning to play this role. For example, he says: “[Metaphor] is something brought off by the imaginative employment of words and sentences and depends entirely on the ordinary meanings of those words and hence on the ordinary meanings of the sentences they comprise” (Davidson 1978, p. 33). This interpretation is also endorsed by Lepore and Stone (2010) and Hills (2012). One could try to develop an alternative non-cognitivist view according to which the metaphorical effects are achieved directly via the literal meanings of the individual words in the metaphorical sentence, rather than through the literal meaning of the sentence as a whole. This, however, is far from straightforward since the grammatical structure of the sentence clearly matters to the meaning of the metaphor: ‘This man is a stone’ is not the same metaphor as ‘This stone is a man’. Moreover, is it not merely superficial aspects of the grammatical structure that play a role here, as is apparent from translating metaphors to languages with quite different syntactic structures than English.

  7. See Grice (1989, p. 34), Searle (1979), and Martinich (1984).

  8. For the terminology of primary and secondary meanings, see Recanati (2001).

  9. See Stern (2000) and Stern (2006).

  10. More precisely: “Mthat’ is an operator at the level of logical form which, when prefixed to a (literal) expression φ, yields a context-sensitive expression ‘Mthat[φ]’ whose tokens in each context c express a set of properties presupposed in c to be m(etaphorically)-associated with the expression φ” (Stern 2006, p. 262).

  11. See Stern (2006, pp. 250–252), where Stern raises the first and third arguments presented here, as well as other considerations.

  12. Of course, where speakers of different languages have different metaphorical associations, such translations are not always successful, but very often they are successful.

  13. On Stern’s view, this is achieved because the structured-character corresponding to the metaphor contains a structured-constituent corresponding to ‘Mthat(‘swallow’)’, which in turn allows for the expression ‘swallow’ and its semantic-value to continue playing a role in the metaphor (see Stern 2000, ch. 7).

  14. See Stern (2006, pp. 263–265).

  15. It is also worth highlighting the above considerations apply to complex phrases in the scope of ‘Mthat’ just as much as individual words. Thus, for example, in the same context the following two metaphors can receive very different interpretations: ‘The boy’s arrival was a clear cloud approaching a dark lake’ and ‘The boy’s arrival was a dark cloud approaching a clear lake’. This demonstrates that Mthat is sensitive not only to the meaning of the individual words in its scope (which are identical in both cases) but also the meaning of the phrases as a whole.

  16. To see why note, for example, that ‘Jane dropkicked the ball noisily, and Bob did so quietly’ is grammatical, but ‘Jane dropkicked the football noisily, and Bob did so the tennis ball’ is not.

  17. Bezuidenhout (2001) and Recanati (2001).

  18. While I will not argue for this here, I actually maintain that no plausible theory of metaphor is consistent with the meaninglessness view. Without going into detail, one can see how the considerations raised above might generalise: a plausible view of metaphor must on the one hand take into account the way metaphorical meanings depend not only on the literal meaning of the words in the metaphorical sentence, but also on that of more complex phrases. But once sufficiently complex phrases are admitted as meaningful, the road is paved for category mistakes to be meaningful as a whole (see also Magidor (2013), ch.3, §5).

  19. See Recanati (2004).

  20. Stern sketches precisely this kind of account in Stern (2000, p. 237) and Stern (2006, pp. 269–272).

  21. Recanati explicitly makes this assumption—the above quote from Recanti (2004, p. 28) applies to all cases of “enrichment, loosening, and transfer” (ibid, p. 27), not just to metaphor. For Stern, this claim is heavily implied from his discussion. For one thing, note that at least some of the arguments presented above for why metaphorical meaning must depend on literal meanings apply equally in the case of metonymy (after all, one cannot understand a metonymy without understanding the literal meanings of the words in it, and one can standardly translate metonymies into other languages by providing a literal translation). Second, in the case of metonymy, the issue which troubled Stern concerning terms with the same character that nevertheless have different metaphorical associations (e.g. ‘Hesperus’ and ‘Phosphorus’) is less likely to arise. Finally, note that Stern (2006, n. 30) raises the question whether the metonymical operator applies to characters of the embedded expressions or their referents—indicating that he assumes they possess at least one of the two, and are thus not meaningless.

  22. Or at the very least the entire phrase ‘large impatient ham sandwich’.

  23. See Cinque (2010, §5.1).

  24. Of course in this particular example it is both the noun-phrase and the predicate which make the sentence into a category mistake, but in other cases the predicate does not play this role (e.g. ‘The large impatient ham sandwich is ugly’).

  25. See Thomasson (2009) for a helpful discussion of these different issues.

  26. Of course, the above example mentions a fictional proper name, but it does not use it.

  27. An instance of the simple view is the second interpretation of Walton’s pretence theory suggested in Friend (2007, p. 144).

  28. For more on the issues of translation and synonymy amongst meaninglessness sentences see Magidor (2013), ch.5, §3.

  29. For the classic defence of the operator view see Lewis (1978).

  30. Magidor (2013, pp. 59–66).

  31. Cf. Salmon (1998, p. 297), Thomasson (2003, p. 211), and Friend (2007, p. 143) who raise the related worry that if an object-fictional sentence φ fails to express a proposition, then so does the embedded use ‘According to the fiction, φ’.

  32. Cf. Salmon (1998, pp. 297–298, p. 303), who makes the point that the meaningfulness of object-fictional sentences is required for the truth of such meta-fictional sentences.

  33. See e.g. Searle (1975), van Inwagen (1977), Salmon (1998), and Thomasson (1999).

  34. See Thomasson (2003, pp. 210–214) for arguments for and against the claim.

  35. For defences of the package which maintains that uses of ‘Holmes’ in both internal and external discourse refer to the fictional character and also adopts the operator view for internal and fictionalising discourse, see Salmon (1998), and Thomasson (1999, ch. 7).

  36. A somewhat weaker view than the meaninglessness view is one that maintains that category mistakes are meaningful but fail to have a content or express a proposition (see Magidor (2013, ch. 4)). It is worth noting that at least some of the accounts of figurative language I consider in this paper are also inconsistent with this weaker view of category mistakes (call it ‘the contentlessness view’). For example, the Gricean view of metaphor or metonymy assumes that the relevant implicatures are generated via ‘what is said’ or the literal content of the sentence – thus implying that the sentence has such a content. And in so far as the operator view of fictional discourse is interpreted so that the fiction-operator is a propositional operator (or else a sentential operator which takes into account the content of the sentence in question), this view is also inconsistent with the contentlessness view of category mistakes. The contentlessness view is also likely to run into problems in the context of other accounts, once we consider we consider figurative language involving indexicals (e.g. ‘He is a pig’ understood metaphorically), but I will not pursue this line here.


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I am grateful to audiences in London, Bristol, and University of Sussex, as well as to Cian Dorr, Paul Elbourne, Guy Longworth, Beau Madison Mount, Daniel Rothschild, and the anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and suggestions.

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Correspondence to Ofra Magidor.

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Magidor, O. Category mistakes and figurative language. Philos Stud 174, 65–78 (2017).

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