“Ricoeur on Metaphor and Ideology.” Darshana International 32, n1 (January 1992): 59-70.
William C. Gay
Ricoeur on Metaphor and Ideology
“Metaphor has the extraordinary power of redescribing reality”
“Ideology is an unsurpassable phenomenon of social existence”
Language is one of the givens in our lives. In this regard, Paul Ricoeur notes “the impossibility of reaching a social reality prior to symbolization.” Nevertheless, despite the ways in which our native language structures our initial ways of describing the world, linguists and philosophers of language have offered various accounts of how language changes and arguments concerning whether such changes are creative. Less frequently addressed are questions about how to assess the perceptual implications of these linguistic innovations.
Using insights of Ricoeur and, to a lesser extent, M. Merleau-Ponty and V. N. Volosinov, I will provide a model for evaluating a certain class of linguistic innovations, namely, new uses of language which rely upon distortion of typical perceptual associations. (Excluded from such new linguistic uses are, for example, analogical innovations, as presented by Saussure.) As my title suggests, I will relate two superficially dissimilar products of language, i.e., metaphor and ideology. I will argue that metaphor and ideology need to be considered jointly (comparatively) to understand linguistic creativity, because--despite their differences--they mutually rely (at their inception) on atypical, even excessive, distortion of the way words shape perception of and reflection on ‘reality.’
My basic thesis is that, in language, the processes of creativity and distortion are interrelated. However, the conclusion I will reach is one which proposes a distinction between and criterion for ‘positive’ changes (which I term ‘creative distortions’) and ‘negative’ changes (which I term ‘distortive creations’). Nevertheless, I do not associate ‘creative distortions’ exclusively with metaphors and ‘distortive creations’ exclusively with ideologies. For metaphor and ideology, I relate ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ to how practical activity is facilitated, using a criterion of expansion or enrichment versus contraction or impoverishment of the semiotic-perceptual field. Hence, throughout, even when I make distinctions, I will stress how metaphor and ideology are similar, not how they are different.
Textually, the model I will present results from my effort to relate Ricoeur’s views on metaphor and ideology, epitomized in my opening quotations from him, and to address the tension between metaphor and ideology that is implicit in his work. For this latter purpose, within continental approaches to the philosophy of language, I will utilize work done within both phenomenology and Marxism. In senses that I will clarify, much phenomenological literature endeavors to account for and encourage ‘creative distortions’ and much Marxist literature endeavors to account for and eliminate ‘distortive creations.’ I wish to address the hiatus between the stress by some phenomenologists on the autonomous subject and authentic speech and the stress by some Marxists on false consciousness and ideology critique. Generally, I will challenge overemphasis on either authentic or distorted communication. In order to avoid lengthy and tedious documentation for my model, I will provide an allegory. My allegory is about metaphor and ideology in particular and language in general.
II. Corridor of Glass
Imagine that people cannot go outdoors. At best, they pass from building to building through corridors lined with sections of highly, though obviously not perfectly, polished glass. (If such seems hard to conceive on Earth, project a space station on, say, Titan.) Lest this image suggest Kantian ‘rose colored glasses,’ let me mention now that my glass corridor is not isomorphic with the forms of sensibility or the categories of understanding. Rather, in this thought experiment, stress will be on exception, not rule.
Suppose the outside terrain remains constant but overnight one of the panels in one of the corridors is replaced by one which has a slight bulge at the eye-level of some inhabitants. Some will walk right by it and never notice the bulge. By chance, some will. How can they? Probably, detection will be a function, not of direct examination of the glass, but of indirect evidence arising from altered perception of the terrain. Almost anyone who looks at the landscape through the bulge in the panel of glass will discover that in passing from the preceding or to the succeeding panel a change of focus occurs such that the view through the anomalous panel likely will be designated, at least initially, as ‘out of focus.’ Nevertheless, beyond drawing attention to the odd panel of glass, the experience may have repercussions for understanding the landscape as well. One viewer may remark poignantly, though not necessarily truthfully, how she has never really paid much attention to, say, the rock formation visible at that spot along the corridor. She might judge or present the ‘distorted’ (anomalous) view as more ‘useful’ (for some purpose) than the ‘non-distorted’ (typical) view of the formation. The social implications of a successful campaign to alter public designations of ‘distortion’ and ‘non-distortion’ are obvious, as well as the potential for scoffing, applauding, or fighting.
Some philosophers in the community might argue that uncertainty surrounds judgment concerning which glass panels afford the best view of the landscape precisely because in their community the inhabitants have no way to compare a view of the landscape itself with alternate views of the landscape through differently polished glass panels. However, although final ‘resolution’ may be precluded for subtle epistemological or, better, environmental reasons the inhabitants may require for practical purposes a workable method for demarcation. Even if some real and irresolvable disputes remain concerning the status of some ‘gray area’ panels, some real disputes concerning relatively ‘transparent’ and ‘opaque’ panels are soluble. Just as triangulation can establish a relatively accurate fix on an object’s location, some perceptual criteria can be utilized to get a practical assessment on relative accentuation or attenuation of distortion. For example, if you cannot make out the object through a particular panel or if one panel offers inferior capacity for resolution of the object’s details, then ‘designation’ of such panels as ‘distorted’ is appropriate.
For the philosophers, who prefer concession to the fact that noumena or, in this case, objects beyond the glass cannot be grasped, one could concede that all of the glass panels are distorted but that, demonstrably, some are unacceptably so for practical purposes. Moreover, since final resolution is precluded, experimentation with new panels always entails the empirical possibility that--given a new focus--a decision may be reached that certain innovative panels are not as distorted, for practical purposes, as other existing panels. Perhaps, one could propose that such perceptually expanding or refining panels are ‘positive’ distortions relative to the eclipsed ones. When some glass makers produce occasional, or even regularly, highly positive panels, the community may praise them for their creativity. However, when other glass makers (or the same glass makers, for that matter) produce on occasion, or even regularly, highly negative panels, the community may criticize them for their distortiveness. The philosophers, musing over the inaccuracy inherent to both designations, could perhaps concede that in that community the distinction between creative distortions and distortive creations is not bogus.
III. Distinction Without A Difference
Much philosophical effort has been expended in making the rather obvious point that a one-to-one correspondence between words (signs) and things (reference) is neither actual nor practical. Despite common rejection of even the possibility of such correspondence, theories of reference typically do not imply that because strict similitude of or correlation between words and things is absent that ineradicable incommensurability of or disproportionality between words and things is present. To affirm the latter is to abandon the quest for any instances of referentially transparent and unambiguous discourse. Because at least this quest is necessary if any spheres for the application of linguistic positivism are to be prescribed, some look for instances of such discourse and assume that, otherwise, we would have a “distinction without a difference.” In other words, talk of distorted communication presumably makes sense only if non-distorted communication is also actual or, at least, possible. One point of my allegory is to call into question this philosophical view. In this section I will note how Ricoeur, like Merleau-Ponty and Volosinov, sees all language as distortive, but, unlike either, provides the foundation for a view which avoids making a vacuous contrast between distorted and non-distorted communication.
In the phenomenological tradition, Merleau-Ponty argued quite early that language is unalterably and ubiquitously allusive and implied that creative language is intentionally distortive. He even went so far as to correlate such linguistic creativity with authentic language. Hereby, he, along with Heidegger and others, initiated what I judge to be the over-emphasis within much phenomenology on creative speech as authentic. When taken in isolation, some of Ricoeur’s work, especially his remarks on metaphor, can be viewed as falling victim to the same error.
First, I need to sketch the phenomenological view of language as distortive and of creative speech as authentic. For Merleau-Ponty and Ricoeur, at any moment chosen, a given lexicon establishes set oppositions which function as a totality. Since “the learned parts of a language have an immediate value as a whole,” a speaker moves from one ‘whole’ to another ‘whole’ (each a temporarily ‘closed’ totality) with the expression of new oppositions. Hence, acquisition is a process of internal division of a whole into further differences that are articulated in terms of more specific oppositions. This fact makes complete adequation between words and things unrealizable. Because internal division can in principle progress ad infinitum, Merleau-Ponty claims “the genesis of meaning is never completed.” Moreover, he maintains that “all language is indirect or allusive--that it’s, if you wish, silence.” Conversely, complete expression (direct and fully adequate signification) would be possible only if a specific language at a particular synchronic moment ‘captures’ things themselves in its forms. If expression were transparent, we would see through the glass of language clearly rather than dimly.
In contradistinction to the positivist ideal, Merleau-Ponty contends that expression requires distortion because it is “an operation of language upon language which suddenly is thrown out of focus towards its meaning.” Herein lies the prospect for linguistic creativity in which Merleau-Ponty is interested. If language per se is allusive and if expression depends on using signs against signs, then no standards for transparency exist which preclude the possibility that experimentation with how signs are opposed might better convey the meaning one intends to express. To speak or to write places a panel of glass before one’s audience providing an invitation to perceive in terms of its idiosyncratic focus. Sometimes, when previous perception is jolted rather strongly by new combinations of signs, creative distortions result; we see things in an altered light, from a different angle, in a ‘new sense.’ Implicitly realizing the inadequacy of words to things, we often applaud the subtle nuance that even blatant distortions sometimes facilitate. We accept this practice in poetry; in fact, we employ metaphor across the board. But theories of linguistic creativity too easily assume that such innovations are in toto authentic, enriching creations, albeit distortive like all the rest. In this regard Merleau-Ponty, in distinguishing language (la langue) from speaking (la parole), designates the former as “empirical language” and the latter as “creative language” or the “speech of authentic language.”
Ricoeur’s extensive writings on metaphor can be interpreted as an elaboration on Merleau-Ponty’s view of language and creativity. Rejecting any exact knowledge of or adequate language for ‘things in themselves’ or ‘reality,’ Ricoeur still views metaphor as one of our best vehicles for enriching our expression and perception. Although he focuses on how metaphor redescribes reality, he stresses that its role is more hermeneutic than ontological, i.e., metaphor interprets, not makes, reality. The creative function of metaphor pertains to its impact on changing our perception. As Ricoeur says, the purpose of metaphor “is neither to improve communication nor to insure univocal argumentation, but to shatter and to increase our sense of reality by shattering and increasing our language.” A new metaphor is like a new, distortive panel of glass in the corridor of language which alters how we focus on the landscape that it frames. At various points, Ricoeur even hints at how metaphor can convey an entire Weltanschauung, viewing metaphor as a work in miniature.
Like Merleau-Ponty, Ricoeur sees indirect and polysemic language not only as ‘always already there’ for speakers but also as an ineluctable mediator of social reality. He states:
If it is true that images which a social group forms of itself are interpretations which belong immediately to the constitution of the social bond, if, in other words, the social bond is itself symbolic, then it is absolutely futile to seek to derive the images from something prior which would be reality, real activity, the process of real life, of which there would be secondary reflections and echoes.
Interestingly, Ricoeur makes this point while discussing ideology, not symbol or metaphor. Moreover, the preceding quote is followed by the statement (part of which I cited earlier) that, “A non-ideological discourse on ideology here comes up against the impossibility of reaching a social reality prior to symbolization.” Social reality, as ‘always already’ symbolized, is mediated not only by polysemic language but also through ideologically-charged discourse. It is the classic view of Marxism’s ideology critique that to the extent that class bias permeates language distorted communication results. Ricoeur, of course, concedes the link between the image a social group forms of itself and the class bias of that social group. This concession, along with the preceding quote, would seem to imply that not only is language allusive but also it is ideological. Moreover, while this view of the ideological character of langauge avoids a naive equation of creative speech with authentic speech, it throws the polysemic character of language into a different light and introduces a tension between what Ricoeur says about metaphor and ideology.
For Ricoeur, both metaphor and ideology exploit polysemy, although (to my knowledge) he makes these points separately and does not pursue their joint effect for his theory of creativity. Elsewhere, I have addressed how Ricoeur presents metaphorical exploitation of polysemy as the heart of linguistic creativity. Here, I wish to claim that a similar exploitation of polysemy occurs in ideology. A social group creates an image for itself (and of others); its perception is molded, in part, by this linguistic creation with its inherent distortions. Since all language is socially generated and because society is composed of social classes, creative speech may appear to take on the lamentable character of distorted communication rather than any lofty status of authenticity. Is linguistic change initiated for vested class interest? In recognizing that identification of creative speech with authentic speech is wrong-headed are we led to view creative speech as so distorted and biased that authentic speech becomes a distinction without a difference?
Ricoeur’s view, unlike some Marxist’s, seems to deny that a non-ideological discourse--at least on social reality--is possible. Of course, one can experiment with ideologies and the various foci they facilitate. (In several places, Ricoeur seems to do so himself.) Hence, it would seem that ideology, like metaphor, can be compared to distortive glass panels. Moreover, just as Ricoeur tends to view all sedimented language as a product of metaphorical expansion of polysemy, even so he tends to view it as a product of ideological expansion of polysemy as well. These considerations could lead one to ask whether metaphor and ideology (instead of authenticity) are to be equated.
At this point and in order to set the stage for resolving the tension in Ricoeur’s view, I will introduce briefly the similar, but much more elaborated, view of ideology taken earlier this century by the Soviet philosopher, V. N. Volosinov. Whereas Merleau-Ponty claims all language is allusive, Volosinov argues that semiology is ideology. Building on his claim that “the domain of ideology coincides with the domain of signs,” Volosinov proceeds to correlate the social generation of signs with class struggles. The creative and exploitative import of language at this level is obvious. For Volosinov:
the word is the most sensitive index of social changes, and what is more, of changes still in the process of growth, still without definitive shape and not as yet accommodated into already regularized and fully defined ideological systems.
Volosinov notes how, after social struggle, such new signs lose their force. Like dead metaphors, they no longer excite us as they did originally. (Ricoeur, speaking of ideology--in a passage that sounds like what he might say about metaphor--contends it continues “to be mobilizing only insofar as it is justificatory.”)
The problem encountered with this view of ideology, as was encountered with the correlation of creative speech with authentic speech, is how distinctions are to be made within an apparently undifferentiated medium. One route is to abandon the equation of semiotic and ideological domains and to re-vitalize the quest for instances of non-distorted communication.
Implicitly, Pantelis Nicolacopoulos takes the route which searches for non-distorted communication when he insists, contra Volosinov, that ideology is only a subdivision of semiology. Nevertheless, apart from the shortcomings of such a response to Volosinov, Nicolacopoulos does introduce a notion (following Pierce) which can ground the type of response Ricoeur makes from within the equation of semiology and ideology. As Nicolacopoulos observes, Volosinov’s method lacks the notion of an interpretant. By including the role of an interpretant, one does not confuse meaning and reference. Instead of hunting the object (physical, material) to which signs refer and assessing their correspondence to it, we can address what they mean. For example, in an article which uses Merleau-Ponty to clarify Volosinov, Gerald Carruba observes, “Various classes will use one and the same set of signs...but each may well have its own interpretations of it.” Refining the Wittgenstein view that meaning pertains to use, one can specify and analyze how and with what result various classes use language.
Volosinov, in stressing the “social multiaccentuality” of words, notes:
The ruling class strives to impart a supraclass, eternal character to the ideological sign, to extinguish or drive inward the struggle between social value judgments which occurs in it, to make the sign uniaccentual. ... In actual fact, each living ideological sign has two faces, like Janus. Any current curse word can become a word of praise, any current truth must inevitably sound to many other people as the greatest lie. This inner dialectic quality of the sign comes out fully in the open only in times of social crises or revolutionary changes.
Ricoeur, in order to approach interpretation of such signs, turns to Mannheim and claims, regarding detection of class bias in discourse, “What was a weapon of the proletariat becomes a method of research aiming to bring to light the social conditioning of all thought.” Within this framework it is possible to concede at the outset how any discourse is socially conditioned (i.e., has an ideological charge) and to proceed, after so interpreting and understanding it, to assess the implications of the focus it facilitates. While all language (semiology) may be biased (ideology), the distinction between creative distortions (authentic use of polysemic exploitation) and distortive creations (inauthentic abuse of polysemic exploitation) need not be a “distinction without a difference.”
Once one sees semiology as ideology, the temptation arises to equate ideology with domination. As Ricoeur notes when he considers the debate between Hermeneutics and Critical Theory, advocates of ideology critique often view tradition as “merely the systematically distorted expression of communication under unacknowledged conditions of violence.” Of course, Marxists from Volosinov to Habermas would agree; they could even be correct. (In this regard, some intriguing work has been done, especially by F. Rossi-Landi, to correlate linguistic and socio-economic domination.)
Ricoeur makes a similar point when, in a very different context, he addresses the relation of Science and Ideology. In trying to salvage a notion of the distinctiveness of scientific discourse, despite its concomitant distortiveness (i.e., its status as ideology), Ricoeur observes “If it is taken for granted that ideology is a function of domination, then it is assumed uncritically that ideology is an essentially negative phenomenon.” From an axiological perspective (albeit an ideological one as well), one could designate as ‘negative’ the ideology of the oppressors and as ‘positive’ the ideology of the oppressed.
Ricoeur, however, admits the limit of any attempts at fully resolving the conflict of interpretations, the struggle of ideologies, the battle of myths. He presents the necessary, yet unrealizable, criterion for linguistic positivism: “to measure distortions against reality, it is necessary to know social reality in its entirety.” Because social reality is already symbolized, because polysemy cannot be eliminated, “it follows that the critique of ideology is a task which must always be begun, but which in principle can never be completed.” (The generation of neither meaning nor truth is ever completed.) Nevertheless, at a practical level, ideology critique can utilize a metaphorical approach that provides perceptual, rather than strictly factual, criteria for assessing linguistic distortions. I will end by illustrating this point.
Phrases such as a “window of vulnerability,” when used by U.S. officials, were often intended as a way of molding the public’s perception of the former Soviet Union’s strategic possibilities and, consequently, the public’s reception of the government’s response to these purported possibilities. Metaphor sets thinking in motion, but in non-’factual’ ways. If one perceives a window of vulnerability, one tends, by analogical linguistic reflection, to think of closing the window, because, otherwise, we are exposed to surreptitious entry. A ‘sneak attack’ by the Soviets was thereby conceived like a potential thief in the night who could break and enter our home easily because we had not secure all the doors and windows: an open window is an open invitation to those who have been waiting for their chance to sting. Very little factual information is required to support this perception. The image is clear. The metaphor works. It is very creative. Of course, it is also distortive. Nevertheless, is it a creative distortion, a vehicle for expanding/enriching our perceptual horizon, or is it a distortive creation, a vehicle for contracting/impoverishing our perceptual horizon?
All along strategists and technicians have been able calculate the numbers, throwweight, accuracy and distribution of nuclear missiles across land-, sea- and air-based systems. This approach, however, requires the presentation of many technical matters and is often greeted with skepticism, after all is said and done, concerning the reliability of the information. Other approaches are open to one who wishes to challenge this image. One can, in cases of this sort, juxtapose another metaphor and generate a different line of analogical linguistic reflection. One can ask, “Why should we be overly concerned about a ‘window of vulnerability’ when we live in a ‘house without a roof’?” If no nation can adequately defend itself from in-coming missiles, then to be overly concerned about sneak entry through an open window is to be insufficiently cognizant about our radical vulnerability, as ‘roofless’--whether ruthless--nations. This perception does not close any window, but it does put the metaphor and reality into a different perspective; it generates an alternate focus which, practically, prompts a different response.
To conclude, I will apply the distinctions I have been making to the contrasting phrases “window of vulnerability” and “house without a roof.” First, both phrases are metaphors. Second, both phrases, at least in Ricoeur’s sense, are ideological. Third, both are creative. Fourth, both are distortive, at least in the senses that they are selective and interpretive. I venture that these points can be made about metaphor and ideology generally. Hence, I caution against overstress on metaphor as creative and, thereby, authentic or on ideology as distortive and, thereby, negative. A theory of linguistic creativity which includes a comparative analysis of metaphor and ideology can avoid these pitfalls. Moreover, viewing a metaphor or an ideology as a ‘panel of glass’ allows, as well, for comparison of their impact on perception, i.e., on their differing affects on our focus. On practical grounds, I would affirm that language is like a corridor of glass panels but deny that the designation of creative distortions and distortive creations represents a “distinction without a difference.”
 Paul Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, ed., trans. and intro. by John B. Thompson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 237.
 Cf. my survey of trends in “Analogy and Metaphor: Two Models of Linguistic Creativity,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 7 (1980), pp. 299-317.
 For an interesting exception within analytic philosophy, see Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1978).
 The former is from The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work, ed. by Charles E. Reagan and David Stewart (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), p. 132. The latter is from Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, p. 231.
 For Ricoeur, see, especially, The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language, trans. by Robert Czerny et al. (Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1975) and The Conflict of Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics, ed. by Don Ihde (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1974).
 Cf. Ricoeur, The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur, p. 125. Within the analytic tradition, Wittgenstein’s later work, Philosophical Investigations, also makes this argument in a classic way.
 The methodological guard against this situation is often termed the “principle of nonvacuous contrast,” i.e., the requirement that a genuine predicate can never refer to either everything or nothing within its ‘universe of discourse.’ On this principle, see William Dray, Philosophy of History (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964), p. 29.
 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Signs, trans. by Richard C. McCleary (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), pp. 39-40.
 Ibid., pp. 41-42.
 Ibid., p. 43.
 Ibid, p. 44.
 Ricoeur, The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur, pp. 132-133.
 Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, pp. 166-171.
 Ibid., p. 237.
 “Analogy and Metaphor,” pp. 308-311.
 Beyond The Conflict of Interpretations, cf. his classic The Symbolism of Evil, trans. by Emerson Buchanan (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967).
 V. N. Volosinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (New York: Seminar Press, 1973). According to David Zilberman, V. N. Volosinov is a pseudonym for M. M. Bakhtin (Baxtin). Apparently, Volosinov let Bakhtin, who was being persecuted by the Soviet state, use his name.
 Ibid., p. 10.
 Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and The Human Sciences, p. 225.
 Panteleimon Demetriou Nicolacopoulos, Towards a Theory of the Semiological Interpretation of Ideology: A Contribution to Historical Epistemology, an unpublished doctoral dissertation (Brandeis University, May 1979), pp. 162-3.
 Ibid., p. 170.
 Gerald J. Carruba, “Some Phenomenological Aspects of a Marxist Philosophy of Language,” Kinesis 6 (Spring, 1974), pp. 95-111.
 Volosinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, p. 23.
 Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, p. 240.
 Ibid., p. 64.
 Cf., Ferruccio Rossi-Landi, Linguistics and Economics (The Hague: Mouton, 1977).
 Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, p. 223.
 Cf. the axiology of Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), pp. 27-28.
 Ricoeur, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, p. 242.
 bid., p. 245.
 I have addressed these approaches elsewhere. Cf. William Gay and Michael Pearson, The Nuclear Arms Race (Chicago: The American Library Association, 1987).
 For two further approaches beyond the one sketched here, cf. my essays “Nuclear Discourse and Linguistic Alienation,” Journal of Social Philosophy 18, n2 (Summer 1987), pp. 42-49 and “Star Wars and The Language of Defense,” in Just War, Nonviolence and Nuclear Deterrence , ed. by Duane L. Cady and Richard Werner (Wakefield, NH: Longwood Academic, 1991), pp. 245-264.