A Review in TLS

A review by Freya Johnston in The Times Literary Supplement.


You may or may not be able to hear the “harrumph” through the paywall. Still, I like the following judgment: “The author’s proposed distinctions and definitions are forever on the verge of evaporating, or of being retracted.”

Reviews of “Metaphors of Mind, An Eighteenth-Century Dictionary”


I have been very fortunate in responses and in my reviewers—and have been happily paired with Sean Silver in three of the essays below. Many thanks to all for reading carefully and critically:

  • Rosalind Powell, reviewing for The British Society for Literature and Science (January 2016). Link.
  • Jack Lynch for Choice 53:6 (February 2016). doi: 10.5860/CHOICE.193583
  • Tina Lupton, “The Searcher of Patterns and the Keeper of Things” LARB (March 5, 2016). Link.
  • Sayre Greenfield, reviewing for Modern Philology (August 2016). Link.
  • Jess Keiser, reviewing for Eighteenth Century Studies 49:4 (Summer 2016). Link.
  • Jenny Davidson, “Recent Studies in the Restoration and Eighteenth Century,“ Studies in English Literature (Summer 2016). Link.

Brain Tumor

The doctor says, “The tumor is just like the brain here, that’s the problem.”

I draw this diagnosis from last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose ongoing literary project opposes “monumental aesthetics” with ordinary-language sensibilities, reports on “The Terrible Beauty of Brain Surgery” in Albania. At New Republic, Alex Shepard assesses the essay as “peak Knausgaard.” And because I’ve been indexing Knausgaard’s metaphors, I will set down a short consideration here.

In reading I responded to the dualisms organizing the magazine piece. They reflect the mind-body problem (brain and tumor, “that’s the problem”). Among other contrasts: life and death, subject and object, doctor and patient, Soviet and post-Soviet. Knausgaard would resolve the tensions by mediating them.

For thirteen pages Knausgaard instructs the reader in the greatness1 of Henry Marsh, the neurosurgeon profiled. Marsh will not let his profession and its institutions render his patients small, faceless. The doctor is commended, in the closing pages of the essay, for meeting with the family of an infant he had operated on. He admits to the parents a fatal mistake and cries with them.

The basic formal dichotomy of the author and his subject stands out among the effected contrasts. We are invited to take one as the type of the other and close a gap.

The surgeon cuts into the brain, cutting out part of the brain that is not part of the brain. That is the handiwork. Compare the extraction of anecdote from experience. Compare the excision of metaphors from prose. The difficulty of knowing where to cut.

Mistakes are made. The knife’s edge locates a person’s body that is yet abstract and only part of a system. Figures are left behind, marked in the text. Writes Knausgaard, memorably, in My Struggle, “I took the biggest shard I could find and started cutting my face … I wiped away the blood with a towel. Kept cutting.”

In the Albanian operating room, Knausgaard looks through a microscope at the brain’s landscape and startles at the distance between figure and ground: “I struggled to unite the two perspectives; it felt as if I were on two different levels of reality at the same time, as when I walked in my sleep, and dream and reality struggled for ascendancy.”

Knausgaard’s dichotomies are given political tone in reflections on what’s wrong with our world and what is “the truth” (his word, favored at the end). Knausgaard expresses opposition to any “veneration of the collective” even as he registers his attraction to the totalities imagined in the communist era. The self-images of Soviet Albania are “full of joy and hope … Everything was clear, pure, simple and forceful” (52). Knausgaard’s caricatures of collectivity are, too, a problem. Solidarity must unite competing perspectives and make common cause.

It is as if, in representing familiar pain, the artist cannot join with the grieving family and remain an artist. Living at a distance, he comes to suffer acutely from nostalgia, a kind of “social disease.”2 Writing exacerbates the condition. In the second volume of My Struggle, Knausgaard contrasts the empathy that annihilates him in social situations with the lonely self-fulfillment of writing: “The life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own. I tried to make it mine, this was my struggle.”

I find little self-solace in the alienation of writing. In the strong identifications reading affords, perhaps, there is what Knausgaard calls “lonely self-fulfillment,” but what satisfaction I take in writing results from looking over a sentence I have written and feeling that it must have been composed by another, an author.


1. “His greatness was that he didn’t hide the smallness but instead used his insight into it to fight against everything that concealed it, the institutionalization of hospitals, the dehumanization of patients, all the rituals established by the medical profession to create distance and to turn the body into something abstract, general, a part of a system.” Karl Ove Knausgaard, “The Terrible Beauty of Brain Surgery,” New York Times Magazine (December 30, 2015). Link to NYTimes.com.

2. Susan Stewart, On Longing (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1984), 23.

The 10,000

This morning I added to the database what, by my best count, looks to be the ten-thousandth metaphor. The occasion is (wearily) observed here.

The metaphor was found in David Hume’s Natural History of Religion, a text I was looking at again while proofing a revision of my book manuscript.

Hume writes,

Since, therefore, the mind of man appears of so loose and unsteddy a contexture, that, even at present, when so many persons find an interest in continually employing on it the chissel and the hammer, yet are they not able to engrave theological tenets with any lasting impression; how much more must this have been the case in antient times, when the retainers to the holy function were so much fewer in comparison? (84)

Hume reworks the metaphorics of engraving, which figure importantly in devotional writing.

Contexture, conjuncture,
Hammer and chisel, hammer and tongs…

More here: http://metaphors.lib.virginia.edu/metaphors/19903


Look up “lexicographer” in Johnson’s Dictionary or “Encyclopedia” in the Encyclopédie. Look into the Aleph. “What’s another word for ‘thesaurus’?”

In the first volume of her British Synonymy (1794), Hester Lynch Piozzi, née Thrale, takes up the pairing “IDENTITY and SAMENESS.” Again, we feel we are at the hub or heart of the matter, the core, the center. The two headwords, she explains, “would be nearly synonymous in conversation” only that as “the first is a word pregnant with metaphysical controversy, we avoid it in common daily use, or at best take it up merely as a stronger expression of unchangeable SAMENESS” (295).

The metaphysical controversy alluded to first appears in Locke’s Essay.1 The pregnancy must be laid at his door. Personal identity is an eighteenth-century problem. To paraphrase Piozzi: identity and sameness would be nearly the same, nearly identical, in meaning, were it not for metaphysical controversy.

Sameness is as Sameness does. What then of identity? Is it not the same? In Piozzi I hear Paul de Man’s “repetitive stutter of tautology” (16). We are at the edge or verge of something: synonym as limit case.

Piozzi collects synonyms and, in that sense, pursues synonymy, the study of synonyms. Hers is, as advertised, a British synonymy, one composed for “Foreign Friends” and published at the height of The Terror. Revolutionary politics promise radical equality. Citizens are treated all the same before the law.

Anti-Jacobin Piozzi would preserve distinctions and patrols the borders of English. And so Piozzi does more than alphabetize terms: synonymy is the rhetorical figure by which synonyms are used for the sake of amplification. It is her avowed purpose to “rescue that pleasing rhetorical figure from the imputation of tautology” (vii). She turns up the volume, increasing the distance between the same and the identical as she increases the distance between French and British, between philosopher and patriot.

British Synonymy is a reactionary project. She throws Hume and Lovelace together in the entry on “IDENTITY and SAMENESS.” The philosopher and the fiction, the skeptic and the libertine, are rakish twins. First she cites Richardson, “Mowbray and Tourville with their everlasting IDENTITY are complained of by Lovelace in his anxious agony of mind” (295).2 Piozzi then imagines David Hume reading Clarissa. Hume, notes Piozzi, would correct Lovelace’s usage. The resemblance of Mowbray and Tourville is “no proof of IDENTITY, however it might give a SAMENESS of their character” (295).

Piozzi’s entries are relentlessly moral and political. The sameness of character that comprehends the rakes Mowbray, Tourville, and Lovelace is attributed to Hume as well. The skeptic, she warns, is best despised; “some of them may possibly have a real interest in considering their existence to be dubious, that escape may be effected from accounting for its errors and crimes” (296). Lead us not into sameness, but deliver us through synonymy.

Like Samuel Johnson, Piozzi knows that close work with words is more than “harmless drudgery.” Like the ordinary language philosopher J. L. Austin worrying the difference between nearly allied terms, Piozzi resituates inquiry in the disappearing space between two synonyms. For all the harmlessness and humility rehearsed in the opening pages of British Synonymy, the study of synonymy is promoted as first philosophy.

The short entry on identity and sameness closes by reversing its headwords: “We should therefore be aware of these scepticks, and as little possible I think dip into their books; from whence little amusement or instruction can be derived, but much SAMENESS, particularly in their discourse upon IDENTITY” (296).

Piozzi’s dismissal of metaphysics is punctuated by the subsequent heading, “IDIOTISM, FOLLY, SIMPLICITY, FATUITY.”


1 In 1694 Locke added a new chapter, “Of Identity and Diversity,” to the second edition of the Essay.

2 See Letter 372 (VI.78). At M. Hall, Lovelace imagines having a “young Lovelace by such an angel” as Clarissa, but his tone soon changes (p. 1147). He is “Tired with Lord M.,” “tired with my cousins Montague,” “tired with Mowbray and Tourville, and their everlasting identity—tired with the country—tired of myself; longing for what I have not” (pp. 1150-1)

Furniture of the Mind

— for Jay Fliegelman

Standing about are pots, pulleys, lids, bottles of oil, and chairs. I conjure a room of the sort conjured for us in Tristram Shandy (III.xx). The room is a fiction, a perspicuous representation, every point and particle made up of sunbeams. It is a room that we might call, hewing here to Wittgenstein more than Sterne, a “visual room,” a room inhabited by no one in particular. It is not mine, not Tristram’s.

It is in this room that we discover the author seated in his cane chair. It is here we learn that wit and judgment, are like two knobs on a chair back, stuck in their gimlet holes. Here we consider the significance of mental furniture.

Wit and judgment. But “one cannot couple any two nouns at random and be sure to produce an effective metaphor,” so claims Max Black. He continues, “If the reader doubts this, let him try to make sense of ‘a chair is a syllogism’” (23).

The chair is a syllogism. Wit will try, in spite of judgment. But no, I suppose I don’t doubt Black’s claim. And the chair cannot be both an emblem of the faculties and a syllogism; — at least not the same chair. At least not in the same paragraph.

Sterne: “an illustration is no argument—nor do I maintain the wiping of a looking-glass clean, to be a syllogism” (III.xx). How then is a chair like a syllogism? — Like a raven to a writing desk? Is a chair finely made tragic or comic? What is needed is an example, by way of illustration.

Major premise: All men are mortal.
Minor premise: Socrates is a man.
Conclusion: Socrates is mortal.

This piece of text, just as Tristram Shandy, is haunted by mortality. Haunted like all text.

In his essay, “The Superannuated Man,” Charles Lamb complains, “I had grown to my desk, as it were; and the wood had entered into my soul.” Philosophy has its furnishings, and the philosophical are invested in furniture. Melancholic and sedentary, they sit and they think and they write to the moment.

Hume conjures a room in his Treatise:

The table is beyond the paper. The walls of the chamber beyond the table. And in casting my eye towards the window, I perceive a great extent of fields and buildings beyond my chamber … I lose sight of them by shutting my eyes or turning my head, I soon find them return upon me without the least alteration. My bed and table, my books and papers, present themselves in the same uniform manner, and change not upon account of any interruption in my seeing or perceiving them. (I.iv.2)

Interiority is the aspect of an interior. This page. This desk. This chair. These knobs. These books and papers. A glimpse of something outside. A room furnished by writing to this moment. Hume’s room is as much a fiction as Tristram’s. But that syllogism, it is something else. Inexorable. I can’t lose sight of it by shutting my eyes or turning my head.

This chair. My chair. In lectures and textbooks, the chair is the ready-made illustration of Aristotle’s four causes (formal, material, efficient, and final): a chair’s form is its structure. This chair. Aristotle, who favored walking and looking about, is made available to undergraduates in the example of an armchair.

But A is B. The chair is a syllogism, of a kind. Here, come look. I will prove it. The seat, a major premise; the back, the minor; by way of conclusion we are seated. In “our armchair of an afternoon,” we murder Socrates over and over again in hopes of grasping the fatal, ineluctable logic of C is B.

What a company of chairs are here! The learned lumber and furniture of the mind, no one will pack it up when it is time to go. No one will insure it. It will not return without alteration. Who will unload it and put it where it belongs?

All chairs are syllogisms. Black: “In the absence of some specially constructed context, this must surely count as a failed metaphor” (23). Could a metaphor fail and still be a metaphor? Is my prose context enough?

When we are to be informed of the death of a loved one, we are made, first, to sit down.


Court, n.

It is the policy of a dictionary to enumerate the senses of a word. The senses of the word “court, n.” in the Oxford English Dictionary number nineteen.

Why not eighteen? Sharper analysis promises to reduce this promiscuity. But why not twenty? Some hapax legomenon threatens to upset the count.

Our dictionaries—even “the definitive record of the English language” (i.e., the OED)—testify to the arbitrary ways in which polysemy must be numbered. New uses are found for old words and available senses are multiplied.

What should be the policy for a dictionary of metaphors? Metaphors don’t readily lemmatize. A heading is then chosen for rhetorical effect; it is no definiendum. Indeed, a metaphor is never a single word, some narrow vehicle, focus, or target whose meaning has changed, whose new “figurative” meaning could be somehow defined. Here modern linguistics and philosophy of language depart from classical rhetoric and ordinary intuitions about metaphor.1

The lexicographer collects examples of usage and groups them according to related uses and senses. But the poet urges that each true metaphor is a bold departure from the literal, one that expands the language in a new direction. As we pass from lexicographical to literary critical concerns, we refine our theories of how metaphors mean.

Consider the example of Court metaphors for the mind. The word “court” has a variety of senses: we imagine a court of law or the retinue or body of courtiers who assemble around a monarch. A court is variously a place (an enclosed or confined area), a collection of persons, or a political institution. Court may be held, or it may be paid.

When the mind is figured as a court, which of these senses of the term is selected? A yard, a princely residence, a retinue? Who shall judge?

The mind is a court. In it we are enclosed and confined as in a court-yard. But the mind is also a scene of proceedings, a court in which precedents are made, testimony heard, or judgments overturned—a court of law, a court of conscience. Alternately, the mind may prove no more than an assembly of personified impressions and faculties, individuals, or courtiers, who seem attendant upon some executive power but in reality busy themselves in pursuit of their own petty concerns.

Diverging senses of a word help mark moments in political history: originally, it was the monarch himself who dispensed justice and presided over the court.2 The Lord Chancellor was “Keeper of the King’s Conscience.” The royal court was a place filled with courtiers and a court of law both.

By the time of the 1688 revolution it is easier to make distinctions between a king’s court and the court of law. In part, James II’s meddling with the courts precipitated his replacement and reinforced distinctions between the executive and judicial powers of government.3 We would expect to see metaphors from the long eighteenth century display the disambiguation of these two senses of “court.” And we do.

Moreover, the Court metaphors collected in The Mind is a Metaphor Database, cluster in ways in which politics and word sense are significantly correlated. In fact, the use of metaphor divides neatly along party lines.

Different meanings for different leanings. Tories use Court metaphors to picture a court presided over by Queen Fancy (the political historian immediately thinks of the Harley ministry’s relationship to Queen Anne); whiggish metaphors are more jurisprudential: the pictured court is one in which reason presides and sensation and conscience give testimony.4

This example of clustering by metaphor and party affiliation is startling. The structures described by the lexicographer speak directly to the political historian. Perhaps we should revisit George Lakoff’s claims that metaphor and party are importantly correlated.4


1 In an essay collection like Andrew Ortony’s Metaphor and Thought, theorists of metaphor from Searle to Lakoff who agree about little else grant that metaphors do not operate—as was thought by the classical rhetoricians and eighteenth-century writers on belle lettres —at the level of the word. Meaning is something best located (if we must locate it) at the level of the sentence.

But the differentiation of literal and figurative at the sentence level is uncomfortable work at best; and a literary critic who, like the author of these blog-like pages, works without a fully developed theory of meaning can only ever make hesitating, contingent claims about meaning and metaphor. I for one write literary history because I am persuaded by Quine’s suggestion that the basic unit of significance may be the whole of a language, the complete science or a theory.

Under the narrow heading “COURT” then, a reader must be prepared to encounter theoretical discussions of influence, theatricality and power; the biographies of the opposition figures who collected around the Prince of Wales; a compact history of natural law and common law traditions; philosophical discussions of testimony; a Begriffgeschichte-style analysis of the concept of conscience; and fictional representations of trials in the novels of Henry Fielding. The unit of significance designated by the rubric “COURT” is a wide web of intellectual history.

2 Compare senses 9 and 11 in the Oxford English Dictionary (Link to “Court, n.”). The OED notes that “Justice was in early times administered in assemblies held by the sovereign personally (sense 9), then by judges who followed the king as officers of his court; hence the title the King’s Courts (curia regis).”

3 The Bloody Assizes of 1685 that followed the Monmouth rebellion damaged James’s reputation; then in 1686 James’s coercion of the King’s Bench provoked further opposition to the monarch’s absolutist agenda. The 1689 Bill of Rights explicitly prohibits the king’s ability to tamper with juries

4 A cluster tree created by D. Sculley serves as a striking visualization of word sense disambiguation along party lines. Machine learning methods separate Whig and Tory and disambiguate sense at the same time. The top branches of the tree are filled with Tories; the bottom, with Whigs.


The hierarchical tree is constructed from abstract “bag-of-words” representations of the metaphors. The computer knows nothing of eighteenth-century politics or word sense but groups metaphors according to feature scores generated from Kullback-Leibler distances.

4 See, for example, Lakoff’s Moral Politics: How Conservatives and Liberals Think. 2nd ed. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2002.