As It Were

Must we mean what we say? In the case of metaphor, meaning is underspecified, patently false, or—according to some theorists—somehow transmuted. Somehow changed.

Words must mean just what they mean.1 But what of speakers? What of writers? We say one thing but mean, as it were, another.

“As it were“—a curious, parenthetic phrase. As if it were so. A phrase used “to indicate that a word or statement is perhaps not formally exact though practically right” (OED). The mood is subjunctive. One would say it, if only he could mean it.

The philosopher is much given to hedging claims with an “as it were.” So Descartes writes, “I am not merely present in my body as a sailor is present in a ship, but […] I am very closely joined and, as it were, intermingled with it” (56). The intermingling or permixing (the Latin is permixtio) is indeed “perhaps not formally right.” I am not the sailor, not the ship, not even the voyage. In the Cartesian account, I am more like the tar, pitch, and tallow—the sealant, as it were.

Oh unfortunate dualist, betrayed by a philosophy of language. There are not two kinds of meaning, literal and figurative. Nor are there two substances, matter and mind. Still we let the one dualism structure the other and are held captive by false distinctions.

James Beattie makes a pun of a kind: “when the senses have nothing to employ them, the mind is left (if I may so speak) a prey to its own thoughts” (I.ii, p. 92). In a moment of parenthesis, literal turns figurative: caged animal spirits turn predator.2

In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke uses an “as it were” to bracket the metaphor of his opponents: “It is an established Opinion amongst some Men, That there are in the Understanding certain innate principles; some primary Notions, koinai ennoiai, Characters, as it were stamped upon the Mind of Man; which the Soul receives in its very first Being; and brings into the World with it” (I.ii.1).

But Locke marks out his own metaphors as well: memory is “as it were the Store-house of our Ideas” (II.x.2) and “The Mind very often sets it self on work in search of some hidden Idea, and turns, as it were, the Eye of the Soul upon it” (II.x.7).3

“As it were” has its equivalents. There is the Latin tanquam, the alliterative “so to speak,” and the polite pair “if I may so say” and “if I may be so bold.” A character in Henry Fielding’s Amelia begs leave: “So many tender Ideas crowded at once into my Mind, that, if I may use the Expression, they almost dissolved my Heart” (I.iii.3).

Andrew Marvell uses a parenthetic phrase in his “Dialogue Between the Soul and Body.” The imprisoned Soul complains that it is “hung up, as ‘twere, in Chains / Of Nerves, and Arteries, and Veins” (ll. 7-8).

Marvell’s parenthetic is paradigmatic. As in Marvell, the qualification “as it were” often marks imprisonment of the mind or soul in the body. The believer believes that the soul will go free. The prison is only a prison as it were.

The subjunctive “as it were” is an incantation or an amulet. The philosopher produces it to protect himself from his own terminology. A metaphor is meant to open a space to mean something else. The dualist would stage a prison break and repeats—incants—the parenthetic in hopes of navigating some impossible distinction.

I quote Ludwig Wittgenstein: “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside of it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably” (§115).


1 Donald Davidson argues, correctly I think, that “metaphors mean what the words, in their most literal interpretation mean, and nothing more” (245).

2 Sarah Fielding writes of Lady Dellwyn, “she had no Food from outward Objects, to employ her animal Spirits, and they therefore prey’d at home; and oppressed her own Mind” (I.i.10).

3 Locke deploys “as it were” more than fifty times in the Essay. See Locke’s assertion that the memory is the ability to to “revive” ideas and “as it were paint them anew on it self” (II.x.2). Our ideas are “as it were the pictures of things” (II.xxix.8). The mind may be “as it were manacled in the chain of syllogisms” (IV.xvii.5).