In the first half of this century, literary critics brought to the fore at least three ways in which the concept of metaphor seemed crucial to the act of interpretation: first, the difference between literal and metaphorical language usage; second, the relationship between ordinary and literary language; and third, the need for better methods to evaluate semantic multiplicity and complexity. Poststructuralist theorists have responded to these issues by attempting to reconfigure our understanding of the rhetorical tradition from which our notions of language have sprung, specifically by shifting the position of metaphor within the generally accepted model of language that privileges the literal - the discourse of reason - over the metaphorical - the discourse of the imagination. Jacques Derrida's deconstruction of Aristotelian rhetoric in "White Mythology," Paul de Man's revision of Jacobsonian semiotics in "Semiology and Rhetoric," and his critique of Lockean "idea"-based epistemology in "The Epistemology of Metaphor" are only a few of the important challenges, launched relatively early in the history of poststructuralism, that helped shape the way that contemporary scholars from a diverse range of critical interests have thought, spoken and written about language.
Yet despite deconstruction's efforts to dislodge the binarisms of "literal" and "metaphorical" or of "literary" and "ordinary" language, an important question remains, a hold-over from the formalist concerns of earlier criticism: how might a post-structuralist model of language, emphasizing, as it does, the instability of metaphor over the alleged objectivity of the literal, account for the general level of cognitive coherence that undeniably occurs across texts and between diverse readers of texts? How, in other words, do readers arrive at even the broadest consensus about what a text "says" if the ground of language is no ground at all but rather a form of de Manian "rhetoric" that "radically suspends logic and opens up vertiginous possibilities of referential aberration"? (de Man, "Semiology" 10).
Not unlike de Man, who begins his discussion of these matters with a nod to the methods of transformational-generative linguistics, I will appeal in this essay to the ideas of a Berkeley-based group of linguists and cognitive scientists who call their discipline "cognitive linguistics." Developed chiefly by the linguist George Lakoff, the philosopher Mark Johnson, and the literary critic Mark Turner, cognitive linguistics offers a new method for examining and perhaps explaining the workings of metaphor in language. By the nature of its claims, cognitive linguistics results not just in new understandings of metaphor but in reconsiderations of language itself. Though as yet little known in literary studies, cognitive linguistics (and "cognitive rhetoric," its extension by Turner into literary analysis) offers useful insights into questions about interpretation, coherence and referentiality.
In addition, and to an extent unrecognized even by its own developers, cognitive linguistics provides literary theory with a new, metaphor-centered model of language, but one that situates the subject within its material world both inside and outside the text. It does this by positing the nature of language as a cognitive and not a transcendental phenomenon, and by showing language to be imaginatively embodied, in the sense that it is "subject" to construction by the environment surrounding the human mind and body. In the process of thus defining language, cognitive linguistics effectively demystifies the figurative moment relative to formalist treatments of tropes. It does so in a way, however, that turns out to be less apocalyptic in its tone and more in tune with the actual practice involved in reading texts than are similar demystifying efforts by poststructuralist critics. The result is a model, culled from the various discourses of linguistics, philosophy and literary criticism, that addresses what would seem to be a contradiction within contemporary literary theory: the simultaneous presence of both structural coherence and structural instability within language and in particular within the literary text. …