Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Metaphor and Critical Realism

Academic journal article Review of Social Economy

Metaphor and Critical Realism

Article excerpt


Critical realism asserts that the world investigated by science consists of objects that are structured and intransitive: structured in the sense that they are irreducible to the events of experience; and intransitive in the sense that they exist and act independently of their identification. That is, the world is constituted not only by events given directly in experience, but also by the unobserved and perhaps even unobservable entities, structures, mechanisms, and so on, which, existing and acting independently of scientists' knowledge of them, govern observable events and states of affairs. Critical realism thus stands in stark contrast to positivism and idealism (including postmodernism), which restrict the objects of scientific knowledge to, respectively, directly experienced events (and their putative constant conjunctions), and the linguistic and conceptual resources of the scientific community.

The aim of science, according to a critical realism, is the identification of the mechanisms, structures, powers, and so on, that produce the phenomena of experience. However, given that the critical realist ontology entails that such objects are not simply given in experience, the question arises of how knowledge of them is possible. It is hardly comprehensible that such knowledge could be created out of nothing. Rather, knowledge comes about through the transformation of preexisting knowledge-like material.

Advocates of critical realism frequently refer to the important role that the "logic of analogy and metaphor" plays in this knowledge-production process (Bhaskar 1989: 12; Lawson 1996: chapter 15). However, there has been a failure to develop from a critical realist perspective a detailed, systematic account of metaphor's role in scientific theorizing. This paper aims to remedy the omission. The paper fills the gap in the literature on critical realism, by first outlining a theory of metaphor, the interanimation approach, and then employing the theory to bring out both the fundamental role that metaphor plays in science, construed according to critical realism, and the fact that it is only from something akin to a critical realist perspective that the true importance of metaphor can be demonstrated.


An understanding of the importance of metaphor for the development of scientific explanations requires an account of the way that our theoretical terms, in the transitive domain, allow us to get to grips with the world, existing independently of the scientist in the intransitive domain. This is the issue of reference, a discussion of which is a necessary preliminary to an account of the role of metaphor in reality depiction. The treatment in this paper follows that of Lyons (1977), Harre (1986), and Bhaskar (1991).

"Referring" is a human practice through which, by any means available, one person attempts to draw the attention of another person to something in their common public space. Reference is effected by a speaker making an utterance in a particular context, not something made by individual vocabulary terms (lexemes) per se. Individual terms are said to have a "sense" and a "denotation." The "sense" of a lexeme is its dictionary definition (which, as we shall see, is potentially revisable, rather than some set of necessary properties of that which the lexeme denotes). By "denotation" is meant the relation between the lexeme and the things (if any) - entities, states of affairs, and so on - which it designates in the world. So the lexeme "amphibian" denotes the class of amphibians.

"Meaning" will also be regarded as an utterance-dependent concept, so that we may speak properly of the meaning of an utterance but not of an individual lexeme. In summary, then, referring utterances have meaning and make a reference.

Bhaskar (1991) distinguishes between conversational referring (c ref) and practical referring (p ref). …

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