Processing poetic metaphor
: A dual-route approach

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This thesis proposes a dual-route processing approach to the comprehension of poetic metaphor according to which mental imagery imposes procedural constraints on conceptual mental representations and thus contributes to inferencing the communicator’s intention. It seeks to develop the relevance theory account on the role of non-propositional effects in verbal communication allowing the incorporation of mental images, impressions, emotions, and other sensations.

A review of major contemporary approaches to metaphor gives a good reason to favour the relevance-theoretic treatment that describes verbal comprehension as an inferential process. Representations of a set of assumptions are accessed to provide premises and result in conclusions following logical rules, or at least warranted by the premises. According to this view, metaphor is not fundamentally different from other uses of natural language: both require lexical pragmatic adjustments of the encoded concept in order to construct an occasion-specific concept whose denotation partially overlaps that of the original. This new concept resembles the communicator’s thought, and gives access to assumptions which will derive implications to make the utterance relevant-as-expected.

Relevance theory regards non-propositional effects as the result of the communication of a wide array of weak but equally plausible implicated propositions. The account developed here considers alternative approaches to non-propositionality from affective science, grounded cognition, and Classical Chinese philosophy. After reworking the definition of mental imagery, it is suggested that non-propositional elements are not just triggered by linguistic processing but they also act as inputs to relevant cognitive activities. More specifically, imagery directs the hearer’s attention towards certain aspects of the metaphor by ‘pointing to’ constituents from personal history and bodily experience that perceptually resemble the sensory inputs from the represented object. Imagery contributes to understanding what the speaker intends to convey, using feedforward and feedback information to guide and constrain the search for relevance. This model therefore complements a purely propositional inferential model.

By highlighting the ways in which mental imagery may affect inference, this thesis attempts to expand the scope of pragmatics. A comprehensive pragmatic theory of verbal communication should be able to account for the communication of not just thoughts with propositional forms but also non-propositional elements. Furthermore, the proposal may have some implications for literary studies of poetic metaphor by drawing attention to the cognitive dimensions involved in what is often treated in literary studies as intuitive and spontaneous.
Date of AwardMar 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorTim Wharton (Supervisor) & Chrystie Myketiak (Supervisor)

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