NDPR Review of Ted Cohen’s Thinking of Others: On the Talent for Metaphor

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[Posted by BR]

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Mark Johnson (Philosophy, University of Oregon) reviewed Ted Cohen’s Thinking of Others: On the Talent for Metaphor (Princeton University Press, 2008) this past April, in NDPR. It’s not any longer a new review, but in case any of you missed it, I thought I’d post a link to it here. I haven’t yet finished Cohen’s book, but what I’ve read so far (about half) has been marvelous. Clearly worth getting and reading and pondering. Princeton University Press has made a sample chapter available for free on their website: to read it, click here. To read the whole of Johnson’s review, click here.

And here is how it begins:

To appreciate Ted Cohen’s virtues as a thinker and writer, it helps to remember that he studied under Stanley Cavell at Harvard, who was himself a student of J.L. Austin. Cohen shares Austin’s great gift for nuanced observations of the conditions for, and implications of, various human practices, especially those manifested in what we say and how we communicate with others. Cohen shares Cavell’s celebratory appreciation of the philosophical and moral significance of the ordinary in human life. He discerns significance in aspects of everyday life — such as being a sports fan, being moved by a novel, or being offended by one’s critics — that are lost on most people. Like Wittgenstein, he assembles reminders of deep dimensions of mundane human practices, for which he offers no overarching explanation, but which we cannot ignore, once he has pointed these dimensions out to us.

The practices being described in this book are acts of what Cohen calls “metaphorical personal understanding” (82), by which he means, roughly, our capacity for imagining ourselves as another. The reader will not find in this little book any theory of anything. There is no theory of how metaphor works, no theory of how we can come to inhabit some character in a fiction, no theory of moral imagination. There are simply reminders of what we think and feel and imagine as we engage certain types of metaphor, certain types of fictions, and certain day-to-day experiences. Beyond these reminders, there are invitations to dwell in the experiences so described and to reflect on their meaning for your life.

The “talent for metaphor” around which Cohen’s explorations center is our capacity to think of one thing, A (in the metaphor “A is B”), as another thing, B. He observes that good metaphors are seldom merely acts of intellectual or conceptual connection. Instead, “a leading aim of many metaphor-makers is the communication of some feelings they have about the subjects of their metaphors, and the hoped-for inducement of similar feelings in those who grasp their metaphors” (6). The point of Churchill’s description of Mussolini as a “utensil of his master’s will”, or the characterization of former president George W. Bush as a “cowboy”, is to engender within a specific community a strong negative reaction to certain aspects of the person’s character so described.


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