Volume 17, 1998
Daniel H. Cohen
If, What-If, and So-What
Mixing Metaphors, Conditionals, and Philosophy
With the possible exception of completely formal exercises in logic, philosophy is thoroughly metaphorical and largely conditional. Moreover, the purposes served by metaphors and conditionals in it are similar. Metaphors ask us to imagine the world in a new way, while conditionals may ask to imagine a new world. Yet some conditionals and metaphors are incompatible. There are limits to how metaphors can occur in conditionals, and how conditionals can themselves be metaphors. Specifically, only certain kinds of metaphors can be accommodated in the antecedents of conditionals, and even then only within a restricted class of conditionals. This paper focuses on the linguistic tension between metaphors and conditionals. I argue that this echoes a tension at the heart of philosophy between two modes of philosophizing: a speculative-revisionary mode that is metaphorical and an analytic-explanatory mode that is conditional. The tasks are generally complementary so that the difference can be ignored with impunity. However, if we do not respect that difference, we may find ourselves analyzing metaphors and seeing logical analyses as metaphorical, and thus missing the point on both fronts.