Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Prof. DING Ersu

Second Advisor

Prof. SEWELL Andrew


My thesis aims to anatomize the cognitive theory of metaphor and suggests a Peircean semiotic perspective on metaphor study. As metaphorical essentialists, Lakoff/Johnson tend to universalize a limited number of conceptual metaphors and, by doing this, they overlook the dynamic relation between metaphorical tenor and vehicle. Such notion of metaphor is not compatible with the polysemous nature of the sign. The diversity and multivalency of metaphorical vehicle, in particular, cast serious doubts on the hypothesis of “conceptual metaphors” which, being meta-metaphorical constructs, can tell us nothing but a dry and empty formula “A is B”. Consequently, Lakoff/Johnson’s notion of conceptual metaphor is very much a Chomskyan postulation. Also problematic is the expedient experientialism or embodied philosophy they have put forward as a middle course between objectivism and subjectivism. What is missing from their framework is a structural space for dynamic interpretation on the part of metaphor users. In contrast, cognitive linguists may find in Peirce’s theory of the sign a sound solution to their theoretical impasse. As a logician, Peirce sees metaphor as the realization of iconic reasoning at the language level. His exposition on iconicity and iconic reasoning has laid a solid foundation upon which may be erected a fresh epistemology of metaphor fit for the contemporary study of language and mind. Broadly speaking, metaphor in Peirce can be examined from roughly two perspectives. Macroscopically, metaphor is an icon in general as opposed to index and symbol, whereas, microscopically, it is a subdivided hypoicon on the third level as opposed to image and diagram. Besides, Peirce also emphasized the subjective nature of metaphor. Semioticians after Peirce have further developed his theory on metaphor. For example, through his concept of “arbitrary iconicity”, Ersu Ding stresses the arbitrary nature of metaphorization and tries to shift our attention away from Lakoff/Johnson’s abstract epistemological Gestalt to the specific cultural contexts in which metaphors occur. Umberto Eco, on the other hand, sees interpretation of signs as an open-ended process that involves knowledge of all kinds. Encyclopedic knowledge thus serves as unlimited source for metaphorical association. For Eco, the meaning of a metaphor should be interpreted in the cultural framework based on a specific cultural community. Both Ding’s and Eco’s ideas are in line with Peirce’s theoretical framework where the meaning of a metaphor depends on an interpreter in a particular socio-historical context. They all realize that we should go beyond the ontology of metaphorical expressions to acquire a dynamic perspective on metaphor interpretation. To overcome the need for presupposing an omnipotent subject capable of knowing the metaphor-in-itself, we turn to Habermas’s theory of communicative action in which the meaning of metaphor is intersubjectively established through negotiation and communication. Moreover, we should not overlook the dynamic tension between metaphor and ideology. Aphoristically, we can say that nothing is a metaphor unless it is interpreted as a metaphor, and we need to reconnect metaphors with the specific cultural and ideological contexts in which they appear.

Recommended Citation

Jiang, Y. (2017). What is “meta-” for?: A Peircean critique of the cognitive theory of metaphor (Doctor’s thesis, Lingnan University, Hong Kong). Retrieved from