II. Institutional ontology and “seeing as”
Unlike physical objects, institutions (e.g., property, governments, money, or law) require language for their existence. As Searle rightly remarked in The Construction of Social Reality: “Symbols do not create cats and dogs and evening stars; they create only the possibility of referring to cats, dogs, and evening stars in a publicly accessible way.”26 Contrariwise, language is essentially constitutive of institutional reality.27 As a matter of conceptual necessity, it is the fabric of language, tied to its underpinning structure of shared practices, that sews through and through our social world. Likewise, as Hart remarked in The Concept of Law, we lawyers stand in the realm of fiction. “It is only because we adopt this fiction that we can talk solemnly of the government of laws not men.”28
It is perfectly possible to imagine a society with rudimental linguistic apparatus void of the whole institutional paraphernalia we are accustomed to—governments, private property, corporations, civil and social rights, and so on. As very well put by Searle, it is quite hard to imagine a society that comprises these institutional structures but is devoid of any symbolic medium of representation.29 Searle’s route, however, to explain the institutional ontology within societies sets out from collective mental phenomena towards a taxonomy of logical forms of speech acts—for which he claims a specific philosophical branch (“The Philosophy of Society”30), an academic discipline of social ontology grounded in physicalism. In brief, his philosophical efforts are focused on knitting together mental phenomena (biology), language (speech acts), and society (social institutions).
Here is where the philosophical methodology I shall follow in this text part company with his institutional theory. Whereas his account of language is vastly naturalistic, holding that “human reality is a natural outgrowth of more fundamental—physical, chemical, and biological—phenomena,”31 my investigations into language and social reality not only take a different outset but also walk a different path. Concerning the analysis of language, my scrutiny is not confined to the narrow scope of speech acts, but the perception of language as a living cultural organism—a second nature which spills over the boundaries of a mere juxtaposition of individual speech units. In this connection, institutional ontology cannot be spellled out solely on the basis of a hidden logical structure underlying certain speech acts.
As Searle himself conceded in Making the Social World, institutional facts “are without exception constituted by language, but the functioning of language is especially hard to see.”32 Wittgenstein was perhaps the first to forewarn this philosophical ambush: “We want to understand something that is already in plain view [language]. For this is what we seem in some sense not to understand.”33 In contradistinction to Searle’s biosocial philosophy,34 the kernel of my concerns is the cultural pragmatics of the functioning of language and how it relates to the workings of legal institutions in the social world. My task, as advanced in the introduction, will be to scrutinize how law, language, and culture rope together.
Despite these methodological contrasts, Searle offers a very illustrative example of how we need language to see institutional facts and this might be a good starting point to belabor. Indeed, without language, we can perfectly see a man cross a white line holding a ball, but we cannot see the man score six points, nor do we want him to score six points35. Without a conceptual framework provided by our language, we would not be able to see this event as a goal or a point in a game, for these institutional entities—goal and game—require some linguistic apparatus underpinned by a collective intentionality—a bundle of social beliefs and attitudes underwriting “their existence”—in order to exist in the social world.
Searle’s illustration resembles Wittgenstein’s ambiguous image of the duck-rabbit in Philosophical Investigations, drawing our attention to the “aspect seeing” (Gestalt) phenomenon. In this philosophical experiment, Wittgenstein proposes an ambivalent picture which can be seen either as a duck or as a rabbit, hinting that our capacity to “aspect-seeing” hinges on the ample network of concepts, experiences, and background knowledge, which we have incrementally developed in our own linguistic praxis. A woman who is very fond of Bordeaux’s finest wines and an assiduous reader of Proust’s, Flaubert’s, and Balzac’s great novels will see the boulevards and the streets of Paris in a very different light in comparison with any other person bereft of such background.36 On a gripping quote from La Rochefoucauld, Searle observed that “very few people would fall in love if they never read about it; and nowadays, we would have to add if they never saw it on television or in the movies.”37 Despite the different nuances one may experience in the semantic relation with certain words, the common process of deep socialization in a form of life embeds the individuum in shared social experiences, in a common atmosphere that is formed around common uses of a language.
Our experiences of meaning come to us bound up with the conceptual apparatus and the social imagery we have culturally developed in the totality of language games in which we were trained. The “nature of things, concepts, the uses of words and grammar are inextricably interwoven.”38 Wittgenstein’s opening aphorism in Culture and Value may exemplify the point: “Someone who understands Chinese will recognize language in what he hears. Similarly I often cannot discern the humanity in a man.”39 His own italicization points to the conclusion that we use conceptual frameworks (e.g. language, humanity) to cope with the world, to see the world beyond raw sensory data. The central argument I want to stress is this: There is no Archimedean foothold outside the ground-floor web of language games and forms of life—in which we are inexorably enmeshed—from where we could see things and appraise world’s occurrences.
The hermeneutics behind the philosophical experience of seeing-as spills over the edges of a sheer refinement of linguistic pragmatics. It knocks down “our inclination to think of perceptions in terms of the influence of objects on a receptive faculty, and draws our attention to the role of an active, responding subject in determining the nature of visual experience, or in fixing what is seen.”40 Moreover, it holds a key notion for understanding how we see things by aspects or facets in socially informed ways and how we use the conceptual schemata of language as a toolbox to configure the ontological categories of the social world.41
III. The two Wittgensteinian perspectives on language and further semiotic, anthropological, and epistemological investigations
Since I am already on Wittgensteinian grounds, it might be opportune to backtrack a little and burrow down the implications of Wittgenstein’s philosophy at appropriate depths. The pragmatic turn prompted by the mature Wittgenstein marked a philosophical turnabout in the relation between language and the social world, bringing to a grinding halt the preceding logical trend. In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), Wittgenstein was mainly concerned with the analytical work of logical clarification of sentences of a natural language. His premise was that, if sentences were able to mean something, then pieces of reality would be amenable to be pictured by a logical structure that could make such representation (correspondence) possible. There, he argued for a logical isomorphism between bits of reality and the hidden syntactical structure of language. Propositions could be understood in terms of logical pictures: They could depict the world and agree with reality, in which case they would be true; or not, in which case they would be false. Language could “fit” the world it portrayed in a very direct manner.
Although the main lines of the Tractatus were disowned by the older Wittgenstein, he was at this juncture deeply committed to the philosophical task of revealing the conditions of possibility of an accurate representation of reality by means of a logical proposition. He wanted to deliver a very clean black and white philosophy of language that could trace through and through how thoughts, language, and the world related to each other, purging the philosophical climate of the metaphysical deadlock in which it was trapped. Along the lines of the Cambridge School of Analysis and the Vienna Circle, language was not construed as a social practice in its natural bent, but a logical macrostructure, a jigsaw puzzle with jumbled pieces (propositions) to be logically tidied up by the hands and minds of trained logicians and mathematicians.
A contradistinction, though, separates the first Wittgenstein from other philosophers in the logical tradition: Whereas his close predecessors, Russell and Frege, were engaged in devising an ideal logical notation to treat the logical defects of ordinary language,42 Wittgenstein was convinced that the logical treatment of ordinary language was rather a matter of bringing to light what was lurked in the syntactical infrastructure of the symbolism of a language.43 Enshrined at the heart of the Tractatus, the pictorial theory of meaning propounded the idea that in order for propositions to mean something accurately, a logical symmetry between them and the state of affairs they purported to depict had to be at work.
But if the Tractarian perspective was focused on refining and cleansing ordinary language to unfold the logical structures lurked under the surface grammar, the older Wittgenstein back-pedaled on his main lines of thought and gainsaid the central theses he previously advocated. His Philosophical Investigations 44 radically overturned the relation between language and reality, dislodging the direction of fit between these two. Instead of excavating the surface grammar of the ordinary language to unearth the underlying syntactical structure under the premise that they could mirror states of affairs with indefectible precision, the second Wittgenstein embraced the idea that language works rather as a toolbox configuring, not picturing, what passes as reality. Moreover, it is a public affair, a social art deeply associated with the morass of complex overlapping practices in which we are enmeshed. Languages do not hang on theories to function. They are carried out by human practices and, in great measure, independent of any logical accountability. The positivistic take on language was shored up by two philosophical theses I shall put on display and demystify all at once: On the one hand, the epistemological assumption of a one-to-one language-world relation of objective correspondence between logical propositions and non-linguistic entities (to be disclosed by means of logical analysis); on the other hand, a presupposition of a mind-language relation which came to be coined, in the technical jargon of philosophy, as the telementational conception of language.
At the core of the first premise—the language-world relation—lies the problem of incommensurability between the structure of reality and the structure of language. Roy Harris immediately stands out as one of the most prominent scholars who addressed this predicament in this celebrated book The Language Myth.45 One of the key points he broached touches on the philosophical awkwardness of collating two contrasting ontological categories, language—a verbal report—and a fact of the external world—a non-linguistic structure—in terms of logical correspondence. As Gilbert Ryle himself once intimated: “I cannot myself credit what seems to be the doctrine of Wittgenstein [the first] and the school of logical grammarians who owe allegiance to him, that what makes an expression formally proper to a fact is some real and non-conventional one-one picturing relation between the composition of the expression and that of the fact.”46
The main target of both Harris’ and Ryle’s criticisms here is the relation of “property” between facts or states of affairs and logical forms. As Harris claims, “it is entirely obscure how we are to make sense of the notion that reality has structures which are compatible to structures of the kind relevant to verbal analysis.”47 At bottom, what is under attack here is not a certain theory of language, but a certain conception of language, a framework of thought, a myth, if you will, that there is a direct and fixed relation between language—names—and reality—things or non-linguistic entities for which words serve as names. When Wittgenstein deserted the Tractarian thesis of a word-world logical nexus— the Augustinian conception—and embraced the thesis that language works rather in use, that is, as a constitutive tool of the form of life and culture of its users, it was not a particular theory of language that was called into question, but a whole conception of what language de facto is. This philosophical reorientation cannot be trivialized, for it had a profound impact on our understanding of the very ontological relation between language and reality. There is no isomorphism between language and reality.48 This does not mean, as Backer and Hacker remarked, that we cannot refer to things “in reality” when we use words, but simply that the meaning of a word is not a thing or an entity,49 but the way in which it is put into practice. On this picture, there is no connection between language and reality in the Tractarian sense, for language works rather as a “free-floating structure” with an autonomous grammar.50
Another insurmountable methodological hurdle that seems to be the Achilles’ heel in the epistemological premise behind the positivistic project is that the basic work material at the disposal of philosophers and mathematicians engaged in logical positivism is the language itself. Roy Harris admitted this problem by saying that any attempt at reflecting analytically upon this process of creative renewal called language is at the mercy of words. And words, the product of that very process, rather obscures the process of analytical reflection itself.51 This is the Archimedean predicament any language-bound theorist must face: He, “like the earth-bound Archimedes, has nowhere else to stand but where he does. He has ultimately no leverage to bring to bear on understanding language other than such leverage can be exerted from the terra firma of his own linguistic experience.”52
“We are struggling with language. We are engaged in a struggle with language,” said Wittgenstein.53 As of his later philosophy, he ultimately came to the view that, as a language-bound thinker, he could not help being entangled in a struggle against the bewitchment of our understanding by the resources of our own language.54 This is an intractable philosophical hurdle that persists to this day in the traditional epistemology, for it “comes to be in the curious position of always having to pull itself up by its own linguistic bootstraps.”55 As Harris provocatively said in After Epistemology, there is no such thing as “languageless epistemology.”56 The epistemologist, as much as the linguistic theorist, has no other choice but to come to terms with the fact that words partake of the daunting quality of being cultural facts, metalinguistic posits and conceptual tools all at once.57
The other premise espoused by the telementational conception of language is a long-established thesis regarding the mind-language relation, according to which words are ciphers of a code that we use to encapsulate our thoughts and put them across clearly and effectively. A hypothetical user of the same code would thus be able to decode these syntactical units and unfold the communicated meaning. The underlying idea of this doctrine is that, forasmuch as we succeed in our day-to-day lingual transactions, a “fixed code” has to be at work. Hacker and Baker both situate the telementational thesis within the post-Cartesian tradition, while other scholars like Roy Harris trace this conception back to Aristotle’s De Intepretatione 58 and Plato and Socrates’ “classical model of language.”59 But the basic idea under the label is the conception of language as being nothing more than a vehicle for transmission of thoughts (telementation).60 This doctrine, embraced by philosophers such as Hobbes and Locke in modern times, held a considerable sway over a great deal of the nineteenth and twentieth-century philosophical reflection, even encroaching upon the domains of theoretical linguistics.
When Wittgenstein put the doctrine of telementation, under the label “Augustine’s picture of language,” into a checkmate right at the outset of his Philosophical Investigations, he marked there and then a clean break with the whole logical tradition and the classical model of language61. The main point of attack raised by him and like-minded scholars is that the myth of telementation entails an external semantics between thought and language and, by extension, between language and non-linguistic entities. To be precise: On the one hand, thoughts would be conceived as a language-independent mental process for which language would serve as a public code (a logical system of signs) into which thoughts (as a neurophysiological process) could be translated and neutrally communicated to another common user of the code. On the other hand, words could only mean insofar as they correlated to—or stood for—non-linguistic units in an ostensive manner.
But a theoretical trap lurked in the telementational thesis. Language is a common resource for social communication, a public storehouse of semiotic assets. Not rarely people find themselves, in the ordinary usage of it, embroiled in a communicational misjudgment and have to spell out what they meant to say to the other. The idea of a telementation presupposes that the meaning one puts across with a word is exactly the same as the meaning that the other speech player associates with it. But the fact remains that, as Wittgenstein warned: “[I]f the possible uses of a word are before our minds in half-tones as we say or hear it—this goes just for us. But we communicate with other people without knowing whether they have these experiences too.”62 Telementation leaves out the recurrent phenomenon of unintended results in the use of language. It disregards the fact that the semantics of a word is not conditioned by a dictionary, but by a complex cultural encyclopedia.
What is more, the detachment of thought from language delivers an empiricist riddle to be puzzled out, given the self-evidence in our linguistic routine that we can only come to be in touch with our own thoughts, so to speak, in semiotic terms. Wittgenstein, in his preliminary studies for Philosophical Investigations (The Blue and Brown Books), already addressed how misleading it is “to talk of thinking as of a ‘mental activity.’ We may say that thinking is essentially the activity of operating with signs.”63 There he assessed inter alia the mental experience of groping for a word while writing a letter and analyzed the grammar of the clause “to express an idea which is before our mind.” Of course, it is a metaphor, but it reflects the commonsensical fallacy that we would be, as it were, endeavoring to put into words what was already mentally expressed—a translation of mental language into verbal language. In his own disclosure: “I have been trying in all this to remove the temptation to think that there ‘must be’ what is called a mental process of thinking, hoping, wishing, believing, etc., independent of the process of expressing a thought, a hope, a wish, etc.”64 Taken to the extreme, it seems in effect odd how could we be able to reason, at least theoretically, in a “semiotic vacuum.” The most plausible way out of this blind alley seems to point into the opposite direction: It is language, this semiotic patrimony on which we stand to evolve historically, that sways our thoughts—and knowledge in the last resort.
In hindsight, Wittgenstein’s late works might be very well pieced together as a philosophy of culture.65 His linguistic pragmatism ultimately brought down the house of cards of logical skepticism by showing how one cannot talk about signs of a language beyond the boundaries of a culture, wherein the very process of signification takes place. At the end of the day, Wittgenstein’s cultural philosophy discredits altogether the possibility of a universal pre-cultural language by suggesting, instead, a diachronic philosophical grammar for the language. “[We are] talking about the spatial and temporal phenomenon of language, not about some non-spatial, atemporal non-entity.”66 If logical positivists were professionally engaged in demarcating, by means of logical analysis, the limits of language—pinpointing where the sense ends and the nonsense begins, what could be meaningfully said and whereof one could not speak—the pragmatic turn made clear that such demarcation depends to a great extent on the sort of education we had and on the unquestioned framework of ideas which we have been trained to accept.67 The language myth, grounded in two deep-rooted beliefs about what language stands for—the doctrine of telementation and the doctrine of the fixed code, as Roy Harris described them—is in itself a cultural construct; or, to use Harris’ words, “a cultural fossil that has gone unchallenged for so long that it has hardened into a kind of intellectual concrete.”68
The interpretative process of comprehension of signs, and of language itself, is essentially a cultural process. We wouldn’t be able to communicate nor to understand the meaning of a single semiotic mark outside of the web of significant associations called culture. Wittgenstein hinted this point by saying: “Every sign by itself seems dead. What gives it life?—In use it lives.”69 The key concept of language-game, meaning “the whole”70 in which language and human praxis intermesh, was methodologically used to shift the emphasis onto how language is not outright part of a cognitive relation, but of a cultural process in the first place. Wittgenstein’s cultural pragmatics, in the last resort, resets the internal semantics between signs and their cultural uses. Delving deeper into Wittgenstein’s late writings, what the Austrian philosopher unveils is a conception of signs consonant with what Roy Harris and other like-minded scholars have termed “integrationist semiology,” in accordance with which the idea of a decontextualized sign finds no ground at all. Signs only exist as such in the particular circumstances in which they function or are used as signs. That is, a sign only means something inside the process of a culture. In a world without a culture, there would not exist any sign.71
This internal proto-semantics between signs and culture is interestingly highlighted by Karl-Heinz Ladeur in Die Textualität des Rechts, wherein he approaches inter alia how the readings and the readers themselves of a novel are both constituted inside and by a culture.72 The readings of a novel produced inside a culture are greatly interlocked with previous readings that helped to form that culture. Likewise, Umberto Eco, in Confessions of a Young Novelist, used the conceptual metaphor of “social treasury” to spotlight how language does not comport with a dictionary-like representation. It rather incorporates the whole encyclopedia of linguistic performances, cultural conventions, and the history of previous interpretations of its many texts.73 According to Eco, “the world knowledge provided by an encyclopedia has nothing to do with our direct, physical, and frequently idiosyncratic experience of the world; it has on the contrary to do with other semiotic phenomena, with intertextual knowledge, with a chain of interpretants.”74
On anthropological grounds, Clifford Geertz also espoused a semiotic concept of culture in his book The Interpretation of Cultures. It is worth noticing how Eco’s semiotics and Geertz’s cultural analysis both share a common space between semiology and anthropology. For Eco, on the one hand, the laws of signification are the laws of culture;75 for Geertz, on the other, culture comprises the socially established structures of meaning in terms of which people inter-act in a conjoined semiotic conspiracy. The members of a culture are internally trained to recognize these signs, to act upon them, and to use them in their daily business. A culture, therefore, can be analyzed as interworked systems of construable signs—or symbols such as words, gestures, images, etc.—for which a methodology of cultural analysis should orient the ethnographic interpretation of the social discourse, including the symbolic actions, practiced in a semiotic community by sorting out the underlying structures of signification.76
Another interesting similarity between Eco’s encyclopedia and Geertz’s concept of culture is that both account for the capacity of culture for semiotic accruement. As Karl Eibl accentuates in Animal Poeta, Geertz’s image of culture as a meaning-fabric provides the right sense of a symbolic-communicative process in the evolution of men. It was only on the footing of semiotic resources that the storage of cultural inventories, information, and rules was made possible, which was decisive for the incremental multiplication of technical-cultural elements throughout time.77 Geertz’s anthropological argument goes even further to crowd out the myth that culture only ensued in the human history after the evolutionary completion into Homo sapiens. As he remarked, elemental forms of proto-cultural activity, in the current view, seem to have been present since earlier stages of the human evolution —Australopithecines—, suggesting an overlap between cultural and biological processes. “What this means is that culture, rather than being added on, so to speak, to a finished or virtually finished animal, was ingredient, and centrally ingredient, in the production of that animal itself.”78 According to Geertz, the symbolic activity in which the human animal—or the animal poeta in Eibl’s depiction—engaged was determinant for his biological, technical and social evolution. The man created himself, so to speak, out of culture.
In the upshot, Geertz’s cultural anthropology and Wittgenstein’s pragmatic philosophy both converge on a cultural pragmatics for language and knowledge with clear implications for epistemology and philosophy of mind. Geertz’s interworking relation between symbols and human development offers new theoretical inputs to be added into the mind-language philosophical puzzle in the sense that thinking is not an endogenous “mental activity”—a clear-cut biological activity segregated from the outside cultural semiosis; it rather resembles a “traffic” in the public avenue of symbols of a culture. Converging upon the central thesis that there is no thought or knowledge in a semiotic blank, Roy Harris’ integrationist semiology—raised against the classical language myth—conceals a constructive theory of knowledge consonant with Geertz’s cultural anthropology. For Harris, if every bit of knowledge takes place on the footing of an always contextualized sign or web of signs,79 then there is no context-free act of knowing, for every epistemic act presupposes a culturally-tailored semiotic apparatus. There is no process of knowledge outside “the-here-and-now” on which the knowing-subject finds himself.
When Wittgenstein rejected the idea of a private language by claiming that not only agreement in definitions but also agreement in judgments were required for communication by means of a language,80 he pointed at an underlying common knowledge implicit in the communicative network of a language. Apart from the collateral implications of what I have held so far, this last point brings a lot to bear on traditional epistemology—it calls for a social-laden sort of epistemological investigation, that is, a new account for knowledge ultimately grounded in social practices and cultural forms of life so as to encompass the common frames of intelligibility and practical repertoire historically accumulated in the cultural web of socially communicated practices that determine how we know what we know.
IV. Metaphors and cultural world
As central mechanisms of natural languages, metaphors offer a valuable theoretical entry for new insights into how thoughts are structured in the common semiotic frames of a community of speech. Moreover, they reveal how we orient ourselves in terms of these structures, or how we organize and re-organize the common experiences of a form of life by creating and re-creating the categories of the social world. The philosophical discussion on metaphors, which I have neither the space nor the intention to deplete here, raises several points worthy of remark that not only feed back into the pragmatic philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind, but also reinforce a constructionist posture of the utmost importance for explaining institutional phenomena under the auspices of a cultural theory. When Charles Darwin claimed in On the Origin of Species that “[t]he terms used by naturalists, of affinity, relationship, community of type, paternity, morphology, adaptive characters, rudimentary and aborted organs, etc., will cease to be metaphorical, and will have a plain signification,”81 a strict policy for scientific language was established, prescribing the banishment of metaphors from the scientific discourse. Being the common currency in natural languages, metaphors were locked out of analytical inspection by logical positivists and remained off the academic table until only a relatively recent revival in several fields of academia such as epistemology, philosophy of language, anthropology, linguistic theory, and semiotics.
As Eco rightly remarked, every discourse on metaphor breaks out into a draconian choice: Either one accepts that language is metaphorical in its bent and every rule is set to control and impoverish the metaphorizing potential that distinguishes man as a symbolic animal (this view, taken to the extreme, is largely embraced by philosophers like Nietzsche); or language is originally a rule-governed system, a logical machinery for which a metaphor is a breakdown, a malfunction, or a scandal,82 as Darwin certainly thought to be case, and so did Bertrand Russell, Gottlob Frege, and the first Wittgenstein. The philosophical prejudice against metaphors is deeply related to the metaphysics of objective knowledge embraced by logic and natural sciences. As Hans Blumenberg brought to notice in his Paradigms for a Metaphorology, since at least the Cartesian Discours de la méthode, all forms and elements of figurative speech were downgraded to sheer makeshifts destined to be superseded by logic.83 Personally, I have no axe to grind on a metaphorological investigation, but I share in Blumenberg’s goal of putting under the spotlight the logical perplexity displayed by metaphors and reconsidering the relationship between logic and imagination entailed by its use.
In the realms of philosophy and legal theory, the use of metaphors to treat hard topics is abundant in examples. To see language as a logical picture like the first Wittgenstein, or as a set of games like the second, or even as a social treasury like Umberto Eco, is to make use of metaphors as key theoretical devices of investigation. The same holds for law, which can be depicted either as a game-like activity such as chess, like Hart did, or as an interpretative social practice such as courtesy, like Dworkin, or even as an autopoietic system, like Niklas Luhmann. All these examples entail an imaginative use of well-known symbols garnered from the conceptual common pool of the Western culture to bridge a gap between what we know and what we are trying to grasp. As Aristotle already recognized in Rhetoric: Metaphors, most of all, produce knowledge.84
What is at issue here is the use of metaphors as creative tools for knowledge, as cognitive instruments. A metaphorical articulation of language unearths how we use a familiar conceptual apparatus to cast light on certain aspects of what we are trying to clutch and for which we still don’t have a literal name. In this sense, Wittgenstein’s “seeing as” intertwine with the conceptual proceedings of a metaphor in the sense that both entail the exercise of bringing to bear on what we are trying to grasp or see a ready-made conceptual support with a reinvented semantics. In this clash, a language insight shows through, leading to novel views on a domain of reference. Let us remember that Wittgenstein’s “seeing as” is related to “the lighting up of an aspect,”85 something which is “half visual experience, half thought.”86 The “seeing” to which Wittgenstein refers is not, literally, the “seeing” provided by a conceptual metaphor (the view made possible by a metaphor is metaphorical in itself), but both proceedings show up the influence of background concepts, or background knowledge, in the process of coming to know something. In Wittgenstein’s “seeing as” experience, “[w]hat forces itself on one is a concept,”87 for in that case, “[o]nly someone conversant with the shapes of the two animals can ‘see the duck-rabbit aspects.’”88
Metaphors are not language malpractice. They are a semiotic phenomenon, a common play of symbols in a form of life. To grasp a metaphor is to master a cultural language game. For Eco, the success of a metaphor is a function of the sociocultural format of the interpreting subjects’ encyclopedia.89 Metaphors—whose mechanism resort to a “transfer”, a “leap”, or a “displacement” of meanings—unlock new ways of thinking. They instruct how to see cultural items in their social activity.90 The best metaphors, in his description, are those in which the cultural process of semiosis shows through.91 It is interesting that even a logic theorist like Searle confessed that metaphors are not amenable to be unpacked by formal logic.92 Eco also broached the logical impossibility of an algorithm for metaphors, for they fundamentally fall back on a semiotic decision of users contextualized in a cultural framework.93 Metaphors, at the most basic level, are engendered on the footing of a semiotic web mastered by local interpretants who collectively decide the semantic affinities, correlations, and distinctions.
By the same token, theorists like Lakoff and Johnson categorize metaphors as a cultural process of imaginative rationality. In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson mapped some metaphors deeply entrenched in modern Western culture, such as our agonistic conception of an argument—in ordinary phrases like “he shot down all of my arguments,” “he attacked every weak point in my argument,” and “your claims are indefensible”94—and how we treat time as a valuable commodity—”you’re wasting my time,” “you’re running out of time,” “the flat tire cost me an hour,” “you need to budget your time.”95 These metaphors structure our reality and how we act in the social world. They disclose how we conceive of a category in terms of another, or how we use language to organize our experiences of the world. The very notion of “interests”—a fundamental institution of market economies essentially based on the intertemporal rationality entailed in the exchange of goods and values—is firmly grounded in the structural metaphor of time as a negotiable commodity as it came to be socially naturalized in the Western industrialized society and underwritten by the market-oriented way of production.
The “seeing as” philosophical experience and the metaphorical mechanisms of language by which the social imagination plots upon reality, creating new spaces, new categories, new knowledge, and new forms of life, afford valuable entry points for a better understanding of our relationship with institutional constructs in cultural systems. The conceptual frameworks provided by our linguistic practices in all domains of life set for us certain capacities for aspectual perception which come into play every time we cope with the invisible ontology of the social world. The culture, the totality of language games in which we are trained, supply us with the subtlety and the skills to share broad assumptions and to make fine distinctions.96