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Greek and Latin Expressions of Meaning

Andreas T. Zanker


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I. The Problem

tertius ille modus transferendi uerbi late patet, quem necessitas genuit inopia coacta et angustiis, post autem delectatio iucunditasque celebravit.

“The third manner of speaking – transferring a term [metaphor] – has a broad range of applications. It arose from necessity, imposed by the poverty and constraints of language; later on, however, the pleasure and the charm it brought rendered it popular” (Cicero, De Oratore 3.155).

his illa potentiora, quod res plurimae carent appellationibus, ut eas necesse sit transferre aut circumire: etiam in iis, quae denominata sunt, summa paupertas in eadem nos frequentissime reuoluit...

“More seriously than this, many things lack names, with the result that either transference [metaphor] or circumlocution is necessary. Even in the case of those things that have been named, our extreme poverty of vocabulary brings us back again and again to the same expressions” (Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria 12.10.34).

1One of the most interesting aspects of the English noun “meaning” is that it is itself polysemous: the word means different things at different times, and this has been an undeniable force in the history of philosophy and literary criticism. The same can be said of the associated verb, “to mean”: we can, for example, talk about both (a) what authors mean by their words and (b) what their words mean to their readers. On the face of it, there is something odd about the fact that the very words we employ to determine the signification of other terms can themselves be employed in multiple ways. This book is an attempt to survey the archaeology of this particular area of our vocabulary – to look at how the terms “meaning” and “to mean” are reflected in the terminology of the ancient languages, and to consider how the latter resembles, differs from, and possibly influenced our own expressions. In addition, I consider how the classical expressions of meaning developed over the course of time, and demonstrate that ancient authors could exploit the polysemies of their vocabulary of meaning for effect. But my intent is in fact broader than this; I hope to show that the polysemy of a number of prominent ancient expressions arose ultimately from metaphorical and metonymical transference, and, given that the modern European languages derive to a large extent from the classical ones, that this phenomenon has played a role in modern discussions of what things, and most importantly texts, signify.

2It is a cliché to say that much of subsequent intellectual inquiry is a footnote to Plato, but it certainly holds true for the subject of this book. Towards the middle of the Euthydemus, we find Socrates embroiled in a battle of wits against two sophists, Euthydemus and his brother, Dionysodorus. Their goal is to win the argument by any means possible, and one of the modes by which they attempt to confound Socrates is by quibbling over the different meanings of words. At one point, the word in question is the verb “νοεῖν” (roughly, “to apprehend”, “think”, “intend”), which Socrates employs in the following passage in the sense of “to mean” or “to signify”; Dionysodorus immediately pounces, taking issue with Socrates’ application of the word to an inanimate grammatical subject:

1. ἐπεὶ εἰπέ, τί σοι ἄλλο νοεῖ τοῦτο τὸ ῥῆµα, τὸΟὐκ ἔχω ὅτι χρήσωµαι τοῖς λόγοις”; Ἀλλ᾽ σὺ λέγεις, ἔφη, [τούτῳ γ᾽ οὐ πάνυ χαλεπὸν χρῆσθαι·] ἐπεὶ ἀπόκριναι.

Πειστέον τοίνυν, ἦν δ᾽ ἐγώ, καὶ ἀνάγκη, ὡς ἔοικεν σὺ γὰρ ἄρχεις ἀλλ᾽ ἐρώτα.
Πότερον οὖν ψυχὴν ἔχοντα νοεῖ τὰ νοοῦντα, καὶ τὰ ἄψυχα;
Τὰ ψυχὴν ἔχοντα
Οἶσθα οὖν τι, ἔφη, ῥῆµα ψυχὴν ἔχον;
Μὰ Δία οὐκ ἔγωγε
Τί οὖν ἄρτι ἤρου, ὅτί µοι νοοῖ τὸ ῥῆµα;
Τί ἄλλο γε, ἦν δ᾽ἐγώ, ἐξήµαρτον διὰ τὴν βλακείαν;

Socrates. Tell me then, what else can that phrase (‘ῥῆµα’) of yours intend (‘νοεῖ’), ‘I am not able to deal with the arguments’.
Dionysodorus. But it is not particularly hard to deal with the phrase that you mention; just answer this question first.

[Socrates and Dionysodorus wrangle over whether it is fair for Dionysodorus to pose his question first, and Socrates ultimately bows to his adversary].

Socrates. Well then, I must obey, and it appears out of necessity – for you are in control here. Ask away!
Dionysodorus. Do, then, those things that intend (‘τὰ νοοῦντα’) have life when they intend (‘νοεῖ’), or do lifeless things do so too?
Socrates. Only those things that have life.
Dionysodorus. Do you think that any phrase (‘ῥῆµα’) has life?
Socrates. No I do not, by Zeus.
Dionysodorus. Why, then, did you ask me just now as to what my phrase intended (‘νοοῖ τὸ ῥῆµα’)?
Socrates. For what other reason than that I blundered on account of my stupidity?” (Plato, Euthydemus 287c-e).

  • 1 LSJ s.v. “νοέω” IV: “of words, bear a certain sense, mean”.

3In this excerpt, Dionysodorus makes an intriguing, albeit clearly devious, point concerning the polysemy of “νοεῖν”. By the late fifth century the Greek verb could indeed be used of (a) what a phrase or word meant,1 although from Homer onwards it had been primarily (b) a verb of thinking and perception and therefore appropriate to animate subjects. Dionysodorus latches onto the latter usage of the verb, demanding that Socrates explain how phrases can intend things when they are not in fact living creatures. In the passage that follows, Socrates proceeds to impale the sophist on his own argumentative commitments, and both Dionysodorus and his brother come away looking distinctly unprincipled by the end of the dialogue; as Crito, Socrates’ companion, puts it, it is better to be refuted oneself than to refute others by means of such arguments (Euthydemus 304c-d). The issue that Dionysodorus raises concerning “νοεῖν” is, however, an important one: why is a verb of mental activity here applied to an inanimate conveyor of intentionality, that is, a phrase (“τὸ ῥῆµα”)? The phenomenon becomes all the more interesting when one realizes that this double-usage is not restricted to “νοεῖν” but appears to be reflected in other expressions of meaning as well – in languages both ancient and modern. In a sense, this entire book is an exploration of Plato’s insight, although I hope to be more constructive in my handling of it than Dionysodorus.

4This episode from the Euthydemus provides a basis for the investigation of a broader aspect of our language – the metaphorical quality of our vocabulary for writing and literary signification. To be more precise, I shall argue that many of the ways in which we talk about one of our most important cultural achievements, the written text, involve a metaphorical transference that is embedded in a number of European languages and reflected in the polysemy of the vocabulary. While the metaphor is present on the level of imagery throughout western literature, in that books are frequently explicitly likened to human beings, it resonates on the lexical one as well: we speak about texts and what they do by means of the same vocabulary that we use of human beings. In fact, all of the active verbs in English that we use to describe the functions and roles of texts can also be used of people – one might consider phrases such “the texts says”, “the text complicates”, “the text describes”, “the text confirms”, “the text struggles”, “the text asserts”, “the text communicates”, “the text intimates”, “the text signifies” (it will perhaps be an interesting exercise for the reader to try to conceive of counter-examples). The crucial thing to note is that we have not developed a unique vocabulary for talking about what texts do, and, while this may be unremarkable in and of itself, it has deep repercussions for literary theory, philosophy, the law, and many other areas of life.

5In order to demonstrate that the metaphor is a force in modern western discussions of literature it is necessary to go back to the beginnings of western literary history; practically speaking, this means investigating how the transference manifested itself in Greek and Latin. These languages were formative when it comes to our own vocabulary for talking about texts, as many of the expressions of meaning in English (and the other modern European languages) stem from them – take, for example, the English “to signify”, the Italian “il senso”, and the French “vouloir dire”. This etymological link has implications for the way in which we discuss our modern terms, since the fact that we see the same ambiguities in these ancient languages as we do in our own can blind us to their power. It perhaps also explains the general silence on the broader issue that I wish to discuss: if all of the languages with which we are acquainted contain the same metaphor as our own, we may simply not remark on it. The metaphorical nature of our vocabulary of literary signification hides in plain sight.

6The historical thesis of this investigation is relatively straightforward. When written texts (and modes of interpreting them) appeared in the ancient world, the speakers who wrote and read them were forced to come up with a vocabulary for what these new artifacts “did”, and turned to a set of expressions that were already in use: in the majority of cases, they looked to words and phrases that were employed in order to speak about human intentions, desires, and sign-giving. In some cases, this was simply an extension of pre-existing metaphorical vocabulary, in that these expressions had already been applied to inanimate grammatical subjects. The metaphor, as it applied to texts, stuck, partly because of its sheer appropriateness and partly because there was no likely substitute, and ultimately “died”, leaving its “fossil” in the ancient languages and their descendants. We now pay next to no attention to this metaphorical quality of our language for talking about texts, but it can lead us into philosophical and interpretative quandaries. In particular, the superstructures that we can erect on the basis of the old metaphorical language may facilitate the idea that the text itself is an agent with its own volition: the old metaphor, so to speak, comes back to life.

7The expressions that we use to talk about what texts do (and even here, the verb “to do” may lend a degree of agency to its grammatical subject) are of course the only ones at our disposal; the paupertas (“poverty”) of our language determines that we cannot avoid using verbs of the text that can also be employed of human beings. Throughout this book I shall be using terms that might be thought to endow things and texts with intentions – there is simply no way of avoiding this type of locution. My aim is therapeutic rather than radical; it at least seems useful to try to promote a greater awareness of certain ways in which expressions of meaning are employed, and have seemingly always been employed, in a number of European languages. The metaphor may not deceive us about reality – nobody really believes that texts are human beings – but it nevertheless provides us with a convenient means by which to avoid certain topics. By attending to language, we can perhaps come to a better understanding of how we use it to represent reality, and may also come to the conclusion that some ways of representing reality are clearer than others.

II. The Roles of “Meaning” in Literary Criticism

  • 2 Foundational are Wimsatt and Beardsley’s “The Intentional Fallacy” (1946), reprinted in Wimsatt & B (...)

8Although the main thrust of the book concerns the genesis and nature of the classical vocabulary of meaning, there are clear ways in which it engages with modern critical praxis. Many would consider the question “what is the role of the words ‘meaning’ and ‘to mean’ in literary studies?” passé, but I believe it still to be of clear importance. In twenty-first century academic criticism it is often more common to see the verb used of the text itself (or the words within the text) than of its author, and one still frequently hears that one should not appeal to the intention of the author in commenting upon his or her text. The set of concerns that gave rise to this tendency, themselves partly inspired by the thought of Plato, are sometimes referred to collectively by phrases such as the “Intentional Fallacy” or “Death of the Author”.2 We cannot, so one argument goes, be certain as to what the author meant, and therefore it is best to concentrate on the text itself. According to a different argument, to concentrate on the author is to reduce the richness of his or her writing, what it means to us: the text can mean more to us than the author intended, and simply to focus on the moment of creation is effectively to ignore some of the most interesting aspects of a text for us as modern readers. Evidently, this movement away from the intention of the author to the meaning of the text to the reader has been immensely liberating and productive for recent generations of scholars.

9There is also, of course, a case to be made for the opposing point of view. While appreciating the epistemological difficulties involved, it seems reasonable when commenting on a text to consider what the author might have meant if we are interested in texts as modes of communication rather than as purely aesthetic objects (which is not to say that it is necessarily wrong to treat them as such – some texts, for example modern lyric, are chiefly aesthetic). Communication involves two parties, the utterer and the person interpreting his or her utterance, and if we have no interest in the former and what he or she is trying to communicate then we are not really treating the utterance as a mode of communication. Certainty as to the author’s intentions can never be achieved, but then this is not out of keeping with our predicament in all walks of life – skeptical arguments about the nature of reality have yet to be successfully countered, yet this generally does not prevent us from living normal lives on the assumption that they are wrong. Similarly, when it comes to interpretation it might be argued that the best that we can hope for is to establish a case beyond reasonable doubt as to what the utterer intended to communicate on the basis of the evidence at our disposal.

10Proponents of the two points of view represented in the previous paragraphs often adopt different approaches to the word “meaning”, and will therefore potentially interpret the phrase “the meaning of the work of literature” in different ways – the first group will describe what the work means in terms of how the reader interprets it, while the second will presumably appeal to what the author most likely intended. The one group will gravitate towards the idea that “all meaning is realized at the point of reception”, while for the other “the meaning is the author’s own”. In this sense, it is possible for each party to “talk across” the other – their understanding of the key term in the dispute is different. The English word “meaning”, as it turns out, does not correspond to any monolithic concept, nor is it used uniformly in all contexts: rather, it is a crude tool that has, over the course of time, come to be used for a variety of functions. The fact that these functions are abstract – we cannot, for example, physically point to an entity that bears the name “meaning” – makes this terminology particularly difficult to get to grips with.

11But the metaphorical quality of our expressions of meaning is important to the modern debate concerning intentionality in a further way, in that the nature of the terms that we employ to speak about texts greatly enhances our ability to avoid speaking about what the author meant. In contemporary criticism, texts can “struggle to communicate”, they can “deceive” us, and they can “intend” (just like in the Euthydemus). These metaphorical ways of describing what texts do have strong connotations of mental activity (in order to struggle to do something, it is necessary to desire to do something). In accordance with Dionysodorus’ otherwise questionable argument, we might note that texts do not have mental states or desires in their own right but are modes of expression – means by which speakers communicate their intentions to an audience. Because of the metaphorical language that we use of texts, however, it is easy to remove the author from the equation altogether and to depict the conversation as occurring between the text and the reader. To put it another way, communication can be understood as involving (a) an utterer, (b) an utterance, and (c) an interpreter, but if we assign the utterance itself the role of utterer, then the actual utterer is left out of consideration. This is a particularly convenient way of avoiding the modern criticism that one is appealing to the author’s intention: while we may question the role of the author as the ultimate arbiter of a text’s meaning for us, and there are certainly situations in which the issue of authorship is complicated (oral poetry and anonymous literature, for example), it is essential to be at least aware of this trick built into our language.

III. Influences

  • 3 For general introductions to the modern philosophy of language, see Miller (2007) and Lycan (2008); (...)
  • 4 Wittgenstein (1953/2001), § 109: “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligenc (...)
  • 5 Wittgenstein (1953/2001), § 126: “When philosophers use a word – ‘knowledge’, ‘being’, ‘object’, ‘I (...)
  • 6 Wittgenstein (1953/2001), § 127: “The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for (...)
  • 7 Ryle (1949), (1957); Austin (1962), (1970).

12This project has been influenced by a number of different strands of thought, and it is as well to note some of them here. Great advances in our understanding of language occurred over the past century, particularly at the meeting point of philosophy, linguistics, and psychology.3 Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the pioneers in this field; in his Philosophical Investigations, published posthumously in 1953, Wittgenstein conceived of language itself as the chief cause of metaphysical problems: such problems did not exist in their own right but came into being because of the obscurities and ambiguities of our modes of expression.4 His point was not to solve these problems, since there was nothing to be solved, but rather to provide a therapy that took the form of a comprehensive description – philosophy should simply put everything before us.5 Wittgenstein came to subscribe to a social conception of language: language is conventional, and, far from being a clean and logical system, is determined by the usages of the communities that give rise to it. The one word can perform a number of different operations and the key thing to understand is the way in which it is being used. What Wittgenstein was advocating was a philology of sorts – a careful tabulation of how language is employed, which would reveal how it can lead us astray and how we end up in philosophical predicaments.6 His project was in some ways paralleled, in others continued by the “ordinary language philosophers”, among whose number are generally counted J. L. Austin and Gilbert Ryle – the latter, for example, claiming that the “Mind-Body Problem” could be reduced to a misuse of language.7 While Ryle himself certainly did not convince everyone that all metaphysical problems arose solely from language, it may nevertheless be useful to turn our attention away from the standard question of where meaning lies in literary interpretation (is it with the author or the text?), and towards the functions of the noun “meaning” and the verb “to mean” in such discussions – that is to say, the ways in which we use them.

  • 8 Grice (1957), (1989); Searle (1969), (1998); cf. Sperber and Wilson (1995); Carston (2002); Hanks ( (...)

13A second major influence on this book is the work of Wittgenstein’s successors in analytical philosophy, in particular Paul Grice and John Searle, and the distinction between what is generally termed “sentence meaning” (the meaning of the words) and “speaker” or “utterer’s meaning” (which applies to the intention of the speaker or author).8 While Grice is usually credited as the originator of this distinction, Searle employed it in his continuation of J. L. Austin’s work on speech acts: when I say “it’s cold in here”, the sentence meaning is simply that it is cold in the room, but the utterer could in fact be issuing a directive to close a window. Here, the sentence meaning is clearly different from the utterer’s meaning. This already undermines any essentialist attempt to define the word “meaning”, and demonstrates how necessary it is to specify what sort of meaning one is talking about before beginning to analyze it.

  • 9 See, for example, the initial formulation at Grice (1957), 375: “‘A meant something by x’ is (rough (...)

14The distinction is, of course, also applicable within the bounds of literary criticism – when we talk about “the meaning of the text”, we might be talking about a range of different things covered by the same word (“meaning”), and it is important to distinguish among these. Grice moreover contributed a number of other ideas that have been foundational for modern philosophy and linguistics, setting, for example, the intention of the speaker at the center of his philosophy of meaning.9 While literary critics have largely moved away from espousing intentionalism, it is important to note that it remains a point of interest in other (allied) fields.

  • 10 Lakoff & Johnson (1980); cf. Lakoff (1987); Lakoff & Turner (1989); Sweetser (1990); Ortony (1993); (...)
  • 11 Reprinted as Reddy (1993).

15Besides Wittgenstein and the philosophical tradition with which he is associated, my approach has been tangentially influenced by the idea, most attractively set out by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, that the expressions that we use in order to describe reality are dependent on a series of metaphors that lie on a conceptual level; for this group of linguists, metaphor is not simply a feature of language but of human cognition.10 In 1979, Michael Reddy described what he termed the “Container Metaphor” of communication:11 according to Reddy, many of the ways in which we describe communication involve the idea of a receptacle into which we put our meanings and thoughts and from which the listener or reader retrieves them:

2. “He couldn’t put it into words”.

3. “She couldn’t get anything out of his babble”.

16If Reddy is right, the manner in which we talk about meaning is structured in a way that encourages us to conceive of meanings as reified objects that can be loaded into words and extracted once more without any change to their original nature. Lakoff and Johnson in turn isolated a number of other conceptual metaphors which, they argued, underlie how we speak – for example, metaphors about life and death such as birth = an arrival, life = a journey, death = a departure; in the following sentences, we can see how these metaphors manifest themselves in ordinary speech:

4. “Jeremiah came into the world kicking and screaming”; “little Maria almost never made it”.

5. “She was nearing the end of life”; “he had many obstacles to overcome”.

6. “He left us”; “she departed”.

  • 12 This point is already foreshadowed in Aristotle: “πάντες γὰρ µεταφοραῖς διαλέγονται καὶ τοῖς οἰκείο (...)
  • 13 For work on conceptual metaphors within the field of classical studies, see Wiseman (2007); Short ( (...)

17In each of these, a conceptual metaphor provides the structure around which the sentence is draped; the relevant metaphor appears innumerous guises, although the underlying principle is the same. One of the most important contributions of cognitive linguistics for our purposes is the thesis that metaphor is far more prevalent than we realize.12 We do not necessarily notice it, since it operates at a conceptual as well as a lexical level and can be instantiated in a variety of ways; in this paragraph alone, I have used multiple metaphors. Given the frequency with which we speak of texts as sentient agents, we should consider the possibility that a metaphor of the form text = person contributes to how we talk about what texts do. A good place to start is to investigate the metaphors of meaning that we live by.13

  • 14 See Allan (2008), Geeraerts (2010), and Hanks (2013). Among the pioneering modern works were those (...)
  • 15 See, for example, Geeraerts (1997). For a discussion of prototype theory, see Evans & Green (2006), (...)

18A final source of inspiration that should be mentioned at this point arises from the inquiry into how languages change and grow. The importance of metaphor is in fact not limited to the synchronic phenomenon discussed in the previous paragraph: metaphor and its partner-trope, metonymy, also hold a prominent position in the study of diachronic semantics (the investigation of changes of meaning through time).14 Since antiquity, it has been generally agreed that the mechanism of lexical transference is one of the key modes by which languages accrete – the one word is employed in a different sense in order, for example, to enable language users to discuss new technologies and to address new types of question. Indeed, metaphorical and metonymical transference is one of the prime causes of lexical polysemy, in that an initially bold re-deployment of a word at an early point in its history can result in two separate and entirely standard meanings of the word in the contemporary lexicon. This principle has received fresh attention in recent decades, for example in the context of the linguistic field of prototype theory (which was at least partly inspired by the thought of Wittgenstein);15 as we shall see, diachronic/historical semantics plays an important role in our attempt to understand the prevalence of polysemy in our expressions of meaning – the fact that “to mean” can mean different things.

  • 16 Cf. Wittgenstein (1953/2001), § 309.

19Classicists have much to offer the field of the philosophy of language: they are able to provide evidence that stems not only from the contemporary context but also sets modern modes of expression into a historical one. This is a genuine contribution, since much of the debate undertaken in the philosophical and linguistic literature is purely synchronic; it is indeed common to read that historical issues are of no particular importance to modern communication studies. The diachronic dimension is, however, key to the therapeutic approach: by looking at historical processes, we may discover how certain problems came about, and this may result in the problems themselves being reduced to an issue of language for which a heightened awareness can be a corrective.16 The classical philologist can also adduce evidence that may corroborate or weaken the theories of contemporary philosophers and linguists by demonstrating where the roots of the modern debates lie. Particularly in the case of the set of expressions that will be considered in the pages that follow, it is essential to move back in time and to consider how they were deployed in the past: I hope that this book will be of interest to scholars in a range of different fields.

IV. The Book

20At this point I would like to describe what the book is not about; first of all, it is (a) not about the human mind, nor is it an attempt to establish universal linguistic truths. I am not seeking to build up any general theory about how we, as human beings, create verbs and expressions of meaning. One would need to study far more languages than I do in order to argue for this, and any movement in this direction is probably best left to those who specialize on the interface of thought and speech. My concern in this book is with an individual tradition. Nor is the book about (b) ancient theoretical inquiry into the nature of meaning and signification; there is a wealth of material on this subject, and some of it will come under discussion where appropriate (a basic introduction to the views of the major schools can be found in Appendix III). Nevertheless, in order to reduce the scope of the investigation it seems advisable to focus on the actual linguistic evidence rather than on the history of, say, Peripatetic or Stoic semantics. Finally, (c) this book does not engage with modern philosophical debate beyond what is necessary; no mention is made of truth-based theories of semantics, for example, and my references to modern philosophy are primarily ad hoc. While I hope that the book will stir interest within philosophical circles, my intention is neither to present a theory of meaning of my own nor to debate the merits of the various modern theories, but rather to study the nature and development of an ancient vocabulary that has been influential on the modern western languages.

  • 17 For debate between them, see Derrida (1990).

21Some readers will miss the influence of post-structuralist thought in what follows. As much as I would like to proceed from a holistic conception of the subject, the differences between the views on language and meaning found in the writing of figures such as Derrida and the tradition outlined earlier are simply too great for them to be treated together in a work of this length: Derrida and Searle stand at odds with one another, a fact that they themselves readily acknowledged.17 Besides this, however, I have found the intellectual currents that I mentioned in the previous section to be the most productive in investigating the central issue of this book. There are, moreover, certain ways in which I believe post-structuralist writing has muddied the waters when it comes to criticism, precisely on account of the usage of expressions such as “vouloir dire” and “to mean”. Nevertheless, engagement with post-structuralist ideas can be found at certain points, for example in my treatment of metaphors for metaphor in Chapter 8. Consideration of other schools of thought might also be missed, for example the German hermeneutic tradition, but once again it was difficult to integrate the thought of figures such as Gadamer into the following investigation; I hope at least that Gadamer’s emphasis on the role of tradition in the formation of our own judgments and prejudices finds some echo in this book.

22Readers will also note that the preponderance of my citations in Chapters 1-5 stems from specific periods of Greek and Latin literature: while there is quite a bit of Plato, there is somewhat less of Aristotle – a figure who, given his influence on subsequent hermeneutics, may have been expected to make more of an appearance. This is due to the nature of the study: later instantiations of a particular linguistic usage are less important for the purposes of determining how the transference occurred to begin with than are the earlier ones. Plato is in many ways the key author to study in tracing the expansion of the Greek vocabulary of meaning, and dialogues such as the Cratylus and Protagoras are especially rich hunting grounds for the terminology; for a similar reason, Herodotus receives an appendix of his own. The vocabulary was for the most part, at least, already established by the time of Aristotle. Likewise, while Cicero and Seneca loom large in my citations, later Christian authors such as Augustine, whose Confessiones, De Dialectica, De Doctrina Christiana, and De Magistro are foundational for the history of western theories of interpretation, are less in evidence: the bulk of the relevant Latin expressions of meaning was already in place by the second century AD, and there is therefore less immediate cause to focus on the later material (although there are notable exceptions to which I shall refer where appropriate).

23It is also worth mentioning certain conventions for which I have opted. (a) I use the verb “to intend” in the standard way of literary critics – as a rough synonym for “to mean” when used of what authors want to say; its virtue lies in its relative transparency. At times, I shall refer to usages where an intentional agent is the grammatical subject by means of the phrase “I-meaning”. Similarly, I shall be using “to signify” as an alternative to “to mean” when speaking of what things, such as texts and words, mean to a viewer or interpreter (in such cases, I sometimes use the phrase “S-meaning”). Evidently, it is possible to object to these usages, and I shall proceed to muddy the distinctions in the following chapters, but I have found them to be the most convenient way of avoiding precisely the ambiguity that I am attempting to investigate. (b) I also foresee that some readers will object to the fact that I do little to contextualize the classical excerpts that I use, and will find the translations that I provide suspicious: why do I translate a particular verb as an expression of meaning, given that it could be translated in other ways? I can only ask for the reader’s charity on this score: it would be impossible to fully contextualize all of the examples that I corral. Moreover, although the translations that I supply are my own (save where otherwise noted), I have taken care that they do not misrepresent the orthodox rendering; I do not believe them to be particularly controversial. In general, the reader is advised to consult other translations and the broader context wherever possible. (c) I deviate slightly from standard scholarly practice in my usage of quotation marks. I apply these in four situations – (i) when providing translations for words and phrases, (ii) when quoting the words of an author or character, (iii) in mentioning a word as opposed to using it, and (iv) occasionally as “scare quotes”. Quotation marks are also applied to Greek and Latin terms and phrases under these conditions, for reasons laid out at the end of Chapter 1. In block quotations set off from the main text, I dispense with quotation marks for Greek and Latin (but retain them for the translations).

24The book is split into nine chapters. In Chapter 1, I provide some examples from Latin literature of why it is of value to study expressions of meaning, and demonstrate certain aspects of the expressions that have the verb “uelle” (roughly, “to wish”, “to desire”) as their base. Even the most simple and apparently harmless phrases, such as “hoc uult dicere”, can mislead us if we are not careful. Chapters 2 and 3 introduce in greater depth the Greek and Latin vocabulary for what words and texts do, and provide a basis for the subsequent investigations; if the reader is pressed for time, he or she may wish simply to read the conclusions of these chapters. In Chapter 4, I draw together the findings of the first part of the book, laying out the theory that the polysemy of a number of expressions of meaning issued originally from metaphorical and metonymical transference: in many cases, Greek and Roman authors used the same words for what inanimate objects meant as they did for what human beings meant intentionally. Other terminology came into being via different metaphors, for example expressions of meaning relating to power or force. Chapter 5 discusses the absence of the subsequently attested vocabulary of meaning in the Homeric epics (as well as in Hesiod), and presents a thesis concerning its emergence over the course of time; while the verb “σηµαίνειν” is used in these poems in the senses of “to make a sign”, “command”, and “mark”, it is not employed as an expression for what inanimate things mean, and it is necessary to account for this. Chapter 6 moves out of the sphere of the lexical and into that of literary imagery, demonstrating the frequency of the metaphor according to which the text is depicted as a human being in classical literature from the Archaic period onwards. Here, the point is to show how books and poems were regularly treated in Greek and Roman culture as sentient entities. In Chapter 7, I in turn consider the metonymy whereby Roman authors referred to a piece of literature by the name of its author (a convention that we ourselves follow); this further compounded the identification of texts with human beings. In Chapter 8, I consider how the word “metaphor” is itself the result of a metaphor whereby words are “carried across” from one thing to another; the imagery is strongly spatial, and studying it brings out the way in which the use of metaphors can clarify abstract notions. Finally, in Chapter 9, I turn to how the classical material surveyed in the earlier chapters has influenced the modes of expression of modern literary criticism, and demonstrate the effect of the introduction of the Intentional Fallacy on how scholars describe texts. There follow three appendices – the first providing a case study of the usage of expressions of meaning by an individual Greek author at an important juncture in the development of the vocabulary (Herodotus), the second adding further nouns of meaning to supplement the material found in Chapters 2 and 3, the third offering a brief introduction to the linguistic theories found in Plato’s Cratylus and Aristotle’s On Interpretation, as well as to Stoic and Epicurean thought about meaning.

25In the end, there is no right or wrong way to speak about what texts do, provided that we are clear about what we mean, and I certainly do not want to adopt a prescriptive stance towards either language or literary criticism; in fact, one of my goals is to question prescriptivism as such. What I hope to achieve by means of this book is to make the metaphorical ambiguities of an important group of expressions more widely known and to account for them historically. The issue is not a minor one, and has major implications for how we read. Authors frequently write in order that they may be understood – it is from the act of writing that one gains reward for one’s labor, it is from this that one earns censure and, perhaps, derision. My goal is not to argue that the author’s is the only type of meaning that we should be interested in, but it would be unfortunate indeed if we allowed him or her to be written out of the equation altogether by something so apparently innocuous as a metaphor.


1 LSJ s.v. “νοέω” IV: “of words, bear a certain sense, mean”.

2 Foundational are Wimsatt and Beardsley’s “The Intentional Fallacy” (1946), reprinted in Wimsatt & Beardsley (1954); Barthes’ “Death of the Author”, most easily accessible in Barthes (1977); and Foucault’s “What Is an Author?”, found in Bouchard (1977). On the “overcoming” of the death of the author, see Burke (1992); Jannidis, Lauer, Martinez, & Winko (2000), 7-29.

3 For general introductions to the modern philosophy of language, see Miller (2007) and Lycan (2008); the analytical tradition is covered in Soames (2003) and, at a more advanced level, Soames (2010). Most surveys begin with discussion of Frege (1892).

4 Wittgenstein (1953/2001), § 109: “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language”.

5 Wittgenstein (1953/2001), § 126: “When philosophers use a word – ‘knowledge’, ‘being’, ‘object’, ‘I’, ‘proposition’, ‘name’ – and try to grasp the essence of the thing, one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way in the language-game that is its original home? What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use”.

6 Wittgenstein (1953/2001), § 127: “The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose”. On the question of Wittgenstein’s investigation being a philological one, see, however, Ryle (1957).

7 Ryle (1949), (1957); Austin (1962), (1970).

8 Grice (1957), (1989); Searle (1969), (1998); cf. Sperber and Wilson (1995); Carston (2002); Hanks (2013).

9 See, for example, the initial formulation at Grice (1957), 375: “‘A meant something by x’ is (roughly) equivalent to ‘A intended the utterance of x to produce some effect in an audience by means of the recognition of this intention”.

10 Lakoff & Johnson (1980); cf. Lakoff (1987); Lakoff & Turner (1989); Sweetser (1990); Ortony (1993); Lakoff & Johnson (1999); Kövecses, Z. (2002); Fauconnier & Turner (2003). See also the useful compendium of essays on metaphor (in five volumes) by Hanks & Giora (2012). For an overview of the field of cognitive linguistics, see Evans & Green (2006).

11 Reprinted as Reddy (1993).

12 This point is already foreshadowed in Aristotle: “πάντες γὰρ µεταφοραῖς διαλέγονται καὶ τοῖς οἰκείοις καὶ τοῖς κυρίοις” (“for everyone employs metaphors in conversation, as well as standard and proper words” Aristotle, Rhetoric 1404b34-35).

13 For work on conceptual metaphors within the field of classical studies, see Wiseman (2007); Short (2008), Short (2012), and Short (2013). All focus on the metaphors assembled by Lakoff & Johnson (1980).

14 See Allan (2008), Geeraerts (2010), and Hanks (2013). Among the pioneering modern works were those of Paul (1880), Hecht (1888), and Bréal (1897). For some cautionary notes, see Fortson (2003).

15 See, for example, Geeraerts (1997). For a discussion of prototype theory, see Evans & Green (2006), 248-285.

16 Cf. Wittgenstein (1953/2001), § 309.

17 For debate between them, see Derrida (1990).

© C.H.Beck, 2016

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