Publication details [#9125]

Raval, Suresh. 2003. Jakobson, method, and metaphor: A Wittgensteinian critique. Style 37 (4) : 426–438. 13 pp. URL


In his well-known essay "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances" Roman Jakobson presents a theory of language based on certain empirical observations and discoveries. Jakobson examines aphasia, a disorder of language use, which he characterizes as consisting of two more fundamental types of disorder. These coincide with what he considers to be the bases and underlying processes of languages as such. These are the metaphoric and metonymic processes that govern all verbal activity and indeed even human behavior in general. Every case of aphasia involves an impairment of the metaphoric or metonymic activities, and every case exhibits at least one of these traits. Normally these two processes occur continuously and interactively in language, though the individual speaker places greater emphasis on one or the other in accord with his or her preferences and predilections. Metaphor and metonymy are the defining poles of language: all linguistic expression lies somewhere between these extremes. Having identified these essential components of language Jakobson begins looking for further evidence to confirm his claim. He graduates his arguments to facilitate comprehension of the increasingly complex uses to which language is put. He considers, for instance, a normal but controlled use of language in a psychology experiment performed with children. When a group of children were presented with the noun "hut," their verbal responses invariably exhibited metaphoric or metonymic preferences. There was, in other words, no response other than in terms of metaphor or metonymy. This consequence bolsters the findings based on aphasia: the defining poles of language are metaphor and metonymy, and the individual preference (or predilection) determines the priority of one over the other. I attempt a Wittgensteinian critique of Jakobson's central claims. I shall begin with certain preliminary objections, especially those that present themselves on a first critical reading of his theory. These objections, however, can be refuted in turn by other preliminary and factual claims that Jakobson or other psycholinguists might make. This ability to offer further supplementary support for his theory is a product of certain conceptual assumptions that Jakobson makes in order to say what he does about language. I will therefore address those assumptions and argue that the conceptual errors Jakobson commits cannot be eradicated, that at best they can be compounded, contradicted, or recanted. The reason they cannot be eradicated is that they authorize his observations and analyses. (Suresh Raval)