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CLEN 4910: Metaphor and Media (Theories of Metaphor)

Spring 2018
Prof. Dennis Tenen | dt2406 at columbia
M, W 2:40pm to 3:55pm
613 Hamilton Hall

This course offers a survey of major works on metaphor, beginning with Aristotle and ending with contemporary cognitive and media theory. Appropriate for both undergraduate and graduate students, our sessions will involve weekly discussion and an occasional "lab" component, in which we will test our theoretical intuitions against case studies of literary metaphor and metaphor in the fields of law, medicine, philosophy, and design.

I am particularly interested in ways metaphors "break" or "die," whether from disuse, overuse, or misapplication. In their classical sense, metaphors work by ferrying meaning across from one domain to another. For example, by calling a rooster "the trumpet of the morn," Shakespeare means to suggest a structural similarity between horn instruments and birds. Note that this similarity cannot pertain to the objects in their totality. The analogy applies to the call of the bird only or perhaps to the resemblance between a beak and the flute of a trumpet. The metaphor would also fail were we to find no perceivable analogies between birds and trumpets. Similarly, computer users who empty their virtual "trash bins" are promised the erasure of underlying data. The course will conclude by examining the metaphors implicit such media transformations.

Course Requirements & Grading

Students will be expected to read the approximate equivalent of three scholarly articles per week, to attend the seminar weekly, and to participate in the class discussion both in person and online. A midterm and final exams will reward those who keep up with the readings. Advanced students will have the option to integrate the course's themes with the subject matter of their expertise.

  • 25% Class & Online Participation
  • 25% Metaphor Lab Worksheets
  • 25% Midterm Exam
  • 25% Final Exam

OR (for graduate students only)††

  • 25% Midterm Project Proposal (requires an in-person consultation)
  • 25% Final Project

Concise weekly forum posts responding to the reading, asking questions / sharing expertise regarding the lab assignments.

†† Undergraduates wishing to pursue an independent project still have to take the midterm and the final exams.

University Policies

When in doubt, cite! Plagiarism is insulting to your fellow students, your instructors, and to the research community at large. It wastes my time and yours, and is, ultimately, not worth the risk. Consult Columbia’s guidelines at or ask me for help early in the writing process.


The syllabus is continually updated to match the pace of the course on our GitHub page. Weekly responses to the readings are due on Piazza. Please submit all homework assignments to the appropriate folder in Courseworks.

Provisional Schedule & Reading List

Week 0

  • Introductions

Week 1

  • Aristotle's Poetics (335 BCE), Ch. XXI, XXII, XXV
  • Aristotle's Rhetoric (367-347 BCE), Book III: Ch. 2, 3, 4, 10
  • Cicero, On Oratory (55 BCE), Book II:LXV (pp. 159-160) and Book III:XXXVIII-XLIII (pp. 235-242)

Week 2

Week 3

  • From De Copia (1512) by Erasmus Volume 24, Ch. 10-31 (pp. 304-348).
  • Giambattista Vico's The New Science (1725), Book II, Section II "Poetic Logic" (pp 114-152).

Week 4

Lab: Dictionary of Metaphor I

Week 5

Week 6

Week 7

Week 8

Week 9

Week 10

  • Jacques Derrida and F. C. T. Moore, "White Mythology" (1974).
  • Selections from Paul Ricoeur's The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language (1978)
  • Metaphor and the Main Problem of Hermeneutics]102" by Paul Ricoeur.
  • Hannah Arendt, "Language and Metaphor" and "Metaphor and the Ineffable" in The Life of the Mind (1975), pp. 98-129.
  • Metaphors We Live By (1980), pp. 3-52 by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.
  • Lakoff, George. “The Death of Dead Metaphor.” Metaphor and Symbolic Activity 2, no. 2 (June 1987): 143–47.

Week 11 & 12

Overflow 1

  • "What Metaphors Mean" Davidson
  • Roger White, Structure of Metaphor
  • Donald Davidson, “What Metaphors Mean”
  • Max Black, “How Metaphors Work: A Reply to Donald Davidson”
  • Reading Max Black, “More About Metaphor”
  • John Searle, “Metaphor”
  • Cleanth Brooks on “Metaphor, Paradox, and Stereotype.” Poems

Overflow 2

  • Selections from Persuasions and Performances: The Play of Tropes in Culture (1986) by James Fernandez.
  • Selections from Henry Louis Gates Jr., "The Signifying Monkey: A Theory African-American Literary Criticism" (1989)