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02 December 2013

Metaphor in Ernesto Grassi’s Philosophy of Humanism

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Throughout the History of Philosophy, the value of metaphor as an expression of knowledge has been called into question. Descartes, German Idealism or Hegelian philosophy saw their capacity to provide reasons about more profound realities reduced. After Martin Heidegger, poetry became a reality capable of creating new worlds, but Heidegger himself did not pay attention to an essential aspect of this genre: metaphor. Which is paradoxical, because he used them regularly in his writings.

In this sense, Discourse on the Method by Descartes, the original source of modern philosophy, set out a model of reason based on doubt and the search for truth, ignoring the contribution of history, poetry or rhetoric, understood as a mask that blocks access to the centrality of the singular fact. Grassi himself states that this had a logical consequence, since “fifty years after the publication of the Cartesian discourse on the method the author had acknowledged all the unfortunate consequences of this way of philosophizing” (Marassi, 1998, p. 92).

Ernesto Grassi (1902-1991) claimed what his master Heidegger had overlooked. Metaphor is usually a mere stylistic effect or literary technique. It has never been given a meaning by itself, because it calls for the intangible, something that would be branded as fantasy or “virtual reality” in a strict sense. Not to mention the difficulty in recognizing its significance when stating the idea of a universal language, with the risk of what we are trying to communicate being rendered absurd.

Faced with these arguments, Grassi wants to go beyond conventional linguistic codes, because human beings transcend the purely sensory world. The spiritual and cultural worlds demand other principles, meanings which are not univocal and raise the level of the cognitive process. In Grassi’s opinion, what is commonly understood as objective “is not what there is, what is there”, and offers an example:

“What we do not understand the first time we read a poem at first seems inaccessible (…) because poetry is so objective that we cannot reach it, we fail to see it using our everyday subjective criteria” (apud, Barceló, p. 147).

Metaphors, however, shield the facts that originated them, because this is their best introduction against empty words or contradictory values. Then, in my opinion, three elements arise that provide them with greater objectivity: the context, the fact in itself or object associated with the metaphor, and the resulting image that is generated from the individual’s understanding (that is to say, through the particular use of reason). Through intersubjectivity, the metaphor is presented to another interlocutor, and so on, generating plots of shared meaning.

Grassi takes from Heidegger the interpretative mood of human existence, prioritizing the idea of understanding, rather than explanation, as is the case in science. Metaphor revives memory, the exemplary forms of humanity and oral tradition. In other words, poetry manifests itself in a patent state, understood as pathos or suffering. It feeds from human experience, the basis of creative intelligence.

To understand this way of thinking we need to go to the essence of things and synthesize them with our own experiences, from a humanistic point of view. Only in this way can their meaning be communicated and, above all, understood:

“Not only is humanist tradition not opposed to metaphysics, as Grassi claims, but it rather sees the unconditioned precisely in the forms of humanity conditioned historically and culturally as a source of a suprahistorical value. Humanism that simply champions the immanent values of human beings can easily be challenged.” (Flamarque, 2000, p. 794).

Metaphor is therefore the only linguistic means that starts from an empirical level from the outset. It is generated through an inductive process that is not the result of pure and simple observation through which theoretical assumptions can be established, but rather of constant discovery of the outside world, but always with an unprecedented nature –to use Grassi’s terminology–, with an eagerness for newness and significant sensitive phenomena.

Human beings usually fear the power of metaphor, they do not dare to enter it, because it calls for an extratemporal, mysterious space, at the border of limited rationality, biased by the constrained use of an univocal code that we use every day. Only if we dare enter the forest, even if it is dark and with many shadows, will we be able to see the clearing in the end. A clearing that takes us to the “house of being” –to use Heidegger’s words– from which to speak poetically.

Cited works:

BARCELÓ, J., “Lenguaje poético y metáfora en la obra de Ernesto Grassi”, Revista de Filosofía, v.65, (2009), pp. 143-159.

FLAMARIQUE, L., “El humanismo y el final de la filosofía”, Anuario filosófico, v.33, (2000), pp. 733-795.

MARASSI M., “Ernesto Grassi y el problema de la metáfora en el De nostri temporis studiorum ratione”, Cuadernos sobre Vico, v.9, n.10, (1998), pp. 89- 108.

Recommended reading:

GRASSI, E., La metáfora inaudita, Aesthetica, Palermo, 1990.

La filosofía del humanismo, Anthropos, Barcelona, 1993.


Arantxa Serantes

Researcher at the Universidad de Santiago de Compostela (Spain)

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