Ted Cohen’s “Thinking of Others: On the Talent for Metaphor”

28 Apr

Film Still from American Beauty (1999). Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by Alan Ball. Cinematography by Conrad L. Hall.

Edward Hopper. Cape Cod Morning, 1950. Oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

In the case of both American Beauty and Edward Hopper’s Cape Cod Morning, the artists skillfully use the materials of their chosen media to create characters that are powerful enough to make us, as viewers, emotionally respond to them and/or identify with them. The ability that we have to metaphorically identify with Janie in American Beauty or the woman staring out so intently in Cape Cod Morning, what Ted Cohen calls “the talent for metaphor,” is the same capability we employ when we attempt to understand and appreciate others. It is the specific ways in which these artists portray these women which make us care about these women enough to ask questions about them, such as: what are they staring at? What is on their minds? Are they similar at all? There are plenty of other questions that we are compelled to ask about them, an urge that I don’t think would occur for all images for us. A boring image from a TV show we can’t stand will not fascinate us or cause emotions in us the same way a moving image would. This is why artworks are important, for in their inherent greatness they are especially good at helping us to practice metaphorical identification–because they can create people we can actually care about and want to understand.

That is a summary of Cohen’s argument, which I discuss in detail in the paper I wrote for my Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics seminar. This paper will appear below. I use these specific images above as my opening example because American Beauty and Edward Hopper will be the subject of my senior honors thesis. After I revise it I will be posting what will be the introduction to my thesis to explain the connections between Hopper and the film that have not yet been explored by scholars. But to get back to Cohen’s book, I really enjoyed his writing because it contained profound ideas that were written in a succinct, easily understandable way. I think for the most part academic writing is unnecessarily wordy and stuffy, so I really appreciated Cohen’s clear voice.

Ted Cohen’s Thinking of Others: On The Talent for Metaphor

Ted Cohen’s short book Thinking of Others: On the Talent for Metaphor is not a theory of art or beauty. In some ways, this makes Cohen’s work both the opposite of philosophy and a quintessential work of philosophy. On the one hand, unlike most of the art philosophy with which we have become acquainted this semester, Cohen does not try to provide a comprehensive, systematically constructed and analytically tested framework through which we might identify or define art. But then on the other hand, what is unique about Cohen’s work is that he shows in a way that is entirely relevant and important to everyday life why art actually matters, instead of presupposing that we should value art in our world and then proceeding to write about it. In this way Cohen accomplishes a goal that I would assume is at the core of philosophy, which is to explain why we are the way we are, why we create works of art, and why being thoughtful about life is just as important as living it.

And unlike other philosophers we have studied, Cohen links art and its worth to everyday life in a way that does not look down upon ordinary people with a judgmental, snobbish tone, in which art is the saving grace of a stupid, ignorant, materialistic society. Instead, Cohen successfully demonstrates why we need more than science and facts in order to build a healthy human race, why fiction is just as important as nonfiction. And going even further than other philosophers we have read, Cohen’s book does not only show us what art does and why we should appreciate it, such as Hegel’s historicist theory might; it also shows why we should strive to actively engage with art throughout our lives in order to cultivate our moral faculties. I would even conjecture that if art philosophers want to gain more recognition in the general public outside of philosophy circles, then they should follow in the steps of Cohen with this book.

The Basic Argument

The basic claim of the book, as Cohen explains in a footnote on the first page of his book, is that our ability to understand others is the same as our ability to create and comprehend metaphors. Cohen does not aim to explain the cognitive processes behind making metaphors or why we are able to understand metaphors, leaving this question to be explored by the work that other philosophers have done on the subject and admitting that “there is mystery at the heart of metaphor.”[1] While Cohen does not wish to analyze the metaphor itself, he does unpack what happens to the terms in a metaphor, such as in the case “Mussolini is a utensil.” In this case, the association of Mussolini with a utensil transforms the utensil, which is an inherently neutral object in terms of our general feelings about it, into a negative demonstration of Mussolini as a mere tool for Hitler’s motives.

Cohen then goes on to compare this metaphor, which compares a specific person to a general object, to an identity statement where a specific person is compared to another specific person or some kind of specific thing, such as in the statement “I am Robert Pinsky.” Cohen argues that the same process that we used to understand the metaphor “Mussolini is a utensil” is the same process used to imagine that “I am Robert Pinsky.” Cohen admits that this is a bit of a stretch to call that sentence a metaphor, but he asks from the readers that since “what one must do to grasp any of these sentences is to think of one thing as something it plainly is not…that, I think, is exactly what one must do to grasp a metaphor. Then even if it is inapt to to call these sentences metaphors, the knack for grasping them is the same as the knack for grasping metaphors.”[2]

Cohen is not concerned with technicality in his definition of these identity statements which he labels “metaphors of personal identification,” and I think he is right to not focus on that point. His overall argument is that we use our imagination to be able to think of ourselves or others as someone else, and the way we use that imagination is the same way we use it to imagine Mussolini as a utensil. “Understanding one another involves thinking of oneself as another, and thus the talent for doing this must be related to the talent for thinking of one thing as another,” with that last talent being the talent for understanding metaphor.[3] And since engaging with narratives and personas in art is done through metaphorical imagination, a life enriched with art will contribute to our capacity to understand others in our lives and thus help us live a moral life.

Examples of Metaphorical Identification in Real Life and the Role of Imagination

            Having established his idea of metaphors of personal identification, Cohen spends the rest of the book showing examples in real life and in literature of how imagination allows us to make metaphors of personal identification, which aid us in understanding others.

His first example lies in the typical methods parents use to teach their children how to interact in a civil manner with other children. Through this example, Cohen also demonstrates that metaphorical identification, unlike literal identification, is asymmetrical, and therefore has its own value. Cohen presents us with the question of what Abner would do in some situation. To answer this question, we might ask any of the following:

  1. What would Abner do? (How would Abner feel?)
  2. What would I do?
  3. What would I do if I were Abner?
  4. What would Abner do if her were me?[4]

The answer to these questions might be the same, but more likely than not they would all be different. This is because when we consider these questions, “what is involved is a metaphor, a metaphorical proposition that is a kind of identity statement.”[5] These questions involve metaphorical identification rather than literal identification because we are not simply becoming Abner in the literal sense that Abner = me; metaphorical identification is more complicated than that. Instead, we metaphorically imagine what Abner would do by considering his character in that situation, considering ourselves in that situation, considering ourselves as Abner, and considering Abner as us. If these were literal identifications, then the answer to all these questions would necessarily be the same, because if I literally become Abner, then either Abner becomes me or there is no longer a “me” separate from Abner. But with metaphorical identification, we imagine ourselves in Abner’s situation, or in his situation with Abner’s characteristics. Cohen’s argument here is that our ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes is a way of engaging with metaphor through personal metaphorical identification, and engaging with art is an especially effective way to exercise our ability to comprehend metaphor.

Fiction, which is another important arena Cohen explores, is where we can develop real feelings about unreal people through metaphorical identification. Cohen does not discuss this point explicitly, but it is clear that it does not matter for Cohen whether we ought or ought not to have real feelings about fictions. There is no reason we should actually become sad when a beloved character in a book loses a loved one, because it did not actually happen. But this logical point does not stop us from naturally having real feelings arise in us when we interact with fiction. Furthermore, as Cohen argues throughout his book, we are able to have these feelings through our ability to metaphorically identify with fiction, and this skill is the same one we employ when we attempt to identify with and thus understand real people in our real lives.

With the utility of real feelings about fictional people settled, Cohen first addresses the arguments in philosophy that we cannot have real feelings about fictional people. He believes these arguments come from one of two assumptions:

  1. One cannot have real feelings about things known not to exist, or at least the feelings one does have are not the same as the feelings one has about real, existent things.
  2. Ordinary readers, and extraordinary ones as well, do commonly say they are having real feelings about fictions, and they name these feelings with the same words they use when naming feelings they have about real, existent things.[6]

For Cohen, the burden of proof falls on the first assumption to justify itself in the face of the second assumption. He believes this because since regular people can talk about real feelings for fictions with one another without there being any confusion or the need for clarification, one cannot simply deny their experiences by asserting the first assumption. Besides, life experience tells us that our feelings about fictions are real. This would explain the phenomenon of Harry Potter fans who booed Tom Felton and Alan Rickman in real life because they portrayed contemptible characters in the movie series, or why cast members of the television mini-series “It” avoided Tim Curry during filming because of his creepy, haunting portrayal of Stephen King’s demon clown Pennywise. Even though all of the people involved in these examples know that they are engaging with fictions, and especially unrealistic fictions at that, this does not prevent them from being able to have and respond to real feelings about the fictions.

While of course our real feelings about fictions can lead us to have unrealistic expectations about real life, Cohen’s point is that our ability to have real feelings about fiction is what makes us capable of learning from fiction. As Cohen points out, lest we become hung up on the peculiarity of our ability to have real feelings about something unreal, the “variability in readers’ appreciation and understanding of fictional characters is no different from the variability we display when we come to like, love, dislike, hate, empathize with, blame, and praise the real people who inhabit our real world.”[7] The reason we can learn from fiction is because the way we interact with its characters is so similar to the way we interact with real people. The realm of fiction is therefore a place where we get to explore new situations through metaphorical identifications with personas unlike us, or at least different from us in a significant way. Through this exploration, we are able to simultaneously develop our ability to understand people because the talent required for such understanding is the same talent required to explore these fictions.

It is these experiences with fiction that can lead us to have new feelings or attitudes towards ourselves or other people, an especially powerful element of fiction. Cohen demonstrates this especially well in the Biblical story of Nathan and David. As Mark Johnson points out in his review of Cohen’s book, “The shock of ‘Thou art the man’ [at the climax of the story of Nathan and David] is the shock of personal metaphorical identification, in which seeing oneself as another can be the basis for a re-configuration of one’s self.”[8] Whereas before David digested Nathan’s story and grasped the greed in the rich man’s action, Nathan’s declaration of “Thou art the man” forces David to realize that “I am the rich man,” metaphorically identifying himself with a man he hated. David’s interaction with fiction, about which he had real feelings, helped him to see his own situation in a new light through his ability to imagine himself in a different situation with a different identity.

To further elucidate how our talent for metaphorical identification allows us to understand others, Cohen turns to sports next. Cohen claims that the concept of virtuosity itself, which he defines for us as “the exhibition of something difficult done without apparent effort,”[9] would be impossible for us to even have if we did not have the ability to imagine that something that looks easy to do is actually difficult. Virtuosity is one of the reasons we enjoy professional sports, but we also admire it in art as well, such as when we attend a symphony orchestra concert or view an impressive painting. In these instances of appreciating virtuosity, Cohen argues that we are able to do so because we can metaphorically imagine ourselves as the people doing these actions, and when we do so we can picture the difficulty entailed in them.

This kind of metaphorical imagination of ourselves in someone else’s situation is also what we are able to do when we become fans of a sports team. Although it does not personally affect most fans whether a team does well, these fans are still able to genuinely be excited if their team wins or saddened if their team loses. This happens because we can metaphorically identify ourselves with the team, so that its successes and struggles become our successes and struggles. This is a capability that is also necessary to cultivate in our relationships with others and when we are in positions of power where we make decisions that will affect other people. As Cohen demonstrates with his personal friend who is a fan of Cohen’s enemy team, the New York Yankees, Cohen is still able to feel bad for his friend when the Yankees lose because he can imagine what his friend is going through and metaphorically identify himself with his friend in his friend’s situation. This empathy which we carry out in sports fandom “is no more difficult than what is required of us in living in the non-sporting parts of life with other people, and it is no less difficult than that.”[10]

Imagining what it is like to have a different identity from our own, to metaphorically identify with another experience, is also what we do when we imagine how others see us or when we imagine ourselves in future circumstances, as Cohen argues. To imagine ourselves as others see us, especially, is “a marvelously intricate task, very difficult to do because it requires…both leaving yourself and bringing yourself along…you must imagine yourself to be the other person, and then, in your newly-imagined embodiment, you must look back at the real you and discover what you see.”[11] In this task, Cohen argues that the way we imagine ourselves to be someone else and then use that new identity to judge our real selves is the same as thinking “I (A) am B. What do I (as B), think of A?” This is how we engage in a metaphor of personal identification, and it is clear that trying to think of how others see us is vital to having healthy, considerate relationships with others. Therefore, opportunities to engage in metaphor should be sought out in order to nurture this interpersonal skill within us.

Identifying oneself in future circumstances is also important to help us make decisions. Cohen regards this as another metaphor of personal identification, a special case in which although we are identifying with ourselves, it is a metaphorical identification because we identify with ourselves in a future situation which has not happened to us yet and is thus not us. But this skill, which draws from the same fountain as that for identifying metaphorically with other people, is just as important for our life with others. When we consider whether to marry someone, for example, we have to imagine ourselves in the future, committed to someone else, and figure out whether that is an identity we can happily take on for the rest of our lives. If we are not able to do this, we risk marrying someone (or not marrying someone we should have married) without judging whether that is a good decision for the long term and causing that person hardship as well as ourselves. Thus even the ability to metaphorically identify with ourselves in a different circumstance is needed to have a good life with others.


Where does art figure into the cultivation of our ability to use metaphor? “This ability to tell stories that promise to secure human understanding is nothing more or less than one of the powers of art. And I think our ability to be reached by this power is…our moral imagination, and that…is deployed in our comprehension of…metaphors of personal identification.”[12] Because art deliberately attempts to cleverly manipulate language of any kind to create compelling narratives, it is the best realm in which we can find ways to explore scenarios of human life through metaphorical identification and learn how to better understand others. Without art, we would not have the captivating stories that, because of their masterful use of language, are able to communicate these lessons to us. If a story is told poorly, or blandly, it is harder to have feelings about its characters, and without those feelings, we will have a harder time metaphorically identifying with the story. In his review of Cohen’s book, Eldridge notes that literary devices significantly contribute to our ability to engage with stories and to our willingness to bother thinking deeply about them: “Our attentions to works of literature are frequently all at once imaginative, emotional, and formal, and the most powerful fictions seem to draw on all three dimensions at once.”[13] It is very unlikely that we are going to imagine on our own what it would be like to live in different circumstances, and even if we did, we could not fathom all the possible life stories that exist and have lessons to teach us. Art serves the crucial role of providing us, in an interesting way, a diverse multitude of opportunities to try on different lives through metaphorical imagination. Along the way in our journey with art, we learn more about how to communicate and live harmoniously with others in our world.

Works Cited

Cohen, Ted. Thinking of Others: On the Talent for Metaphor. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

Eldridge, Richard. Review of “Thinking of Others: On the Talent for Metaphor.”

Johnson, Mark. Review of “Thinking of Others: On the Talent for Metaphor.”

[1] Ted Cohen. Thinking of Others: On the Talent for Metaphor (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2008), 1.

[2] Ibid., 8.

[3] Ibid., 9.

[4] Ibid., 13.

[5] Ibid., 16.

[6] Ibid., 36.

[7] Ibid., 78.

[8] Mark Johnson. Review of Cohen’s Book, 2.

[9] Cohen, Thinking of Others, 58.

[10] Ibid., 63.

[11] Ibid., 65.

[12] Ibid., 72.

[13] Richard Eldridge. Review of Cohen’s book, 9.


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