absolute metaphor

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

absolute metaphor
Luca Vanzago, "The Invisible and the Unpresentable." Logos of Phenomenology and Phenomenology of the Logos, ed. by Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka (2005). See Examples and Observations, below.


An absolute metaphor is a metaphor (or figurative comparison) in which one of the terms (the tenor) can't be readily distinguished from the other (the vehicle). Also called an antimetaphor or a paralogical metaphor.

The concept of absolute metaphor is often associated with the writings of certain modernist poets, including Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. In an absolute metaphor, according to Pound's theory of Imagism(e), "a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective" ("Vorticism," 1914).

The term absolute metaphor was popularized by the philosopher Hans Blumenberg in Paradigmen zu einer Metaphorologie (1960). Blumenberg credited German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) with the idea of absolute metaphor.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:


Examples and Observations

  • "The content of an absolute metaphor cannot be stated explicitly, that is, without using the metaphorical wording. In these cases, the metaphor is the only means of expressing the information contained in it."
    (Ulrich Baltzer, "The Cooperative Principle and the Speaker's Belief in Conversational Implicatures," in Saying, Meaning, Implicating, ed. by G. Meggle and C. Plunze. Leipziger Universitätsverlag, 2003)

  • "The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
    Petals on a wet, black bough."
    (Ezra Pound, "In a Station of the Metro." Poetry, April 1913)
  • "An absolute metaphor . . . is one where the figurative side is known, but the other is unknown or hard to grasp. 'Death is a journey' is such an absolute metaphor--for who knows death?--but so is 'life is a journey,' for how otherwise (as Virginia Woolf so comprehensively demonstrated) are we to understand so complex, comprehensive and varying an experience?"
    (Michael Carrithers, Introduction. Culture, Rhetoric and the Vicissitudes of Life. Berghahn Books, 2009)
  • "A metaphor is absolute if and only if it cannot be dissolved in concepts, and it must also have a content that gives direction for modes of relating to the world. Such a metaphor structures the world and represents the totality of reality, which cannot be experienced and of which we cannot ever get a full view. In addition, an absolute metaphor regulates thinking in a given speech. TRUTH IS LIGHT is an example of an absolute metaphor. I want to point out that we use this (dead?) metaphor without thinking in our work-a-day lives: we talk about seeing this or that in a clear manner, or this or that throws light on the issue, etc."
    (Stefán Snævarr, Metaphors, Narratives, Emotions: Their Interplay and Impact. Rodopi, 2010)
  • Extreme Subjectivity
    "The absolute metaphor would be one in which the original situation, the experience which should call to mind the comparison, no longer appears. A concrete situation fades behind a weight of metaphorical associations: it is as though a noun were lost behind its attributive adjectives . . .. An extreme subjectivity would result here, where the poet's metaphors (or epithets) replace the actual existing situation or object; the metaphor would then exist in its own right as an image, often juxtaposed with other images to create a world remote from the real. The metaphor (or image) becomes expressive rather than imitative, existing as a powerful, autonomous figure of speech from which radiate a host of evocative meanings. An example often quoted here is the last line from Guillaume Apollinaire's 'Zone' . . . where the link between sun and cut throat is indeed tenuous, and it is for the reader to grasp the point of comparison--the idea of termination, finality, sunset, redness and blood."
    (R. S. Furness, Expressionism. Routledge, 1973)
  • Expressing the Inexpressible
    "An absolute metaphor is a 'text,' in a very broad sense of this term, which presents an absence, and this absence is in itself never present, but its unpresentability is in turn presentable. In other words, the absolute metaphor gives a form to, produces the visibility of, something that in itself cannot be visible, but whose invisibility is somehow more compelling than anything actually visible. This fact explains why a metaphor can never be totally exact. There is always a margin of indeterminacy, in the actual metaphorical expression, with respect to what is expressed."
    (Luca Vanzago, "The Invisible and the Unpresentable: The Role of Metaphor in Merleau-Ponty's Last Writings." Logos of Phenomenology and Phenomenology of the Logos: Book One, ed. by Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka (Springer, 2005)