‘Deductions from Metaphors’: Figurative Truth, Poetical Language, and Early Modern Science

  • Wendy Beth Hyman
Part of the Palgrave Handbooks of Literature and Science book series (PAHALISC)


What is the rhetoric of truth? Not its content, but its syntactical structure, its verbal characteristics, its heuristic strategies? Might the resources of invention be marked not just by their manner of pleasing or persuading, but as indexical of distinctive relationships with fact? What is the grammar of nature? Of God? I hope here to shed some new light on an intellectual crux in seventeenth-century England wherein the answers to these questions changed radically. I want to offer two complementary suggestions: one, that well into the seventeenth century, early modern natural philosophers relied on metaphor—that most seemingly unscientific of tropes—as a forensic device which yielded understanding of the natural world; and two, that poets recognized this ‘scientific’ quality of figurative language, and used metaphor not merely as embellishment but also as an epistemological strategy: one that allowed literature to ‘think.’1 I will begin with the forensic capabilities of literary language, but my end point is the metaphoricity of science. My larger historical concern is with the epistemic displacement of figurative thinking by literality as the optimal conduit of truth—a misprision that continues to affect the status of the humanities relative to the sciences to this day. To get there, I consider the relationship between metaphor and natural philosophy primarily in the works of two seventeenth-century figures, Thomas Browne and Robert Boyle, whose divergent linguistic choices derive from opposed assessments of—and claims about—the ‘grammar’ of natural and supernatural realms.2


Royal Society Seventeenth Century Natural Philosopher Mechanical Hypothesis Figurative Language 
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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Wendy Beth Hyman
    • 1
  1. 1.Oberlin CollegeOberlinUSA

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