Metonymy – Synecdoche

Traditionally, two main domains are distinguished within the field of rhetoric, one deals with tropes and figures, and the other deals with argument schemes. A semantic and ornamental rhetoric is opposed to a cognitive and functional rhetoric. This approximate opposition can be misleading.

1. Tropes

A trope is defined as an operation “through which a word is given a meaning which is not precisely the proper meaning of that word” (Dumarsais [1730], p. 69). This definition may be paralleled by that of an argument as an operation “through which a statement (the conclusion) is given a belief value which is not precisely the proper belief value of that statement”.

The linguistic mechanisms involved in the tropic referential shift bear a significant resemblance to those involved in argument. In both cases, this is a transfer problem. In the case of a trope, the meaning of a word is transferred to another. In the case of an argument, the belief value of a statement is transferred to another, and the rules of transfer are similar.

Metaphor@, irony@, metonymy and synecdoche considered to be the four “master tropes” (Burke, 1945), are all relevant to the study of argumentation, although in fairly different ways.

2. Metonymy

2.1 Metonymy as a trope

Consider the classical example of metonymy, “the pen is mightier than the sword”. A pen is “an instrument for writing or drawing with ink…” (MW, Sword), and a sword is “a weapon with a long metal blade and a hilt with a hand guard…” (OD, Sword.). In the quoted proverb, pen and sword are used metonymically to mean respectively “word, thought and discourse, verbal communication…” and “physical violence, military force…”. The global meaning being that “strength will not prevail over reasoned discourse”.

Generally speaking, the metonymy semantic scheme can be described as follows.

— There is a word {S / C1}, its signifier is S and its content C1: pen/“instrument for writing”.
— The signifier S is used metonymically to designate content C0: pen/“discourse”.
— This transfer of meaning operates under a condition: it needs a backing, expressed in a transition law such as “C0 is in some relation of contiguity with C1”. Here, “the pen is the instrument used to produce discourse”

The subtypes of metonymy schemes are classified according to the kind of contiguity connection between the contents of C0 and C1, for example:

— Effect for cause, “Death is in the Meadow”.
— Instrument for agent, “She is the pen of the President”.
— Agent (or “cause”) for the work produced: “A new Shakespeare just came out”.
— Instrument for object produced, “The pen is mightier…”.
— Name of the place where the object is made for the object itself, etc. “I feel like having a Cognac”.
— Relevant ongoing planned action for a participant: “Sir, your rendezvous just left”.

2.2 Metonymic transfer and argumentative transfer

Figures and arguments require the same kind of backing. This can be suggested by the following examples.

The effect for cause metonymy: “Death is in the Meadow[1] meaning that phytosanitary products (also called crop protection products) (Ph) used in agriculture can cause death (D). The word (signifier) designating the effect (D) now designates (refers to) the cause (Ph).

— In the effect-to-cause argument, the (truth-)value predicated upon the effect is transferred back to the cause, or to a series of causes:

Metals expand when heated

This metal expanded (is an established fact) SO it has been heated (is an established fact)

The tire exploded, so [either C1, or C2, or…] (id.); S. Case-by-Case

Effect-to-cause argument transfers the predicate “— is an established fact” from the effect to the cause.

The word death refers to death; in the case of metonymy, its referential domain is extended so as to include the cause of death, “death refers to phytosanitary products”. In our standard vision of reference, a word refers to an object; actually it refers centrally to an object, and to the objects contextually connected to it; that is, the word (signifier) actually refers to any element belonging to the cluster of that objects, S. Object of discourse. Ordinary language clearly expresses this fact:

(1) He has a temperature so he has an infection.
(2) Give him antibiotics, it will reduce the fever.

The antibiotic in fact acts upon the infection, and fever in (2) should thus be considered to be an effect-for-cause metonymic designation of the infection. On the other hand, fever is a natural sign of an infection: “he has a fever that means he has an infection”: this is precisely what the metonymic analysis says.

A metonymy designating a work by the name of its author corresponds to an argumentation transferring to a work a judgment about its author: “The author of this book supported the former dictator”. The mechanisms of this metonymic transfer from the person to his or her acts and products have been studied from the argumentative point of view in Perelman (1952), S. Person.

3. Synecdoche

As shown by example of the rendezvous above (§1), metonymic naming can operate upon any pair of strongly connected objects, this connection being accidental (local), or essential. Synecdoche operates upon constituents of a whole. The word “metonymy” is sometimes used to refer to both metonymy and synecdoche.

3.1 “Part – whole” and “whole – part” relations

A roof is a component of a house; in “looking for a roof”, roof means “house”, houses being considered prototypical lodgings.

Part – whole arguments transfer to a whole the predicate attached to the part. These are backed by the same kind of connection, S. Composition and division.

The roof is in poor condition, so the house must not be well maintained.

3.2 Genus for species and species for genus

A synecdoche of a genus for a species uses the name of the genus to refer to one of its species; the name of the genus replaces that of the species: “the animal” for “the lion”. This use is most common in textual co-referring:

We saw a lion. The poor animal was gaunt and sick.

Backed by the same relation, the argumentation by the genus attaches to the species the predicates of the genus, S. Taxonomy and category; Categorization:

This is a lion, therefore it is an animal, and therefore, it is mortal.

4. The tree and its fruits

The following argument was advanced in defense of Paul Touvier, leader of the pro-Nazi Militia in Lyon, France, during the German Nazi Occupation. Sentenced to death after the war, he escaped and remained in hiding for 25 years. The following excerpt is taken from a letter to the then President of the French Republic by the Rev. Blaise Arminjon, S. J., on December 5, 1970, in support of Paul Touvier’s petition for clemency:

How are we to believe that he [Touvier] is a “criminal”, or a “bad Frenchman”, when his conduct for twenty-five years, and the education he has given his children, has been so admirable? A tree is known by its fruits.[2]

A Toulmin style analysis can be applied to this passage, the warrant being provided by the biblical topos, “a tree is known by its fruits”:

For a good tree does not bear bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit.
Luke 6:43-45, New King James Version.

But this transition law also authorizes a metonymy-based interpretation. To speak of “the [admirable] conduct of Touvier for twenty-five years” is a way of referring to Touvier metonymically. To say that this conduct is “admirable” is to say metonymically that Touvier is admirable. Similarly, a positive evaluation of the act, “the education that Touvier gave his children is admirable” also spreads metonymically to the agent, Touvier, who is necessarily equally admirable. The same phenomenon can be equally expressed in the language of tropes or in the language of argument, both of which implement the same kind of rationality.

[1] La Mort est dans le pré,
[2] Quoted in René Rémond & al., Paul Touvier and the Church, Paris, Fayard, 1992, p. 164.