Symmetric and asymmetric comparisons

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The present paper focuses on the distinction between symmetric and asymmetric comparisons of the form 'A is like B'. Three main proposals are made: (1) It is proposed, contrary to a view commonly put forward in various studies of metaphor (e.g., Ortony (1979)), that the symmetry vs. asymmetry distinction in comparison statements is orthogonal to the literal vs. metaphor distinction; i.e., it is argued that both metaphorical and literal comparisons exhibit asymmetric and symmetric types. (2) The key notion, relative to which the distinction between symmetric and asymmetric comparisons is defined, is the 'accepted order': asymmetric comparisons are defined as those in which one of the two possible orders (i.e., 'A is like B' or 'B is like A') is the 'accepted-order', while the other is not. By contrast, in all cases of symmetric comparison there is no preference for one order over the other. The second proposal, then, is a definition of the 'structural' conditions under which a certain order is to be conceived as an 'accepted order': (i) The concepts represented by the A and B terms must both be conceived of as being included in the domain of some easily constructed ad-hoc or stable category G; (ii) The B term must be a prominent member of G. (3) A cognitive account for the relative ease of processing the accepted order is proposed. It is argued that the principles underlying the Reference point-Deviant relations (see Rosch (1975)) can be extended to the domain of ad-hoc categories. Some general implications of these proposals regarding theories of categorization in general are discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)517-536
Number of pages20
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 1989


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