A Tale of Two Stories: How and why we tell allegories

01 Jun 2024
Room D1

A Tale of Two Stories: How and why we tell allegories

Allegory is a widely used communicative device, where a single story could be read as having two storylines: one literal, and another figurative. It is a powerful tool for conveying complex messages, but the mechanisms of allegorical communication and why we use them to communicate messages remain unclear. The present study examines the idea that overtly intended cognitive effects of communicative acts (intended imports) could be characterised as being on two interacting continuums, that of showing and meaning, and determinate and indeterminate propositional content (Sperber and Wilson, 2015). I argue that allegories are a case of showing while being wholly coherent linguistically as a stimulus. This nature of allegorical communication makes its intended meaning indirect, as the linguistic content in allegory does not provide direct evidence for what is communicated, and significant inferences must be made to grasp the allegorical storyline. The literal storyline does not mean nor say what the allegorical storyline is, but it merely shows. Counter-intuitively, this indirectness explains why humans use allegories to communicate despite the inherent difficulty in recovering intended imports from allegories. The indirectness of the message gives authors of allegories plausible deniability for what has been implied (cf. Lee and Pinker, 2010), which helps them avoid persecution and censorship when communicating socially risky messages. The indirectness of the message also helps lower the epistemic vigilance (cf. Reboul, 2017) of readers and makes any conclusions reached in the inferential process of allegory comprehension more believable and effective to the reader by their egocentric bias.



Lee, James J. and Steven Pinker (July 2010). “Rationales for indirect speech: the theory of the strategic speaker.” eng. In: Psychological review 117.3. Place: United States, pp. 785–807. issn: 1939-1471 0033-295X. doi: 10.1037/a0019688.

Reboul, A. (2017). Pragmatics at its Interfaces (S. Assimakopoulos, Ed.; pp. 91–112). De Gruyter Mouton. https://doi.org/10.1515/9781501505089-006

Sperber, Dan and Deirdre Wilson (2015). “Beyond Speaker’s Meaning”. In: Croatian Journal of Philosophy 15.2, pp. 117–14