Sunday, September 01, 2013

Linkable Links, Notable Notes

* The SEP article on Elisabeth, Princess of Bohemia

* American Folklore

* The Philosophical Methods of CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy)

* Nahmanides' Theological Boldness

* Tim O'Neill reviews James Hannam's God's Philosophers

* Celia Hayes looks at the real history of long-trail cattle drives, and the curious contrast between the fact that they were done for less than a generation yet have become an integral part of how people all around the world imagine the American Old West.

* Five Math Experts Split the Check

* Nicholas Clairmont has an argument that, in his words, "people need to stop using the word 'literally' to mean 'figuratively'." I think there are a number of problems with his argument.

(1) The problem he is identifying does not consist in using the word 'literally' to mean 'figuratively'. If I say, "When he jumped out at me, I literally hit the roof," the 'literally' does not mean 'figuratively' but 'literally'. That's the whole point of using it, that it intensifies rather than minimizes the very expression I am using, but it would be doing the reverse if I were actually using the word to mean 'figuratively'. This is related to a second problem:

(2) The figurative language is not ironic. Irony would undermine the point. In fact, the literally-haters regularly respond to such language precisely by ironizing it. It is Clairmont and others like him who treat the phrase ironically. People who use this kind of figure of speech are generally using it non-ironically. 'Literally' functions as a hyperbolizer in these cases: it takes a figure of speech and makes it also a hyperbole. The mechanics of this can get slightly complicated when we're taking a hyperbole and hyperbolizing it, but hyperbole is an emphasis-indicator, and thus there is nothing incoherent about hyperbolizing a hyperbole because there is nothing incoherent about emphasizing that you are emphasizing. Hyperbole is not itself ironic.

Indeed, the trend in using 'literally' this way is part of a larger trend of moving from expressions to intensified versions of expressions. This relates to the argument Clairmont is making, about which more in a moment.

(3) None of the "bad reasons" are bad reasons. The meanings of terms are governed by precedent; thus "Bad Reason #1" establishes that the usage is not a mis-use by pointing out that there is longstanding precedent for it. "Bad Reason #2" points out that people have no serious difficulty understanding the expression, and thus rules out a second way in which meanings can be abused, namely, by words regularly failing to convey what they are intended to convey. "Bad Reason #3" mischaracterizes descriptivism, but if we pull it out of the descriptivist/prescriptivist disputes and simply use it in the way the other two arguments are used, then it rules out a third way in which meanings can be abused, by establishing that it is not highly idiosyncratic. Thus each argument addresses a different way in which the usage can be incorrect or an abuse of language.

(4) The argument that Clairmont should be making, that is, that he seems here and there to want to make and that would be a better argument, is that the usage is an abuse not in and of itself but insofar as it is contributing to the deterioration of language. As Coleridge notes somewhere, the deterioration of language consists in the loss of the ability to make worthwhile distinctions. A version of the English language in which the different associations of 'argent' and 'silver' collapsed so that saying that something is argent was exactly the same as saying that it is argent would be a language that has lost linguistic power. In this light someone can reasonably argue that our tendency always to move toward more and more intensive expressions to liven up the language is part and parcel of a linguistic deterioration, since it means that more intense expressions slowly begin to be difficult to distinguish in practice from less intense expressions. Just as 'very good' manages to tread only barely above 'good', 'literally jumped out of my skin' only barely treads above 'jumped out of my skin'. What these things show is that we're not using structure for emphasis. We aren't organizing our language, our sentences and descriptions, so that it emphasizes what we want, and thus we have to use an intensifier to flag what we want to emphasize. There are no handy intensifiers for doing this with obvious figures of speech, so we use 'literally' as such an intensifier.

Put this way, though, the 'literally' problem is merely a symptom of a general deterioration, namely, the collapse of commonly recognized oratorical and poetic dictions, so that the way we usually talk is repetitive and only loosely organized. (We see this in any number of the pet peeves people often have about modern language; for instance, the overuse of 'like', which is handy in letting you substitute acting out a scene for directly describing something, which often lets us convey things for which we have few words, but easily abused, at which point you're left with an interminable sequence of vaguely expressed symbols that convey surprisingly little even en masse, a little bit as if we had given up spoken language entirely in favor of playing games of charades.) That's the problem that would need to be solved; and it's certainly not soluble by imposing an arbitrary rule restricting what we can use as a figure of speech. People would still need a way to express emphasis with figures of speech, so they would find other ways to hyperbolize them. It's a cultural problem, not a usage problem.


* Efraim Mirvis replaces Jonathan Sacks as Chief Rabbi of the UK


  1. Ye Olde Statistician6:47 PM

    That was literally a very unique observation.

  2. Chris_Huff12:44 AM

    I saw the one about the math experts splitting the check a few weeks back - I got quite a chuckle out of it.

  3. branemrys3:00 PM

    That's quite good.


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