Withered wisteria, old tree, darkling crows –
Little bridge over flowing water by someone’s house –
Emaciated horse on an ancient road in the western wind –
Evening sun setting in the west –
Broken-hearted man on the horizon.
And indeed, he is right. The poem exudes timelessness (if a lack of something can be exuded). It is more difficult for some languages than others to avoid certain grammatical commitments (like gender or number) which makes translation more difficult but there’s always a way.
What struck me about the poem was something different. It is so rich in imagery and yet so poor in figurative language . This is by no means unique but worth a note. In fact, there is no figurative language there at all if we discount such foundational figures as “sun setting in the West”, “broken-hearted” or “man on the horizon”. In fact, had I not known this was a Chinese poem, I could have easily believed it was a description of 17th century Dutch master‘s painting or even something by Constable.
But of course, the conceptual work we’re doing while reading this poem is not that different from the work we would do if it was full of metaphor. I’m working on a post of how adjectives and predicates are really very similar to metaphors and this is one example that illustrates the point. In order to appreciate this poem, we have to construct a series of fairly rich images and then we have to blend them with each other to place them in the same place. We have to interpret “the broken hearted man on the horizon” is it just another image, the poet or ourselves? In other words, we have to map from the image presented by the poem to the images available to us by our experience. Which, in short, is the same work we have to do when interpreting metaphors and similies. But the title is the clincher: “autumn thoughts” – what if the whole poem is a metaphor and the elements in it just figures signifying age, loneliness, the passage of time and so on and so forth. There are simply too many mappings to make. And there the escape from metaphor ends.
I am an old atheist and a new agnostic. I don’t believe in God in the old-fashioned Russellian way – if I don’t believe in Krishna, Zeus, water sprites or the little teapot orbiting the Sun, I don’t believe in God and the associated supernatual phenomena (monotheism my foot!). However, I am agnostic about nearly everything else and everything else in the new atheist way is pretty much science and reason. If history is any judge (and it is) most of what we believe to be scientific truths today is bunk. This makes me feel not superior at all to people of faith. Sure I think what they believe is a stupid and irrational thing to believe, but I don’t think they are stupid or irrational people to believe it. The smartest people believe the most preposterous things just look at Newton, Chomsky or Dawkins.
But one thing I’m pretty certain about is religion. Or rather, I’m pretty certain it does not exist. It is in many ways an invention of the Enlightenment and just like equality and brotherhood it only makes sense until you see the first person winding the up guillotine. Religion only makes sense if you want to set a certain set of beliefs and practices aside, most importantly to deprive their holders of power and legitimacy.
But is it a useful concept for deliberation about human universals? I think on balance it is not. Religion is a collection of stated beliefs, internal beliefs and public and private practices. In other words, religion is a way of life for a community of people. Or to be etymological about it, it is what binds the community together. The nature of the content of those beliefs is entirely irrelevant to the true human universal: a shared collection of beliefs and practices develops over a short amount of time inside any group of people. And when I say beliefs, I mean all explicit and implicit knowledge and applied cognition.
In this sense, modern secular humanism is just as much a religion as rabid evangelicalism.
On the mundane nature of sacred thought
So, why the scientist asks, do all cultures develop knowledge system that includes belief in the supernatural? That’s because they don’t. For instance, as Geertz so beautifully described in his reinterpretation of the Azande, witchcraft isn’t supernatural. It is the natural explanation after everything else has failed. We keep forgetting that until Einstein, everybody believed in this (as Descartes pointed out) supernatural force called gravity that could somehow magically transmit motion accross vast distances. And now (as Angel and Demetis point out) we believe in magical sheets that make gravity all nice and natural. Or maybe strings? Give me a break!
What about the distinction between the sacred and mundane you ask? Well, that obviously exists including the liminality between them. But sacred/mundane is not limited to anything supernatural and magical – just look at the US treatment of the flag or citizenship. In fact, even the most porfoundly sacred and mystical has a significant mundane dimension necessitated by its logistics.
There are no universals of faith. But there are some strong tendencies among the world’s cultures: Ancestor worship, belief in superhuman and non-human (often invisible, sometimes disembodied) agents, sympathetic magic and ritual (which includes belief in empowered and/or sapient substances and objects). This is combined with preserving and placating personal and collective practices.
All of the above describes western atheists as much as the witchcraft believing Azande. We just define the natural differently. Our beliefs in the power of various pills and the public professions of faith in the reality of evolution or the transformative nature of the market fall under the above just as nicely as the rain dance. Sure I’d much rather go to a surgeon with an inflamed appendix than a witch doctor but I’d also much rather go to a renowned witch doctor than an unknown one if that was my only choice. Medicine is simply witchcraft with better peer review.
They pretty much put to rest some of the evolutionary notions and the innateness of mind/body dualism. I particularly like the proposition Helene de Cruz made building on Pascal’s remark that some people “seem so made that [they] cannot believe”. “For those people” continues de Cruz, “religious belief requires a constant cognitive effort.”
I think this is a profound statement. I see it as being in line with my thesis of frame negotiation. Some things require more cognitive effort for some people than other things for other people. It doesn’t have to be religion. We know reading requires more cognitive effort for different people in different ways (dyslexics being one group with a particular profile of cognitive difficulties). So does counting, painting, hunting, driving cars, cutting things with knives, taking computers apart, etc. These things are suceptible to training and practice to different degrees with different people.
So it makes perfect sense on the available evidence that different people require different levels of cognitive effort to maintain belief in what is axiomatic for others.
In the comments Mitch Hodge contributed a question to “researchers who propose that mind-body dualismundergirds representations of supernatural entities: What do you do with all of the anthropological evidence that humans represent most all supernatural entities as embodied? How do disembodied beings eat, wear clothes, physically interact with the living and each other?”
This is really important. Before you can talk about content of belief, you need to carefully examine all its aspects. And as I tried to argue above, starting with religion as a category already leads us down certain paths of argumentation that are less than telos-neutral.
But the answer to the “are humans natural mind-body dualists” does not have to be to choose one over the other. I suggest an alternative answer:
Humans are natural schematicists and schema negotiators
What does that mean? Last year, I gave a talk (in Czech) on the “Schematicity and undetermination as two forgotten processes in mind and language”. In it I argue that operating on schematic or in other ways underdetermined concepts is not only possible but it is built into the very fabric of cognition and language. It is extremely common for people to hold incomplete images (Lakoff’s pizza example was the one that set me on this path of thinking) of things in their mind. For instance, on slide 12 of the presentation below, I show different images that Czechs submitted into a competition run online by a national newspaper on “what does baby Jesus look like” (Note: In Czech, it is baby Jesus – or Ježíšek – who delivers the presents on Christmas Eve). The images ran from an angelic adult and a real baby to an outline of the baby in the light to just a light.
This shows that people not only hold underdetermined images but that those images are determined to varying degrees (in my little private poll, I came across people who imagined Ježíšek as an old bearded man and personally, I did not explicitly associated the diminutive ježíšek with the baby Jesus, until I had to translate it into English). The discussions like those around Trinity or the embodied nature of key deities are the results of conversations about what parts of a shared schema is it acceptable to fill out and how to fill them out.
It is basically metaphor (or as I call it frame) negotiation. Early Christianity was full of these debates and it is not surprising that it wasn’t always the most cognitively parsimoneousimage that won out.
It is further important that humans have various explicit and implicit strategies to deal with infelicitous schematicity or schema clashes, which is to defer parts of their cognition to a collectively recognised authority. I spent years of my youth believing that although the Trinity made no sense to me, there were people to who it did make sense and to whom as guardians of sense, I would defer my own imperfect cognition. But any study of the fights over the nature of the Trinity are a perfect illustration of how people negotiate over their imagery. And as in any negotiation it is not just the power of the argument but also the power of the arguer that determines the outcome.
Christianity is not special here in any regard but it does provide two millenia of documented negotiation of mappings between domains full of schemas and rich images. It starts with St Paul’s denial that circumcision is a necessary condition of being a Christian and goes on into the conceptual contortions surrounding the Trinity debates. Early Christian eschatology also had to constantly renegotiate its foundations as the world sutbbornly refused to end and was in that no different from modern eschatology – be it religion or science based. Reformation movements (from monasticism to Luther or Calvin) also exhibit this profound contrasting of imagery and exploration of mappings, rejecting some, accepting others, ignoring most.
All of these activities lead to paradoxes and thus spurring of heretical and reform movements. Waldensians or Lutherans or Hussites all arrived at their disagreement with the dogma through painstaking analysis of the imagery contained in the text. Arianism was in its time the “thinking man’s” Christianity, because it made a lot more sense than the Nicean consensus. No wonder it experienced a post-reformation resurgence. But the problems it exposed were equally serious and it was ultimately rejected for probably good reason.
How is it possible that the Nicean consensus held so long as the mainstream interpretation? Surely, Luther could not have been the first to notice the discrepancies between lithurgy and scripture. Two reasons: inventory of expression and undedetermination of conceptual representationa.
I will deal with the idea of inventory in a separate post. Briefly, it is based on the idea of cognitive grammar that language is not a system but rather a patterned invenotory of symbolic units. This inventory is neither static nor has it clear boundaries but it functions to constrain what is available for both speech and imagination. Because of the nature of symbolic units and their relationship, the inventory (a usage-based beast) is what constrains our ability to say certain things although they are possible by pure grammatical or conceptual manipulation. By the same token, the inventory makes it possible to say things that make no demonstrable sense.
Frame (or metaphor) negotiation operates on the inventory but also has to battle against its constraints. The units in the inventory range in their schematicity and determination but they are all schematic and underdetermined to some degree. Most of the time this aids effortless conceptual integration. However, a significant proportion of the time, particularly for some speakers, the conceptual integration hits a snag. A part of a schematic concept usually left underdetermined is filled out and it prevents easy integration and an appropriate mapping needs to be negotiated.
For example, it is possible to say that Jesus is God and Jesus is the Son of God even in the same sentence and as long as we don’t project the offspring mapping on the identity mapping, we don’t have a problem. People do these things all the time. We say things like “taking a human life is the ultimate decision” and “collateral damage must be expected in war” and abhor people calling soldiers “murderers”. But the alternative to “justified war” namely “war is murder” is just as easy to sanction given the available imagery. So people have a choice.
But as soon as we flesh out the imagery of “X is son of Y” and “X is Y” we see that something is wrong. This in no way matches our experience of what is possible. Ex definitio “X is son of Y” OR “X is Y”. Not AND. So we need to do other things make the nature of “X is Y” compatible with “X is the son of Y”. And we can either do this by attributing a special nature to one or both of the statements. Or we can acknowledge the problem and defer knowledge of the nature to a higher authority. This is something we do all the time anyway.
So to bring the discussion to the nature of embodiment, there is no difficulty for a single person or a culture to maintained that some special being is disembodied but yet can perform many embodied functions (like eating). My favorite joke told to me by a devout Catholic begins: “The Holy Trinity are sitting around a table talking about where they’re going to go for their vacation…” Neither my friend nor I assumed that the Trinity is in any way an embodied entity, but it was nevertheless very easy for us to talk about its members as embodied beings. Another Catholic joke:
A saussage goes to Heaven. St Peter is busy so he sends Mary to answer the Pearly Gates. When she comes back he asks: “Who was it?” She responds: “I don’t know but, it sure looked like the Holy Ghost.”
Surely a more embodied joke is very difficult to imagine. But it just illustrates the availability of rich imagery to fill out schemas in a way that forces us to have two incompatible images in our heads at the same time. A square circle, of sorts.
There is nothing sophisticated about this. Any society is going to have members who are more likely to explore the possibilities of integration of items within its conceptual inventory. In some cases, it will get them ostracised. In most cases, it will just be filed away as an idiosyncratic vision that makes a lot of sense (but is not worth acting on). That’s why people don’t organize their lives around the dictums of stand-up comedians in charge. What they say often “makes perfect sense” but this sense can be filed away into the liminal space of our brain where it does not interfere with what makes sense in the mundane or the sacred context of conceptual integration. And in a few special cases, this sort of behavior will start new movements and faiths.
These “special” individuals are probably present in quite a large number in any group. They’re the people who like puns or the ones who correct everyone’s grammar. But no matter how committed they are to exploring the imagery of a particular area (content of faith, moral philosophy, use of mobile phones or genetic engineering) they will never be able to rid it of its schematicity and indeterminacies. They will simply flesh out some schemas and strip off the flesh of others. As Kuhn said, a scientific revolution is notable not just for the new it brings but also for all the old it ignores. And not all of the new will be good and not all of the old will be bad.
Not that I’m all that interested in the origins of language but my claim is that the negotiation of the mappings between undertermined schemas is at the very foundation of language and thought. And as such it must have been present from the very begining of language – it may have even predated language. “Religious” thought and practice must have emerged very quickly; as soon as one established category came into contact with another category. The first statement of identity or similarity was probably quite shortly followed by “well, X is only Y, in as much as Z” (expressed in grunts, of course). And since bodies are so central to our thought, it is not surprising that imagery of our bodies doing special things or us not having a body and yet preserving our identity crops up pretty much everywhere. Hypothesizing some sort of innate mind-body dualism is taking an awfully big hammer to a medium-sized nail. And looking for an evolutionary advantage in it is little more than the telling of campfire stories of heroic deeds.
To look for an evolutionary foundation of religious belief is little more sophisticated than arguing about the nature of virgin birth. If nothing else, the fervor of its proponents should be highly troubling. How important is it that we fill in all the gaps left over by neo-Darwinism? There is nothing special about believing in Ghosts or Witches. It is an epiphenomenon of our embodied and socialised thought. Sure, it’s probably worth studying the brains of mushroom-taking mystical groups. But not as a religious phenomenon. Just as something that people do. No more special than keeping a blog. Like this.
Post Script on Liminality [UPDATE a year or so later]
Cris Campbell on his Genealogy of Religion Blog convinced me with the aid of some useful references that we probably need to take the natural/supernatural distinction a bit more seriously than I did above. I still don’t agree it’s as central as is often claimed but I agree that it cannot be reduced to the sacred v. mundane as I tried above. So instead I proposed the distinction between liminal and metaliminal in a comment on the blog. Here’s a slightly edited version (which may or may not become its own post):
I read with interest Hultkranz’s suggestion for an empirical basis for the concept of the supernatural but I think there are still problems with this view. I don’t see the warrant for the leap from “all religions contain some concept of the supernatural” to “supernatural forms the basis of religion”. Humans need a way to talk about the experienced and the adduced and this will very ‘naturally’ take the form of “supernatural” (I’m aware of McKinnon’s dissatisfaction with calling this non-empirical).
On this account, science itself is belief in the supernatural – i.e. postulating invisible agents outside our direct experience. And in particular speculative cognitive science and neuroscience have to make giant leaps of faith from their evidence to interpretation. What are the chances that much of what we consider to be givens today will in the future be regarded as much more sophisticated than phrenology? But even if we are more charitable to science and place its cognition outside the sphere of that of a conscientious sympathetic magician, the use of science in popular discourse is certainly no different from the use of supernatural beliefs. There’s nothing new, here. Let’s just take the leap from the science of electricity to Frankenstein’s monster. Modern public treatments of genetics and neuroscience are essentially magical. I remember a conversation with an otherwise educated philosophy PhD student who was recoiling in horror from genetic modification of fruit (using fish genes to do something to oranges) as unnatural – or monstrous. Plus we have stories of special states of cognition (absent-minded professors, en-tranced scientists, rigour of study) and ritual gnostic purification (referencing, peer review). The strict naturalist prescriptions of modern science and science education are really not that different from “thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
I am giving these examples partly as an antidote to the hidden normativity in the term ‘supernatural’ (I believe it is possible to mean it non-normatively but it’s not possible for it not to be understood that way by many) but also as an example of why this distinction is not one that relates to religion as opposed to general human existence.
However, I think Hultkranz’s objection to a complete removal of the dichotomy by people like Durkheim and Hymes is a valid one as is his claim of the impossibility of reducing it to the sacred/profane distinction. However, I’d like to propose a different label and consequently framing for it: meta-liminal. By “meta-liminal” I mean beyond the boundaries of daily experience and ethics (a subtle but to me an important difference from non-empirical). The boundaries are revealed to us in liminal spaces and times (as outlined by Turner) and what is beyond them can be behaviours (Greek gods), beings (leprechauns), values (Platonic ideals) or modes of existence (land of the dead). But most importantly, we gain access to them through liminal rituals where we stand with one foot on this side of the boundary and with another on the “other” side. Or rather, we temporarily blur and expand the boundaries and can be in both places at once. (Or possibly both.) This, however, I would claim is a discursively psychological construct and not a cognitively psychological construct. We can study the neural correlates of the various liminal rituals (some of which can be incredibly mundane – like wearing a pin) but searching for a single neural or evolutionary foundation would be pointless.
The quote from Nemeroff and Rozin that ‘“the supernatural” as that which “generally does not make sense in terms of the contemporary understanding of science.”’ sums up the deficiency of the normative or crypto-normative use of “supernatural”. But even the strictly non-normative use suffers from it.
What I’m trying to say is that not only is not religious cognition a special kind of cognition (in common with MacKendrick), but neither is any other type of cognition (no matter how Popperian its supposed heuristics). The different states of transcendence associated with religious knowing (gnosis) ranging from a vague sense of fear, comfort or awe to a dance or mushroom induced trance are not examples of a special type of cognition. They are universal psychosomatic phenomena that are frequently discursively constructed as having an association with the liminal and meta-liminal. But can we postulate an evolutionary inevitability that connects a new-age whackjob who proclaims that there is something “bigger than us” to a sophisticated theologian to Neil DeGrasse Tyson to a jobbing shaman or priest to a simple client of a religious service? Isn’t it better to talk of cultural opportunism that connects liminal emotional states to socially constructed liminal spaces? Long live the spandrel!
This is not a post-modernist view. I’d say it’s a profoundly empirical one. There are real things that can be said (provided we are aware of the limitations of the medium of speech). And I leave open the possibility that within science, there is a different kind of knowledge (that was, after all, my starting point, I was converted to my stance by empirical evidence so I am willing to respond to more).
About 10 years ago, I was looking through a book on populations changes in the Czech lands. It consisted of pretty much just tables of data with little commentary. But I was shocked when I came across the life expectancy charts. But not shocked at how short people’s lives had been but how long. The headline figure of life expectancy in the early 1800s was pretty much on par with expectations (I don’t have the book to hand but it was in the high 30s or low 40s). How sad, I thought. So many people died in their 40s before they could experience life in full. But unlike most of the comparisons reporting life expectancy, this one went beyond the overall average. And it was the additional figures that shocked me. Turns out the extremely short life expectancy only applies right at birth. Once you make it to 10, you have a pretty good chance to make it into your late 50s and at 30, your chances of getting your ‘threescore and ten’ were getting pretty good. The problem is that life expectancy rates at birth only really measure child mortality not the typical lives of adults. You can see from this chart: http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0005140.html that in 1850, the USlife expectancy at birth was a shocking 38 years. But that does not mean that there were a lot of 38-year-olds around dying. Because if you made it to 10, your life expectancy was 58 years and at 30, it was 64 years. Now these are average numbers so it is possible that for any age cohort, exactly half the people died at the start of it and exactly half died at the end of it. But that was not the case after a certain age. Remember, a population where exactly half the people born die at or near birth (age 0) and exactly half live to be 60 will have the average life expectancy of 30. If you reduce child mortality to 10%, you will have the average life expectancy of 54. If you reduce it to 1%, the average life expectancy will be 59.4 years. Most people still die at sixty but very few die at 1. Massive gains in child mortality reduction will have made no difference to the end of life.
In reality, as the US charts show, the life expectancy at birth doubled but life expectancy at 10 went up by only about a third. That’s still a significant gain but shows a much different profile of life span than the normal figure would have us believe. It was not unusual to live into the late 50s and early 60s. And there were still a large enough number of people who lived into their 70s and 80s. Now, there are exceptions to it, during famines, epidemics and wars and for certain groups in society, the life span was significantly shorter (notice the life expectancy of whites vs. non-whites in the US). But for most populations throughout history, the most common age of death for any given person born was before the age of 10 not in their 30s.
I don’t understand why this is not commonly known. Even many historians (particularly the ones who write popular history) either don’t know this or are unwilling to distrub their narrative of how young people died in the past (in other words, they lie). I certainly was not taught this during my brief (long-ago) studies of ancient and medieval history.
What brought all this to mind is a most disturbing example of this is in a just published book called Civilization by the prominent public historian Niall Ferguson. In the preface he quotes a poem about death and suffering from John Donne and he comments on it:
“Everyone should read these lines who wants to understand better the human condition in the days when life expetancy was less than half what it is today.”
To say I was aghast is an understatement. I nearly threw my Kindle against the wall. Here’s this public intellectual, historian who goes about preaching on how it is important to understand history and yet he peddles this sort of nonsense. If he had said days with high child mortality and a shorter typical life span, I’d have no problem with it. But he didn’t and didn’t even hint that’s what he meant.
He then goes on blathering about how awful it is that all these historical luminaries died so young. Spinoza at 44, Pascal at 39. Saying:
“Who knows what other great works these geniuses might have brought forth had they been granted the lifespans enjoyed by, for example the great humanists Erasmus (69) and Montaigne (59)?”
Common! Bringing forth great works! Really?!? Pathos much? He then goes on comparing Brahms (died old, disliked by Ferguson) and Shubert (died young, liked by Ferguson). So much for academic distance. Why on earth would Ferguson think that listing artists who died young means anything. Didn’t he ever hear of Jimmy Hendrix or Kurt Cobain?
But more importantly, he doesn’t seem to notice his own counterexamples. Erasmus died almost a hundred years before Spinoza was born. What does that tell us about life expectancy and historical periods?
Or what’s any of that have to do with how much people may have contributed, had they lived l
onger? I don’t think longevity can serve as a measure of intellectual or cultural productivity. Can we compare Plato (80) and Aristotle (60). It seems to me that Aristotle produced a lot more and varied work than Plato with 20 fewer years to do it in. Aquinas (49) was no less prolific than St Augustine (75). Is it really possible to judge the impact of the inventive John L Austin (who died at 49 – in the 20th century!) is any less than of the tireless and multitalented Russell who lived pretty much forever (97)?
But there are still more counter examples. Let’s look at the list of longest reigning monarchs. The leader of that board is a 6th dynasty Pharaoh (who arguably acended to the throne as a child but still managed to live to a hundred (2200BC!). And most other long-lived monarchs were born during times when life expectancy was about half of what it is now. Sure, they were priveleged and they are relatively rare. And there were a lot of other rulers who went in their 50s and 60s. But not typically in their 40s! Maybe there is already a study out there that measures the longevity of kings with relation to their time but I doubt a straightforward corellation can be found.
Finally, I can match Ferguson poem by poem. From the ancient:
Our days may come to seventy years,
or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
to the modern:
Sadness is all I’ve ever known.
Inside my retched body it’s grown.
It has eaten me away, to what the fuck I am today.
There’s nothing left for me to say.
There’s nothing there for me to hate.
There’s no feelings, and there’s no thoughts.
My body’s left to fucking rot.
Life sucks, life sucks, life sucks, life sucks. http://www.plyrics.com/lyrics/nocash/lifesucks.html
Clearly all that medicine made less of an impact on our experience of life than Ferguson thinks.
Perhaps I shouldn’t get so exercised about a bit of rhetorical flourish in one of many books of historical cosmogeny and eschatology. But I’m really more disappointed than angry. I was hoping this book may have some interesting ideas in it (although I enter it with a skeptical mind) but I’m not sure I can trust the author not to surrender the independence of his frame of mind and bend the facts to suit his pet notions.
A very common metaphor in the political discourse on war is that of doves (peaceniks) and hawks (war-mongers). It has been around at least since the cold war. But it stops at “doves=peaceful” and “hawks=aggressive”. It completely ignores other properties of the animals, e.g. the fact that “hawks hunt and kill doves”. I did a lot of searching a could not find any such extensions of the metaphor.
This is relatively unusual. Most metaphors in public discourse get dissected every which way. Look at “Iraq=Vietnam”, “Saddam=Hitler”, “Current financial crisis=X other financial crisis”. All of these were dissected and very inventively reassembled mapping by mapping. E.g. If Saddam is Hitler then we can choose between being France or Britain. If Iraq is Vietnam than we must count the wounded as dead and must look for media swaying public opinion. Etc. Etc. We might argue that doves adn hawks are relatively dead metaphors but Palin’s crosshairs got dissected in minute detail and “having somebody in your cross hairs” no more implies that you’re going to shoot them than does being a dove imply you have wings.
So why didn’t anybody in the contentious debate over the Iraq war come up with this obvious extension of the “doves/hawks=democrats/republicans” metaphor? I would expect at least something along the lines of “the hawks went fiercely after the doves and tore them to shreds in the elections”. But there’s nothing. So, what gives?
We spend a lot of time worrying about the content to which we expose the young generation both individually and collectively. However, I am exceedingly coming to the conclusion that it makes absolutely no difference (at least as far as morality and lawfulness is concerned). Well sure, we know things like that children of Christians are likely to be Christians as adults and adults who are abusive are likely to have been brought up in abusive environments. But this is about as illuminating as saying that children growing up in German homes are likely to speak German as adults.
We are limited by our upbringing in as much as it imposes constraints on certain parameters of our behavior in language and culture. However, when the “what of our children’s ethics” moral outrage debates are held strictly within these parameters, the predictability of both individual and collective impact of content to which children (and adults) are exposed, seems to me, is pretty minimal.
First, it is amazing that, given all the bullshit supposedly great thinkers have put forth about the state of the youth of their day, we haven’t learned that such statements are just never right. They weren’t right about pulp fiction, comic books, and they are not even right about violent video games whose rise in the US coincided with halving the crime rate. There is simply no reliable or predictable connection between what people read or watch and what they do.
Sure we can always point at some whacko who did something horrible because he read it in a book or saw it on TV but there is no way to predict who will be influenced by what when and how ahead of time. The Bible contains all sorts of violence and depravity (and not just in a way that says don’t do it) and yet we don’t see a lot more violence in devout Christians. But neither do we see less. In fact, if we look at the range of behaviors the Bible, or any other religious text for that matter, inspired over the millennia, the only thing we can say about them is that they are typical of human beings. They happened in parallel not as a consequence of the text.
By the same token, we can no more expect virtue coming out of exposure to virtuous content than we can expect depravity coming out of depraved content. A good example is Karl May who popped up on a comment thread on the Language Log recently. Entire generations of Central European boys (and more recently girls) grew up reading May’s voluminous output detailing the exploits of the sagacious explorer Old Shatterhand aka Kara ben Nemsi. Old Shatterhand, a pacifist with a gun and a fist – both used only as last resort and in self-defense, embodies very much a New Testament kind of ethics. His focus is on love, equality and turning the other cheek. But also on health, vigour and the German indomitable spirit.
It is inconceivable that anyone reading these books by the dozen (as I did in my youth) could ever think less of another race or do anything bad to man or beast. Yet, as we know, Central Europe was anything but calm in the last century which saw sales of May’s books in the tens of millions. I wonder how many death camp guards or Wermacht soldiers did not read Karl May as boys. And as one of the Language Log commenters points out, Hitler himself was a May fan and supposedly tried to write Mein Kampf in the same style as his favorite author. How is this possible? Should we ban May’s books lest such horrors happen again?
Of course not. People seem to have a remarkable ability to read around the bits that don’t concern their interests. We can background or foreground pretty much anything. It is possible to read Kipling’s Maugli as a cute children’s story or as a justification for colonialism. When I first read it, I saw it as a manifesto of environmentalism and ecosystem preservation (I was about 8 so I did nor perhaps formulate it that way). But it can just as easily be read as an apology for man’s mastery over nature.
Karl May wasn’t quite banned in my native Czechoslovakia but his books weren’t always easy to come by due, I was told, to a strong Christian bias. I could never understand that until I reread Winnetou recently and discovered long philosophical expositions on sin and violence that were just out there. No coy hints, straight up quotations from the Bible! When I was reading these books, I simply did not see that. Equally incomprehensibly, there are people who’ve read The Chronicles of Narnia and did not notice that Aslan was Jesus. It’s an adventure story for them and that’s pretty much it.
When I look at my own political morality, I can see clear foundations laid by May and my reading of Kipling, Defoe (in a Czech reworking without the racism) and others – including a watered down New Testament. But I also see people around me who clearly grew up on the same literature and are rabid Old Testament tooth-for-toothers. Such is the freedom of the human spirit that it can overcome the influence of any content – good or bad. (Again within the parameters of our linguistic and social environments.)
UPDATE: Here’s an interesting summary of how Karl May’s impact cut both ways (Hitler and Einstein) via the Wikipedia entry on May. Jeff Bowersox also has a lot of relevant things to say to explain this seeming paradox of children both appropriating ‘moral’ messages for their own play and being shaped by them through the prism of their socio-discursive embeddedness.
I always thought this little bit by Demetri Martin highlights a crucial deficiency in any distinctive feature analysis.
Demetri Martin: “I was at a party, and I saw a guy with a leather jacket, and I thought, ‘That’s cool’. Then I saw a guy with a leather vest and I thought, ‘That’s not cool’. It was then that I realized what coolness is all about… leather sleeves.”
Show me the money! Or so the saying goes. Implying that talk is cheap and facts are the only thing that matters. But there is another thing we are being asked to do with money and that is put it where our mouth is. So evidence is not quite enough. We have to also be willing to act on it and demonstrate a personal commitment to our facts.
As so often, folk wisdom has outlined two contradictory dictums that get applied based on the parameters of a given situation. On one account, evidence is all that is needed. Wheras an alternative interpretation claims that evidence is only sufficient when backed up by personal commitment.
I’ve recently come across two approaches to the same issue that resonate with my own, namely claiming that evidence cannot be divorced from the personal commitment of its wielder. As such it needs to be constantly interrogated from all perspectives, including the ones that come from “scientific method” but not relying solely on them.
This is crucial for anybody claiming to adhere to evidence-based practice. Because the evidence is not just out there. It is always in the hands of someone caught (as we all are) within a complex web of ethical commitments. Sure, we can point to a number of contexts where lack of evidence was detrimental (vaccinations). But we can equally easily find examples of evidence being the wrong thing to have (UK school league tables, eugenics). History of science demonstrates both incorrect conlusions being drawn from correct facts (ether), and correct conclusions being drawn form incorrect facts (including aircraft construction as Ira Flatow showed). I am not aware of any research quantifying the proportion of these respective positions. Intuitively, one would feel inclined to conclude that mostly the correct facts have led to the correct conclusions and incorrect ones to the wrong ones but we have been burned before.
“The notion that we can substitute method for common sense, a very wide-spread notion, is wrong. We’re eventually going to have to make judgments. Evidence-based practice is a good slogan, but it’s not a method in the Cartesian sense. It does not guarantee that what we’re going to do is right.”
Of course, neither is the opposite true. I’m always a bit worried about appeals to “common sense”. I used to tell participants on cross-cultural training courses: there is nothing common about common sense. It always belongs to someone. And it does not come naturally to us. It is only common because someone told someone else about it. How often, have we heard a myth debunked only to conclude that the debunking had really been common sense. That makes no sense. It was the myth that was common sense. The debunking will only become common sense after we tell everyone about it. How many people would figure out even the simplest things such as looking right and then left before crossing the road without someone telling them? We spend a lot of time (as a society and individuals) maintaining the commonality of our senses. Clifford Geertz showed in “Common sense as a cultural system” the complex processes involved in common sense and I would not want to entrust anything of importance to common sense. But I agree that judgments are essential. We always make judgements whether we realise that or not.
This resonates wonderfully with what I consider to be the central thesis of the “Science’s First Mistake” a wonderful challenge to the assumptions of the universality of science by Ian Angell and Dionysios Demetis.
“…different ages have different perceptions of uncertainty; and so there are different approaches to theory construction and application, delivering different risk assessments and prompting different decisions. Note this book stresses decisions not solutions, because from its position there are no solutions, only contingent decisions. And each decision is itself a start of a new journey, not the end of an old one.
Indeed, there is no grander delusion than the production of a solution, with its linear insistence on cause and effect.”
All our solutions are really decisions. Decisions contingent on a myriad of factors both related to the data and our personal situation. We couch these decisions in the guise of solutions to avoid personal responsibility. Not perhaps often in a conscious way but in a way that abstracts away from the situation. We do not always have to ask qui bono when presented with a solution but we should always ask where from. What is the situation in which a solution was born? Not because we have a suspicious mind but because we have an inquisitive one.
But decisons are just what they are. They are on their own neither good or bad. They are just inevitable. And here I’d like to present the conclusions to a paper on the epistemological basis of case study in educational policy making I co-wrote a few years ago with John Elliott. It’s longer (by about a mile) than the two extracts above. But I highlighted in bold the bits that are relevant. The rest is there just to provide sufficient context to understand the key theses:
Overall, we have informed our inquiry with three perspectives on case study. One rooted in ethnography and built around the metaphor of the understanding of cultures one is not familiar with (these are presented by the work of scholars like Becker, Willis, Lacey, Wallace, Ball, and many others). Another strand revolves around the tradition of responsive and democratic evaluation and portrayal represented by the work of scholars such as MacDonald, Simons, Stake, Parlett, and others. This tradition (itself not presenting a unified front) aims to break down the barriers between the researcher, the researched and the audience. It recognizes the situated nature of all actors in the process (cf. Kemmis 1980) and is particularly relevant to the concerns of the policy maker. Finally, we need to add Stenhouse’s approach of contemporary history into the mix. Stenhouse provides a perspective that allows the researcher to marry the responsibility to data with the responsibility to his or her environment in a way that escapes the stereotypes associated with the ‘pure forms’ of both quantitative and qualitative research. A comprehensive historian-like approach to data collection, retention and dissemination that allows multiple interpretations by multiple actors accounts both for the complexity of the data and the situation in the context of which it is collected and interpreted.
However, we can ask ourselves whether a policy-maker faced with examples of one of these traditions could tell these perspectives apart? Should it not perhaps be the lessons from the investigation of case study that matter rather than an ability to straightforwardly classify it as an example of one or the other? In many ways, in the policy context, it is the act of choice, such as choosing on which case study a policy should be based, that is of real importance.
In that case, instead of transcendental arbitration we can provide an alternative test: Does the case study change the prejudices of the reader? Does it provide a challenge? Perhaps our notion of comprehensiveness can include the question: Is the case study opening the mind of the reader to factors that they would have otherwise ignored? This reminds us of Gadamer’s “fusion of horizons” (“Understanding […] is always the fusion of […] horizons [present and past] which we imagine to exist by themselves.” Gadamer 1975, p. 273).
However, this could be seen as suggesting that case study automatically leads to a state of illumination. In fact, the interpretation of case study in this way requires a purposeful and active approach on the part of the reader. What, then, is the role of the philosopher? Should each researcher have a philosopher by his or her side? Or is it necessary, as John Elliott has long argued, to locate the philosopher in the practitioner? Should we expect teachers and/or policy-makers to go to the philosopher for advice or would a better solution be to strive for philosopher teachers and philosopher practitioners? Being a philosopher is of course determined not by speaking of Plato and Rousseau but by the constant challenge to personal and collective prejudices.
In that case, we can conclude that case study would have a great appeal to the politician and policy maker as a practical philosopher but that it would be a mistake to elevate it above other ways of doing practical philosophy. In this, following Gadamer, we advocate an antimethodological approach. The idea of the policy maker as philosopher and policy maker as researcher (i.e. underscoring the individual ethical agency of the policy maker) should be the proper focus of discussion of reliability and generalization. Since the policy maker is the one making the judgement, the type of research and study is then not as important as a primary focus.
And, in a way, the truthfulness of the case arises out of the practitioners’ use of the study. The judgment of warrant as well as the universalizing and revelatory nature of a particular study should become apparent to anybody familiar with the complexities of the environment. An abstract standard of quality reminiscent of statistical methods (number of interviewees, questions asked, sampling) is ultimately not a workable basis for decision making and action although that does not exclude the process of seeking a shared metaphorical perspective both on the process of data gathering and interpretation (cf. Kennedy 1979, Fox 1982). Gadamer’s words seem particularly relevant in this context: “[t]he understanding and interpretation of texts is not merely a concern of science, but is obviously part of the total human experience of the world.” (1975, p. xi)
We cannot discount the situation of the researcher no more than we can discount the situation of the researched. One constitutive element of the situation is the academic tribe: “[w]e are pursuing a ‘scholarly’ identity through our case studies rather than an intrinsic fascination with the phenomena under investigation” warns Fox (1982). To avoid any such accusations of impropriety social science cultivates a ‘prejudice against prejudice’, a distancing from experience and valuing in order to achieve objectivity whereas the condition of our understanding is that we have prejudices and any inquiry undertaken by ‘us’ needs to be approached in the spirit of a conversation with others; the conversation alerts participants to their prejudices. In a sense, the point of conversation is to reconstruct prejudices, which is an alternative view of understanding itself.
It should be stressed however, that this conversation does not automatically lead to a “neater picture” of the situation nor does it necessarily produce a “social good”. There is the danger of viewing ‘disciplined conversation’ as an elevated version of the folk theory on ideal policy: ‘if only everyone talked to one another, the world would be a nicer place’. Academic conversation (just like any democratic dialectic process) is often contentious and not quite the genteel affair it tries to present itself as. Equally, any given method of inquiry, including and perhaps headed by case study, can be both constitutive and disruptive of our prejudices.
Currently the culture of politeness aimed at avoiding others’ and one’s own discomfort at any cost contributes to the problem. Can one structure research that enables people to reflect about prejudices that they inevitably bring to the situation and reconstruct their biases to open up the possibility of action and not cause discomfort to themselves or others? We could say that concern with generalization and method is a consequence of academic discourse and culture and one of the ways in which questions of personal responsibility are argued away. Abstraction, the business of academia, is seen as antithetical to the process of particularization, the business of policy implementation. But given some of the questions raised in this paper, we should perhaps be asking whether abstraction and particularization are parallel processes to which we ascribe polar directionality only ex post facto. In this sense we can further Nussbaum’s distinction between generalization and universalization by rephrasing the dichotomy in the following terms: generalization is assumed to be internal to the data whereas universalization is a situated human cognitive and affective act.
A universalizable case study is of such quality that the philosopher policy maker can discern its relevance for the process of policy making (similarly to Stake’s naturalistic generalization). This is a different way of saying the same thing as Kemmis (1980, p. 136): “Case study cannot claim authority, it must demonstrate it.” The power of case study in this context can be illustrated by anecdotes from the field where practitioners had been convinced that a particular case study describes their situation and berating colleagues or staff for revealing intimate details of their situation, whereas the case study had been based on research of an entirely unrelated entity. In cases like these, the universal nature of the case study is revealed to the practitioner. Its public aspects often engender action where idle rumination and discontent would be otherwise prevalent. Even when this kind of research tells people what they already “know”, it can inject accountability by rendering heretofore private knowledge public. The notion of case study as method with transcendental epistemology therefore cannot be rescued even by attempts like Bassey’s (1999) to offer ‘fuzzy generalizations’ since while cognition and categorization is fuzzy, action involves a commitment to boundaries. This focus on situated judgement over transcendental rationality in no way denies the need for rigour and instrumentalism. We agree with Stenhouse that there needs to be a space in which the quality of a particular case study can be assessed. But such judgments will be different when made by case study practitioners and when made by policy-makers or teachers. The epistemological philosopher will apply yet another set of criteria. All these agents would do well to familiarize themselves with the criteria applied by the others but they would be unwise to assume that they can ever fully transcend the situated parameters of their community of practice and make all boundaries (such as those described by Kushner 1993) disappear.
Philosophy often likes to position itself in the role of an independent arbiter but it must not forget that it too is an embedded practice with its own community rules. That does not mean there’s no space for it in this debate. If nothing else, it can provide a space (not unlike the liminal space of Turner’s rituals) in which the normal assumptions are suspended and transformation of the prejudice can occur. In this context, we should perhaps investigate the notion of therapeutic reading of philosophy put forth by the New Wittgensteinians (see Crary and Read 2000).
This makes the questions of ethics alluded to earlier even more prominent. We propose that given their situated nature, questions of generalization are questions of ethics rather than inquiries into some disembodied transcendent rationality. Participants in the complex interaction between practitioners of education, educational researchers and educational policy makers are constantly faced with ethical decisions asking themselves: how do I act in ways that are consonant with my values and goals? Questions of warrant are internal to them and their situation rather than being easily resolvable by external expert arbitration. This does not exclude instrumental expertise in research design and evaluation of results but the role of such expertise is limited to the particular. MacDonald and Walker (1977) point out the importance of apprenticeship in the training of case study practitioners and we should bear in mind that this experience cannot be distilled into general rules for research training as we find them laid out in a statistics textbook.
Herein can lie the contribution of philosophy: An inquiry into the warrant and generalization of case study should be an inquiry into the ethics surrounding the creation and use of research, not an attempt to provide an epistemologically transcendent account of the representativeness of sampled data.
Some years ago in a book review, I made an off-the-cuff comment that thriller writers tend to be quite right-wing in their outlook whereas science fiction authors are much more progressive and leftist. This is obviously an undue generalisation (as most of such comments tend to be) but it felt intuitively right. Even then I thought of Michael Chricton as the obvious counterexample – a thirller writer with distinctly liberal leanings – but I couldn’t think of a science fiction writer that would provide the counterexample. I put this down to my lack of comprehensive sci-fi reading and thought nothing more of it. Now, I’m not even sure that the general trend is there or at least that the implications are very straightforward.
Recently, I was listening to the excellent public policy lectures by Mark Kleiman and remembered that years ago, I’d read some similar suggestions in the Bio of the Space Tyrant by Pierce Anthony. It wasn’t a book (or rather a book series) I was going to reread but I set to it with a researcher’s determination. And frankly, I was shocked.
What I found was not a vision of a better society (Anthony projects the global politics of his day – the early 80s – into the Solar system 600 years hence) but rather a grotesque depiction of what the elites of the day would consider ‘common-sense’ policies: free-market entrepreneurship with social justice with a few twists. It was anti-corporalist and individualist on the surface but with a strong sense of collective duty (and pro-militarism) that was much more reminiscent of fascism than communism. It espoused strong, charismatic leadership with a sense of duty and most of all a belief in the necessity of change led by common sense. The needs of the collective justified the suppression of the individual in almost any way. But all of this is couched in good liberal politics (like the free press, free enterprise, etc.)
It is not clear whether Anthony means this as a parody of a fascist utopia but there are no hints there that this is the case. The overwhelming sense I get from this book is one of frustration of the intellectual elite that nobody is listening to what they have to say and a perverted picture of what the world would be like if they only got to start over with their policies.
Speaking of perverted. Through all of this is woven a bizzare and disturbing mix of patriarchy and progressive gender politics. On the one hand, Anthony is strongly against violence against women and treats women as strong and competent individuals. But on the other hand, his chief protagonist is an embodiment of a philanderer’s charter. All women love him but understand that he cannot love just one! The policies are there but what is to prevent any man from feeling that he is the one exception. So despite the progressive coating one is left feeling slightly unclean.
Now, is Anthony the exception I was looking for years ago? I don’t think so. First, I think he would fall in the liberal to libertarian camp if asked. But second, I don’t think he’s any exception at all. I recently reread some SciFi classics and found hints of to full blown monuments to this rationalist yearning for control over society – the “if they only listened to us” syndrome, also known as the “TED syndrome”. We understand so much about how things work, so now we have the solution for how everything works. That’s why we should never seek to be ruled by philosopher kings (Plato, Hobbes, and any third rate philosopher – more likely to be fascist than liberal). Classics like “Mote in God’s Eye“, “Starship Troupers” (the movie was a parody but the book wasn’t), “Foundation” or less well-known ones like “The Antares Trilogy” or “The Lost Fleet“. They all unwittingly struggle with the dilemma of what happens when we know what to do but we also know that it can’t be achieved unless we have complete control. I found echoes of this even in cyberpunk like Snowcrash.
So am I seeing a trend that isn’t there? I’m not as widely read in SciFi as other genres so it’s possible I just happened on books that confirm my thesis (such as it is). Again, the exception I can think of immediately is Cory Doctorow whose “For the Win” is as beautiful and sincere a depiction of the union movement as any song by Pete Seger. And I’m sure there are many more. But are there enough to make my impression just that? (Of course, there’s SciFi where this doesn’t come up, at all.)
But this tendency of the extremely intelligent and educated (and SciFi writers are on the whole just as well versed in anthropology as they are in science) to tell stories of how their images of the just society can be projected onto society as a whole is certainly a worrying presence in the genre. It seems to be largely absent From fantasy, which generally deals with journeys of individuals within existing worlds. And while these worlds may be dystopic, they generally are not changed, only explored. Fantasy has a strong thread of historical nostalgia – looking for a pure world of yore – which can be quite destructive when mis-projected to our own world. But on the whole, I feel, it contains less public policy than the average science fiction novel.
Note: This was intended to be a brief note. Instead it developed into a monster post that took me two weeks of stolen moments to write. It’s very light on non-blog references but they exist. Nevertheless, it is still easy to find a number of oversimplifications, conflations, and other imperfections below. The general thrust of the argument however remains.
How Far Can You Trust a Neuroscientist?
A couple of days ago I watched a TED talk called the Linguistic Genius of Babies by Patricia Kuhl. I had been putting it off, because I suspected I wouldn’t like it but I was still disappointed at how hidebound it was. It conflated a number of really unconnected things and then tried to sway the audience to its point of view with pretty pictures of cute infants in brain scanners. But all it was, is a hodgepodge of half-implied claims that is incredibly similar to some of the more outlandish claims made by behaviorists so many years ago. Kuhl concluded that brain research is the next frontier of understanding learning. But she did not give a simple credible example of how this could be. She started with a rhetorical trick. Mentioned an at-risk language with a picture of a mother holding an infant facing towards her. And then she said (with annoying condescension) that this mother and the other tribe members know something we do not:
What this mother — and the 800 people who speak Koro in the world — understand that, to preserve this language, they need to speak it to the babies.
This is garbage. Languages do not die because there’s nobody there to speak it to the babies (until the very end, of course) but because there’s nobody of socioeconomic or symbolic prestige children and young adults can speak the language to. Languages don’t die because people can’t learn them, they die because they have no reason (other than nostalgia) to learn them or have a reason not to learn them. Given a strong enough reason they would learn a dying language even if they started at sixteen. They just almost never are given the reason. Why Kuhl felt she did not need to consult the literature on language death, I don’t know.
Patricia Kuhl has spent the last 20 years studying pretty much one thing: acoustic discrimination in infants (http://ilabs.washington.edu/kuhl/research.html). Her research provided support for something that had been already known (or suspected), namely that young babies can discriminate between sounds that adults cannot (given similar stimuli such as the ones one might find in the foreign language classroom). She calls this the “linguistic genius of babies” and she’s wrong:
Babies and children are geniuses until they turn seven, and then there’s a systematic decline.
First, the decline (if there is such a thing) is mostly limited to acoustic processing and even then it’s not clear that the brain is the thing that causes it. Second, being able to discriminate (by moving their head) between sounds in both English and Mandarin at age 6 months is not a sign of genius. It’s a sign of the baby not being able to differentiate between language and sound. Or in other words, the babies are still pretty dumb. But it doesn’t mean they can’t learn a similar distinction at a later age – like four or seven or twelve. They do. They just probably do it in a different way than a 6-month old would. Third, in the overall scheme of things, acoustic discrimination at the individual phoneme level (which is what Kuhl is studying) is only a small part of learning a language and it certainly does NOT stop at 7 months or even 7 years of age. Even children who start learning a second language at the age of 6 achieve a native-like phonemic competence. And even many adults do. They seem not to perform as well on certain fairly specialized acoustic tests but functionally, they can be as good as native speakers. And it’s furthermore not clear that accent deficiencies are due to the lack of some sort of brain plasticity. Fourth, language learning and knowledge is not a binary thing. Even people who only know one language know it to a certain degree. They can be lexically, semantically and syntactically quite challenged when exposed to a sub-code of their language they have little to no contact with. So I’m not at all sure what Kuhl was referring to. François Grosjean (an eminent researcher in the field) has been discussing all this on his Life as Bilingual blog (and in books, etc.). To have any credibility, Kuhl must address this head on:
There is no upper age limit for acquiring a new language and then continuing one’s life with two or more languages. Nor is there any limit in the fluency that one can attain in the new language with the exception of pronunciation skills.
Instead she just falls on old prejudices. She simply has absolutely nothing to support this:
We think by studying how the sounds are learned, we’ll have a model for the rest of language, and perhaps for critical periods that may exist in childhood for social, emotional and cognitive development.
A paragraph like this may get her some extra funding but I don’t see any other justification for it. Actually, I find it quite puzzling that a serious scholar would even propose anything like this today. We already know there is no critical period for social development. Well, we don’t really know what social development is, but there’s no critical brain period to what there is. We get socialized to new collective environments throughout our lives.
But there’s no reason to suppose that learning to interact in a new environment is anything like learning to discriminate between sounds. There are some areas of language linked to perception where that may partly be the case (such as discriminating shapes, movements, colors, etc.) but hardly things like morphology or syntax, where much more complexity is involved. But this argument cuts both ways. Let’s say a lot of language learning was like sound development. And we know most of it continues throughout life (syntax, morphology, lexicon) and it doesn’t even start at 6 months (unless you’re a crazy Chomskean who believes in some sort of magical parameter setting). So if sound development was like that, maybe it has nothing to do with the brain in the way Kuhl imagines – although she’s so vague that she could always claim that that’s what she’d had in mind. This is what Kuhl thinks of as additional information:
We’re seeing the baby brain. As the baby hears a word in her language the auditory areas light up, and then subsequently areas surrounding it that we think are related to coherence, getting the brain coordinated with its different areas, and causality, one brain area causing another to activate.
So what? We know that that’s what was going to happen. Some parts of the brain were going to light up as they always do. What does that mean? I don’t know. But I also know that Patricia Kuhl and her colleagues don’t know either (at least not in the way she pretends). We speak a language, we learn a language and at the same time we have a brain and things happen in the brain. There are neurons and areas that seem to be affected by impact (but not always and not always in exactly the same way). Of course, this is an undue simplification. Neuroscientists know a huge amount about the brain. Just not how it links to language in a way that would say much about the language that we don’t already know. Kuhl’s next implied claim is a good example of how partial knowledge in one area may not at all extend to knowledge in another area.
What you see here is the audio result — no learning whatsoever — and the video result — no learning whatsoever. It takes a human being for babies to take their statistics. The social brain is controlling when the babies are taking their statistics.
In other words, when the children were exposed to audio or video as opposed to a live person, no effect was shown. At 6 months of age! As is Kuhl’s wont, she only hints at the implications, but over at the Royal Society’s blog comments, Eric R. Kandel has spelled it out:
I’m very much taken with Patricia Kuhl’s finding in the acquisition of a second language by infants that the physical presence of a teacher makes enormous difference when compared to video presence. We all know from personal experience how important specific teachers have been. Is it absurd to think that we might also develop methodologies that would bring out people’s potential for interacting empathically with students so that we can have a way of selecting for teachers, particularly for certain subjects and certain types of student? Neuroscience: Implications for Education and Lifelong Learning.
But this could very well be absurd! First, Kuhl’s experiments were not about second language acquisition but sensitivity to sounds in other languages. Second, there’s no evidence that the same thing Kuhl discovered for infants holds for adults or even three-year olds. A six-month old baby hasn’t learned yet that the pictures and sounds coming from the machine represent the real world. But most four-year olds have. I don’t know of any research but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence. I have personally met several people highly competent in a second language who claimed they learned it by watching TV at a young age. A significant chunk of my own competence in English comes from listening to radio, audio books and watching TV drama. How much of our first language competence comes from reading books and watching TV? That’s not to say that personal interaction is not important – after all we need to learn enough to understand what the 2D images on the screen represent. But how much do we need to learn? Neither Kuhl nor Kandel have the answer but both are ready (at least by implication) to shape policy regarding language learning. In the last few years, several reports raised questions about some overreaching by neuroscience (both in methods and assumptions about their validity) but even perfectly good neuroscience can be bad scholarship in extending its claims far beyond what the evidence can support.
The fundamental problem underlying the overreach of basic neuroscience research is the fallacy of isomorphism. This fallacy presumes that the same structures we see in language, behavior, society must have structural counterparts in the brain. So there’s a bit of the brain that deals with nouns. Another bit that deals with being sorry. Possibly another one that deals with voting Republican (as Woody Allen proved in “Everyone Says I Love You“). But at the moment the evidence for this is extremely weak, at best. And there is no intrinsic need for a structural correspondence to exist. Sidney Lamb came up with a wonderful analogy that I’m still working my way through. He says (recalling an old ‘Aggie‘ joke) that trying to figure out where the bits we know as language structure are in the brain is like trying to work out how to fit the roll that comes out of a tube of tooth paste back into the container. This is obviously a fool’s errand. There’s nothing in the tooth-paste container that in any way resembles the colorful and tubular object we get when we squeeze the paste container. We get that through an interaction of the substance, the container, external force, and the shape of the opening. It seems to me entirely plausible, that the link between language and the brain is much more like that between the paste, the container and their environment than like that between a bunch of objects and box. The structures that come out are the result of things we don’t quite understand happening in the brain interacting with its environment. (I’m not saying that that’s how it is, just that it’s plausible.) The other thing to lends it credence is the fact that things like nouns or fluency are social constructs with fuzzy boundaries, not hard discrete objects, so actually localizing them in the brain would be a bit of a surprise. Not that it can’t be done, but the burden of evidence of making this a credible finding is substantial.
Now, I think that the same problem applies to looking for isomorphism the other way. Lamb himself tries to look at grammar by looking for connections resembling the behavior of activating neurons. I don’t see this going anywhere. George Lakoff (who influenced me more than any other linguist in the world) seems to think that a Neural Theory of Language is the next step in the development of linguistics. At one point he and many others thought that mirror neurons say something about language but now that seems to have been brought into question. But why do we need mirror neurons when we already know a lot of the immitative behaviors they’re supposed facilitate? Perhaps as a treatment and diagnostic protocol for pathologies but is this really more than story-telling? Jerome Feldman described NTL in his book “From Molecule to Metaphor” but his main contribution seems to me lies in showing how complex language phenomena can be modelled with brain-like neural networks, not saying anything new about these phenomena (see here for an even harsher treatment). The same goes for the Embodied Construction Grammar. I entirely share ECG’s linguistic assumptions but the problem is that it tries to link its descriptive apparatus directly to the formalisms necessary for modeling. This proved to be a disaster for the generative project that projected its formalisms into language with a imperfect fit and now spends most of its time refining those formalisms rather than studying language.
So far I don’t see any advantage in linking language to the brain in either the way Kuhl et al or Feldman et al try to do it (again with the possible exception of pathologies). In his recent paper on compositionality, Feldman describes research that shows that spacial areas are activated in conjunction with spatial terms and that sentence processing time increases as the sentence gets removed from “natural spatial orientation”. But brain imaging at best confirms what we already knew. But how useful is that confirmatory knowledge? I would argue that not very useful. In fact there is a danger that we will start thinking of brain imaging as a necessary confirmation of linguistic theory. Feldman takes a step in this dangerous direction when he says that with the advent of new techniques of neuroscience we can finally study language “scientifically”. [Shudder.]
We know there’s a connection between language and the brain (more systematic than with language and the foot, for instance) but so far nobody’s shown convincingly that we can explain much about language by looking at the brain (or vice versa). Language is best studied as its own incredibly multifaceted beast and so is the brain. We need to know a lot more about language and about the brain before we can start projecting one into the other.
And at the moment, brain science is the junior partner, here. We know a lot about language and can find out more without looking for explanations in the brain. It seems as foolish as trying to illuminate language by looking inside a computer (as Chomsky’s followers keep doing). The same question that I’m asking for language was asked about cognitive processes (a closely related thing) by William Uttal in The New Phrenology who’s asking “whether psychological processes can be defined and isolated in a way that permits them to be associated with particular brain regions” and warns against a “neuroreductionist wild goose chase” – and how else can we characterize Kuhl’s performance – lest we fall “victim to what may be a ‘neo-phrenological’ fad”. Michael Shremer voiced a similar concern in the Scientific American:
The brain is not random kludge, of course, so the search for neural networks associated with psychological concepts is a worthy one, as long as we do not succumb to the siren song of phrenology.
What does a “siren song of phrenology” sound like? I imagine it would sound pretty much like this quote by Kuhl:
We are embarking on a grand and golden age of knowledge about child’s brain development. We’re going to be able to see a child’s brain as they experience an emotion, as they learn to speak and read, as they solve a math problem, as they have an idea. And we’re going to be able to invent brain-based interventions for children who have difficulty learning.
I have no doubt that there are some learning difficulties for which a ‘brain-based intervention’ (whatever that is) may be effective. But it’s just a relatively small part of the universe of learning difficulties that it hardly warrants a bombastic claim like the one above. I could find nothing in Kuhl’s narrow research that would support this assertion. Learning and language are complex psycho-social phenomena that are unlikely to have straightforward counterparts in brain activations such as can be seen by even the most advanced modern neuroimaging technology. There may well be some straightforward pathologies that can be identified and have some sort of treatment aimed at them. The problem is that brain pathologies are not necessarily opposites of a typically functioning brain (a fallacy that has long plagued interpretation of the evidence from aphasias) – it is, as brain plasticity would suggest, just as likely that at least some brain pathologies simply create new qualities rather than simply flipping an on/off switch on existing qualities. Plus there is the historical tendency of the self-styled hard sciences to horn in on areas where established disciplines have accumulated lots of knowledge, ignore the knowledge, declare a reductionist victory, fail and not admit failure.
For the foreseeable future, the brain remains a really poor metaphor for language and other social constructs. We are perhaps predestined to finding similarities in anything we look at but researchers ought to have learned by now to be cautious about them. Today’s neuroscientists should be very careful that they don’t look as foolish to future generations as phrenologists and skull measurers look to us now.
In praise of non-reductionist neuroscience
Let me reiterate, I have nothing against brain research. The more of it, the better! But it needs to be much more honest about its achievements and limitations (as much as it can given the politics of research funding). Saying the sort of things Patricia Kuhl does with incredibly flimsy evidence and complete disregard for other disciplines is good for the funding but awful for actually obtaining good results. (Note: The brevity of the TED format is not an excuse in this case.)
A much more promising overview of applied neuroscience is a report by the Royal Society on education and the brain that is much more realistic about the state of neurocognitive research who admit at the outset: “There is enormous variation between individuals, and brain-behaviour relationships are complex.”
The report authors go on to enumerate the things they feel we can claim as knowledge about the brain:
The brain’s plasticity
The brain’s response to reward
The brain’s self-regulatory processes
Brain-external factors of cognitive development
Individual differences in learning as connected to the brain and genome
Neuroscience connection to adaptive learning technology
So this is a fairly modest list made even more modest by the formulations of the actual knowledge. I could only find a handful of statements made to support the general claims that do not contain a hedge: “research suggests”, “may mean”, “appears to be”, “seems to be”, “probably”. This modesty in research interpretation does not always make its way to the report’s policy suggestions (mainly suggestions 1 and 2). Despite this, I think anybody who thinks Patricia Kuhl’s claims are interesting would do well do read this report and pay careful attention to the actual findings described there.
Another possible problem for those making wide reaching conclusions is a relative newness of the research on which these recommendations are based. I had a brief look at the citations in the report and only about half are actually related to primary brain research. Of those exactly half were published in 2009 (8) and 2010 (20) and only two in the 1990s. This is in contrast to language acquisition and multilingualism research which can point to decades of consistently replicable findings and relatively stable and reliable methods. We need to be afraid, very afraid of sexy new findings when they relate to what is perceived as the “nature” of humans. At this point, as a linguist looking at neuroscience (and the history of the promise of neuroscience), my attitude is skeptical. I want to see 10 years of independent replication and stable techniques before I will consider basing my descriptions of language and linguistic behavior on neuroimaging. There’s just too much of ‘now we can see stuff in the brain we couldn’t see before, so this new version of what we think the brain is doing is definitely what it’s doing’. Plus the assumption that exponential growth in precision brain mapping will result in the same growth in brain function identification is far from being a sure thing (cf. genome decoding). Exponential growth in computer speed, only led to incremental increases in computer usability. And the next logical step in the once skyrocketing development of automobiles was not flying cars but pretty much just the same slightly better cars (even though they look completely different under the hood).
The sort of knowledge to learn and do good neuroscience is staggeringly awesome. The scientists who study the brain deserve all the personal accolades they get. But the actual knowledge they generate about issues relating to language and other social constructs is much less overwhelming. Even a tiny clinical advance such as helping a relatively small number of people to communicate who otherwise wouldn’t be able to express themselves makes this worthwhile. But we must not confuse clinical advances with theoretical advances and must be very cautious when applying these to policy fields that are related more by similarity than a direct causal connection.
[dropcap]I[/dropcap] have a number of pet peeves about how people use language. I am genuinely annoyed by the use of apostrophes before plural of numerals or acronyms like 50’s or ABC’s. But because I understand how language works, I keep my mouth shut. The usage has obviously moved on. I don’t think, ABC’s is wrong or confusing, I just don’t like the way it looks. But I don’t like a lot of things that there’s nothing wrong with. I get over it.
Recently I came across a couple of blog posts pontificating on the misuse or overuse of the word literally. And as usual they confuse personal dislike with incorrect or confusing usage. So let’s set the record straight! No matter what some dictionaries or people who should know better say, the primary function of the word “literally” in the English language is to intensify the meaning of figurative, potentially figurative or even non-figurative expressions. This is not some colloquial appendage to the meaning of the word. That’s how it is used in standard English today. Written, edited and published English! Frequently, it is used to intensify expressions that are for all intents and purposes non-figurative or where the figurative nature of the expression can be hypostesized:
1. “Bytches is literally a record of life in a nineties urban American community.” [BNC]
2. “it’s a a horn then bassoon solo, and it it’s a most worrying opening for er a because it is. it is literally a solo, er unaccompanied” [BNC]
3. “The evidence that the continents have drifted, that South America did indeed break away from Africa for instance, is now literally overwhelming” [BNC, Richard Dawkins]
The TIME magazine corpus can put pay to the non-sense about “literally” as an intensifier being new or colloquial. The use of the word in all functions does show an increase from the 40s, peak in the 1980s and 2000s returning to the level of 1950s. I didn’t do the counting (plus it’s often hard to decide) but at a glance the proportion of intensifier uses is if anything slightly higher in the 1920s than in 2000s:
4. This is almost literally a scheme for robbing Peter to pay Paul. [TIME, 1925]
5. He literally dropped the book which he was reading and seized his sabre. [TIME, 1926]
6. The Tuchuns-military governors are literally heads of warring factions. [TIME, 1926]
But there are other things that indicate that the intensifier use of literally is what is represented in people’s linguistic knowledge. Namely collocations. Some of the most common adverbs preceding literally (first 2 words in COCA) are graded: 1. quite (558), 2. almost (119), 5. so (67), 7. too (54), 9. sometimes (42), 12. more, 15. very, 16. often.
7. Squeezed almostliterally between a rock and a hard place, the artery burst. [COCA, SportsIll, 2007]
Another common adverbial collocate is “just” (number 4) often used to support the intensification:
8. they eventually went missing almost justliterally a couple of minutes apart from one another [COCA, CNN, 2004]
Other frequent collocates are non-gradual: “up”, “down”, “out”, “now” but their usage seems coincidental – simply to be attributed to their generally high frequency in English.
The extremely unsurprising finding is that if we don’t limit the collocates by just 2 preceding words, by far the most common collocate of literally is “figuratively” (304). Used exclusively as part of “literally and figuratively”. This should count as its own use:
9. A romantic tale of love between two scarred individuals, one literally and one figuratively. [COCA, ACAD, 1991]
But even here, sometimes both possible senses of the use are figurative but one is perceived as being less so:
10. After years of literally and figuratively being the golden-haired boy… [COCA, NEWS, 1990]
11. Mercy’s parents had pulled the plug, literally and figuratively, on her burgeoning romance. [COCA, Fic, 2003]
This brings us to the secondary function (and notice I don’t use the word meaning, here) of “literally”, which is to disambiguate statements that in the appropriate context could have either figurative or literal meaning. Sometimes, we can apply a relatively easy test to differentiate between the two. The first sense cannot be rephrased using the adjective “literal”. However, as we saw above, a statement cannot always be strictly categorized as literal or figurative. For instance, example (2) above contains a disambiguating function although it is not between figurative or non-figurative but rather between two non-figurative interpretations of two situations that it may be possible to describe as a ‘solo’ (one where the soloists is prominent against background music and one where the soloist is completely unaccompanied.) Clear examples are not nearly as easy to find in a corpus, as the prescriptivist lore would have us believe and neither is the figurative part clear cut:
11. And they were about literally to be lynched and they had to save their lives. [COCA, SPOK, 1990]
12. another guy is literally a brain surgeon [COCA, MAG, 2010)
Often the trope does not include a clear domain mapping, as in the case of hyperbole.
13. I was terrified of women. Literally. [COCA, LIFE, 2006]
This type of disambiguation is often used with numerals and other quantifiers where a hyperbolic interpretation might be expected:
14. this is an economy that is generating literally 500,000 jobs because of our foreign trade [COCA, SPOK, PBS, 1996]
15. While there are literally millions of mobile phones that consumers and business people use [COCA, MAG, 2008]
16. “Then literally after two weeks I’m ready to come back,” he says. [COCA, MAG, 2010]
Or sometimes it is not clear whether some vague figure is being intensified or a potential trope is being disambiguated as in:
17. He was the man who lost his wife when his house literally broke apart in the storm. [COCA, CNN, 2005]
These types of examples also sometimes occur when the speaker realizes that what they had previously only intended as an intensified use is an actual disambiguating use:
18. will allow us to actuallyliterally X-ray the universe using these distant objects
Another common usage is to indicate a word for word translation from a foreign language or a component analysis of an etymology of a word. E.g.
19. theory of revolution (literally, an overturning) [BNC].
Sometimes this explanation includes side elaboration as in
20. “Ethnography — literally, textual description of particular cultures” [BNC].
“Literally” also has a technical sense meaning roughly “not figuratively” but that has nothing do with its popular usage. I could not find any examples of this in the corpus.
The above is far from an exhaustive analysis. If I had the time or inclination, we could fine tune the categories but it’s not all that necessary. Everyone should get the gist. “Literally” is primarily an intensifier and secondarily a disambiguator. And categorizing individual uses between these two functions is a matter of degree rather than strict complementarity.
None of the above is hugely surprising, either. “Literally” is a pretty good indicator that figurative language is nearby and a less good indicator that strict fact is in the vicinity. Andrew Goatly has described the language of metaphor including “literally” in his 1997 book. And the people behind the ATT-META Project tell me that they’ve been using “literally” as one of the indicators of metaphoric language.
Should we expect bloggers on language to have read widely on metaphor research? Probably not. But by now I would expect any language blogger to know that to look up something in a dictionary doesn’t tell them much about the use of the word (but a lot about the lexicographer) and the only acceptable basis for argumentation on the usage of words is a corpus (with some well recognized exceptions).
The “Literally Blog” that ran out of steam in 2009 was purportedly started by linguistics graduates who surely cannot have gotten very far past Prescriptivism 101. But their examples are often amusing. As are the ones on the picture site Litera.ly that has great and funny pictures even if they are often more figurative than the phrases they attempt to literalize. Another recent venture “The literally project” was started by a comedian with a Twitter account on @literallytsar who is also very funny. Yes, indeed, as with so many expressions, if we apply an alternative interpretation to them, we get a humorous effect. But what did two language bloggers think they were doing when they put out this and this on “literally”, I don’t know. It got started by Sentence First, who listed all the evidence to the contrary gathered by the Language Log and then went on to ignore it in the conclusion:
Well this is pretty much nonsense. You see, “pretty much” in the previous sentence was a hedge. Hedges, like intensifiers, might be considered superfluous. But I chose to use that instead of a metaphor such as “pile of garbage”. The problem with this statement is twofold. First, no intensifiers add anything to what they intensify. Except for intensification! What if we used “really” or “actually” – what do they add in that “literally” doesn’t? And what about euphemisms and so many other constructions that never add anything to any meaning. Steven Pinker in his recent RSA talk listed 18 different words for “feces”. Why have that many when “shit” would suffice?
Non-literal literally amuses, too, usually unintentionally. The more absurd the literal image is, the funnier I tend to find it. And it is certainly awkward to use literally and immediately have to backtrack and qualify it (“I mean, not literally, but…”). Literally is not, for the most part, an effective intensifier, and it annoys a lot of people. Even the dinosaurs are sick of it.
What is the measure of the effectiveness of an intensifier? The examples above seem to show that it does a decent job. And annoying a lot of prescriptivists should not be an argument for not using it. These people are annoyed by pretty much anything that strikes their fancy. We should annoy them. Non-sexist language also annoys a lot of people. All the more reason for using it.
“Every day with me is literally another yesterday” (Alexander Pope, in a letter to Henry Cromwell)
For sure, words change their meanings and acquire additional ones over time, but we can resist these if we think that doing so will help preserve a useful distinction. So it is with literally. If you want your words to be taken seriously – at least in contexts where it matters – you might see the value in using literally with care.
But this is obviously not a particularly useful distinction and never has been. The crazier the non-intensifier interpretation of an intensifier use of “literally” is, the less of a potential for confusion there is. But I could not find a single example where it really mattered in the more subtle cases. But if we think this sort of thing is important why not pick on other intensifiers such as “really”, “virtually” or “actually” (well, some people do). My hypothesis is that it’s a lot of prescriptivists like the feeling of power and “literally” is a particularly useful tool for subjugating those who are unsure of their usage (often because of a relentless campaign by the prescriptivist). It’s very easy to show someone the “error” of their ways when you can present two starkly different images. And it feels like this could lead to a lot of confusion. But it doesn’t. This is a common argument of the prescriptivist but they can rarely support the assertion with more than a couple of examples if any. So unless a prescriptivist can show at least 10 examples where this sort of ambiguity led to a real consequential misunderstanding in the last year, they deserve to be told to just shut up.
Which is why I was surprised to see Motivated Grammar (a blog dedicated to the fighting of prescriptivism) jump into the fray:
Non-literal “literally” isn’t wrong. That said… « Motivated Grammar Non-literal literally isn’t “wrong” — it’s not even non-standard. But it’s overused and overdone. I would advise (but not require) people to avoid non-literal usages of literally, because it’s just not an especially good usage. Too often literally is sound and fury that signifies nothing.
Again, I ask for the evidence of what constitutes good usage? It has been good enough for TIME Magazine for close to a century! Should we judge correct usage by the New York Review of Books? And what’s wrong with “sound and fury that signifies nothing”? How many categories of expressions would we have to purge from language, if this was the criterion? I already mentioned hedges. What about half the adverbs? What about adjectives like “good” or “bad”. Often they describe nothing. Just something to say. “How are you?”, “You look nice.”, “Love you” – off with their heads!
And then, what is the measure of “overused”? TIME Magazine uses the word in total about 200-300 times a decade. That’s not even once per issue. Eric Schmidt used it in some speeches over his 10-year tenure as Google’s CEO and if you watch them all together, it stands out. Otherwise nobody’s noticed! If you’re a nitpicker who thinks it matters, every use of “literally” is going to sound too much. So, you don’t count. Unless you have an objective measure across the speech community, you can’t make this claim. Sure, lots of people have their favorite turns of phrases that are typical of their speech. I rather suspect I use “in fact” and “however” far too much. But that’s not the fault of the expression. Nor is it really a problem, until it forces listeners to focus on that rather than the speech itself. But even then, they get by. Sometimes expressions become “buzz words” and “symbols of their time” but as the TIME corpus evidence suggests, this is not the case with literally. So WTF?
I just spent some time going after prescriptivists. But I don’t actually think there’s anything wrong with prescriptivism (even though their claims are typically factually wrong). Puristic and radical tendencies are a part of any speech community. And as my former linguistics teacher and now friend Zdeněk Starý once said, they are both just as much a part of language competence as the words and grammatical constructions. So I don’t expect they will ever go away nor can I really be too critical of them. They are part of the ecosystem. So as a linguist, I think of them as a part of the study of language. However, making fun of them is just too hard to resist. Also, it’s annoying when you have to beat this nonsense out of the heads of your students. But that’s just the way things are. I’ll get over it.
Well, I may have been a bit harsh at the blogs and bloggers I was so disparaging about. Both Sentence first and Motivated grammar have a fine pedigree in language blogging. I went and read the comments under their posts and they both profess anti-prescriptivism. But I stand behind my criticism and its savagery of the paragraphs I quoted above. There is simply no plausible deniability about them. You can never talk about good usage and avoid prescriptivism. You can only talk about patterns of usage. And if you want to quantify these, you must use some sort of a representative samples. Not what you heard. Not what you or people like you. Evidence. Such as a corpus (or better still corpora provide.) So saying you shouldn’t use literally because a lot of people don’t like it needs evidence. But what evidence there is suggests that literally isn’t that big a deal. I did three Google searches on common peeve and “literally” came third: +literally +misuse (910,000), preposition at the end of a sentence (1,620,000), and +passive +misusewriting (6,630,000). Obviously, these numbers mean relatively little and can include all sorts of irrelevant examples, but they are at least suggestive. Then I did a search for top 10 grammar mistakes and looked at the top 10 results. Literally did not feature in either one of these. Again, this is not a reliable measure, but it’s at least suggestive. I’m waiting for some evidence to show where the confusion over the intensifier and disambiguator use has caused a real problem.
A bit of corpus fun revealed some other interesting collocate properties of literally. There are some interesting patterns within individual parts of speech. The top 10 adjectives immediately following are:
The top 10 nouns are all quantifiers:
The top 10 numerals (although here we may run up to the limitations of the tagger) are:
There are the top adverbs:
And the top 10 preceding adverbs:
One of the patterns in the collocates suggests that “literally” often (although this is only a significant minority of uses) has to do with scale or measure. So I was thinking is it possible that one can use the intensifier literally incorrectly (in the sense that most speakers would find the intensity inappropriate). For example, is it OK to intensify height of a person in any proportion? Is there a difference between “He was literally 6 feet tall” (disambiguator) and “He was literally seven feet tall.” (intensifier requiring further disambiguation) and “He was literally 12 feet all” (intensifier). The corpus had nothing to say on this, but Google provided some information. Among the results of the search “literally * feet tall” referring to people, the most prominent height related to literally is 6 or 7 feet tall. There are some literally 8 feet tall people and people literally taller because of some extension to their height (stilts, helmets spikes, etc.) But (as I thought would be the case) there seem to be no sentences like “He was literally 12 feet tall.” So it seems “literally” isn’t used entirely arbitrarily with numbers and scales. Although it is rarely used to mean “actually, verifiably, precisely”, it is used in proportion to the scale of the thing measured. However, it is used both when a suspicion of hyperbole may arise and where a plausible number needs to be intensified. And most often a mixture of both. But it is not entirely random. “*Literally thousands of people showed up for dinner last night” or “*We had literally a crowd of people” is “ungrammatical” while “literally two dozen” is OK even if the actual number was only 18. But this is all part of the speakers’ knowledge of usage. Speakers know that with quantifiers, the use of literally is ambiguous. So if you wanted to say “The guy sitting next to me was literally 7 feet tall”, you’d have to disambiguate and say “And I mean literally, he is the third tallest man in the NBA.”