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).
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?
Some years ago in a book review, I made an off-the-cuff comment that thriller writers tend to be quite wright-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 we know what to do but we know 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 maybe 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.”
Acclaimed academics have policy agendas just like anybody else. And often they let them interfere with a straightforward critical analysis of their output. The monumental capacity for blindness of highly intelligent people is sometimes staggering. Metaphors and analogies (same thing for metaphor hacking) make thinkers particularly prone to mis-projection blindness. Edward Glaeser, a Harvard economics prof, is just the latest in the long line of economists and blowhards, who think they have the education system licked by comparing it to some -free market gimmick. They generally reveal that they know or care precious little about the full extent of the processes involved in the market and Glaeser is a shining example of this. His analogy is so preposterous and only needs so little thought to break down, I can’t believe he didn’t take a few minutes to to do it himself. Well, actually, I can believe it. It’s pretty, neat and seductive. So who cares that it is pure non-sense. Here’s what he said:
Why Cities Rock | Freakonomics Radio: I want you to just imagine if for example, instead of having a New York restaurant scene that was dominated by private entrepreneurs who competed wildly with each other trying to come up with new, new things. The bad restaurants collapse; the good restaurants go on to cooking show fame. You have these powerful forces of competition and innovation working. Imagine instead if there was a food superintendent who operated a system of canteens where the menus were decided at the local level, and every New Yorker had to eat in these canteens. Well, the food would be awful. And that’s kind of what we decided to do with schooling. Instead of harnessing the urban ability to provide innovation, competition, new entry, we’ve put together a system where we’ve turn all that stuff off, and we’ve allowed only a huge advantage for a local, public monopoly. It’s very, very difficult to fix this. I think the most hopeful signs, and there’s been as you know a steady stream of economics papers on this, the most hopeful signs I think are coming from charter schools, which are particularly effective in urban areas. And it’s not so much that the average charter school is so much better than the average public school, but rather that in charter schools, because they can go bankrupt, because the can fail, the good ones will succeed, and the bad ones will drop out of the market. And certainly we’ve seen lots of great randomized studies that have shown the ability of charters to deliver great test score results.
As we know, metaphors (and their ilk) rely on projections from one domain to another. Generative metaphor (of which this is one) then try to base a solution on a new domain which is the result of the blending of the source domain.
So this is how Glaser envisions the domain of New York restaurants: there is competition, which drives up the quality of the food (note that he didn’t mention driving down prices, lowering expense per unit, and other tricks used by ‘wildly competing entrepreneurs’). Restaurateurs and chefs must strive to provide better food than others because there is so much choice, people will flock to their competitors for the better food.
This is how he wants to project it into schooling: give people more choice (and means to exercise that choice by using the intra city’s short commutes) and this will result in competition, the competition will increase experimentation and as a result the quality of education goes up. He also mentions test scores at the end but these have little to do with education (but why should somebody at Harvard know that?).
Of course, he makes most of the argument through a reverse projection, where he asks us to imagine what the New York restaurants would look like if they were run like a centralized public school system. He envisions the end process as similar to Apple’s 1984 commercial: a sea of bland canteens with awful food. But this is just so much elitist blather. Glaeser should be ashamed of himself for not thinking this through.
First, what he describes is only true of the top tier of New York restaurants. The sort of places the upper-middle glass go to because of a review on Yelp. The majority of places where New Yorkers (and people everywhere) eat their lunches and the occasional dinner are either real canteens, some local greasy spoon, or a chain that makes its consistent prices and dining experiences possible through resolute mediocrity. The Zagat guide is for special occasions, not daily nutrition.
Second, Glaser never asks how this maps onto schooling or education, in general. Probably because the answer would be that it doesn’t. Glaeser certainly refused to say anything useful about his analogy. He went far enough to promote his shallow ideology and stopped while the stopping was good. Let’s look at a few possible mappings and see how we fare.
So first we have the quality of the food. This would seem to map quite nicely onto quality of education. But it doesn’t. Or at least not in the way Gleaeser and his like would like. Quality of the food that can impact on competition is a surface property. We cannot also always trust people that they can judge the quality apart from the decor of the restaurant or its reputation – just like with wine, they are very likely to judge the quality based on a review or the recommendation of a trusted acquaintance. In Glaeser’s analogy, we’re not really talking about the quality of food but the quality of the dining experience. And if we project this onto the quality of a school, we’re only increasing the scope of the problem. No matter how limited and unreliable, we can at least judge the quality of the overall dining experience by our own reaction to our experience. But with schools, the experience is mediated through the child and the most important criterion of quality – viz an educated human being at the end – is deferred until long after the decision on quality has been made. It’s like judging the quality of a restaurant we go to for an anniversary dinner by whether we will be healthy in 5 years. Of course, we can force such judgements but arbitrarily ranking schools based on a single number – like the disastrous UK league tables that haven’t improved the education of a single child but made a lot of people extremely anxious.
The top restaurants (where the competition makes a difference) don’t look at food from the perspective of what matters for life, namely nutrition. It’s quite likely the most popular restaurants don’t serve anything particularly healthy or prepared with regard to the environmental impact. Quality is only important to them as one of many competitive advantage. They also use a number of tricks to make the dining experience better – cheat on ingredients, serve small portions on large plates, etc. They rely on ‘secret recipes’ – the last thing we want to see in education. And this is exactly the experience of schools that compete in the market. They fudge, cheat and flat out lie to protect their competitive advantage. They provide the minimum of education that they can get away with to look good. Glaeser also conveniently forgets that there is a huge amount of centralized oversight of New York restaurants – much more, in some ways, than on charter schools. Quality is only one of the results of rampant competition and oversight is necessary to protect consumers. This is much more important in schools than in restaurants (but it almost seems that restaurants have more of it, than schools – proportionally to their importance).
But that is only one part of this important mismapping, which is the process of competition. Many economists forget that the market forces don’t work on their own. They work off the backs of the cheated and underserved. Bad restaurants don’t go out of business by some market magic. They go out of business because enough people ate there and were cheated, served bad food or almost got poisoned. And this experience had to have been bad enough for them to talk about it and dissuade others from visiting. With restaurants the individual cost is relatively minor (at least for those comfortably off). You have to contribute one or two bad meals or ruined evenings a year to keep the invisible hand doing its business among the chefs of New York. (This could be significant to someone who only goes out once every few months but still something you can get over.) Also the cost of making a choice is virtually nill. It takes no effort to go to a different restaurant or to choose to eat at home. Except for the small risk of food poisoning, you’ve made no investment in your choice and the potential loss is minimal.
However, in the case of schooling, you’re making a long-term commitment (at least a semester or a year but most likely at least four years). You can shrug off a bad meal but what about a wasted half-a-decade of your child’s life? Or what if you enrolled your child in the educational equivalent of Burger King serving nothing but giant whoppers. Everything seems fine all along but the results are clogged intellectual arteries. Also the costs of a school going out of business (and here Glaeser is one of the honest few that admit to bankrupt schools as a desirable outcome of competition in education) are exceedingly high. Both financial and emotional. Let’s say a school goes out of business and a poor parent has invested in books, school uniform and transportation choice only to have to start this again in a new school. Or how about the toll that making new friends, getting used to new teachers, etc. takes on a child. How many ruined childhoods is Glaeser willing to accept for the benefits of his ideology? As far as I know, the churn among New York restaurants is quite significant – could the education system sustain 10% or even 1% of schools going out of business every year.
And more importantly what about great schools going out of business because of financial mismanagement of capitalist wannabes? Not all market failures (maybe even not most) are due to low quality. Bad timing, ruthless competition, impatient investors and insufficient growth have killed many a great product. How many great schools would succumb to one of these? And won’t we see the same race to mediocrity once the ‘safe middle ground’ of survival is discovered? How many schools will take on the risk of innovation in the face of relentless market pressures? For a Chef, one bad recipe is just a learning experience. For a school, one unsuccessful innovation can lead to absolute disaster.
But all that is assuming that we can even map the “quality of education” onto quality in any sphere of commercial activity whatsoever. What business do you get a product or service from for four or eight years that requires a daily performance of a complex and variable task such as caring for and educating a young person is? Not your electricity provider who provides a constant but a non-variable service, nor your medical care provider who offers a variable but only periodical service. Also, “the consumers of education’s” requirements keep changing over time. They may have wanted a rounded and fulfilling education for their child at the start but just want them to get to university at the end. You can measure quality by test scores or graduation rates but that still doesn’t guarantee success for roughly 10-20% of students even in the best of schools.
To conclude, fine food plays a role in the prosperity of restaurants but so does convenience and habit. The quality of education is too complex to map successfully on the quality of food (and possibly any single commercial product). And even if that was possible, the cost of making the market forces work is incomparably higher in education than in dining. Glaeser’s proposed model for reform is just as likely to produce pinnacles of excellence as ruthlessly competitive MacDonald’s-like chains of garbage.
There’s nothing wrong with using metaphors to try to look for ways to improve education. But generally, these should be very local rather than global and always have their limits carefully investigated. That means detailed understanding of both domains and meticulous mappings between them as well as the relationships between them. Not all mappings need to be perfect and some need not be there at all (for instance, computer virus is still useful metaphor even though it doesn’t spread through the air), but this should be done consciously and with care. Steve Jones once said of evolution that metaphor is to it like bird excrement is to statues. The same often goes for education, but it doesn’t have to.
Finally, this analysis didn’t necessarily imply that the current system is the best there can be or that it is even any good (although I think it’s pretty good). Just that reforming it based on this cock-a–maney metaphor could be extremely dangerous. New solutions must ultimately be judged on their own merit but with the many market metaphors, very many their merit is irretrievably tied to the power of the initial metaphor and not any intrinsic solution.
UPDATE: It seems I may have a been a bit too harsh on Glaeser. Obsevational Epidemiology posts this quote form his book (the one he was promoting on the Freakonomics podcast):
All of the world’s older cities have suffered the great scourges of urban life: disease, crime, congestion. And the fight against these ills has never been won by passively accepting things as they are or by mindlessly relying on the free market.
Ok, so he’s not just a mindless free-marketeer. So why on earth would he suggest the above as a suitable metaphor to base educational reform on?
“Thanks” to experimental philosophy, we have a bit more evidence confirming, that what many people think about the special epistemological status of metaphor is bunk. We should also note that Gibbs’ and Glucksberg’s teams have been doing a lot of similar research with the same results since the late 1980s.
In short, it looks like it really is pretty impossible to explain what a metaphor means. But that is not because of anything special about metaphors. It is merely a reflection of the fact that we can’t explain what any sentence means. Experimental Philosophy: What Metaphors Mean
Phelan went and asked people to paraphrase metaphorical and non-metaphorical statements only to find that the resulting paraphrases were judged equally inadequate for metaphors and literal statements. In fact, paraphrases of metaphorical statements like “Music is the universal language” or “Never give your heart away” were judged as more acceptable than paraphrases of their “literal” counterparts “French is the language Quebec” and “Always count your change”. The result shows something that any good translator will know intuitively – paraphrases are always hard.
So the conclusion (one to which I’m repeatedly drawn) is that there’s nothing special about metaphors when it comes to meaning, understanding and associated activities like paraphrasing. The availability of paraphrase (and understanding in general) is broadly dependent to two factors knowledge and usage. We have to know a lot about the world and how language is used to navigate it. So while we might consider “there’s a chair in the office”, “a chair is in the office” or “how about that chair in the office” as adequate descriptions of a particular configuration of objects in space, the same does not apply to usage. And things get even trickier when we substitute “a cobra” or “an elephant” for “a chair” and then start playing around with definiteness. We know that chairs in offices are normal and desirable, cobras unlikely and undesirable and elephants impossible and most likely metaphorical. Thinking that we can understand both “there’s an elephant in the office” and “there’s a chair in the office” as simply a combination of the words and the construction “there’s X in Y” is a bad idea. And the same goes for metaphors. We need to know a lot about the world and language to understand them.
One of the pairs of sentences Phelan compared was “God is my co-pilot” and “Bill Thomson is my co-pilot”. Intuitively, we’d say that the “literal” one would be easier to paraphrase and we’d be right but not as radically: 47% of respondents chose “God is helping me get where I want to go” as a good paraphrase and mere 58% went with “I have a copilot named Bill Thomson”. And that goes slightly against intuition. But not if we think about it a bit more carefully. All the same questions we can ask about the meaning of these two sentences demonstrate a significant dependence on knowledge and usage. “In what way is God your co-pilot” makes sense where “In what way is Bill Thomson your co-pilot” doesn’t. But we can certainly ask “What exactly does Bill do when he’s your copilots”, “What do co-pilots do anyway”. And armed with that knowledge and knowledge of the situation we can challenge either statement “no God isn’t really your co-pilot” or “no Bill isn’t really your co-pilot”. Metaphoricity really had no impact – it was knowledge. Most people know relatively little about what co-pilots do so we might even suspect that their understanding of “God is my co-pilot” is greater than of “Bill is my co-pilot”.
This is because the two utterances are not even that different conceptually. They both depend on our ability to create mental mappings between two domains of understanding: the present situation and what we know about co-pilots. We might argue that in the “literal” case, there are fewer more determinate mappings but that is only the case if we have precise and extensive knowledge. If we hear the captain say “Bill is my co-pilot” and we know that “co-pilots sit next to pilots and twiddle with instruments”, we can then conclude “the guy sitting next to the captain and switching toggles is Bill”. If the person sitting next to us said “God is my co-pilot”, we can draw conclusions from our knowledge of usage e.g. “people who say this are also likely to talk to me about God”. It seems a very simple mapping. This would get a lot more complex if the captain said “God is my co-pilot” and the person sitting next to us on the plane would say “Bill is my co-pilot” but it would still be a case of reconciling our knowledge of the world and language usage with the present situation through mappings. So the seeming simplicity of the literal is really just an illusion when it comes to statements of any consequence.
Dan Cohen has decided to “crowdsource” (a fascinating blend, by the way) the title of his next book with the following instructions.
The title should be a couplet like “The X and the Y” where X can be “Highbrow Humanities” “Elite Academia” “The Ivory Tower” “Deep/High Thought” [insert your idea] and Y can be “Lowbrow Web” “Common Web” “Vernacular Technology/Web” “Public Web” [insert your idea]. so possible titles are “The Highbrow Humanities and the Lowbrow Web” or “The Ivory Tower and the Wild Web” etc.
Before I offer my suggestion, let me pause and wonder how do we know what the book is to be about? Well, we know exactly what it is to be about because what he has in fact done was describe its contents in the form of two cross domain mappings that are then mapped onto each other (a sort of a double-barrel metaphor). And the title, it goes without saying (in a culture that agrees on what titles should be) should as eloquently and entertainingly point to the complex mapping through yet more mappings (if this was a post on blending theory, I’d elaborate on this some more).
We (I mean us the digitized or unanalog) can also roughly guess what Dan Cohen’s stance will be and if he were to be writing it just for us, we’d much rather just get it as a series of blog posts, or perhaps not at all. The paragraph quoted above is enough for us. We know what’s going on.
So aware of the ease with which meaning was co-constructed, I would recommend a more circumspect and ambiguous title. The Tortoise and the Harewith a subtitle: Who’s Chasing Whom in Digital Scholarship or possibly The Winners and Losers of Digital Academia. Why this title? Well, I believe in challenging preconceptions, starting with our own. The tale of the Tortoise and the Hare (as the excellent Wikipedia entry documents) offers no easy answer. Or rather it offers too many easy answers for comfort. The first comes from the title and a vague awareness of the fact that this is a story about a speed contest between two animals who are stereotypes for the polar opposites of speed. So the first impression is “of course, the hare is the winner” and this is a book about the benefits of digital scholarship, so the digital scholars must be the hare. Also, and also digital equals fast so that means the book is about how the hare of digital scholarship is leaving the tortoise of ivory-tower academia in the dust. And we could come up with a dozen stories illustrating how this is the case.
Then we pause and remember, ah, but didn’t the tortoise win the race because of the hasty overconfidence and carelessness of the hare? So that means that perhaps the traditional academics, moving slowly but deliberately, are the favored ones, after all? Can’t we all also think of too many errors made on blogs, crowdsourced encyclopedic entries and easily make the case that the deliberate approach is superior to moving at breakneck speed? Aren’t hares known for their short and precarious life spans as well as speed while the tortoise is almost proverbial in its longevity?
But the moral of the story is even more complex and less determinate. If we continue further in our deliberations, we might be able to get a few more hints of this. In particular, we must ask, what does this story tell us about speed and wisdom? And the answer must be: absolutely nothing. We knew coming into it that hares were faster than tortoises over any distance that can be traveled by both animals. We’re not exactly clear why the tortoise challenged the hare. Unless it had secret knowledge of its narcolepsy, it couldn’t have possibly known that the hare would take a nap or get distracted (depending on the version of the story) in the middle of the race? So equating the tortoise with wisdom would seem foolish. At best we can see the tortoise as an inveterate gambler whose one-in-a-million bet paid off. We would certainly be foolish (as was noticed by Lord Dunsanycited in the Wikipedia entry) to assume that the hare’s loss makes the tortoise more suitable for a job delivering a swift message over the same journey the following day. So the only possible learning could be that taking nap in the middle of a race and not waking up in time can lead to loosing the race. Conceivably, there could be something about the dangers of overconfidence. But again didn’t we know this already through many much less ambiguous stories?
What does that mean for the digital and traditional scholarship? Very tentatively, I would suggest it is that we cannot predict the results of a single race (i.e. any single academic enterprise) based purely on the known (or inferred) qualities of one approach. There are too many variables. But neither can we discount what we know about the capabilities of one approach in favor of another simply because it proved to be a failure where we would have expected success. In a way, just like with the fable, we already know everything about the situation. For some things hares are better than tortoises and vice versa. Most of the time, our expectations are borne out and sometimes they are not. Sometimes the differences are insignificant, sometimes they matter a lot. In short, life is pretty damn complicated, and hoping a simple contrast of two prejudice-laden images will help us understand it better is perhaps the silliest thing of all. But often it is also the thing without which understanding would be impossible. So perhaps the moral of this story, this blog, and of Dan Cohen’s book really should be: beware of easy understandings.