[lit-ideas] Re: Literally

  • From: Donal McEvoy <donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx" <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Fri, 1 May 2015 11:55:18 +0000 (UTC)


"This is why there currently is no great "theory of meaning" that fully 
explains how and why words have the meanings they have - or which we give
them.  Yet we know enough to say that a "literal" interpretation is not the
result of  some more or less straightforward pathways between the words used
their  attendant 'meanings' but is itself a construction built from a most
elaborate  set of processes."

Some philosophers use the keyword 'conduit', which I think is apt. Although
my favourite coinage is 'telementational', as used by McGinn. He thinks
(with  Alston) that Grice is like Locke, a telementationalist: there's A's
brain and  there's B's brain, and understanding what A means means that B will
make a  'model' of A's psychological scheme.>
But even if "telementationalism" is right or correct up to a point, it falls
well short of a
"theory of meaning" that explains how and why words have the meanings they
have: for example, why the calling out of "Dog" may be a noun when asked what
kind of pet we have or a proper name if we have called our dog "Dog" etc. The
"telemantationist", a la JLS' Grice, merely indicates we model on each other's
psychological schemes - but, even if true, this does not explain how we are
able to develop psychological schemes where the same words may have different
senses and different words the same senses (to mention just two problems any
"theory of meaning" would have to solve).

One of the great defects of modern academic philosophers is their frequent
delusion that they have properly explained something when what they say amounts
to nothing like a proper explanation - it is as if they are ill-educated in
what a proper explanation looks like.
A typical error is to offer some definitional argument as if it constitutes an
explanation, which it never does e.g. that defining "knowledge" as JTB somehow
explains the character of knowledge, whereas it merely amounts to a
stipulation. On top of that, they are often themselves confused as to whether
they are offering something substantive or merely definitional - and often
because they harbour the delusion that a mere definition can also express a
substantive truth [akin to a delusion that the analytic can be simultaneously

McGinn, we might remember, is someone who in the same book - his "The
Philosophy of Mind" - manages at two different points to assert both that the
self cannot be a "substance" and that we are driven to the conclusion that the
self is a "substance" (while the same word can have two different senses
without contradiction, these two propositions can only be reconciled by saying
we are driven to a mistaken conclusion, which does not appear to be what McGinn
wishes to say). But then McGinn belongs to that club overly prone to reasoning
that is tortuous to very little effect. JLS is also a member.


On Friday, 1 May 2015, 11:02, "dmarc-noreply@xxxxxxxxxxxxx"
<dmarc-noreply@xxxxxxxxxxxxx> wrote:

Did Grice use 'figure'? He did: he speaks of 'conversational implicatures' 
as being of the ilk of 'figures of speech', and indeed classes metaphor
("You're  the cream in my coffee") as a metaphor qua figure of speech. But as
Grice and  Quintilian knew, there are figures of speech, and figures of
thought. And as  Turner has pointed out, even for Quintilian, literality _was_
(or is, since this  is historic present) a 'figure'. So mathematicians use
figures of speech, as do  historians, when reporting historical facts. The idea
that there is a  'figurative'/non-figurative distinction is otiose, seeing
that EVERYTHING is  figurative. Still, Grice's keyword 'figures of speech'
is useful, as their names  are lovely: meiosis, litotes, hyperbole, irony,
innuendo, and Helm's favourite  one: synecdoche (mine is metaphtonymy). And
there are others even lovelier.

In a message dated 5/1/2015 4:20:30 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time, 
donalmcevoyuk@xxxxxxxxxxx writes:
Re "literal" interpretation

i.e. of 'literal' as applied to 'interpretation', or understanding. 

McEvoy writes:

"There is what we call a "literal" interpretation  etc."

By etc we may consider reading, understanding, 'sense', meaning, etc. And 
Omar K. was referring to Lakoff. Indeed, Turner's work may be a derivation
of  Lakoff's and Johnson's work, and Lakoff and Johnson do quote from
Davidson and  Grice. In Davidson's essay on metaphor, Davidson quotes from
and agrees  with Grice to see 'metaphor' as a species of conversational
implicature. The  obvious flout is that of the 'conversational maxim' of
truthfulness, and it's a  category mistake that is by definition involved:
the cream in my  coffee". Some have argued that "No man is an island" is by
default interpreted  as a metaphor, even though it is literally true (and
hence, "Literally, no man  is an island" is, while otiose, not the acceptance
of a category mistake --  while to say that no island is a man may confuse).

McEvoy goes on:

"But we should beware taking the idea of a  "literal" interpretation too

This may be taken as analytic. The particle 'too' is usually figuratively 
bears its implicature on its face. While the many say that there's nothing
like  'too' much love, Freddie Mercury reminds us in a song that 'too much
love will  kill you in the end'. If 'too' triggers the implicature of
disvalue, we SHOULD  beware. If the implicature is cancelled, we shouldn't.


"A "literal" interpretation is itself the product of a very involved set of
processes, much as the ordinary perception of objects is the product of a
very  involved set of processes. In both cases, the processes involved are
rendered  largely 'invisible' to us and are not part of the conscious
experience. But the  existence of these processes means that what we may take
simple and  straightforward is actually the result of something very complex
and  involved."

I like the keyword 'straightforward' here, since usually implicatures, at 
least since J. R. Searle's often reprinted essay on 'indirect speech acts'
("Can  you pass me the salt?") have often been interpreted as related
(conceptually) to  indirectness. Then there's short-circuited implicatures, and
long-circuited  ones.

McEvoy goes on:

"In one view, we obtain a "literal" interpretation because we can "read 
off" from the words used. Without much critical reflection, we may tend to
think  we can and do "read off" meanings from the words used in some 'direct'
way - and  this is what constitutes a "literal" interpretation. And many
philosophers talk  about language as if we can and do "read off" directly from
the words used in a  more or less straightforward way."

Well, Grice, as a heir to PM (that's Principia Mathematica) would do that. 
Strawson wouldn't. They frequently discussed this. In Strawson's obituary,
we  read of Grice's precept to Strawson: If you can't put it in symbols it's
not  worth saying it."

i. p & q

Grice and Whitehead and Russell reads this 'literally'. Strawson didn't. He
thought that

ii. "He died and took a pill"

sounded 'harsh'. But surely

iii. "He took a pill and died."

is truth-conditionally equivalent to (ii) because (i) is truth-functionally
equivalent (as PM explains to us via axioms or rules of introduction and 
elimination, as for _all_ logical 'particles' or truth-functors) to

iv. q & p

McEvoy goes on:

"But this is very, very far from the case. Compare: many philosophers have 
also treated perception - say, 'seeing an orange' - as if it is something
where  our perceptual apparatus can "read off" directly from properties of
the object  perceived: but this is also very, very far the case."

Grice's example was Dalton's utterance:

"It seems to me as if there is a red pillar in front of me; in fact, it  IS

It was only in 1995 that Dalton ('posthumously', as Omar K. would add) was 
diagnosed with Dalton's Disease -- but Grice's "Causal Theory of
Perception"  predated the diagnosis).

McEvoy goes on:

"We do not know much [afaik] about the very elaborate processes  involved
in decoding language for meaning, as we do not know much about the very 
elaborate interactions between the physical brain and its unconscious and 
conscious mental processes [see Popper's contributions to "The Self and Its 
Brain", which indicates the position is further complicated by the vital role
W3 in these interactions]."

The work of Herb Clark is considered a vade-mecum in the Griceian 
implicatural decoding of implicature, only that since Grice's is an inference 
not a code model, we shouldn't be talking of decoding AT all. I prefer plain 
'understanding'. Philosophers often understand 'understanding' better than 
psychologists, and the first philosopher to propose a Griceian definition
of  'understanding' (as the recovery on the addressee's part of the utterer's
meaning) was Strawson in his "Theoria" article ("Intention and Convention
in  speech acts"). Strawson's example

v. The thin is ice here.

as a warning,

vi. You better not skate in that patch.

Strawson's tirade is against Austin (hence the 'convention' in the title). 
He calls Austin and Grice his Homeric gods and says that if Austin were
right,  we couldn't proceed with love affairs unless they follow the blueprints
of the  "Roman of the Rose".


"This is why there currently is no great "theory of meaning" that fully 
explains how and why words have the meanings they have - or which we give
them.  Yet we know enough to say that a "literal" interpretation is not the
result of  some more or less straightforward pathways between the words used
their  attendant 'meanings' but is itself a construction built from a most
elaborate  set of processes."

Some philosophers use the keyword 'conduit', which I think is apt. Although
my favourite coinage is 'telementational', as used by McGinn. He thinks
(with  Alston) that Grice is like Locke, a telementationalist: there's A's
brain and  there's B's brain, and understanding what A means means that B will
make a  'model' of A's psychological scheme. The 'mentationalist' in 
'telementationalist' shouldn't be taken too seriously, since Alston's 
old-fashioned 'ideationist' is perhaps preferred, and G. H. R. Parkinson (of 
in "Theories of meaning" (Oxford readings in philosophy) classes Grice's 
theory of meaning as ideationist. (Even if 'idea' can confuse here, but it's 
Locke's term of art). (And cfr. a piece of jargon of so-called 'cognitivists'
that I would not perhaps use: 'mind' or soul-reading).


"We have recently discussed something pertinent. Among the points made in 
the thread on jurisprudence is that the same wording - "treated less
favourably"  - can have two different interpretations or "meanings".  And a
can  know (or guess) this must be case before they have even worked out what
those  two different interpretations are. The lawyer cannot know this is
the case  because the different interpretations can be "read off" from the
same wording.  They 'know' (or conjecture) it is the case because of their
grasp of the  relevant W3 problem-situation and their knowledge of relevant W3
content: in  particular, the lawyer knows that pregnancy is always
gender-specific, and so  "treated less favourably" must mean something
different in
the context of  pregnancy than it means when applied between the genders
generally - otherwise  the special section concerning pregnancy would be
redundant (and the lawyer  knows - through study of W3 legal principles - that
specially enacted section  will only be interpreted in a way that renders it
redundant when the case for  this is very compelling)."

But one problem here is that that pregnancy is always gender specific may 
(by the alert word, 'always') be treated as analytic, and the
analytic-synthetic  distinction is a dogma. Grice's and Strawson's examples in
"In defense
of  [analyticity -- a dogma]" use:

vii. My neighbour's three-year old child understands Russell's theory of 


viii. My neighbour's three-year old is an adult.

They say that (vii) is analytically false, because it is followed by "I 
don't understand what you mean: are you trying to be funny, or  metaphorical?"

Ditto for

ix. Pregnancy is not always gender-specific.

Here I would use Helm's favourite (or one of his favourite) keywords: 
presupposition, as used not by Strawson (which is a misguided use) but by 
Collingwood. There are presuppositions to what we say, and this may inform the 
literality and the implicature of our explicit communications.

McEvoy goes on:

"What a lawyer does in such a case is not unusual but is something we 
continually do when learning and using language - but this process of 
'adjustment and refinement' in interpretation and understanding,"

Eco, who taught semiotics at Bologna (the university, Palma would add, 
because he thinks "Bologna" is ambiguous) speaks of overinterpretation. The 
Griceian thinks of overinterpretation as a sort of misunderstanding, and right
he is too!

Then there's underinterpretation which is exactly like disimplicature, only

McEvoy goes on:

"[T]hough perhaps more clearly observable in children,"

or perpetual adolescents like Austin who was a "literalist" at heart, due 
to his public school education which he always carried, figuratively, under
his  sleeve. The Oxonian philosopher TENDS to be a literalist, and Dodgson
knew this  when he provides a parody of the Oxonian philosopher (who is good
at the way of  words, but bad at the way of numbers -- in Humpty Dumpty.
Recall his problems in  counting the number of unbirthdays Alice has in a year:
365 - 1 = 364. "And what  did you say your name was?" "Alice". "Wrong: you
never said such thing". Alice  remarked, "For him, conversation is like a
game where one can make the right or  the wrong turns." (The phrase 'perpetual
adolescence' is taken from Green, "The  Children of the Sun" -- he does not
quote Austin, but Brian Howard, another  one).


"becomes invisible to us as we reach a level of competence where 
interpretation becomes less consciously problematic (having developed many 
and unconscious problem-solving techniques to apply to questions of 
meaning - a process that begins when we first learn language as a child)."

And we can learn a language as not so much a child. Grice's example is this
adolescent female who's learning French. Grice realises that her French is
not  that good. So he wants to play with her. Seeing that there is a piece
of  cake on the plate in front of them, he utters the French for an
utterance  whose translation would NOT be, "Help yourself with a piece of
Yet, given  the context, Grice's addressee takes the utterance to mean that she
is to help  herself with a piece of cake. For Grice (and for that matter,
me), learning a  furrin lingo is like that, since you have to TRUST your
teacher, and why should  you (cfr. the politically incorrect song title by Sir
Noel Coward, "There's  something f*shy about the French").

It may be different for Witters trying the lion to acquire enough Austrian 
to converse with him.


"The process by which we become adept at solving problems of interpretation
in the field of language, so that 'interpretation' becomes less
consciously  problematic (even to the point where it is not consciously
is one  that obscures from us the truth that 'interpretation' is always the
result of a  most elaborate and complex process - much as the process by
which we become  adept at solving problems of interpretation in the field of
perception, so that  'interpretation' becomes less consciously problematic, is
one that obscures from  us the truth that perceptual 'interpretation' is
always the result of a most  elaborate and complex process. So while there is
such a thing as what we call a  "literal" interpretation, it is not
something we simply "read off" from the  words used. It is an illusion to think
otherwise but perhaps a prevalent  one."

Well, I wouldn't, if I may, not take 'read off' too seriously. After all, 
the Anglo-Saxons were OBSESSED (in a charming way) with this root, 'read',
to  the point that a special type of poem they composed they called
'riddles'. A  riddle is cognate with 'read'. But surely reading is not always a
riddle.  There's something about a riddle that makes it a special kind of
(So, I  can say that "Jabberwocky" makes for a good read and for a good

"Riddle" is from Old English rædels "riddle; counsel; conjecture; 
imagination; discussion," Common Germanic (Old Frisian riedsal "riddle," Old 
radisli, Middle Dutch raetsel, Dutch raadsel, Old High German radisle, 
German Rätsel "riddle"). The first element is from Proto-Germanic *redaz-, from 

PIE *re-dh-, from PIE *re(1)- "to reason, count" (cognates: Old English
rædan  "to advise, counsel, read, guess;" see read (v.)). The ending is Old
English  noun suffix -els, the -s of which later was mistaken for a plural
affix and  stripped off. Meaning "anything which puzzles or perplexes" is from
late  14c."

Graeco-Roman philosophy (and 'riddle' is not part of the Graeco-Roman 
philosophical lexicon) is perhaps not too strong on reading, admittedly,
but then that's perhaps because they loved a symposium (or banquet if you 
mustn't) and nobody writes and reads in a symposium.

But they (The Graeco-Romans) were confused at some point, even if a minor 
one. The Greeks spoke of 'grammatike' (tekhne) which was translated by the
loyal  Romans (true, once they have made the Greeks beat the dust) as
'literatura' and  there may be an element of 'literality' there, but then
that spoken words  are also made up of letters ("It's a sin to tell a lie"
"million of hearts have  been broken just because these words were spoken").
Thus, while Homeric scholars  speak of 'oral literature', the media
journalists are always referring to levels  of literacy, which may confuse (and
when you are thinking about the  journalist's implicitic conceptual analysis,
you have to deal with the  commercial break).

And since I referred to Grice as an ideationist, and this is Lit-Id, we 
might just as well end this post with a note on the etymology of lit.:

literature, late 14c., from Latin literatura/litteratura "learning, a 
writing, grammar," originally "writing formed with letters," from
"letter" (see letter (n.1)). Originally "book learning" (it replaced Old
English  boccræft), the meaning "literary production or work" is first attest
ed 1779 in  Johnson's "Lives of the English Poets" (he didn't include this
definition in his  dictionary, however); that of "body of writings from a
period or people" is  first recorded 1812. Great literature is simply language
charged with meaning to  the utmost possible degree. [Ezra Pound, "ABC of

The 'see letter (n.1)' is the key here, for we are considering the oral 

And letter is c. 1200, "graphic symbol, alphabetic sign, written 
character," from Old French letre (10c., Modern French lettre) "character, 
missive, note," in plural, "literature, writing, learning," from Latin 
littera (also litera) "letter of the alphabet," of uncertain origin, perhaps
Etruscan from Greek diphthera "tablet," with change of d- to l- as in 
lachrymose. In this sense it replaced Old English bocstæf, literally "book 
staff" (compare German Buchstabe "letter, character," from Old High German 
buohstab, from Proto-Germanic *bok-staba-m). Latin littera also meant "a 
writing, document, record," and in plural litteræ "a letter, epistle," a sense 
first attested in English early 13c., replacing Old English ærendgewrit, 
literally "errand-writing." The Latin plural also meant "literature, books,"
figuratively "learning, liberal education, schooling" (see letters).
School  letter in sports, attested by 1908, were said to have been first
by  University of Chicago football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg. Expression to
the letter  "precisely" is from 1520s (earlier as after the letter).
Letter-perfect is from  1845, originally in theater jargon, in reference to an
knowing the lines  exactly. Letter-press, in reference to matter printed
from relief surfaces, is  from 1840.



To change your Lit-Ideas settings (subscribe/unsub, vacation on/off,
digest on/off), visit www.andreas.com/faq-lit-ideas.html

Other related posts: