Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Can you see what I mean?

How does one visually represent a concept?

Imagine that the following sentence, "Jane sat on a yellow cushion and literally fell head over heels," were 'pictorialized' such that "Jane" was replaced by a picture of Jane, "sat on a yellow cushion" were replaced by a picture (or a couple shots in series) of Jane sitting on a yellow cushion, and "literally fell head over heels" were replaced by a picture of a startled Jane mid-tumble.

Visually, we find that "literally" evaporates; it is just a part of "fell over". "Literally", it seems, literally has no visualizable reality. You cannot point at the concept of "literally" in spacetime. It is a sheer verbal parlor trick, used only to dramatize and exaggerate an otherwise mundane description of events. Conceivably, every instance of "literally" in written history could be literally deleted and the associated meaning would survive. A word like "literally" is a, visibly, a meaningless waste of ink and ASCII.

And yet––yet, "literally" does have a meaning. It is a coherent concept which we can and do use all the time. It is a real "intentional object"––otherwise how could you be reading what I have written about it and with it?

It seems, then, that not all words are visually registered. What we know, in other words, is not coextensive with what "Literally" cannot be "caught on film," but it can be caught in the mind. You can see what I mean without ever seeing what what-I-mean is. The only fitting picture of "literally" is the series of conjoined letters in 'literally'. The word, thus, acts as an unnatural sign of an unnatural reality. A material in quo (by which) of an immaterial quod quid est (that which is).


unBeguiled said...

"The word, thus, acts as an unnatural sign of an unnatural reality."

Yesterday, responding to a funny comment I wrote:

"Literally, I am laughing out loud."

Because I really was making loud "Ha Ha Ha" noises. So I don't see how magical beliefs undergird the use of the word. It seems rather mundane.

Also, being head over heels is my usual state. It's when you are heels over head that should prompt a comment.

the Cogitator said...


Literally making "ha ha ha" noises would mean you said "aytch ay, aitch ay, aitch ay." Those are the literal letters of "hahaha." (I also don't know why we say "head over heels", but, hey, you can't pick your mother tongue any more than you can pick your mother.)

What I mean by "unnatural" is that the word "literally" is not to be found in nature apart from its abstract reference. If I ask you to point to 'literally' in spacetime, you can only point to "literally" on the page or on the screen. But when I ask you what those physical markings mean, you will employ abstract reference to explain a naturally unintelligible entity. The particular "literally" on the screen, like all sensible particulars, is unintelligible apart from an abstract act of intellection which informs the markings with a universal meaning. You could just as easily point to "wortwörtlich", provided we could employ abstract reference.

As for the whole "fundamental axiom" issue, I have two points to make.

1. There is a difference between Scholastic "first principles" and Cartesian foundationalism. The former accepts the first principles as necessary but not sufficient grounds for metaphysics and human inquiry. The latter accepts some indubitable premise as a necessary and sufficient condition for knowledge, etc. Also, while the former can be doubted, as Descartes did with such scrupulous glee, the latter can never even get anything but itself (if that!) off the ground. A person may doubt the first principles, but he will thereby destroy any further inquiry. Or a person may cling to some apparently indubitable idea, but will have only that.

2. Since it seems so important to you, why don't you provide said axiom?


unBeguiled said...

A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.

Corollary #1

A belief which leaves no place for doubt is not a belief; it is a superstition.

Corollary #2

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.