The Literalville paradox

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D-AW, "Literally Metaphorically", Poetry & Contingency 4/5/2012:

Wikipedia tells me that [Rush] Limbaugh lives in West Palm Beach, FL. Yet for years now he has been telling listeners something different:

Now, look, folks, as I’ve told you countless times, I live in Literalville.    [Transcript, 10.9.2010]

It’s an outright lie, and I know this because Rush doesn’t do metaphor. In fact, that’s what he means by claiming Literalville residency:

If you tell me something, I take it literally. I believe that you mean it. I don’t dance around edges trying to figure out what you really meant. If you say it, I believe it. I live in Literalville [...].    [Transcript, 10.9.2010]

There are only two possibilities here:

  1. Limbaugh literally lives in Literalville, FL.
  2. Limbaugh metaphorically inhabits a place devoid of metaphorical meaning or implication, which he describes figuratively as Literalville.

The first possibility is empirically false. There is no Literalville in FL, or in any other state. I checked (and no, Google, I did not mean Littleville, AL).

The second possibility can only be true if it is false.


But wait, there's more:

Why do I care about the facts?  I know, it’s a failing of mine.  It’s a failing of mine.  See, I live in Realville.  I’m the mayor of Realville, or Literalville.  I’m stuck, I’m mired in logic, the quicksand of logic.  And I’m sinking.    [Transcript, 3.4.2012]

For someone who cares about facts so much, you’d think he’d get his literal, real town of residence straight. The mayor of Realville or Literalville? Can he be whichever he chooses? Apparently so, but not at the same time. This is from a few weeks ago:

And again, as the mayor of Realville, I live in Literalville. I’ll tell you what to do.      [Transcript, 15.3.2012]

Apparently, one of the perks of ruling Realville is that you live in the next town over (follow Non Sequitur Trail, take a left–no, right…).

But I think that D-AW is being slightly unfair to Mr. Limbaugh, who doesn't (at least in these quotes) claim that HE always speaks literally, just that he interprets others literally.

Curiously, though, Limbaugh elsewhere suggests that Literalville is not so much a place where people interpret language literally, as a place where people see things in primary colors rather than in shades of gray:

"If you live in Literalville like I do, it's amazing how simple things are. But if you want to live in Grayville, where there's no certitude, you can confuse yourself 'til the day you die, all the while convincing yourself you're brilliant. Which is what I found amazing. Some of the most confused people with no answers of anything are among our greatest thinkers, among our finest scholars, and they're just running around in rampant confusion."



45 Comments

  1. Acilius said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 2:08 pm

    Perhaps Mr Limbaugh is a latter-day Epimenides of Crete. As Epimenides' statement "All Cretans are liars" gave rise to "the Cretan Liar Paradox," perhaps the Literalville paradox should be named in honor of Mr Limbaugh as "the Cretinous Liar Paradox."

  2. MattF said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 2:43 pm

    But, you see, Limbaugh isn't claiming that his political adversaries live in Metaphoropolis, he's saying he lives in Literalville (which, I suppose, is around the outskirts of True).

  3. D-AW said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 2:52 pm

    MYL: "But I think that D-AW is being slightly unfair to Mr. Limbaugh, who doesn't (at least in these quotes) claim that HE always speaks literally, just that he interprets others literally."

    Aw… So to be charitable to El Rushbo, Literalville is a town in which the resident(s) understand(s) everything outside Literalville literally, but can still transmit metaphors from this town into the literally-construed world? Wait… doesn't that make it Metaphortown, an enclave of Literalland?

    Every time Rush invokes this idea it gets a bit weirder. There were a bunch of quotes I didn't use, eg. RL: 'I've tried to tell people: "I live in Realville. I live in Literalville," and something that is, is.'

  4. Chris Waters said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 3:12 pm

    @MattF: by talking about "Literalville", Rush is implying that he's not alone–that there's a whole community of Literalville residents. If this community is unable to comprehend metaphor, but still uses it, they must get very confused when talking to each other.

  5. GeorgeW said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 3:14 pm

    I wonder if he interprets everything that conservative politicians say literally. I am not willing to listen to him to find out, but I am doubtful. Does he thing that Newt's big ideas are physically large?

  6. Jeff Carney said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 3:15 pm

    D-AW has missed the boat here. Don't think I like Rush, but nowhere in the transcript we're linked to does he contrast being literal with being figurative. He seems to equate being literal with being true. It's a little hard to tell because he misrepresents climate change and evolution to a very high degree, and to a lesser extent he misrepresents what a scientific prediction is.

    The upshot is that he draws his own conclusions about things that evolution and climate change theory should predict, and because those predictions haven't come true, he is literal, and proponents of those theories are not. They have not attended to the "literal" truth of their theories.

  7. Jeff Carney said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 3:35 pm

    Actually, it's more clear in the 3.4.2012 transcript.

    Zimmerman doesn't say anything about a hoodie. (interruption) Why do I care about the facts? . . . See, I live in Realville. I'm the mayor of Realville, or Literalville.

    This is not a contrast between literal and figurative. It's a contrast between truth and falsehood. Real = Literal = Factual

  8. James said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 3:53 pm

    But Jeff, that is factually incorrect. Literal does not, as a matter of fact, mean true.

    :-)

  9. Vic said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 3:57 pm

    perhaps Literalville and Realville are unincorporated districts of Truthytown.

  10. Jeff Carney said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 3:59 pm

    James: It does in Literalville.

    ;-)

  11. Joe said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 4:12 pm

    "Limbaugh is actually using figurative language to deny that he understands figurative language."

    Say we replace "figurative language" with "Japanese". If I say "I don't understand Japanese" in Japanese, am I lying if I really don't understand Japanese? Is this problematic and paradoxical? Will people who live in Japaneseville not understand me because they'd be caught in this endless loop trying to parse what I REALLY mean?

    Perhaps these things do appear far too complex for folks who don't live in Literalville.

  12. D-AW said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 4:38 pm

    @Jeff Carney: No, in Literalville, "literal" means "literal", not "factual". If Rush tells me something, I take it literally. I believe that he means it. I don’t dance around edges trying to figure out what he really meant. Because he is from Literalville. Maybe in a future post I'll think about why "literal" has been equated with "real" or "true" in some discourse.
    @Joe: Do you really think RL is speaking in terms he doesn't understand so as to communicate that fact to people who do understand that way of communicating? A la Kids in the Hall, "I Speak No English"? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h15OWCnZVL4

  13. JMM said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 4:57 pm

    Well, it makes one thing clear. Since, Rush lives in Literalville, and Literalville doesn't in really exist, Limbaugh doesn't live in reality. Something I've long been sure of. (Though, unfortunately, he really does exist, it seems.)

  14. Sili said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 5:49 pm

    Aw… So to be charitable to El Rushbo, Literalville is a town in which the resident(s) understand(s) everything outside Literalville literally, but can still transmit metaphors from this town into the literally-construed world? Wait… doesn't that make it Metaphortown, an enclave of Literalland?

    Well, labels are not definitions, so the name of the town need not really reflect on the residents, cf. Niggerhead.

  15. tudza said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 6:09 pm

    Strange. I checked my Rolodex and I have him living in Pompousassville.

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 6:11 pm

    @Sili: But Limbaugh specifically says what living in Literalville means he takes things literally, or something.

    @Joe: Not to take you literally or anything, but the paradox would be to say in Japanese, "I don't speak Japanese" (not "I don't understand Japanese.") Likewise there's a paradox if someone asks you in Japanese whether you understand Japanese and you say "No" (in any language).

    Those are only mild paradoxes. When Limbaugh says living in Literalville means he says exactly what he means (which he expresses with another figure of speech), it's a more amusing one:

    You know, people ask, “Why don’t you run for office?” Because of this kind of stuff. I couldn’t do it. I’m not a diplomat. I don’t want to be a diplomat. If somebody has holes in their head I'm not gonna tell 'em instead that they have an open mind. You know, I live in Literalville.
    Transcript from Nov. 30, 2010

    However, thinking anyone will be "caught in this endless loop" would be taking the paradox too literally.

  17. GeorgeW said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 7:30 pm

    "If somebody has holes in their head I'm not gonna tell 'em instead that they have an open mind."

    So Rush encounters someone with a hole in their head and fails mention it or call 911! How long can a person live with a hole in their head?

  18. Eric P Smith said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 7:58 pm

    @GeorgeW: Yes. This again confirms what has been pointed out above, that Rush is actually talking about the distinction between true and false, not the distinction between literal and figurative.

    Altogether a nice paradox, though!

  19. D.O. said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 9:19 pm

    Look, I think, everything is much simpler. Mr. Limbaugh is just wrong. He does not live in Literalville, or Realville, or any other Fancyville. He is simply being wrong. That happens even with the best of minds.

  20. Sili said,

    April 5, 2012 @ 9:32 pm

    @Sili: But Limbaugh specifically says what living in Literalville means he takes things literally, or something.

    Rush does, yes, but it's hardly fair on the rest of the inhabitants of Literalville to claim that they too need be like Rush. He moved there of his own volition for the sake of literalness, I guess.

  21. Robin said,

    April 6, 2012 @ 1:48 am

    "I don’t dance around edges trying to figure out what you really meant."

    Somewhere Grice is rolling in his grave.

  22. GeorgeW said,

    April 6, 2012 @ 5:20 am

    @Eric P Smith: Is the distinction truth or candor? I am confident he abhors 'political correctness.'

  23. Theo Vosse said,

    April 6, 2012 @ 5:23 am

    "But I think that D-AW is being slightly unfair to Mr. Limbaugh, who doesn't (at least in these quotes) claim that HE always speaks literally, just that he interprets others literally."

    He might implicitly exclude that possibility, even though it's a weird proposition. The claim that he interprets others literally is there, but it's not restrictive: it allows the possibility that they also speak literally in Literalville. However, as has been pointed out, that cannot be true, since Limbaugh doesn't literally live there. So, the conclusion is: Limbaugh, as every implied inhabitant of Literalville, believes everyone without restriction, yet must sometimes lie himself.

    The question then is: what does Limbaugh believe? Does he believe that everything he hears is true? That would make his mind, and therefore his opinions, rather inconsistent. He would believe we descend from monkeys, and that we don't, as both opinions must have come to his attention. He must be believe that he is the best candidate for the presidency, and that Santorum is, and that Romney is. He must at the same time even believe that Obama and Paul are.

    It just shows that Limbaugh is actually a closet proponent of a highly developed version of cultural relativism. He is the incarnation of political correctness gone mad…

  24. C Thornett said,

    April 6, 2012 @ 6:21 am

    This passage from C S Lewis's The Screwtape Letters seems apposite, even though Limbaugh claims to understand everything literally while his own utterances should be understood as humor. The last sentence in particular seems to sum it up:

    Your patient must demand that all his utterances are to be taken at their face value and judged simply on the actual words, while at the same time judging all his mother's utterances with the fullest and most oversensitive interpretation of the tone and the context and the suspected intention. She must be encouraged to do the same to him. Hence from every quarrel they can both go away convinced, or very nearly convinced, that they are quite innocent. You know the kind of thing: “I simply ask her what time dinner will be and she flies into a temper.” Once this habit is well established you have the delightful situation of a human saying things with the express purpose of offending and yet having a grievance when offence is taken.

  25. John Shutt said,

    April 6, 2012 @ 6:24 am

    At best, this would be a contradiction, not a paradox. *If* we assume it's impossible to use metaphor without understanding metaphor, then saying "I live in Literalville", to metaphorically mean he doesn't understand metaphor, cannot be true unless it's false; but it *can* be false without being true, so there's no vicious circularity. (Though if you drop the word "circularity"…)

  26. Graeme said,

    April 6, 2012 @ 7:26 am

    Taking him literally, let's be glad Literalville and Realville are Inconsequential villages, not metropolises.

    Taking him figuratively, notice how he frames truth as residing in small town USA, not somewhere more cosmopolitan.

  27. AB said,

    April 6, 2012 @ 8:00 am

    "How long can a person live with a hole in their head?"

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phineas_Gage

  28. GeorgeW said,

    April 6, 2012 @ 8:30 am

    @AB: I wonder if Mr. Gage suffered dittoheadity as a result of this most unfortunate accident. I suspect this condition is caused by holes in the head.

  29. Eric P Smith said,

    April 6, 2012 @ 9:35 am

    @GeorgeW: You’re right: candor, not truth.

  30. Luke said,

    April 6, 2012 @ 11:35 am

    @C Thornett

    "Once this habit is well established you have the delightful situation of a human saying things with the express purpose of offending and yet having a grievance when offence is taken."

    That sounds like partisan talk-radio in a nutshell! But my schadenfreude is tempered by the thought that their hypocritical double-standards are so endemic that gloating about it seems like dynamiting fish in a barrel. ( Does this make me a resident of Mixed-Metaphorville ? )

  31. J. Goard said,

    April 6, 2012 @ 11:47 pm

    So Rush encounters someone with a hole in their head and fails mention it or call 911! How long can a person live with a hole in their head?

    I've lived 35 years with several! Literally couldn't get food, air or sound in without 'em, in fact.

  32. Michael D said,

    April 9, 2012 @ 1:56 am

    Literalville is a place of pure truthiness. Some people like to think things with their brains; but here in Literalville, we know it all with our guts.

    Seriously, though – this whole conversation seems like a non-starter, since beginning the conversation requires one (even if momentarily) to entertain the possibility that Rush Limbaugh speaks with logical coherence – a literally frightening notion.

  33. Assorted links — Marginal Revolution said,

    April 10, 2012 @ 10:37 am

    [...] 2. The Literalville paradox. [...]

  34. TallDave said,

    April 10, 2012 @ 11:00 am

    Two things stand out in this post/comments:

    1) Many people hate Rush Limbaugh
    2) Some people take Rush Limbaugh (an entertainer) much too seriously

    Oddly, there seems to be a lot of correlation between 1 and 2, which is strange since those in 1 would presumably not spend a lot of time listening to his show.

    I'm fairly neutral on Rushbo and listen to him for maybe 20-30 minutes a year (usually a couple minutes till I get bored with his inch-deep analysis of things I've already read on the Internet about 3x), but sometimes I think the people whose main exposure to him is via Media Matters and such have this mistaken impression that he's a very serious person, when in fact he's about 80% comedian, 20% ideologue.

  35. mobile said,

    April 10, 2012 @ 11:07 am

    There's nothing incoherent about living in two places at once. There are millions of people who live in Brooklyn. And yet they also live in New York City.

  36. Chandra said,

    April 10, 2012 @ 5:01 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: "the paradox would be to say in Japanese, "I don't speak Japanese"

    If that's a paradox, then there are about a gazillion tourists worldwide, wandering around various countries with their Rough Guide phrasebooks, expressing paradoxes to local residents in every language you can think of.

  37. Meesher said,

    April 11, 2012 @ 7:37 am

    @Sili,
    If residence in Literalville does not in fact imply any predisposition on the part of the citizenry towards literal speech or literal understanding, doesn't it follow that Limbaugh is interjecting some rather odd non sequiters into these statements? "I care about the facts. By the way, let me rep my hometown. Now, as I was saying, I tend to take things literally."

    Maybe the audience is intended to have prior knowledge of certain traits that are generally attributed to the residents of that fabled metropolis, such as their famous dedication to truth and logic. Then, Rush is able to – quite figuratively and quite legitimately – claim the mayoralty of the twin cities, Literalville and Realville and, by extension, claim their defining characteristics as his own.

  38. Meesher said,

    April 11, 2012 @ 7:43 am

    I should add that in my proposed scenario, literal speech and understanding are not what the people of either town are known for, as Sili has suggested, but they are confusingly famous for other, tangentially related traits. So famous that being their mayor is idiomatically understood to mean being master of those traits.

  39. Boronx said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 11:42 am

    This is certainly false if true, but it's not a paradox because it's not true if false.

  40. Maureen said,

    April 12, 2012 @ 6:35 pm

    I thought the literal meaning of speech was understanding something said within its genre, idioms, and figures of speech; whereas the literalist meaning was the one bereft of understanding idioms, figures of speech, and genre. For example, reading the Bible literally means that you understand Hebrew idioms and poetic conventions and genres.

    I never thought I'd see linguists making so many literalist comments.

  41. KeithB said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 9:42 am

    Should we start a "verbatim" file?
    Here is David Barton the "historian" stating that the Constitution quotes the Bible "verbatim":

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/dispatches/2012/04/12/barton-doesnt-know-what-verbatim-means/

  42. khanh said,

    April 13, 2012 @ 11:42 am

    Here's a flaw: a distinction can be made between the act of speaking and that of understanding. Rush's stipulation is that he take things in literally but nowhere does he say that means he has to spout things out in the same manner. A sadist requires a masochist, for instance, but is neither paradoxical nor hypocritical for requiring something that represents the antithesis of his orientation.

  43. chris said,

    April 19, 2012 @ 8:44 pm

    If that's a paradox, then there are about a gazillion tourists worldwide, wandering around various countries with their Rough Guide phrasebooks, expressing paradoxes to local residents in every language you can think of.

    With the right set of flashcards and a lot of time, you can carry on an intelligent conversation in Chinese while still not being able to speak it personally. In theory, anyway. (Designing the set of flashcards is left as an exercise for the reader.)

  44. [links] Link salad enjoys the best soy latte that it ever had | jlake.com said,

    June 14, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

    [...] The Literalville paradox — Language Log is funny about Rush Limbaugh's use of words. Underneath is a more serious point about refusing to "do nuance", that eternal conservative fantasy that every complex issue can be boiled down to simplistic moral certitude. [...]

  45. The Reality we Face | Poetry & Contingency said,

    November 7, 2012 @ 2:49 pm

    [...] The Literalville Paradox [Language Log] [...]

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