Literal, Figurative, Fundamentalism

Literal, Figurative, Fundamentalism August 23, 2018

Adam S. Miller begins his editorial introduction to Fleeing the Garden (vii-ix) by observing the confusions that surround the terms “literal” and “figurative” in biblical interpretation:

“the word literal often just functions as shorthand for the claim that the text refers to something real. In such cases, the word is used without regard to how something is referenced—the designation of how a text refers being the kind of work the word literal is meant to do—and instead is used to stake a position on the success of a referential connection. In these debates, literally just means ‘really.’ Or, even more crudely, the word literal becomes short­hand for ‘true’ and, conversely, the word figurative becomes shorthand for ‘false.’ To be literally true is to be really true. Then, saying that something is ‘only’ figurative sounds like an attempt to dodge the question of reference or to soften or sugarcoat the verdict that what’s being talked about is make-believe.”

This usage confuses two things – the success of a referential act and the manner that this act carries out its reference. When literal = true, we’re saying that a text is understood literally if it successfully refers to its referent. But a language act can be successful even if it’s not literal in the normal sense. “He’s a dirty rat,” Cagney says, successfully naming his enemy’s rodent-like, oily qualities; but the enemy isn’t actually a rodent.

Miller neatly points out that “all referential connections work by way of detour. Rather than connecting directly with a referent (with the object or idea in question), we connect with it indirectly by way of a web of words. We detour through language. Refer­ence always involves this layer of indirection and third-party mediation.”

Once we recognize that, “literal” and “figurative” are seen to be points on a spectrum, naming the “size” or the complexity of the linguistic detour: “The more common and familiar a referential detour is, the more literal we say the language is. The more circuitous and unconventional a referential detour is, the more figurative the language becomes. The difference between literal language and figurative language is one of degree, not. kind.” Literal reference use familiar, comparatively simple detours; figurative reference “work by way of more complex detours [that] may loop through several seman­tic layers and then require a recursive interpretive gesture.” the issue isn’t the truth or reality of reference: “whether the interpretive gesture is relatively simple or recursively complex, the capacity for real referential connection is the same.

Literal language in this sense has its advantages. It “can often hit its ref­erential target with a minimal amount of fuss.” But literal language also has its weaknesses. In fact, figurative language can be more powerfully referential “because its route is unfamiliar and because the wider arc of its complex detour loops more things into the referential grid from which it draws power. Because its detour is bigger, figura­tive language involves more elements. And because it involves more elements, it can gather a bigger crowd of witnesses. When successful, figurative language can often draw more power and precipitate a more substantial semantic cloud. Literal references, while simpler, tend to be thinner and less substantial.”

Miller notes that these issues become more complex when we’re dealing with a text or speech that assumes a “referential terrain” that is no longer familiar. This happens when we read ancient texts like the Bible: “A literal mode of reference gets both complicated and attenuated when what was ordinary and familiar to its original audience is no longer ordinary and familiar to us.”

At this point, Miller introduces a distinction between “literalism” and “literality.” The first is “shorthand for the claim that there are no worlds but the ordinary one present and familiar to us and all serious modes of reference refer only and directly to our familiar world.” By contrast, “literality” is “a name for just one among many modes of real reference that all operate by way of detour, a mode whose relative simplicity depends on its successfully connecting with one specific member of the set of possible worlds.”

By clinging to literalism, fundamentalism in effect denies “the possibility of multiple worlds, of historical heterogeneity, and, in the end, of history itself. Fundamentalism ignores the letter of the text by ignoring the divergence of worlds. It treats past worlds as if they had not passed. It treats everything in the present tense: the only world in which real reference takes place is our present world.”

Thus, “fundamental­ism is ahistorical. It tries to cheat the demands of time—and the delays and detours required for real referential connection—by imposing an illusion of temporal homogeneity. Fundamentalism denies that texts themselves have a history, and so, ironically, it ends up denying, in practice, the real historicity of the past worlds referred to in those texts.” For all its insistence on the historical factuality of the Bible, fundamentalism’s literalism undermines a genuine grasp of historicity.

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  • Douglas Michael Singer

    I hear the question in the “literal” vs. “figurative” debate as being “is this passage a narrative of a true event or a story invented in the heart of the teller?” Is Eden raw history or raw tale? Naturally, there can be a spectrum between those options, but the “spectrum” is just a diversion to the ratios of history and tale. Miller’s suggestion that reference can make a long detour before arriving at its referent seems like a hair-splitting way to accuse fundamentalists of being ahistorical. A given detail in a story really happened, or not. All fundamentalists (and conservatives of other stripes) claim is that a security camera behind the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil could have captured the snake, the fruit, the fall. If the language shapes deeper layers of meaning (which is what I think Miller means when he talks detours), credit the event itself, and therefore Providence, for being pregnant with meaning. I wonder if Miller’s linguistic detour will just be the usual wrong turn to liberalism. (Edit: I’m now aware of Miller’s Mormonism — that clarifies some of his insights.)

    • PJ Dellas

      …not to mention that “historical” doesn’t always mean true, better or “biblically accurate.” The Reformation (for example), various post-reformation theologies, or even some modern “critical scholarship” can be said to be advances in our knowledge of the Scriptures. This, of course, also matters whether you come from an Eastern Orthodox, Western Catholic, European Protestant, or any number of “lesser other” traditions of interpretation.