Every now and then I come across someone claiming that the word "literally" is now being used as a self-antonym. In other words, it is being used to mean "figuratively". Consider the following sentences:
1. And when he gets into the red zone, he literally explodes. (from a football announcer)
2. [Tom Sawyer] was literally rolling in wealth. (Mark Twain)
3. [Jay Gatsby] literally glowed. (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
4. [A certain Mozart piece was] the acme of first class music as such, literally knocking everything else into a cocked hat. (James Joyce)
As you can see, this isn't that new a phenomenon. It goes back at least a couple hundred years. There seems to be an incredible amount of outrage about it in certain spheres. Vice-President Joe Biden gets made fun of a lot for his excessive use of the term this way. But consider the following sentences:
5. When he gets into the red zone, he really explodes.
6. He was really rolling in wealth.
7. He really glowed.
8. The piece of music was really knocking everything else into a cocked hat.
Those sound perfectly fine. The word "literally" and the word "really" both normally indicate some genuineness to something. Yet both are used in situations where it's not really or literally the way it's being said to be. Both are wrong, if the words are being used literally. But they aren't being used literally. They're being used as intensifiers. He doesn't just glow. He really glows. Saying he literally glows is doing something similar.
What is not going on here is the use of these words as self-antonyms. The seventh sentence above does not mean "He doesn't really glow." That sentence means something very different. Nor does the third sentence mean "He doesn't literally glow." That sentence also conveys something different. These words are being used as intensifiers. Saying "he doesn't literally glow" or "he doesn't really glow" is not intensifying the sentence "he glows". But 3 and 7 are intensifying it. So the word is not being used to mean its opposite, in either case.
The word "literally" is not being used to mean "figuratively". If it were, then we would expect 3 to be synonymous with:
9. He figuratively glowed.
But the two are not synonymous. 3 would not be used if you intended to be talking about the linguistic properties of the word "glowed". A sentence like 9 is commenting on its own language. A sentence like 3 is doing no such thing. Furthermore, 3 has the intensification that 7 has. 9 does not. These sentences are not at all equivalent. If the word "literally" were being used to mean "figuratively" then they would be synonymous. What's actually going on is that the word is being used as an intensifier, the same way the word "really" gets used. That's not at all the same thing as being used to mean "figuratively". I suppose you might say that the word "literally" is being used figuratively. But that's not the same thing being used to mean "figuratively".
In a previous post, I considered whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. My answer was sort of a yes and a no. Literally speaking, I think the answer is yes. It's just that Christians and Muslims believe very different things about the one God that exists. As a Christian, I think Muslims believe radically false things about God, and I think Christians believe generally true things about God. There would be no meaning to calling myself a Christian if I didn't think something like that. In that sense, what some people really mean when they say Christians and Muslims worship different gods is true. Their sentence is false, but what they were trying to convey is true. The different things the two believe about God are very different.
I had another instance of happening upon a gem of a discussion this morning, when I was following a reference in a footnote on an entirely different topic. After looking up a reference in N.T. Wright's The New Testament and the People of God, I decided that it might be worth looking through his introduction, since I've had the book for a while but barely looked at it. In the introduction, he explains his use of 'god' rather than 'God' consistently throughout the book (which I won't bother to go into here), and in the process he gets into the very issue of my aforementioned post, focusing mostly on the differences between first-century Christianity and first-century post-Christian Judaism (though mentioning Islam in the process). I thought enough of the issues were parallel that it was worth summing up Wright's thoughts and looking at their significance for the discussion about Islam from my previous post.
President Bush has gotten in trouble with some of his fellow evangelicals. They don't think he's a real evangelical because of his comments about other religions. He says Islam is a good religion, that Muslims, Jews, and Christians worship the same God, and that the beliefs of other good religions like Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. will help contribute to a better society. Meanwhile, Christianity (at least any Christianity that takes the scriptures as authoritative) states quite clearly that there's no other way to the Father except through Jesus. It says that God is three persons in one being, a Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), while Islam and contemporary Judaism insist that God is one in every way possible and that Jesus, a mere creation of God, is not to be identified or confused with God. Islam does believe he's a prophet and will return. They don't believe he died, never mind that he was resurrected. Judaism (except for Messianic Jews, if you count them) don't even believe that much about him.
What do we make of this? I want to explain what I think President Bush means when he says these things and why I think it's not just consistent with evangelicalism but it's what evangelicals should say. What the evangelicals who resist saying these things want to avoid is the kind of pluralism that attributes one reality to the multiple beliefs systems in world religions. They're all getting at the same reality but in different ways. I don't think that's at all what Bush has in mind, and I think a careful look at the nature of the language will show that the many repeated claims against Bush's statements are assuming an implausible view of how names function in natural languages like English.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.