What does it mean to take something literally? Etymologically, the term is related to “letters”,1 that is words and by extension mundane logical thinking. When we think literally, we tend to look only at the surface meaning—the part that can be expressed in words—and in so doing, we don’t see the thing itself whose surface is represented in the lower part of the mind that deals with logical thinking.

The materialist and the psychotic have this in common: they both take things literally. But whereas the psychotic is merely confused about the meaning of things, the materialist goes a step further and denies that anything has meaning. Therefore, materialists end up living in a world devoid of any meaning. They become nihilists. I know this from personal experience, because I used to be one—maybe I still am, even though I wish it weren’t the case.

Perhaps psychosis is the first step on the journey out of the materialist’s prison: before one learns to see the reality beyond words, one needs to at least recognize the importance of that reality, even if one’s understanding of it remains mediated by linguistic thinking. Or perhaps we can put the relationship like this: The materialist is like the psychotic, except that the materialist does not even believe in the contents of their delusions, and therefore is cut off from reality entirely. The psychotic retains some connection to reality, but they still tend to interpret it too literally—that is, too strongly in materialist terms.

When we say something that is literally true, it’s often a way to tell a lie.2 And on the other hand, whenever we need to communicate the truth to another human, we must say something that is literally false. The finest example of such truthful lies are myths, but there are also many more mundane examples. Indeed, as the lie is the mirror image of the truth, one can be seen in the other.3 Using literal lies to communicate the truth can also be a way to resolve the mutually exclusive needs of engaging in the world authentically and protecting oneself from impingement by others.4 Reality is not “true” or “false” in the logical sense. It’s both and neither: it’s paradoxical because it’s too large to be understood by humans.

  1. Cf. “literature”. It’s also semantically, but apparently not etymologically, related to words like “logic” through Greek "λόγος" (“word”). 
  2. Lispector writes in The Passion According to G. H.: “I overused truths as a pretext. Truth as a pretext to lie?” 
  3. From A Breath of Life: “To get things started, let me assure you that you only live, real life, when you learn that even the lie is true. I decline to offer proof. But if someone insists on the ‘whys,’ I’ll answer: the lie is born in the person who creates it and it brings into existence new lies from new truths. One word is the lie of another.” 
  4. Laing, in The Divided Self, observes: “This creates the ironical situation that the schizophrenic is often playing at being psychotic, or pretending to be so. In fact, as we have said, pretence and equivocation are greatly used by schizophrenics.” See also Artificiality for more on this conflict.