Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Fixing and Fixing: Literal Language and Perceptual Relevance in High-Functioning Autism and the Less Wrong Community

Fixing and Fixing: Literal Language and Perceptual Relevance in High-Functioning Autism and the Less Wrong Community

Michael Thomas

Implicit or explicit thoughts about language, or meta-language, can function to normalize cognitive dispositions and propensities in a given discursive community. This paper examines literalism as both a contested site of linguistic classification and diagnostic index of cognitive function through a discourse analysis of meta-language in LessWrong.com, an online community wherein deliberate, though as-of-yet undecidably justified, association with Autism Spectrum Disorder figures prominently. Through a review of psychological and philosophical literature on literalism it is found that, as a description of high functioning autistic language-use “literal” is insufficient where salience is preferred, yet as a heuristic for indexing a normative epistemological point of view, one form of relative literalism remains an operable concept. The properties of language generally associated with literalism indeed function as a mechanism for processing perceptual information as well as for securing aligned salience in inter-subjective communication. It is those latter pragmatic functions that are hypothesized to explain the consonance between high functioning autistic cognition and the meta-language of LessWrong.com, a web community whose theoretical constitution coheres around Bayesian rationalism, which contributes to the distinctive over-representation of ASD self-diagnosis among community members.

Keywords: autism, Asperger syndrome, graded salience, LessWrong.com, literal language, literalism, meta-language

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April 15, 2013 - Posted by | abstract

3 Comments »

  1. Very interesting topic!

    Comment by Ljiljana Progovac | April 15, 2013 | Reply

  2. There is a lot to unpack even in just this abstract, but this seems like very interesting research and I would be interested to see how you support your conclusions. I am also curious whether your use of highly technical and theoretical terminology throughout the abstract was consciously related to the topic, or if you always write that way…

    Comment by H. Hatch | April 15, 2013 | Reply

    • Thank you for your comment! My abstract is a bit too ponderous and unnecessarily Byzantine. (Somewhat ironically, I was striving for efficiency and brevity.) This is something I’m currently working on clarifying. I don’t think my paper is quite as terminologically technical, at least not in such a uniform and unrelenting way (it’s more spacious), but some of my peer review comments suggest that it, too, is a bit overwrought. In any case, I’ll be happy to send along my paper if you’d like to read it and would certainly appreciate your input!

      Comment by Michael Thomas | April 23, 2013 | Reply


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