A few days ago I promised Celandine a more in-depth reply to some points she raised in my last post. We were straying into some rather philosophical waters, at least in my mind – the distinction between knowledge, belief and faith, whether the scientific method required that all claims be verifiable, etc. – and they really deserve their own post. I do promise to get back to that.
But before I get to that, Gwynnyd actually made another comment on another track that screamed out "pick me! Pick me!" whenever I started to write about all that knowledge/belief stuff. See, in that last post I had listed a long list of things that some of the "faithful" had done, but then said:
But to paint all the faithful with this brush is like blaming your local Southern Baptist Church because they share their name with the Westboro crowd. To be sure, the SBC has done and said some things that make my skin crawl and that I heartily disagree with, but I prefer to blame them for their own sins (to use the churchy phrase) and not those who share their name. Similarly, I am one of the faithful but I'm not faithful like that.
To which Gwynnyd replied:
But, but… if I say, "the picture on the right describes the way people of faith approach the world" – is that wrong? The way "people of faith" approach the problems does – often – look exactly like the picture on the right. You tell me you are a "person of faith." – head scratch – How can you object to being grouped in with them if you tell me yourself that you belong to a group with the same name?
It's a fascinating question, and one worth pursuing. (Or at least I hope so! It's one of the questions motivating my dissertation.) And it's one that comes up in all kinds of contexts. I recently read a piece over at the NY Times' Opinionator blog ("Where is Europe?"; highly recommended to all geography geeks, btw) that basically looked at what people meant by Europe throughout history. The question really depends on who you ask and how you use the word "Europe." Is it a political ideal? A mass of land? A cultural/religious institution (i.e. Christendom)? A political structure like the E.U.? British people who deny that they are part of Europe may mean one thing by it; cartographers who want to include Russia mean another. You can see similar distinctions come up whenever we try to divide people or places. When I see things like this, I see a question lurking just behind the scenes: do I have a right to assume, when you use a word, that you mean the same thing I would mean by it?
Kant famously said (well, famous to philosophers!) that all definitions are analytically true. What he means is basically that the statement "a bachelor is an unmarried man" is always going to be true. So is the statement that "a bachelor is a married man" or "a bachelor is a ten-foot-tall orangutan." When we say "X is Y" we're not making any claim about how the world really is, but really are just talking about what we mean by an external word. That's an attractive view, to be sure, because there's something violent in being told you can't even use words to describe your own thoughts how you want; it reeks of Orwellian doublespeak.
The problem is, language doesn't just stay in our own minds. This is a problem Richard Dawkins picked up on in I believe The God Delusion. Lots of Christians wanted to claim Albert Einstein as one of their own because he often talked about God in his writings. (Perhaps the most famous example is the quote, "God does not play dice with the universe.") But Dawkins argued – and I believe he was correct, based on what little I know of Einstein – that Dawkins's God is not the God of your standard churchgoer. He did not believe in an intelligence, a first-mover, or someone to whom we could pray and expect a reply. If anything, Einstein used God as sort of shorthand for the whole of the cosmos, or perhaps the sense of mystery that expands beyond our discrete "facts" and animates all scientists. Dawkins didn't object to Einstein being labeled as a believer in this; but he warned that the language could be misleading at best. More likely, it would lead to equivocation: where you use the same word but mean one thing at one place and something else somewhere down the road.
This is where my guy Anselm can be helpful. Anselm is a medieval monk living in Normandy around the turn of the millennium, and is probably most well-known for his ontological argument that God exists. Think of that proof what you will (and you'd be in good company to say it's hogwash, although not mine), the first part actually has some rather interesting things to say about language. Let's say I tell you that God exists. You want to disagree with me, but to do that you need to be talking about the same concept (or thing) as I was. Simply saying "God doesn't exist" won't cut it, if Kant was right about definitions; we could both have different ideas in mind when we talk about God, so when you say God doesn't exist, what guarantee is there that the thing I said didn't exist, was what you had in mind?
Anselm's solution is rather simple. If I want to talk meaningfully about something you hear, then I must first "understand what [I] hear, and what [I] understand, is in [my] understanding." So to follow through Anselm's example, let's say I claim God exists and you want to say I'm wrong. You must first understand what I mean when I make the sound "God" with my voice, and that concept must exist in your understanding (in your mind) so you can turn around and say that that concept we're talking about doesn't exist. Since you're trying to say that what I meant was wrong, you have to hold the discussion on my terms. The one who makes the first statement basically gets to say what the terms mean. And yes, you can also use God to mean something else entirely, but then you're no longer engaging with me, and the fact that we're both making the sound "God" when we talk is really just a big coincidence. According to Anselm, that's not communication.
So, back to Gwynnyd's original question. If Anselm is right – if I have to use your term on your terms in order to communicate with you – then I think it follows that the first person also gets to say when the term is wrong. The flip side of that, though, is that if I don't disown how you use the term, your use becomes part of my concept as well. Terms do change, but it's almost always with the permission of the people who are using the terms; or it should be. Otherwise, we run the very real risk of talking at each other rather than with each other.
Take for example that politically-charged term marriage. At one point it may have been a contract for producing and raising the next generation, and so procreation (and the ability to procreate lawfully) was at the heart of it. But as the people already getting married changed their conception of marriage's aim – once procreation wasn't enough, and things like love and mutual support became key – the term changed. Since we ought to be consistent, once the people who had the right to define marriage said it meant a certain kind of loving relationship, I'd argue it's right to say same-sex couples can get married too. The only way around that is to say marriage means something those couples are incapable of sharing in – procreation is the obvious answer, or you could argue that men and women complement each other in a way two men never could. But feminism has (at least for me and most people I know my age!) made that second option untenable. Women aren't intrinsically different from men, so two women could in theory complement each other the same way a man and a woman can. My point here is that once the definition has changed, it's only fair to apply it consistently; but the initial change has to come from the inside.
All of this can seem horribly abstract, I know. But the basic premise is something we Tolkien fans are pretty familiar with. I didn't read the books until after the movies were released, but from friends who had, I know they often resented what those movies did to the characterizations of certain characters. Gimli was comic relief. Arwen was Xena Warrior Princess. Denethor was… well, the less said about the Denethor characters most movie fans had in mind, the better, really. To those book fans' mind, there was an influx of people who were using the same word but describing something very different. And the book fans fought back, educated the newbies like me on what the book characters were really like, even came up with linguistic conventions like referring to book!Denethor or movie!Denethor to differentiate two different concepts masquerading as the same thing. It worked, to an extent.
But remember the frustration you felt when someone talked not about PJ's Denethor but about Denethor full-stop, and you get the frustration I feel when I hear people talking about the "faithful" like we are all Bible-thumping, climate change-denying reactionary luddites. Because there *is* a tradition that provides context to what this term means, just like Tolkien fans have a book to point to, a standard that says this interpretation is not really what this word means anyway. Looking at that tradition seems like a better place to start, than just taking a head-count and going along with majority rules.
Originally posted at LJ
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