Monday, April 9, 2012

Words and Meaning

First of all, today I began (and almost finished) another book from Hope's Spring Break reading list, To Change the World by James Davison Hunter. Until I finish it, read it again, take a ton of notes, and spend some time processing it, all I will save is that it is probably in the top five books I have ever read--possibly right below the Bible and John Owen as nonfiction goes. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Again, a fuller explanation to come later. For now, though, it is getting me thinking about lots of things by articulating thoughts I've been having but been unable to voice coherently--including one on language.

One of my favorite quotes from To Change the World is found in the section on the challenge of the dissolution of the very idea of meaning in modern culture.
After all, words notoriously fail to adequately express, describe, and explain the depths and complexities of love, beauty, knowledge, and sensation. Critics are right to observe that we abuse and demean reality when we ask words to stand in lieu of or be a substitute for the phenomenon itself. ... The modern world, by its very nature, questions if not negates the trust that connects human discourse and the "reality" of the world. In its mildest expressions, it questions the adequacy of language to make the world intelligible. In its more aggressive expressions, however, it fosters a doubt that what is said has anything to do with what exists "out there". (Page 205)
Hunter in this section describes two extremes in modern views on semantics, the connection between language and underlying meaning. Here I say "meaning" to mean correspondence to absolute truth and objective reality, which I believe exist apart from our representations of them in language.

The first extreme is to assume that, in Hunter's words, "there is a strict correspondence between words and the realities that make up human experience." Despite his problems as listed above with this idea, he quotes George Steiner in arguing that this assumption undergirds much of modern civilization. This is seen in the other book I'm currently digesting, Milton's Paradise Lost, in which one of Satan's defining flaws is his confusion of symbols with the realities they represent.

Lately, however, American culture has been tending more towards the other extreme of severing the semantic connection between words and meanings. The forces of dissolution, which Hunter argues is pushed forward by patterns in postmodern intellectualism, communications, and technology, "lead us to a place of absence, a place where we can never be confident of what is real, what is true, what is good; a place where we are always left wondering if nothing in particular is real or true or good."

As usual when I set up one of these spectra, I'm going to argue that the truth is somewhere in the middle, tending more towards the "mildest expressions" of dissolution and critically examining the limitations of language to describe reality. Don't get me wrong, I wish the first view were true and we really could encompass reality with words the same way I can communicate unambiguously with a computer in Python. Perhaps on the new Earth, when the effects of Babel are undone, we'll be able to. But like everything else of this world, our languages are also imperfect.

I can think of no better example of how language (the English language, at least) has broken down than the word "religion". I have already written a post on the shift of meaning that has occurred with this word and a certain viral video that showed the philosophical divide centered around it. If you don't feel like reading that, I basically explained that in the past 50 or so years, "religion" has shifted to mean to some people the worst excesses of hypocrisy and legalism of the church, while retaining its previous meaning (a set of beliefs and practices) to others. But it's still the same word, so you get things like that video or my church's numerous sermons on "religion" versus the gospel even while to some people "religion" simply means "Christianity". Which definition is right? The one that more people subconsciously associate with the word? Is there a "right" definition at all?

So you can see why I don't believe there is a "strict correspondence" between words and meanings. Many postmodernism-influenced thinkers, perhaps for similar reasons, jumped to the other side of believing that words and their meanings are fundamentally disconnected, that meaning and truth are at best unreachable in discourse and at worst a myth.

But I don't go that far. I firmly believe in the existence of absolute truth. (Since any attempt to refute its existence is necessarily self-contradicting) And despite the problems of language, it does still give us access to truth, albeit not a perfect one-to-one correspondence. I would say that words are imperfect tools for accessing and discoursing about truth. Notice how I was able to (clearly, I hope) describe both definitions of "religion" to clarify them; the issue that the word refers not to zero definitions, but to two. Words have meaning, but we must take care that our audience gets the same meaning out of them that we put in. Fortunately, I think most of the words in the English meaning correspond to their true meanings to most people; unfortunately, the ones that have the fuzziest meanings turn out to be the most important, like "God", "love", "family", "faith", "courage", etc.

What does all of this have to do with life, you may ask? The thing I love about Hunter's book is that a lot of that is for the reader to figure out. For one thing, I see much of American Christianity sticking to the "words and truth match up perfectly" side of the spectrum and throwing powerful words around carelessly, ignoring the issues of meaning I raise above. For example, some of the "Christian-ese" words I define in a previous vaguely satirical post are ones that have given me quite a bit of trouble because they don't mean to me exactly what they seem to mean to their users. And, of course, if you fall on the other side, take hope that words really do let us tap into objective truth; not believing this can be, in Hunter's words, "unlivable".

May you choose your words wisely. Happy Easter!

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