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Chapter Seventeen

Linguistics, semantics, and the philosophies of language the study of the way we use words to communicate with each other may seem topics too recondite to have much relevance for the theme of this book. But we have only to recall that divine revelation and the Church's teaching are conveyed through words, to realise that new theories about the significance of words as signs or vehicles of meaning could well affect the faith of Catholic scholars, whose business it is to concern themselves with these matters.

And in fact, as I hope to show shortly, that is exactly what has happened. Following in the footsteps of some of the most prominent exponents of this branch of study we find certain Catholic theologians arriving at the conclusion that it is impossible to reach certainty about anything except strictly scientific propositions.

In so far as the above-mentioned subjects have helped to make us more careful about how we use words or more sensitive to their meaning, they have done and no doubt continue to do a great service. However, taking the work as a whole, they have often ended by making the expression of what we want to say seem more difficult rather than easier.

Starting with linguistics, the scientific study of the way languages are formed, hang together, change and are related, we could call it old-fashioned grammar and philology under a new name. However, it is grammar and philology conducted with some rather new premises and with a greatly extended territory. For one thing, it is no longer assumed that God endowed man with speech from the start. Man started as a brute and his first words were grunts. How then did words evolve, and their stringing together grammatically as speech? How, too, are they related to our thoughts?

Certain leading ideas can be found as far back as the French philosophers Condoret (1743-1794) and Maine de Biran (1766-1824), but the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) is generally considered the father of modern linguistics, in which we find two not mutually exclusive tendencies.

One is to see language as a kind of mathematics with laws and a life of its own which dictates our thoughts to us rather than being the medium of their expression. Without words, so the argument goes, it is impossible to formulate our thoughts, and if we can't formulate our thoughts, we can't know what we are thinking. But words come to us from the language group we are born into. Our thoughts are therefore always expressed in a form not of our own making.

This was, for a long time, a ruling idea in "pure linguistics," but was modified by Noam Chomsky (b. 1928), who gave "deep structures" (unformed thoughts) priority over "surface structures" (language). He recognised that thoughts come first. Gilson also defended the primacy of thought over language. In his Linguistique et philosophie he points to the simple fact that we often have to cross out and rewrite a sentence several times before it accurately expresses our thinking. The thought is there before we find the right words in which to clothe it.

The second tendency has been to regard language as a system of signs reflecting patterns of behaviour or needs. The human animal plays "language games"; for each set of activities it arranges, it uses the signs in a different pattern (a basic idea in socio-linguistics). Lawyers play one kind of game, computer programmers another. Worship has its special pattern, differing from that of medicine. Each is a reflection of the way groups of individuals "structure" their lives.

Neither tendency; one has to say, does much justice to the primary purposes of language: to mirror reality and convey our ideas about it from one mind to mother.

This brings us to the next step in the story. It was out of these studies and theories about language as a system of signs, their use and history, that the philosophies of language or language analysis grew up. The philosophies of language stand in somewhat the same relationship to linguistics as physics to metaphysics. Linguistics provides the matter about the significance of which philosophers then speculate. They study the meaning of what we say, rather than the medium through which we say it. 161

Originating with the Cambridge thinkers G E Moore, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein before and during World War I, linguistic philosophy was then taken up and developed by the Vienna Circle of Moritz Schlick (d. 1935) and Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970), the founders of logical positivism. In 1935, Carnap emigrated to the United States where he became professor of philosophy at Chicago and then at UCLA. The later Oxford school of analytical philosophers (with Ryle, Ayer and J L Austin among the best-known names) spread the ideas of the Vienna Circle in England.162

Heavily influenced by logic, analytical philosophy has little to tell us about the human person, the user of language. It "is more characterised by styles of argument and investigation than by doctrinal content. It is thus possible for people of widely different beliefs to be practitioners of this sort of philosophy." 163

One of the purposes, if not the main purpose, of the Vienna, Cambridge and Oxford schools was to clarify the meaning and use of words for the benefit of science and mathematics, and this no doubt is where the value of their contributions chiefly lies.

Unfortunately, most of their members were unvarnishedly hostile to metaphysics and religion. Not only, they maintained, do ordinary people not know what they mean most of the time; the same has been the case with the majority of philosophers. When metaphysical statements are properly  analysed, most of the problems that have vexed philosophers throughout history simply melt away. The words they use, when unverifiable by the senses, are meaningless. Philosophy has in fact nothing positive of its own to say about the world. It can only clear the ground of metaphysical rubbish before the advancing triumphal chariot of empiricist science. Under this aspect linguistic philosophy represents the last ditch stand of the anti-metaphysical tradition, attempting, like Hume, to conjure philosophy out of existence.

In England, the ideas of the Cambridge school reached a wider public through the writers and artists known collectively as the Bloomsbury group, with which Moore and Russell were associated. It included the satirist Lytton Strachey, the novelists Virginia Woolf and E M Forster, and the economist John Maynard Keynes, Franklin Roosevelt's adviser at the time of the New Deal. A typical Bloomsburyite retort to a commonplace remark like "What a pity we are having such bad weather" was likely to be "What exactly do you mean by `weather' " or "Why do you call it bad?"

When therefore today we hear a theologian telling us that the Church is re-examining some part of its moral teaching to discover exactly what it means, or that the word "person" in reference to the Blessed Trinity has to be reconsidered in the light of modern knowledge, and years of research may be necessary before experts come up with an answer, we are not just hearing the voice of a single disoriented ecclesiastic, but echoes from linguistic analysis.

The late Cardinal Siri of Genoa has given us an interesting summary of the opinions of the German-speaking world's premier theological "problem child" on this subject. "The Church could never formulate sure propositions to define her faith because 'she will have to reckon with the problematicity inherent in all propositions in general' and no truth can ever be conceived and expressed with certitude." According to the new philosophy of language "the propositions of faith are never the direct word of God," they "do not correspond to reality," they "are only relatively translatable," they "are in motion," they can be "ideologically exploited" even "the proposition 'God exists' " "It is thus;" the Cardinal concludes,"that Hans Kng expounds in five points his creed on the impossibility of ever having a sure creed."

The words in single quotes in the above paragraph are Kng's own.164  Among the thinkers Kng cites in support of his views, in addition to existentialists like Heidegger, Jaspers and Merleau-Ponty, are Wittgenstein, Frege and Chomsky.

We are here at the very heart of the modernist theological enterprise. Pope John, it will be recalled, had said that the Church's teachings were to be expressed in ways suited to modern man but always with the same sense and meaning, while Fr Kng and his friends had wanted from the outset to alter the meaning of much of that teaching. Now in Chomsky's "surface" and "deep structures" he seems to have believed that he had found the right excuse for his stance and tool for his task.

Where does meaning reside? As I pointed out towards the end of Chapter 1 of Turmoil and Truth, everyone knows you can usually express the same ideas or concepts in different words. That was precisely what Pope John had in mind. But can you express the same reality with a different idea or concept without finding you are thinking or speaking about a different reality? Can one think of a replacement for the idea of justice that still retains the meaning of justice? 165 Kng, who wants the meaning of ideas to be as fluid and as open to different interpretations as the meaning of words can be, appears to say Yes. For Kng, it seems, in so far as our thoughts have any connection with reality, it is only at the level of Chomsky's "deep structures" (unformed, or, as Rahner calls them, "unthematic" thoughts). As soon as we try to "conceptualise" or formulate these subterranean communications, they turn into "surface structures" which can never reflect reality with complete accuracy or bear an unchangeable meaning.

This, one assumes, is why Fr Kng finds the propositions of faith forever "problematical." God revealed Himself to the prophets, apostles, and inspired writers of the two Testaments at the level of "deep structures." The words and ideas in which the divine communication is embodied, being a surface structure, are entirely of human origin and therefore endlessly changeable. Changing the ideas as well as the words in which the faith has been called "reconceptualization." Reconceptualization moves the attack on the stability of revealed truth and doctrine from the level of language to the level of concepts, or from the form in which they are expressed to the substance of what is expressed.

After all this, it would seem difficult to create a more impenetrable "cloud of unknowing." The attempt has been made nevertheless under the influence of the movements presently known as post-modernism and its sub-current deconstuctionism.

Post-modernism, as I explained a few chapters ago, is a general mood rather than a strictly philosophical position, generated by the nihilistic existentialism of the late 1960s and early '70s and affecting, though in different ways, the higher intelligentsia and the general public alike. It is a symptom of the widespread, though far from universal, loss of confidence in the idea of perpetual progress, and its replacement by a radical individualism which, in the public sphere, justifies itself as the only sensible attitude in a meaningless world in which we have only one life to enjoy.

It was against this background and under the influence of this mood that in the late 1960s the post-modernists conducted a sort of philosophical rape of the Sabine women.

Up to this point linguistics and language philosophy had been regarded as more or less the private property of the arid, unemotional Anglo-Saxon philosophical school. But around the time just mentioned they were suddenly captured and carted off by German and French philosophers, mainly followers of Heidegger of some kind, and put to work for purposes of their own.

The Anglo-Saxon school had been content to use linguistics to help them abolish metaphysics. The goal of the newcomers was more radical the "deconstruction" of the ordinary notion of truth in order to replace it with their existentialist notion of truth. Believing, as they did, that there is no stable reality to attach a permanent meaning to, they invoked linguistics to discredit the power of words to reveal the true nature and meaning of things and to reinforce the idea that it is impossible to make a statement which will always have the same meaning for everyone everywhere. Man makes words, his own and other people's, mean whatever he wishes. The leading "deconstructionists" have been the German Hans Georg Gadamer  (b. 1900) and the Frenchman, Jacques Derrida (b. 1930). Using a different technique from that of Kant, they have been carrying his undertaking, the divorce between mind and reality; to its last resting place. 166

The deconstructionists' main field of interest has been "hermeneutics," or the science of interpretation, particularly the interpretation of ancient texts. Can we know what their authors actually intended to say? Their answer is No, or, at the best, Not really.

Human beings are constitutionally incapable of, in the first place, reporting events accurately or objectively, and secondly of understanding what men of an earlier age have written. Every witness of an event interprets it in terms of his own subjective and conditioned vision of things (he sees only what he wants to see or is programmed to see), and every subsequent reading of the text is an equally conditioned interpretation. No statement exists which is not an "interpretation?' Indeed, according to Heidegger, language itself is an interpretation; he who speaks is already "interpreting his world?'

This being the case, it would seem reasonable to follow the example of the Chinese cultural revolutionaries. What is the use of hoarding documents and texts that can no longer be understood? Why read Plato or the Bible if we can have no idea what the authors were trying to say? The obviously sensible thing would be to burn the lot in order to make more shelf space, or — so as not to sin against political correctness recycle them. And recycling is in a sense just what Gadamer has proposed. Not of course a recycling of the papyrus, parchment or paper on which the texts are written. They are to be reverently preserved. What is to be recycled is the meaning of the texts. Each generation will use them for its own purposes, attach to them its own meaning; will interpret them so as to give expression to its particular way of looking at the world at its particular time.

A text, says Gadamer, "whether law or gospel ... must be understood at every moment, in every particular situation, in a new and different way"... "To interpret means precisely to use one's own preconceptions so that the meaning of the text can really be made to speak for us:' Trying to understand what the original author meant to say would "be no more than the recovery of a dead meaning?' "An interpretation that was correct 'in itself' would be a foolish ideal that failed to take account of the nature of tradition." 167

It is true that Gadamcr speaks of a possible "fusion of horizons" between the original author and the modern reader of a text, but whatever this ambiguous phrase means, it does not seem seriously to limit the interpreter's freedom to make any text mean more or less what he wishes." 168

Since the "new hermeneutics," as it is called, renders any kind of historical knowledge impossible, it is difficult to see what the deconstructionists have in mind, unless it is to render the meaning of the Bible totally inaccessible. For the deconstructionists, no amount of historical and linguistic research will really open the biblical authors' minds to us.

In spite of this, a well-informed observer speaks of the "breath-taking advance" of post-modernism and deconstructionism "not only in the discourse of high culture, but in academic theology too." "The crisis of interpretation," says the same author, "is deepened by the turmoil into which, with post-modernism, the philosophy of language has entered." 169

Pope Paul VI seems already to have been aware of all this as early as 1968. "The purpose of interpretation hermeneutics," he writes in his Credo of the People of God, " is to understand and elicit the meaning conveyed by the text, taking into account the words used, not to invent some new sense on the basis of arbitrary conjecture:'

Two years later the Pope returned to the subject in an address to the Bible Week organised by the Italian Biblical Association. While at pains to make clear that he recognised the subjective element that enters into all historical writing, reporting and subsequent interpretation, the Pope insisted that the meaning of the original author of a text is both recoverable, immutable and intelligible.

That he had to insist at length on these obvious facts indicates the extent to which "new hermeneutical" thinking had begun to affect catholic biblical scholars. Indeed, much of it had already reached them via the Protestant biblical scholar Bultmann, as we shall see in the next chapter.


161. Semantics, which studies the relationship between words and their meaning in a more technical way, is, in so far as it can be considered a distinct discipline, the stepping stone between linguistics and linguistic philosophy.

162. Some people see Gottlb Frege (1848-1925), as the "father" of linguistic philosophy. A professor of mathematics at Jena. who tried to construct a universal mathematically based "ideal" language incapable of error, he influenced both Russell and Wittgenstein. When it was found that language cannot be made to work with the precision of mathematics, Wittgenstein (c. 1930) turned to ordinary language. Frege, together with Boole, de Morgan, Russell and Whitehead, was also one of the founders of modern logic, a subject too technical to go into here. But opponents of St Thomas sometimes draw arguments from it against his proofs for the existence of God. They are said not to satisfy the requirements of modern logic. If this is so, one is inclined to think either that modern logic is demanding more than is required for this kind of proof (mathematical strictness) or that it has some more work to do.

163.  "Twenty Opinions Common Among Modern Anglo-American Philosophers," Elizabeth Anscombe, in Persona, verit e morale, Rome, 1986.The paper circulates privately in English translation. Anscombe, a Catholic, was Wittgenstein's pupil and literary executor. The twenty opinions Anscombe finds "implicitly or explicitly among analytic philosophers," are all ones she finds inimical to Christianity. They include the following: "There are no absolute moral prohibitions which are always in force." (No. 8)."Calling something a virtue or vice is only indicating approval or disapproval of the behaviour that exemplifies it ... Evaluations or 'value judgements' are not as such true or false." (No. 10)."It is necessary, if we are moral agents, always to act for the best consequences?' (No. 13)."God, if there is any God, is mutable, subject to passions, sometimes disappointed, must be supposed to make the best decisions he can on the basis of the evidence on which he forms his opinions?' (No. 19)."The laws of nature, if they can be found out, afford complete explanations of everything that happens." (No. 20). For Wittgenstein, science cannot explain everything, but about what in its nature it is incapable of explaining we must remain silent.

164.   Gethsemane, Reflections on the Contemporary Theological Movement, Joseph Cardinal Siri, English translation, Chicago, 1981. pp. 270-1.The Cardinal is quoting from the Italian edition of Fr Kng's Infallibility, pp. 114-118. Fr Rahner, more cautious than Kng, seems no less anxious to keep the Church from speaking with authority. "In the future," he says "the magisterium will only be able to issue very few doctrinal declarations." This, according to Rahner, is because to make a universally and permanently valid statement you have to know everything about everything. But the sum of human knowledge is now so vast that the necessary omniscience is no longer possible. No one mind can comprehend and synthesise it all. Also, the kind of theological agreement necessary for doctrinal definitions has gone for good. Theological pluralism, including it seems theological contradiction, is now an irreversible fact (Siri, op cit., pp. 134 & 352.) This causes him to wonder whether heresy is any longer possible.

165. There were people in the reform movement who wanted grace redefined as a "relationship" rather than a quality (US Bishop Austin Vaughan to the author, Rome 1993). But if the new definition is intended to exclude the idea that grace is something new added to and inhering in the person receiving it, then the meaning has been changed. The idea that grace is purely a matter of being in a new relationship with God without any substantial change in the recipient, would be a Lutheran understanding of grace.

166. "The meaning of a word is its use," was a slogan of the Vienna school, implying that words have no objective meaning. There is also an affinity between "deconstructionism" and Zen Buddhism. For Zen, too, language is an arbitrary construct unrelated to things. Consciousness is real but its objects are not.

167.    See, Brian Harrison, The Teaching of Paul VI on Sacred Scripture (doctoral thesis, Pontifical Athenaeum of the Holy Cross). Rome 1997, chapter 4,"Modern Hermeneutical Problems." Also A. Nichols, Christendom Awake, Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark, 1999, p. 58. It may require an effort to enter the minds of people of different times and places. But that presumably is why we have been given imaginations.

168.    It is difficult to see much difference between Gadamer's position and that of Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty:

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,"it means just what I choose it to mean neither more nor less."

"The question is." said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master   that's all." Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass, ch. 6. p. 190 (OUP combined edition 1971, reprinted 1992).

169. Nichols, op. cit., p. 55.

Copyright Philip Trower 2006, 2011, 2018

Version: 16th February 2021


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