Language and Belief

September 9, 2006 | 32 comments
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Linguistics, the study of language’s inner workings, is a source for concepts and technical vocabulary that are also useful for thinking about religion, because language and religion are both, among other things, mental constructs for making sense of the world around us. Each provides categories with which to organize the way we think about life: singulars and plurals, nouns and verbs, sinners and the saved. Upcoming posts will address particular aspects of language and belief, but for now I would merely like to point out some similarities.

Neither language nor religion is a system of rigorous logic. The next time an analytic logician tries to tell you that a double negative is actually a positive, tell him he ain’t got no friends. Tell him again if you have to; he’ll get the point eventually. Languages and religions are not logical, but they are both coherent systems with their own inner logic. A language’s fundamental mechanisms will be articulated in various ways throughout a language, like the ablaut gradations that gave rise to the principal parts of English irregular verbs (sing-sang-sung) but also to nominal derivations (song). The basic structures of belief reappear again and again in our religion, like the process of read-ponder-pray in the First Vision, in songs for children, and in our proselytizing.

Belief systems and languages can change over time. Change does not lead to collapse, although deleting an element of faith creates pressures and tensions that cause realignments in the rest of the system. Abandoning the practice of polygamy in the years following 1890 may have created a conceptual gap that was filled by the renewed importance of the Word of Wisdom in the early 20th century, for example. The reanalysis of the plosive consonantal system between pre- and proto-Germanic is probably the paradigmatic example for how changes to one part of a system can cause the restructuring of the system as a whole. (In brief: the three original categories unvoiced/voiced/voiced aspirate turned into a system with the three categories voiceless fricative/voiceless stop/voiced stop such that /t d dh/, for example, become /th t d/, thus Latin pater with unshifted consonants corresponds to English father.)

Languages and religions have different degrees of complexity on different levels, but similar degrees of overall complexity. English has no need of most declensional morphology, but its idiomatic verbal system is extremely complex. Mormons have nearly nothing to say about demonology but relatively quite a bit to say about prophets and their functions. The loss of complexity at one level usually causes an increase somewhere else in order to preserve the ability to make fine distinctions.

No two people speak exactly alike, and no two Mormons are exactly alike in their understanding of their religion. But speech and belief communities both exhibit widespread agreement about the most important things. When Mormons talk about their faith, I understand them like one native speaker understands another. For some other religions I can translate their experience into my own idiom. For others, I can read the words, but I don’t know what they mean.

I imagine that the originality of these observations does not extend beyond the walls of my own home. Who has already compared religious studies to linguistics? What other comparisons between language and belief can you think of? At what point do these comparisons fail?

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32 Responses to Language and Belief

  1. Russell Arben Fox on September 9, 2006 at 8:04 am

    Jonathan,

    This isn’t really what you’re looking for, but what about Humboldt, Schleiermacher, Herder, Schelling, Hegel, and others from that milieu? Especially in Humboldt’s work, language and the categories of linguistic study emerge as a key to a fully developed anthropology of human sociality, including religion: without an understanding of how languages develop, change, or resist change, then our ability to similarly understand how religious communities develop, chance, or resist change is impoverished. Of course, this approach ascribes to linguistics more than the heuristic function you appear to be assuming here: your comparison of the operations of language and belief assumes a conceptual parallel between them, not an actual ontological or psychological connection. (Though perhaps I’m misreading you on that point.) It does seem to me, if you look at the whole sweep of linguistics, from Herder’s Sprachphilosophie to Whorfian determinism to the cognitive linguistics of Chomsky and Pinker, that language has been seen more often than not as key to the construction of religion, and not just a revealing tool for understanding it.

  2. Julie M. Smith on September 9, 2006 at 8:42 am

    As long as we’re talking about Chomsky, it seems that you could use the idea of a universal grammar as a very useful template for understanding the commonalities and differences between the world’s religions. Someone who doesn’t have to be out the door in three minutes to a Primary Pres. meeting and still hasn’t brushed her teeth or finished her oatmeal will need to flesh that thought out, however.

  3. Jonathan Green on September 9, 2006 at 9:07 am

    Russell, if I gave up on everything some dead German guy already did in the 19th century, there would be no reason for me to get up in the morning!

    You’re correct that an approach to religion via the philosophy of language is not precisely what I’m aiming for, since that is not one of my primary interests in linguistics. But for that very reason, your contribution is most welcome, and I hope you’ll continue to provide the philosophical background that I can’t. In a way it’s not surprising that linguists look at religion and see a primarily linguistic phenomenon, like an economist might find look at religion and see the effects of supply and demand. The reconstruction of Indo-European and Germanic so captured the imaginations of nineteenth-century German intellectual life, though, that I wouldn’t be surprised to find traces of something as specific as the Germanic consonant shift at the founding moments of more than a few disciplines. Unfortunately, my grip on disciplinary history doesn’t let me write much more than that right now, although I’d like to hear more about it. In later posts I’ll be looking at linguistics not primarily as the key to religion, or even a revelatory tool for understanding it, but more as a sturdy toolbox stocked with interesting gadgets.

    Julie: please flesh out that thought when you get a chance! Language typology and universals are very much part of the context of my thoughts, but I haven’t come up with anything specific to say about them yet.

  4. Wilfried on September 9, 2006 at 9:18 am

    Thanks for a very thoughtful post and a fascinating topic, Jonathan. As to your questions at the end, I guess many names have tangents to the topic of comparing religion and language, but only in broader and different senses. Mircea Eliade, Claude Lévy-Strauss come to mind. Jim F. could tell us more.

    Would the work of Yale professor George Lindbeck be more focused on the topic of comparison? In his work “The nature of doctrine“, he presents, among many other things, the concept that innovation in a religion comes from the interaction between the cultural-linguistic system and the environment, rather than from essential religious developments. I hope I am wording this correctly.

    I’d better refer to a summary:

    Lindbeck advances an alternative, the so-called culturallinguistic approach. Fundamental to this is the observation that religions function more like the cultural and linguistic frameworks observed by sociologists and anthropologists than anything else. On this view, religions are seen as comprehensive, interpretive schemes, rooted in language and culture, which structure human experience and the understanding of the self and the world. Through myth and narrative, and especially through ritual, religions shape and mold, and, thus, in a sense control human experience.

    Like culture or language it [a religion] is a communal phenomenon that shapes the subjectivities of individuals rather than being primarily a manifestation of those subjectivities. It comprises a vocabulary of discursive and nondiscursive symbols together with a distinctive logic or grammar in terms of which this vocabulary can be meaningfully deployed.

  5. Idahospud on September 9, 2006 at 9:58 am

    As an aside, one of my favorite linguistics jokes is set in a linguistics class in which the professor is discussing double negatives. During the discussion, he asserts that there are no instances of a double positive creating a negative, to which a student replies, “Yeah, right.”

  6. Idahospud on September 9, 2006 at 10:08 am

    More seriously, I am looking forward to this and other discussions on linguistics. My primary interest when I studied linguistics was dialectology; perhaps a comparison can be drawn between the way that physical isolation of a particular speech community creates and cements a distinct dialect within a given language and the way physical or doctrinal isolation of a subset of a major religion enhances the particulars of that subset. For example, Wahabbism within Islam or Mormonism within Christianity (and even “Utah Mormons” within Mormonism) can be understood as a “dialect” of their respective larger wholes.

  7. DKL on September 9, 2006 at 10:34 am

    This is an interesting analogy. It’s customary to assail analytic philosophers for the artificial languages they construct (as you have with your straw-man argument against analytic logicians), but I think that this misses the point.

    Artificial languages are to natural language what theological systems (or any theoretical approach, including science) are to natural belief: an idealized system constructed to highlight the relationship among the salient concepts Just as no theological system encompasses or reflects the richness, diversity, and inconsistency of a natural belief system, no artificial language system reflects the richness, diversity, and inconsistency of a natural language system. But it’s a mistake to assume that such systems cannot be used to illustrate or critique their nebulous natural counterparts.

    There’s also a sense in which any analysis at all of natural language or natural belief creates an artificial language or theological system. In the end, no matter how much one decries the analytic enterprise (even analytic philosophers are trained to decry reductionism), it’s what makes conversations about language and belief possible in the first place–the question is merely whether the conversations are rigorous.

  8. Ardis on September 9, 2006 at 12:52 pm

    This is a very useful essay for me, because I learn easiest with the help of analogies. Would these examples fit?

    Both religion and language preserve ideas for which we have no current use: e.g., “Biblical animal sacrifice” for [most? - does Santaria draw on Biblical precedent?] religions and “Roman chariot” for language. The comparison breaks down in actual practice: Nobody would have a moral problem if somebody built a chariot for use in getting around on back roads, but a lot of somebodys would have a lot of moral problems if somebody started performing animal sacrifices.

    The worlds of religion and language both have doom-and-gloom watchdogs who see the end of the world in developments that really don’t have anything to do with communication/salvation: e.g., wailing over slang or the verbification of nouns (as in “we’re blogging here”), or decrying men’s facial hair or the wearing of pastel dress shirts under suits and ties as a moral failing. The comparison breaks down at the point where, like, you know, um, communication DOES, like, break down, yada yada yada, or at the point where fashions stop being fashions and become political statements or deliberate acts of rebellion.

  9. Julie M. Smith on September 9, 2006 at 3:11 pm

    Some rough thoughts: a universal grammar could be compared to the idea that we all have the light of Christ or perhaps an memory of some things from the pre-existence, etc. Just as the universal grammar underlies all languages, some fundamental ideas–ie., that there is a God–underlie all religions. (Perhaps also the notion that all people worship the same God.) Then, the cultural context of the child determines which language is learned–much as children are taught their parents’ religion. What are the implications of comparing religious conversion to second language learning? I don’t know.

  10. MLU on September 9, 2006 at 3:27 pm

    In perhaps not too oblique a tangent, Richard John Neuhaus says some interesting things over at First Things (Sept 8, 2006 post) about religion as a mental construct:

    This is the part I want to think about more:

    Any thoughtful Christian has to have at least a modicum of sympathy for Karl Barth’s solution, which is to insist that Christianity is not a religion. In this view, religion is a human enterprise aimed at reconciliation with, or manipulation of, transcendent powers such as God or the gods. Christianity, by way of sharpest contrast, is not a human enterprise but the revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. It is a human enterprise only in that a community of human beings, the Church, responds to that revelation, but that, too, is the work of God in engendering faith in response to God’s revealing initiative.

    This leads to a shot across the bow of academic ways of thinking about religion:

    The whole idea that there is such a category of human belief and action that can be fitted into the category of “the religious phenomenon� is misbegotten, as Robert Royal points out in his critique of “religious studies� departments in higher education.

    Speaking of religion as a “mental construct”–even with the qualifying “among other things” seems to start down a path from which, maybe, important things cannot be seen.

    Suppose programmers succeed in creating artificial intelligence and a program wakes up and becomes conscious but cannot perceive the electricity that powers its circuits or the designer who tweaks its environment. Suppose it explains its reality to itself without reference to such things. Even though it might become sophisticated enough to explain to itself that its explanations exist within a many-leveled system of mental constructs and that it is trapped in self-reference, it would still be missing the main thing.

    My sense that religion is, at least, a dialogue with God conflicts with thinking of it as primarily or mostly a mental construct. And since it appears that for developing humans, diaglogue precedes monologue–we get language from other language using beings–I suppose that the important constructs are communicated.

    Interesting post, and my quibbling is not, I think, with its main point.

  11. Baffled in New York on September 9, 2006 at 6:37 pm

    How about: “he does not have no friends”? Ain’t aint a true negative now is it?

  12. TrailerTrash on September 9, 2006 at 10:55 pm

    Jonathan: \”I imagine that the originality of these observations does not extend beyond the walls of my own home. Who has already compared religious studies to linguistics? What other comparisons between language and belief can you think of?\”

    The thoughts you have expressed here are fundamentally those that developed in France in the 1950\’s-70\’s when Saussure\’s linguistics became the basis for Stucturalism, and later, post-structuralism. The basic idea here is that all of \”reality\” is simply a construct based in language or discourse. It makes an epistemological claim, but became incredibly useful for anthropology and other social sciences. It simultaneously exposed the constructed nature of Western discourse and raised the status of other forms of discourse, including religion. At the more radical levels, religion is simply a discourse at the same level as science. Both have thier own rules, but neither is more \”real\” than the other.

    Broadly, this philosophical perspective has been dubbed the \”linguistic turn.\” The major figures of this movement include Levi-Strauss, Derrida, Kristeva and Foucault, among others.

  13. Mark Butler on September 10, 2006 at 1:09 am

    The thing about Derrida is that he thought he was smart for discovering something that was manifestly apparent (and solved) by medieval philosophers like Ockham seven centuries ago.

  14. DKL on September 10, 2006 at 1:39 am

    Keynes is said to have suggested that a government could generate economic productivity by hiding a jar containing a fortune and encouraging people to go find it. Derrida’s approach to philosophy exemplifies this approach. He has purportedly hidden some jar of treasure in his inscrutable writings, and philosophers have expended untold resources trying to uncover it. In my opinion, however, the jar is empty.

  15. Clark on September 10, 2006 at 2:44 am

    Julie, (#9), isn’t an universal grammar way to broad and expressive to correspond in the least to what you suggest? Don’t get me wrong. I’m really sympathetic to the notion that both the light of Christ and our fallen natures (carnal, devilish) are more expressions of innate cognitive structures. But the problem with Chomsky grammars is that even if his thesis proves true it’s simply too expressive to run with terribly far. (IMO)

    Wilfried, (#4), I think there are some terribly interesting parallels between language and religion. However it tends not to be the aspects of religion that are terribly relevant to Mormonism. That is it deals with transcendence in terms of the traditional discourse on transcendence, especially in the medieval era. But the key facet of Mormonism to to divorce God from this radical otherness that the apostasy placed him in. God becomes a being like us. Now I think the parallel within language that some Continental thinkers (like Heidegger) find is accurate. And I think that does have implications for Mormonism. But not really the way it does for most of Christianity.

    I should add that while I think language shows us things and thus affects how things reveal themselves to us I don’t think it does in a fully controlling fashion. (i.e. the Sapir-Worf hypothesis seems false to me)

    DKL, (#7), it’s definitely true that analytic philosophers are unjustly assailed for artificial languages. If anything they focus on natural language as almost a characteristic fact. Indeed that characterizes most of 20th century philosophy in both traditions. However certainly artificial languages were important for some time in philosophy. I’m just not sure it is true of analytic philosophy. Having said that though I think the problem for analytic philosophers are contrived examples that are pushed farther than warranted. (i.e. Gettier examples and so forth)

    Trailer Trash, (#12), we should keep in mind that analytic philosophy also has a linguistic turn quite unrelated to the similar turn in France. If anything the analytic linguistic turn is much more interesting. Actually perhaps “unrelated” is a tad too strong given how many parallels people find between Wittgenstein and the Continentals. But they are treated differently. Personally I think Continental philosophy went astray by focusing in on Saussure. One wishes they’d been exposed to more Peirce. (Although Derrida mentions him in significant ways in On Grammatology)

  16. Clark on September 10, 2006 at 2:46 am

    DKL, (#14), He has purportedly hidden some jar of treasure in his inscrutable writings, and philosophers have expended untold resources trying to uncover it. In my opinion, however, the jar is empty.

    You fall upon truth without realizing the truth you’ve fallen upon. Reminds me of the debate between Carnap and Heidegger over nothing. Given that one of the ways Derrida expresses his key insight is in terms of khora or empty space it is well said that there is a hidden jar that is empty. I just don’t think the resources trying to uncover it are wasted…

  17. Clark on September 10, 2006 at 2:50 am

    Mark, (#13), what was “solved”? It doesn’t seem to me like Derrida is asserting anything that needs solving. If you mean “noticed” then I’d agree, although arguably I’d point back to Plotinus and perhaps even to Plato (depending upon how you read him). But it seems something that philosophers forget as soon as they notice it. So it’s worth it to keep bringing it up.

    I’m not sure though Ockham is the one to turn to though (although I say that admitting I don’t know him as well as I ought). I think Scotus is the better figure although even he doesn’t quite get it.

  18. Mark Butler on September 10, 2006 at 8:00 am

    But about religion, if one thinks of it merely as a mental construct it degenerates into philosophy, where the focus of most religions is not usually right theology but rather right practice and right attitude, a practice and attitude that flows from a handful of fundamental precepts that are held to be inviolable regardless of their logical consistency. And the only reason such precepts can be held to be inviolable is if they are sacred, generally meaning obtained by revelation, or at least supernatural enlightenment.

    I think the harsh revelation vs. religion contrast is counterproductive though, because what is revelation for, if not to inspire correct religion (i.e. correct actions and attitudes about sacred things). But if you take the revelation out of religion, you rapidly end up with no religion at all, but rather a philosophy of some sort. And isn’t the most salient aspect of philosophy that you can pick the one you like? Where any religion that does not claim to be binding in some manner, is not much of a religion at all.

    Of course it is certainly a reasonable proposition of any religion that the paradoxes of the religion are ultimately resolvable, either by careful, revelation-guided study (theology) or in the mind of God himself. The idea that religious precepts are not ultimately even logically consistent corrodes faith, and ultimately enervates a broad variety of human enterprises along with it. It is difficult to have a flourishing religion, let alone a flourishing civilization without some faith that one understands the first principles of what one is doing.

  19. DKL on September 10, 2006 at 8:17 am

    Clark, I don’t think that it makes much sense to claim that because an analogy is especially apt, it is unintentional.

  20. TrailerTrash on September 10, 2006 at 8:19 am

    Clark, you are right that that the analytic linguistic turn shares similarities with the French one. I don’t know enough about analytic philosophical history to judge whether it is more interesting or not. In any case, for whatever reason the French linguistic turn has had a much greater impact in America on other fields outside of philosophy, such as literature, historiography, and religion. Why this is is a historical question that I can’t answer. For whatever reason, the way that the French have articulated the linguistic turn was much more influential on American scholarship.

  21. Mark Butler on September 10, 2006 at 8:24 am

    Clark (#17),

    I am not saying the Derrida doesn’t have ideas worth pursuing, but rather that many of his criticisms of Western analytic philosophy were at least six centuries out of date by the time he made them. Of course that is in part because Ockham was widely misunderstood and disregarded within a couple of centuries due to other, primarily theological considerations, considerations that ironically applied more directly to the theology of most of his contemporaries, but which were preserved due to a much longer tradition – not because of their logical superiority.

    To me it seems that the founding precept of what we now typically call post-modernism, the idea that there is no particular correlation between language and reality, is the most counterproductive idea in the history of Western civilization. Who can go about his daily activities while believing that to be the case? And yet this precept was adopted based on a a critique of Aristotelian metaphysics that any intelligent junior high school student could mount, given a little preparation.

    So instead of pursuing the proper remedies and subtleties, of which Ockhamist conceptualism is one of the most well developed, the idea was to make Western civilization walk the plank instead. If we applied that kind of short shrift to most religions, we would all be atheists ten times over.

    And indeed, the atheistic, absurdist world view is probably the most salient characteristic of early post modernism, a belief so void of substance that now, at least in Europe, philosophy is starting to rise to the level of the world view of the mystery religions. All because of what in my view amounts to little more than intellectual laziness. Didn’t Santayana say that those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them?

  22. DKL on September 10, 2006 at 9:45 am

    Clark, I don’t know quite how to respond to what you say about natural language. You seem to simply elaborate on the kind of critique implied by Jonathan Green without seeming to realize that a critique of that position has been authored. Are you responding to the concepts I discuss or just to a few keywords I use?

  23. Jonathan Green on September 10, 2006 at 11:30 am

    Idaho Spud, you can look forward to lots of dialectology. To return one linguistics joke with another: what’s the difference between a language and a dialect? Answer: A language is a dialect with its own army. (This standard, which works surprisingly often for languages, becomes very problematic when applied to religions, however…)

    DKL: Straw man? Critique? I was just hoping to get your attention. I rather like your comparison of normative or analytical grammars and theology. Can I steal it? I’ll probably write a long post about it in six months, once I’ve forgotten the source of the original idea, and congratulate myself for my brilliance. Feel free to refer me back here when that happens.

    Ardis, those are both excellent observations. Both language and religion are storehouses of archaisms, each for its own good reasons. How people deal with opaque archaisms in both contexts can be surprisingly similar; folk doctrine resembles nothing so much as folk etymology.

    Julie, I suspect that acquisition is the realm where language and religion have the least in common with each other, but language acquisition is too interesting to ignore entirely. Let me think about it.

    Mark Buter, I’m fairly certain that the most counter-productive idea in the history of Western civilization was, “Invading Serbia is a good idea.” Or maybe, “Let’s get those barbarians to fight our wars for us. They won’t stay long.”

    And that is, I think, the closest I’ll come to contributing to the discussion of Derrida, Peirce, Scotus, Ockham, etc. But don’t let that stop anybody.

  24. annegb on September 10, 2006 at 1:51 pm

    I believe that all comparisons fail sooner or later because everything is ultimately individual. And that they are ultimately self defeating. That being said, this is a profound post, Jonathan. I especially liked your next to last paragraph.

  25. DKL on September 10, 2006 at 5:58 pm

    annegb, I agree with you. I think this cartoon illustrates your point nicely.

  26. Clark on September 11, 2006 at 2:01 am

    TrailerTrash (#20) In any case, for whatever reason the French linguistic turn has had a much greater impact in America on other fields outside of philosophy, such as literature, historiography, and religion.

    I think one problem with most American philosophy has been its relevance. It has been so focused on narrow problems that outside of a few fields (i.e. linguistics, AI, computer science, cognitive science) it just isn’t well known. Part of that is, I think, trendiness. (I tend to see literature guided as much by trends and popularity as anything) Some simply make obvious sense (i.e. the influence of Continental thought on theology given the dim view of religion held by most analytic philosophers until late)

    However to say that the French are more influential on American scholarship seems rather loaded if one considers scholarship to primarily be a certain class of the humanities. In the sciences it’s all much closer to analytic philosophy.

    DKL (#19) Clark, I don’t think that it makes much sense to claim that because an analogy is especially apt, it is unintentional.

    Yes, but analogous in what sense? It seems one can take the analogy as one that is apt and one that is not. Given that the apt form of the analogy goes against your oft stated philosophical stances I figured I’d be charitable and make it unintentional. (grin)

    DKL (#22) Are you responding to the concepts I discuss or just to a few keywords I use?

    I have but access to the words.

    DKL (#22) You seem to simply elaborate on the kind of critique implied by Jonathan Green without seeming to realize that a critique of that position has been authored.

    I read and reread my post to try and figure out what you were referring to. But I couldn’t find it. You were critiquing the view of analytic philosophy as focusing on artificial languages. I suggested that was primarily an issue of times past. (Well, I suppose one could always bring up Tarski) To me what is characteristic of the analytic philosophy I read is a focus on natural language. I look and looked but I fear I just can’t see any expansion of Johnathan’s argument by me.

    It’s true one could argue that analysis of natural language leads to “artificial languages.” I suppose some of the work in AI during the 60′s and 70′s would be a great example. Maybe even Chomsky’s stuff would. I’m not sure I’d agree (well outside of some of the naive AI stuff – but I don’t consider that characteristic of analytic philosophy)

  27. Clark on September 11, 2006 at 2:05 am

    Mark, (#21), for the record I don’t see Derrida as that original. However he’s been influential to a point. (The point where all the folks in the humanities who adopted him uncritically and didn’t bother reading or coming to grips with the sources one needs to understand him – he’s horribly abused)

    I’m not sure I see Ockham as avoiding the issues. But then I confess I have only the generally “received” version of him. I don’t really know his views on being for instance. Nor the details of his semiotics. However to the degree Ockham was a conceptualist and privileged such I think he was wrong.

  28. Mark Butler on September 11, 2006 at 2:54 am

    Clark, I don’t think I said Ockham avoided anything, but rather that Ockham’s philosophy was neglected because of its association with the theological crackup of the fifteenth century, almost two hundred years later. By the time the Reformation was under way, virtually everything done for the past millennium or so was liable to be scorned upon by anybody in Protestant circles, and from the other side, Ockham was long disrespected for coming out against the Pope on the issue of ecclesiastical poverty, as well as being a forerunner of the Protestant schism in the first place, sometimes even counted as “the first Protestant”.

    Theologically speaking, that is very much the case – the great weakness of the whole line of Christian thought from Ambrose on was reducing God to an impersonal abstraction – the God of the philosophers. The medieval conceptualists Abelard and Ockham and others offered a way out of this narrow abstraction by demonstrating properly that Christian theology did not need to rest on the metaphysics of Plato or Aristotle, emphasizing the ethics of a personal relationship with God above a collection of atemporal laws and forms.

    And though their successors could never make theological sense of a temporally omnipotent God (perhaps because there is no sense to be had in their particular conception), the change in theology was profound, creating a class of theologians who together went on to form the basis of the Protestant Reformation – and of course many of Protestantism’s both peculiar strengths and weaknesses relative to traditional Catholicism.

    One example is due to the belief in divine discretion (and hence skepticism about the rigorous time-independent validity of natural law), Protestant areas far lagged behind Catholic countries in the field of physics for centuries. But this weakness must be weighed against the fact that in politics and the social sciences the Protestant areas made far greater, more stable, and lasting advances than any of the Catholic areas, which had a tendency to view the ancien regime as some sort of Platonic ideal.

    So in response to J. Green’s query, I should say that simple ideas about terms and concepts can indeed have far reaching and often fatal consequences in history, consequences far more serious than an ill-advised war here or hasty intervention there. On the shoulders of prophets and philosophers the fate of centuries often rests.

  29. Clark on September 11, 2006 at 12:54 pm

    OK, that makes a bit more sense although I’m clearly still pretty skeptical about conceptualism.

  30. Mark Butler on September 11, 2006 at 4:51 pm

    I will say that any conceptualism must be realist (i.e. foundationalist) about something to make any sort of sense. Conceptualism without foundationalism is pretty much indistiguishable from radically subjective idealism, which I think is perverse in the worst possible way.

    Conceptualism also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in a world without free will, because without free will all concepts, (including natural concepts) would be accidental, and that is worse than Platonic realism. But with free will (e.g. divine creativity, the ability to make concepts manifest in nature, not by rewriting natural law, but by implementing patterns, orders, and systems roughly speaking) a well founded conceptualism is a wonderful thing – in my opinion about the only metaphysics that can properly support Judeo-Christian theology, and LDS theology in particular.

    I do not see how a temporally powerful, loving, feeling or embodied God, or even a divine concert can have anything to do with Truth (as in my Word is Truth) except foundationalist conceptualism in a world of libertarian free will (or something very much like it) be actually the case.

    The problem about the God of the philosophers is that he was all powerful once, and now he has left the building, and become literally impotent. I tend to look upon any Platonic realism in the same fashion – coming dangerously close to Deism – a God who is not allowed to do anything.

    Of course the opposite, subjective idealism and also much of what passes for contemporary nominalism is even worse – theories that generally discount the idea of Truth (especially moral truths) completely, which is another way of denying the existence of God. Not just a temporal loving, intervening God, but any God at all, not even the God of the philosophers. That is why I count at as one of the worst, if not the worst, idea in the history of Western Civilization. If we took it seriously, we would have no ideals, no religion, and no civilization at all.

  31. DKL on September 12, 2006 at 3:54 pm

    Jonathon, steal away. It’s not like if you gave me credit, anybody within earshot would know who I am anyway.

    Clark, I’m saying two things, which I’m happy to restate:

    First, there is a sense in which the moment that you begin to identify general characteristics of language, you begin creating an artificial language; viz., an artificial language that fits the scope of those generalizations.

    Second, any theoretical system at all is an artificial language. Indeed, one can conceive of physics or geometry as a set of semantic and syntactical rules for using language. For example, the principle that mass is conserved creates an artificial constraint on the kind of language it’s appropriate to use to describe the transformations of matter, no different from the artificial “double negative” rule imposed within most binary logic systems.

    To the preceding summar/restatement, I’ll add the following conclusion: These two factors above are, in broad outline, why I think that it’s fruitless to talk about artificial language as something special, as something uniquely reductive. Nor have artificial languages fallen by the wayside. Most philosophers just don’t get the role that they play, and they pretend to be more interested in artificial languages that masquerade as something else.

  32. Craig V. on September 12, 2006 at 7:03 pm

    One disanalogy it seems to me is that linguistic conventions are based on use and usefulness, whereas we tend to think religious beliefs have a more intimate connection with truth or falsity (as some have alluded to above). If someone points out that in classic Greek a double negative is used for emphasis, we don’t then discuss whether or not the Greeks got it right. Raising such a question seems like a misunderstanding.

    I’m not sure I find the distinction between artificial and natural language all that helpful. Most languages (or at least the users of the language) reach a point where it becomes useful for the language to describe itself. To do this, the language usually needs to be enriched somewhat. ‘Artificial’ seems to me to be a misleading term to describe the result. Perhaps we should talk of specialized languages.

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