Posts Tagged ‘language’

This post is an attempt to draw out some of my implicit beliefs on the nature of reality. My main sources are my experience of the world, which consists in an ever-developing and reveloping, exveloping and enveloping faith in the God of Jesus to whom the Bible attests; my piecemeal reading of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Buber, all of whom in their irreducibly individual ways helped me see the validity of individual experience as a scientific category and all sciences as experiential categories; and every blessed contribution, intentional or no, from the conversations I’ve participated in in person, on the Internet, or passively through reading Wikipedia articles and book reviews on Amazon. I have not read the relevant literature, something which is neither to be celebrated nor can it be avoided.

The nature of language and comprehension is often highlighted in discussing the limits of our ability to interpret the world around us. We might say that (A) I have my own thoughts, which (B) I write up in a blog post, and then (C) my audiences interpret according to their own categories. Effectively, everyone is perpetually misunderstood. Between A and B I need to translate my metarational, metalinguistic experience of an idea into the rational, linguistic vernacular. Already something of the idea is lost because it is translated into that which is not the idea. At the most basic level, A is related to B but not identical to it. The “same” happens between B and C. A static text is comprehended in different ways by different people according to their histories of experiencing various words, word combinations, genres, etc. No one comprehension of an “etc” is the same. They are all related in that we could say a similar comprehension is happening, wherever it happens, but everyone interprets their “etc”s in the context of their history of having read “etc”s and the various places in which those “etc”s have appeared. To comprehend an “etc” is to call to mind a whole history of comprehension in which other “etc”s have occurred.

This is simple and indisputable. But it is too simple. For example, A, B, and C do not exist as discrete stages, instances, etc. This is an interpretation of a common occurrence. But it does not take into account (1) what takes place before A and after C, (2) the further infinite divisions between A, B, and C, and (3) the connections, sameness, and basic unity of the instances A, B, and C. I have deliberately posited another three with which to engage to hint to the ultimate arbitrarity of isolating anything. 1 is patent. The origin of a text stretches infinitely before an author and continues infinitely after them. There is no need here for recourse to a deterministic understanding of cause and effect, nor even a linear one. Regardless of the truth of such understandings, here we can at least see that A-B-C, in whatever way, is fundamentally related to that which occurs, exists, etc, outside of A-B-C so that our identification of A-B-C is again arbitrary. 2 follows the same insight. If we can isolate A, B, and C, then we can isolate say Ai, Aii, and Aiii — maybe three discrete thoughts which contribute to an idea. We can also say that every moment, which again is just an interpretation and does not exist, destroys the unity of the thing so that a text is not the same in one moment as it is the next moment because it occurs in an infinitely different world. Nonetheless, this discretion is infinite. This leads easily to 3, which requires a clarification of infinity. 3 means not only that A-B-C take place in a wider, “infinite,” context, but that their basic discretion, and the discretion of “parts” within A, B, and C, threatens the truth that they constitute a single whole (within a whole). “Infinity” is thus invoked to underscore the paradoxical (?) nature of unity and distinction with reference to any thing. Everything is related to another thing. There is something common they share, which might be called being because they all be. They are thus finitely related. But because no thing which we identify is the same, all things take place in infinity ((in)finity?). That is, all difference is infinite difference.

Moreover, all difference manifests in identity and all identity manifests in difference. In light of the foregoing, this, to me, appears paradoxical. We might ask what the relationship between the categories of identity and difference is — what identity do they share? However, we would soon find that whatever identities these categories, and the infinite particularities and generalities which they represent, share, these identities are compromised by difference. The uncovered fossil in the dormancies of deep earth is infinitely different from the “same” fossil which it is three seconds later. It occurs in time, a time in which everything is constantly changing so that, despite the fossil’s basic sameness its relation to every around it, including that of which it is made up, consists in infinite difference. Conversely, we might ask what the distinction between the categories of identity and difference is. But we would soon find that there is too much the same between the fossil and itself, the fossil and itself a year ago, a century ago, centuries ago, its infinite past in the food it ate and the genes it shared, and its infinite future in the renewal of all being. Identity and difference thus become two opposed categories with which we need to make reference to understand the infinity of being.

At this point, this affirmation and denial must be transferred to human interpretation. Our interpretation of the world is an interpretation. Numbers do not exist. They arise from our wonder, fear, greed, and love for the world, among infinite other things. Other species probably have their own use of some kind of numbers or meta-numbers but that should be no surprise because we share a common origin with them and a common world. Yet, numbers and every interpretation exists. Everything is true in the sense that every interpretation of the world arises within the world, as a product of the world, and in response to the world. The world is such that it responds to itself. Even falsities must be affirmed as truths because they are true insofar as they are related to that which they falsely attest and perform particular functions in the world. To say that human beings are faster than cheetahs is to, while obviously untrue according to the whole, affirm the truth of the concept “human beings,” “faster than” and “cheetahs.” To say the opposite, while obviously true according to the whole, is to rely on the false concepts of “human beings,” “faster than,” and “cheetahs.” Which human beings, which cheetahs? Which measure of speed and which definition of speed does this rely on? Such a statement inevitably excludes the whole world in which they categories take place and open-endedness of all categories, however stubborn they may be. It is true then, but only in the sense that it functions in a particular context, a function it will never be able to fulfil “perfectly,” that is with complete, one-sided identity, because such perfection does not exist. Numbers are true in this sense, then, that they make reference to the world (i.e., themselves), in a particular way and fulfill a particular function in the world (again in relation to themselves), but are utterly false and depraved in the sense that they attempt to swallow all being in one humanistic, hubristic movement which purports to attest to the eternal unalterable “truths” of the world. Yet they are also completely true in that they arise in response to particularities in the world.

That’s all for now. I need to get back to study and this post is probably more for my own benefit than for others’. These are thoughts which are still developing and ones I would like to explore further when I have time.

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Conservative pronunciation and spelling have both communicative and cultural value. We adhere to a linguistic contract on the common sounds and symbols we use to communicate, and these nuances indicate a rich history, among other things. But the same rules apply for a more liberal approach to language. Distinct forms of English literacy are required to communicate in parts of the English speaking world, and these forms clearly have a cultural value; they give the users an opportunity to express themselves beyond whatever baggage their inherited symbols and sounds carry.


Last week I was involved in a holiday programme with round about 10-12 year-olds. I’m no linguist and this sample is not formally indicative of the whole of which it is a part, but it was nonetheless worthwhile to confirm some of the suspicions I had about the changing face of New Zealand English through some informal observations.

(1) The notorious ə (schwa) sound in New Zealand English, in the oft imitated ‘fish and chips’, seems to me to be becoming ‘worse’ or further away from the ɪ in the received pronunciation. The closest sound I could find to represent this sound’s New Year’s resolution was the ʌ, which if you look at the vowel graph you will see makes sense as a natural progression from the standard and the schwa. Australia might be heading in the opposite direction.

(2) Recalling conversations with Italian friends speaking English, I was impressed with the clean i in their pronunciation of words like ‘me’ or ‘lean’. But New Zealand is joining Australia. We’ve turned to dirty diphthongs (two vowel sounds in one, dirty or no). We put less squeeze on this sound and pronounce it more casually. Kiwis I hear saying ‘me’ tend towards ‘may’ but not identically. My guess is it looks something like əɪ in the ipa but I can’t find a sound file to back it up.

(3) Finally two separate but related vowels appear to be naturally progressing further from their British foremothers. These are the ɛ in ‘bad’ and my favourite New Zealand e, shared with South Africa, in ‘bed’. If you listen carefully to your kiwi friends, you might find some taking an intermediary step between ɛ and e when pronouncing ‘bad’ and suchlike, possibly this, but I don’t have magic ears so I’m making the call based on where the sound is situated on Wikipedia’s graph. e, in an attempt to escape ɛ’s bold invasion of privacy has been moving closer towards the aforementioned i (I have suffered this straw-man when other people carelessly attempt to mock my accent), but as another intermediary sound, if there is one, contra Wikipedia, or alternatively towards the schwa. Don’t ask me.

Language changes. Don’t just embrace it but be yourself a destructive-creative force in the world of words! Die Sprache sprict!

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Hey friends, it’s nice returning to WordPress after being ‘away’ for a short while. In this away time I managed to have a little holiday, arrive back in Aotearoa, write a third of a novel (which is indefinitely stowed away somewhere on my personal internets for future completion), apply for bible college in March, read some more and then spend this last week playing far too many games. On a ‘more personal note’, I’m still recovering from a decisive dip in faith some readers will have picked up in the posts last year, a kind of Nietzschean ressentiment, creating truths to revenge myself against existence. Many of my thoughts still stand; I just hope now to express them with more grace and humility, not so much to tear things down, which is the easy and boring thing to do, but to focus on upbuilding, on actually say something. The purpose of this post is a kind of preparatory for my course this year. Ideally it would be beautifully referenced, demonstrating my wide reading on the subject and attempt to answer all the appropriate questions and reservations. Yet this is not so. See it as a kind of journal, something intended for self-reflection, but in this case happenchanced upon by others.

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Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

(1 Corinthians 1:20-25 NRSV).

Theology is the study of God. If you want to narrow that down then you can have a g/God, or the point of access to God, like good Christians will tell you that Jesus is the starting point for theology. Alternatively, you can have a specific focus, ecclesiology, the study of the Church, which is rooted in theology, etc. You could also give theology a wider application by saying something like the study metaphysics, that which is beyond the ‘physical’¹. That’s theology, or at least my sloppy definition of it. What, then, does it look like?


“If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with truth.” — Dostoevsky

Some time ago on a jaunt through Wikiquote I discovered this awesome statement. It raises many questions. Why would you want something other than the truth? Does a good Christian not accept Christ as truth anyway? What does Christ have above the truth? Some beautiful deception? Having not read the context in which this quote appears, the best thing I can do is to possibly misunderstand Dostoevsky by taking his word for it. So what does ‘his word’ mean to me? Here truth operates within the circle of reason and language; Christ operates in a circle beside that. Language, composed of words, structures and myriad other complex nuances, signifies reality/experience and all that is contained within it (this includes what is only contained in it as a possibility, like absolute zero).  Reason can be the manipulation of ideas expressed in language (although there also exists a pre-linguistic reason, coming to conclusions without reference to language, not even an internal one²). The problem then with reason and its position in language is that it signifies; it is not identical to the reality it expresses.

Be careful not to misunderstand me. This is not traditional apophatic theology: our corrupted reason cannot express or think God (although I accept this in another time and place). Nor is this philosophy’s equivalent: How do we know that what we know is true? This is only to assign reason and language to their proper places within experience. It is a redistribution of wealth. As Heidegger says of Descartes, the doubting subject is not the centre of epistemology (method of knowledge), yet it is not absent from it. The doubting subject is not the source of epistemology but only a mode of it. We are thrown into the world before we make sense of it. This is the next point: although language is not identical to that which it expresses, it still expresses it. There is definitely some identificating going on. This, then, is the correct place of language and reason: A part of the whole, one site in reality where the rest of experience can be conveniently bottlenecked.

Note that this applies also to my description of language and reason. A mutiny is occurring at this moment. I cannot assume some metalanguage with which I deal with language, etc. What I can do though is to point somewhere with this contradiction in an attempt to distract the reader. Imagine a politician speaking to a large crowd and attempting to convince them of a certain ideology. Just when the speaker is reaching the crux of their argument, the crowd, as one, suddenly turns and leaves. There is no one left. The speaker may continue but their words will not be received. Or consider rehearsing words in your head for an upcoming job interview, but a Taylor Swift song comes on the radio and you can’t ignore it. The rehearsal sinks out of sight. This is the critique of reason, not with reason itself, but a force from the outside. I will acknowledge that my examples full short because they only exist in the language I am using here rather as actualities. This gap will always be present when speaking of such examples. All I can say is that if you want to take me up on this one I can just disable commenting on the post.

Language is one mode of epistemology. There are infinite others³, such as joy. I ‘know’ something about reality through the extent, variety, etc of joy I experience. Joy as a mode and the knowledge gained from it both exist pre-linguistically. If I am joyful semi-regularly then I experience the world with joy before I can translate that it into words and ideas. Maybe my experience is accompanied by words and ideas. This does not negate pre-linguistic joy as a mode of knowing but only shows it occurs beside our most linguistically recognisable mode, language.

If you’ve still energy after that little excursion then follow me back to the issue at hand, Jesus, who is theology. Jesus is intermodal. I want to avoid saying he is a particular mode because he appears in many modes (you could possibly say the same about joy and language). He is not confined to reason and therefore cannot be ‘reached’ through reason alone. He could possibly be reached without reason, but this would require a strict definition of reason and exceptional circumstances which I have no mind to express. Saying this is akin to saying it’ useless waiting for snow in the middle of Australia but it is possible we could still reach snow if we were somewhere else. Enter Dostoevsky’s Christ. This is the elusive ‘If’ with which Dostoevsky introduces the statement. Now reason is not an end, nor a meaningful end to an end. Reason can only be contributory, the ‘If not’. If Christ is not outside truth then I can reasonably say that this blog post can contribute to myself and others ‘reaching’ Jesus (or, as a good Christian would say, contribute to a medium for Jesus reaching us). As Peter Rollins writes,

a person may “believe” that they are utterly safe in a roller coaster and yet be too terrified to ever step onto one. The point is that the conscious claim (I am rational and know that this is safe) is a mere story that covers over the operative belief (I will not be safe). — Still my favourite, accessed here.

Jesus appears in our beliefs only if they have operative value. A person who practises prayer but often doubts its value believes in it more than a person who merely affirms it intellectually. Or Kierkegaard, “Even if one were able to render the whole content of faith into conceptual form, it would not follow that one had grasped faith”. That appears on banner of my blog. For me it sums up not only Kierkegaard but theology. A cute argument is not the site of God. Jesus exists not in saying “The watch must have a watchmaker”. He was a carpenter. Sound theology will always exist not in the abstract, the beautiful sermon or the journal article of intellectual depth alone, but in the lives of those who practise it. If I am to do theology it be in the open air, rather than in a vacuum. Theology encompasses more than the use of reason and language. A true theologian conforms to the character of Christ and takes part in the Kingdom of God4.

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sisterin need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

(1John 3:16-18 NRSV).

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¹Physical literally meaning soul-like. Is the irony intended? That metaphysics is defined as that beyond the metaphysical? Maybe metamaterial (metasomatic?) would be better, but perhaps I’m missing the history involved in this coinage.

²This, of course, is a very lazy definition of reason. Linguistic and pre-linguistic reason are only relatively, not absolutely, distinct: The latter will make use of some non-linguistic signification as it needs to signify reality in some way in order to operate within, which therefore makes it linguistic, as language signifies. Linguistic signification must also depend on the non-linguistic for it to make sense to the subject, ie. we are distinct from the language we use. Therefore when I speak of two kinds of reason, I speak as a good relativist, of two different poles.

³’Language’ is a convenient way of naming a mode but in reality it will be composed of infinite infinitesimal parts which are also modes, the same going for any other examples I give.

4I must also anticipate here any Pentecostal ‘amen’. Reason, thinking, theology as mental education, writing books for Jesus, etc — these are not bad. They just need to be situated in their appropriate context.

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In my yet tiny survey of continental philosophy I’ve now and again encountered the dichotomy of possibility and necessity. A corrupt definition may be something like possibility being that which could be and necessity being that which must be. But notice my imposition of time onto the definition, even if I change tense. Maybe there’s a simple definition of possibility and necessity that goes beyond something which could have or must have been. Notice also that could be and must be can be used in reference to present or future? But there are further imperfections in the choice of language. To say that something must be is not pure necessity; there is a tinge of possibility in the word must. Pure necessity is better represented by is. Something that is is much more necessary than something that must be, and with that the shortcomings of necessity as a word are also exposed: The purest necessity actually is actuality, because something that is actual is ironically more necessary than something that is necessary.

But here also time confuses things. Is only makes sense in English when used in the present. To describe something necessary in the future we can say that it will be, but we have no designation for actuality in the future. This is probably because our conception of time doesn’t allow for actuality in the future. The future by definition, in referring to something that will be, necessitates that something to not be presently. For example, to say that Terminator II is an awesome movie and it will still be awesome in the future requires us to differentiate between present awesome and future awesome, although they may be qualitatively identical. Because there is a future for the awesomeness of Terminator II to not yet be means that presently Terminator II is not future-awesome, but only present-awesome. Time has required awesomeness to make reference to it, a kind of acknowledging of the sponsors. Terminator II is always awesome. If something is, then it always is.

Even simply prefixing is with always, however, makes it impotent. Always, though expressing it means there is no operating exception, necessitates the possibility of an exception. To say something always is is to defend it against the accusation of sometimes-not-is, sometime-past-not-is (not-was-is) and sometime-future-not-is (not-will-be-is). The only half-satisfactory word for actuality in English is is, and it must be expressed without qualifiers, in its pure isness.

This kind of thinking has probably led some theologies to conclude that God is outside of time. Take for example this verse from the psalms:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

(Psalm 90:1-2 NIV).

The psalmist contrasts their human conception of temporal linearity (Before the mountains were born) with a transcendent conception of God (you are God). God’s actuality cannot be diminished by any idea of past, present, future, yet his actuality, his isness, is poetically intertwined with our understanding of time.

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Actuality is purest necessity. What is pure possibility? Possibility I have found to be a much harder concept than necessity. It requires a much more violent overhaul of language than a definition of pure necessity. If we can constrain must be by naming it is, what can we do to free could? There is some necessity in saying that you could be a closet appreciator of geraniums. The necessity exists in another possibility: In postulating your abominable appreciation of geraniums I make reference to the possibility that you are indifferent to them, or better, despise them. These examples might be more comprehensible with numbers. Say there is a 0.98 probability/possibility that you could appreciate geraniums. The other 0.02 denotes the infinite number of ways in which you couldn’t. To say could recognises this other possibility, the 0.02, as a necessity which holds it back from being pure possibility. Notice how probability restricts us from understanding pure possibility. To say either there is a 1 or a 0 probability that you enjoy geraniums is to lean very heavily into actuality. At both ends of the scale of possibility there is only actuality.

There exists no opposite of is. Something can not-is, be non-existent, but non-existence is a form of actuality. There is no freedom in is, nor is there in not-is. Does the lack of a kind of superlative for could indicate a lack of imagination on part of the English language? Can we imagine a condition of complete freedom, or is our freedom always understood in reference to that which is not free?

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