Saturday, May 7, 2011

Do Words Exist?

Schizophrenia stretches beyond the bounds of modern psychology. It's spread throughout our culture like pepper corns on the table after whoops! you fumbled the cap and spilled the bottle--but not all of it. The modern mind is schizophrenic because it is both modern and postmodern, rational and irrational at the same time. A mind divided against itself cannot stand. It puts orange juice in the cheerios.

I've come across those who want to deny any transcendent meaning in ethics and morality, in religion, and also in linguistics. People deny any real meaning to words because they know that if they give in on that, they have to admit that there is meaning to our existence. If there is meaning to our existence, then there is a transcendence with which they must deal. If there is a transcendence with which they must deal, then they must get off their couches, stop playing video games, and actually do something for a real Person who will judge the living and the dead at the end of history. So, it's easiest to just say that words have no meaning.

The argument (by some) is that words are mere letters with spaces in between them. Words don't exist, but the letters and spaces do. Crazy, I know. But let's take an analogy for a second. Let's say, a car. Do you believe cars exist? Or do we describe cars by naming all 1,548 parts they have individually, saying they have connections (space) between them? No, you believe in cars. Cars are made of parts, and they constitute a whole. It's the same with words. Words are made up of parts (letters) and they constitute a whole.

Francis Schaeffer (Christian philosopher) was once said to have been teaching a class, and a student said, "Sir, I don't think we understand each other." Schaeffer tried explaining himself. A second time, the student said, "Sir, I don't think we understand each other." Again, Schaeffer tried. A third time (!), the student said, "Sir--"
"Give me some tea!" said Schaeffer. The student condescended. "There. I think we understand each other," said Schaeffer.

Now, if words are just "parts on a string," that don't exist, but are just made up of space and letters, what are we communicating with? Space and letters? Why not just call it a word? What's happening here is an atomistic imposition upon words, divvying them up into meaninglessness like beads on a string. It's like a beautiful garland but no little princess's neck to grace it. No, words exist, and they have meaning. To say otherwise is a contradiction.

Take the statement, "Words do not have meaning." Well, this is a universal statement, and it contains a predication. A predication is a philosophical term, but it can be understood grammatically as well. In fact, it must be. A predication uses a predicate, which is the part of a sentence that completes the subject's action. "In the beginning was the Word," (John 1:1), or "James is a great philosopher." In the latter, "James" is the subject and "is a great philosopher" modifies the subject, making it the predicate. So, the statement, "Words do not have meaning" contains predication, where the subject "words" is said to "not have meaning," (predicate). Now, a predication is a statement of fact, and a statement of fact has an epistemological import that carries the weight of an absolute idea which carries the purpose of making a statement of what is most certainly real. So, the statement, "Words do not have meaning" is a contradiction because by using predication, it declares the absence of something by means of that very thing which the statement purports to not exist, which is words. In other words, try the following statement: "I do not exist." Well, whom shall I say is asking?

Words are real, they have meaning and they have ontological status. Words are symbols, just like letters are (think: hieroglyphics, where one symbol meant an entire idea set). If words do not exist, then we are left in a cold, meaningless universe. But, we aren't in a cold meaningless universe. "In the beginning was the Word" say John the Apostle. Jesus says, "I tell you the truth: whoever hears my word and believes on him who sent me has eternal life, and will not be condemned. He has crossed over from death to life,"(John 5:44). That's a word you can count on. Take it to the bank!


Jeremy Kidder said...

Good post, I enjoyed the Schaffer story I had not heard that one before. Carson has one that he tells in 'The Gagging of God' about a class he taught that wasnopen to other seminaries. A female student began to try to explain tom him that she thought he was too caught up in modernistic positivism and had not fully taken into account his cultural baggage and lynguististic distance from Paul. Carson responded by intentionally missunderstanding her and tell the class that she had just made a wonderful argument about the intrinsic meanig of words and authorial intent. She then argrily unsisted that this was not what she was saying and made her point again. Again Carson responded to the class saying that it was wonderful that she was now adding emotion and irony tonher proof that authors did indeed have real meaning in what they said. They then proceeded to explode and call his some unable things to which he quietly said "But that is how I am reading you!". He writes that she sputtered out like a spent candle. He then told her "Ma'am, you are a deconstructionist and yet you are angry with me for separating what you meant from what you said. Thus you implicatly afirm authorial intent. I only ask that you pay the same cutacy to Paul."

chris van allsburg said...

Yes, I remember that story. Gagging of God should probably be on my "re-read" list.
Deconstruction is as old as the Garden.