Monday, January 4, 2010

Arguing about words with Atheists!

Video where Dillahunty Advocates "Linguistic Absolutism"

This is my letter to Matt Dillahunty of "The Atheist Experience". Above is a link to the video, where I believe Matt makes the argument of "Linguistic Absolutism" (somewhere around 14:00 in) which I disagree with. Let me know your ideas.

To Matt Dillahunty

A Critique of “Linguistic Absolutism”

What I wanted to write you about is something I have heard you say repeatedly on the show. You often argue that people need to stay within fixed boundaries linguistically. You find something particularly offensive when people begin to say “God is X, Y, Z, etc”. I am going to label this position an ideology of “Linguistic Absolutism”. I emphasize ideology, because the claim that one ought not use, in your understanding “wishy-washy words”, is a by-product of your ideological alignment towards “Scientific Rationalism”.

To me, this perspective is just inherently false. There is a long academic tradition of Linguistic history which argues the contrary. Language is not a static thing, but a transforming dialectical thing. To borrow concepts from Ferdinand Saussure, you are making the mistake of perceiving a concrete relationship between the “signifier” and the “signified”. There is not and cannot be an absolutist relationship between these things. What you push is a linguistic unitary imperative, which ignores the intrinsic centrifugal forces within language too. This idea of the “centripetal vs. the centrifugal” forces, present throughout the evolution of language, is elaborated by thinker Mikhail M. Bakhtin in his essay “Discourse in the Novel”.

To use Kantian terms, we say “words” do not represent things in themselves. Your “unitary imperative” necessarily implies this is false. Bakhtin explains the issue nicely:

A common unitary language is a system of linguistic norms. But these norms do not constitute an abstract imperative: they are rather the generative forces of linguistic life, forces that struggled to overcome the heteroglossia of language, forces that unite and centralize verbal-ideological thought... (emphasis added)

What I am observing is you are offering your own ideological thrust to the process of developing “linguistic norms”. The mistake I feel your making is imagining and proposing that there is indeed, an “abstract imperative” towards this unified language, which there is not. The unification is just the opposite coin of the chaos behind language. We can understand this on a simple grammatical level. Any given word is a construction of syllables. These syllables are distinct parts which are unified into a whole. So language at its most fundamental level is a “pure” act of interpretation.

It seems to me you either want to destroy poetic and metaphoric sense all together, or denigrate it to the position of something like an “imaginative result”, basically something akin to mental illness. I think this ignores the powerful poetic content of language and its force in our lives. This leads you to believe things are just stories, which ignores the word’s own power in shaping ideological thought.

The practical implication of all this is that even if you could somehow flip a switch right now and make everyone an atheist, using a very rigid and agreed upon scientific dialect. Still, it would remain near impossible to remove the spiritual, theistic, and religious foundations of language, which exist at the unconscious level. This is probably obvious to you in your life in innumerable ways. Literally it seems that we are unable to think outside the words of religion. It seems you want to fight this be appealing to a “Linguistic Absolutism”, but even if we could construct there is some imperative to adopt this strategy, it would never work because the two forces in language (centripetal vs. centrifugal) would always be present, evading meaning and interpretation. This ultimately leads to metaphoric, figurative language, being employed when defining religious and transcendental experiences.

To end by restating this all simply one more time, if someone says “I see god in everything” this statement should not be rejected on the ground that it conflates, and distorts, the words presented. As it merely is an attempt by the person to define their own concepts and language.

Work Referenced:

1.The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism”, pg 1198

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