Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Linguistic Turn in Philosophy and the Trinity

One of the more interesting developments in recent philosophy is the so-called "linguistic turn."  Much like Kant's Copernican revolution (which recognized that the structures of human subjectivity serve as a filter on reality), the linguistic turn has come to recognize that our consciousness is fundamentally filtered through language.  Beginning with the Structuralists and moving to the post-Structuralist, it has come to be observed that there is no inherent relationship between our words about the world and the world itself.  We cannot look behind our words and see the world in itself.  When we begin to examine our words and their relationship to the world, then we simply use more words and therefore are simply examining them and not the world in itself.  For post-Structuralists in particular, this leads to the belief that there is only rhetoric about the world and no real world represented by our language.  Reality is in itself a vast grey that is distorted by our reifying use of language.  At worst, philosophers have argued that all language is simply a tool of oppression meant to force people into certain categories of being so that they might be controlled and manipulated.  To say the least, such a view destroys any ability to talk about real knowledge or truth.  It leads to pure nihilism.

Among those who maintain the old Modernist faith (progressive history, scientific realism, atheism or deism, liberal theory of polity, etc.) the primary argument for the realism of language has been evolutionary.  If the structures of our cognition function on the basis of language, and if those structures are intended to be evolutionarily adaptable to the environment, wouldn't it make sense that our language would give us true beliefs about the world?  This was primarily the argument of Karl Popper and some of the other Analytic philosophers (I believe A. J. Ayres used this one).  Nevertheless, as Alvin Plantinga has pointed out, the best evolutionary theory could give us would be the certainty that language and cognition gave us adaptive beliefs, not true ones.  For example, random mutation might genetically predispose me to have false beliefs about Lions, but ones that nevertheless kept me away from them.  Since these false beliefs kept me away from Lions, I would live on and the genetic material which would dispose me to false yet adaptable beliefs, would also live on through my offspring.  For this reason, naturalism cannot actually lead to epistemological realism.

With the projects of 20th century philosophy in ruins beneath our feet, it would be my suggestion that it is only belief in the Triune God of the Bible which can give us a proper account of the unity of word and world.  As we have observed, if we center our epistemology on the basis of the human subject and their innate ability to cognitively and linguistically represent reality, then we will always fail.  We will always fail because centering knowledge in ourselves, we take upon ourselves the role of being the guarantor of the truthfulness of the structures of reality.  Nevertheless, this would mean that we in some odd sense were ourselves were the divine creators of these structures.  Only he who creates a thing can in fact guarantee it's truthfulness and trustworthiness.  From the perspective of the Biblical narrative, this insistence on our own competency in this regard is in fact a manifestation of our slavery to original sin.  We desire to take on God's role and this includes becoming the guarantor of the truthfulness of truth.

Then how should we precede?  The Trinitarian account of God's being states that God corresponds to himself and knows himself through his Word.  Insofar as his Word contains within itself what God eternally wills for his creatures (he knows what he wills and wills what he knows), he also knows all creatures through his own Word.  For this reason, God's eternal Word is the trustworthy basis of all reality.  In that he has created creatures in his own image, he has created them in such a way that they know themselves and other creatures through language.  Therefore, like the Triune God, humans know themselves and all creatures in a trust-worthy fashion through the word.  Therefore, the presupposition of having been created by the Triune God gives a proper and necessary account of how our words are able to mediate truth to us.

This truthfulness can only be guaranteed by an account of being built on the reality of the Triune God.  The Unitarian God of Islam and Judaism (or Deism), exists as a supreme and arbitrary will.  From his silent and distant throne, he my arbitrarily will as he pleases.  For this reason, there is no particular reason to believe that our knowledge is trustworthily represented through our word.  God may have arbitrarily willed the unity of the world and our word, or perhaps not.  By contrast, in that the Triune God by his very nature corresponds to himself truthfully through his Word (as do all his creatures), there is a necessary truthful unity between our word and the world.  In that we made in his image, we must necessarily enjoy the same unity our word and truth that God himself enjoys.  For God to set things up otherwise would be contrary to the very structure of his being.  It is of course possible that there could be a aporia between word and world could be introduced, but it would be a disruption of God's original good order (i.e. sin and its consequences).


  1. Dr.Kilcrease,

    Will this be similar to speach act theory applied to the Trinity? Ludwig Wittgenstein called ‘ordinary language philosophy’ the idea that the meaning of language depends on its actual use, rather than having an inherent meaning.


    1. "Every phenomenon of nature was a word,--the sign, symbol, and pledge of a new, secret, inexpressible but all the more fervent union, fellowship and communion of the divine energies and ideas. All that man heard at the beginning, saw with his eyes, looked upon, and his hands handled was a living word; for God was the word." ~J. G. Hamann

  2. Hi Matthew,

    I see. So it is not speech act theory but Hamann's theocentric linguistic theory rather than the anthropocentric linguistic theory of recent philosophy. Thanks.


  3. Yes, except "theocentric" should be "Christocentric". But I meant the comment to appear on the original post, though it works as a response to yours. :-)

  4. Dr. Jack,

    This bit you wrote caught my attention.

    “…it has come to be observed that there is no inherent relationship between our words about the world and the world itself…When we begin to examine our words and their relationship to the world, then we simply use more words and therefore are simply examining them and not the world in itself.”

    Later on, you suggest that only a belief in the Triune God of the Bible can give us a proper account of the unity of word and world.

    But here’s the part that seems kind of ironical to me. In your effort to answer the question, “Then how should we precede?” you end up using nothing but words. In fact, I don’t see how a Trinitarian account of God’s ‘being’ could be anything other than words.

    What I’m suggesting here is that if you buy into the idea that words have no relationship to the world, than… an intangible triune god necessarily continues to be just so many words.

    I don’t know about inherent relationships between our words about the world and the world itself, but I’m going to put myself in the camp (whatever label you find necessary to describe them) that thinks that words do indeed relate to the world, though I’ll concede that their accuracy of correspondence (or truthfulness) to the world will always be variable and approximate (we see through a glass darkly).

    The reason I think this is not because of evolutionary theory as you describe it (I’m anxious to find out how random mutations could genetically predispose you to have false beliefs about Lions) but because of my ability to perform simple experiments.

    I like your idea about adaptive beliefs, but I think we need to change our theatre of operations from evolutionary processes in genes, to evolutionary processes in memes.
    Memes, as defined by Wikipedia, are cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures. I like to think of Memes as the gift we receive from our evolutionarily derived big brains. Our cultures have come up with some very significant ideas that perhaps allow us to over-ride our genetic predispositions – you know, memes like God, or democracy or the Golden Rule. In any case, our cultures, perhaps a type of extended human phenotype, can be said to slowly evolve ideas over time, and some of those ideas may indeed be false beliefs about Lions.

    But here is the interesting part. Our false beliefs about Lions may, as you put it, keep us away from Lions. Or, our false beliefs about Lions may never be tested during the course of our lives. But over time, as Lions continue to sample careless theologians here and there, the surviving theologians will likely be the ones that have beliefs that are less false. That’s the adaptation part – a gradual winnowing of beliefs.

    Just the other day at a trailhead, I read a warning about a recent cougar sighting. The warning suggested that if I should encounter a cougar on the trail, I should make noise, appear as large as possible, be sure to include myself in a large group and under no circumstances run away. This is the best words our modern culture has come up with for dealing with cougars on local trails. And when I encounter a cougar, it will soon become evident if these should be false beliefs. Whether I survive the encounter with the cougar or not, I’d still call the results naturalistically derived epistemological realism.

  5. Scott,

    "What I’m suggesting here is that if you buy into the idea that words have no relationship to the world, than… an intangible triune god necessarily continues to be just so many words."

    Scott, the problem here is that you are treating my argument as if it is foundationalistic. It's not. My argument is anti-foundalistic. That's the whole point. There's no way of using our reason to look past language and verify that the Triune God really does coherently unite my words with the world.

    The point of the post is, that if you want to assert semantic realism and not be a nihilists, the only option is to take it on faith that the Triune God unites our words with real things in the world. You can say the opposite. Of course, that means 1. How you live your life (namely under the assumption that word and world are united) makes no sense, since you lack a God who creates word and world in harmony. 2. You must necessarily be a nihilist- since you logically can have no sense of morality. This again, cuts against how I suspect that you actually live your life.

    Ultimately though, you probably aren't willing to make these moves. So, logically you must accept a God who created the world by his Word. Otherwise acting as if there is real world, that you can really perceive- and also that's there's really morality doesn't make a lot of sense.

    Regarding your congar example, you again missed the point. I'm not claiming that one couldn't posit true beliefs on the basis of a naturalistic account of adaptation. Rather, my point is that you wouldn't necessarily get certainty of epistemic realism from that. Epistemic realism could be adaptable, but alternatives are just as adaptive. Hence, because the alternative could be equally the case, under a naturalistic worldview there's really no trusting our perception of reality. Therefore naturalism is irrational, as Plantinga notes.

  6. Dear Dr. Jack,

    I’m pretty sure I’m not consciously treating your argument as if it is foundationalistic…because I just had to look that word up. So, if by saying your argument is ‘anti-foundationalistic’ means you’re not a fan of ‘basic’ beliefs, then I’m O.K. with that. And if you’re saying, “There's no way of using our reason to look past language and verify that the Triune God really does coherently unite my words with the world.” (Which you did) then I’m O.K. with that too. But if you’re suggesting that there’s no way of using our reason to look past language, well…that’s where we’d start parting company.

    That cougar example (where I think you grant that one might begin to “…posit true beliefs on the basis of a naturalistic account of adaptation”) is, I think, the best we can do regarding knowing what is real, even if it isn’t ‘certain’. I think we both recognize that there is no good basis to trust our perceptions of reality (hence the double blind experiment), but nature is a harsh teacher, and we wouldn’t still be here if we failed all the tests. I think one glance at your bookshelf would remind you that some words are better descriptions of what is ‘real’ than others.

    I don’t see how abandoning reason and language in favor of faith in an abstract construct improves the situation. Indeed, in one of your previous responses you state, “Revelation is an explanatory model that works as a way of explaining why Theists can coherently claim Theistic beliefs. I AM NOT ADDRESSING WHETHER OR NOT THOSE REVELATIONS ARE TRUE (my emphasis).” I am not here trying to conflate faith with revelation (though I think faith is the only way one can accept revelation), I’m just questioning how it helps to add an improbable, and wholly language based supernatural entity to the problem of discerning what is real. It seems careful analysis of cougar encounters would be sufficient, the more encounters the better.

    I’ll try to express my objection in another way. How do you get around the problems of asserting an invisible God, when you recognize that “…there’s really no trusting our perception of reality,” and “…no way of using our reason to look past language.” It is one thing to proclaim (verbally) a god. It is another added-on thing to suggest/interpret/imagine a being that exists as a complicated trinity and it is yet another thing to endlessly postulate the fine nuances of such a relationship (have we also figured out yet how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?). I think it is even more problematical to do so if there is no cougar waiting for you at the end of the argument, no checks and balances so to speak (I suppose eternal damnation is a cougar of sorts, but considerably more imaginary and totally beyond the realm of knowing.)

    (to be continued)

  7. (continued from previous reply)

    My point here is not to make fun of God as if he was imaginary; it is just to be sure I point out that he very well could be imaginary in a paradigm in which knowing is based only on faith – and faith based only on academic philosophy exercises, tradition, and revelation, all of which spring from our boundlessly inventive and untrustworthy oral (word based) accounts. Obviously, I have my doubts about claiming what is real on account of faith. Equally evident is your distrust of materialism/naturalism. I continue to be mostly dumbstruck by these words expressed in your previous response (though I’ve slightly rearranged the order of the words, I believe I’ve retained the meaning), “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to act if there is a real world, that you can really perceive – and also that there’s really morality.”

    I keep reading that last sentence, and I keep wondering why I shouldn’t consider it dangerously crazy, but then to be fair to you, I realize you’ve predicated it on that bit about whether or not I accept a God who created the world by his Word. Well, fair enough. Given those constraints, I still feel compelled to say that regardless of what I believe about God, it makes perfect sense to act if there is a real world that I can really perceive – and also that there’s really morality. I’m not going to be able to name drop like you do – I don’t know Plantinga from Britney Spears. But:

    Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs,
    dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with
    the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
    to the same diseases, heal'd by the same means,
    warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer
    as a Christian is?

    When someone is hurting, when they cry in despair, or just silently endure…I can see that it is real.
    And if, because I have been in the past, treated with grace and justice by my human mother and father and perhaps even by friends…if I reach out and hold or comfort or contribute…if I help, if I support, if I sacrifice…
    Who knows, I may accidentally love.
    Even with the best intentions and the most careful plans, I may not do the right thing. But I think it is important to act regardless…to sin boldly.
    It makes sense to do so, even evolutionary sense.
    Even if there is no God.

  8. Scott-

    Thanks for the long response.

    Two points:

    1. Foundationalism is not just about basic beliefs. Specifically, Foundationalism presupposes that there are some basic beliefs which all knowledge is based on. These beliefs are indubitable and universal. In other words, any intelligent person would believe in them, if they thought about it- irrespective of culture or historical situation.

    When I said that I was not being foundationalistic, what I meant was that I was not claiming that the Triune God and my likeness to him were indubitable. In fact, as I said, if you want to deny the Triune God, I have no ability to tell you on the basis of a universal and timeless rationality that you cannot. My point is merely: if you don't want to be a nihilist, believe in the Triune God. In practice, no one wants to be and so I think this points to the superiority of the Christian metanarrative and its truth as the ground of all human existence. Nevertheless, I cannot prove this to you in a way that is somehow neutral, valueless, and timeless. If I could, I would be God (who is the only timeless and universal being) and not a human embeddedn in the orders of creation.

    2. Your argument about cogars and personal pain, and whatnot, is still basically missing the point because you are appealing to certain experiences as if they are unmediated and pre-linguistic. They're not and therefore saying that language and perception can be tested by "real experience" in the "real world" is not very helpful, since there is no such thing as bare and unmediated experience. Ultimately, you're really just appealing to mediated experience- and why should one mediated experience be able to test or falsify another mediated experience? It's absurd.

    The fact of the matter is that Jacobi and Hamman are right: all knowledge is based on faith. There's no such thing as pure and unmediated reason. There's no such thing as pure and unmediated experience. We trust that these things correspond to our world beyond the principle of language and culturally formed perception. Hence, even if you buy into reason and experience as the foundation of human knowledge, you still have to have faith in these things. There's no evidence you can muster in their favor, because hey, you'd be appealing to either the reason or experience as a way of establishing the validity of reason or experience. It's a circular argument.

    Before I met my wife, I used to date a woman who was a follower of Ayn Rand and she mocked the idea of faith. "A is A," and all that. And we were at a diner and I asked her to prove that the table existed. Well, that was the end of that.

  9. BTW, for those reader who are interested, much of my argument above mirrors that of John Milbank in the first essay in this collection:


  10. Dear Dr. Jack,

    If I had been your date at the diner, and you had asked me to prove the existence of the table, I would merely have waited for the waitress to set my plate down… and, upon verifying that it had not fallen into my lap, commenced eating.
    At least the waitress and I would have understood that the table is an object in space that has a tendency to persist through time (as measured in years). If required, the waitress and I could have measured the table, documented the table with photographs, taken x-rays, performed chemical analysis of samples, used it as a prop in a play … basically, interacted with the table via a broad panoply of testing methods, many of which could have recorded data about the table from realms far beyond what our human senses can directly comprehend.
    If this would not have been sufficient for you, owing to the mediation of all direct experience through our human senses (which unfortunately appears to be the way humans experience things) I would next have tried opening a can of tuna and placing its contents on the plate (the plate resting on the table) in hopes of attracting a cougar. Certainly if the cougar was able to stand on the table and consume the tuna, it would have gone a long way toward establishing the table in a pre-linguistic fashion… since cougars can’t talk.
    If by this point, you had not admitted that the table was real - if you had been unable to perceive its existence, I would probably have recognized that you were being willfully pedantic. However, if I was convinced that you sincerely continued to doubt the existence of the table, an object that the waitress, the cougar and I all experienced, I would certainly have grave doubts about the validity of your more esoteric theological and philosophical claims. If one can’t be sure of a table, how can one be sure of historical claims, anecdotes, and other information gained through 2nd hand reports and other various media (mediation twice removed), or even dare I say ‘revelation’ (a theologian’s device by which the realm of the real is superseded by that which is defined as explicitly not real and therefore immune to even mediated experience?) ?

  11. By now the cougar is taking a nap on the table top, basking in the sunlight streaming through the diner windows, occasionally burping slow, ponderous tuna burps. Does the table exist because the cougar has faith? If it does, it is faith with a little ‘f’. I’m not sure it would be right to say the cougar believes in the table. Presumably, from the point of view of a cougar, the table is nothing more than a strange rock, or an un-naturally square tree. Whatever the table turns out to be, it is enough for the cougar that ‘it’ reliably supports his weight whenever he has ventured to stand on it. It may be a risk for the cougar to assume that the table will continue to act like a table, but it is hard to know how much ‘risk analysis’ plays in a cougar’s daily cognitive activities. In regards to Homo sapiens, the more we learn about tables, the less using a table seems like a risk. In fact, it’s gotten to the point where I am willing to use tables almost every day…with little or no fear of spontaneous dematerialization.
    But to my continued consternation, you chuckle arrogantly and insist that all of us are appealing to mediated experience, “It’s absurd,” you crow, “You haven’t mustered any evidence!” Then you launch into a lengthy tirade about blah blah meta narratives blah blah logically superior blah blah circular reasoning blah blah well that’s the end of that!
    “Where does he get that stuff? the waitress asks, bewildered.
    “Well, he can’t get it from unmediated experience, cause he says that’s not possible, and if he got it from mediated experience, then I suppose it means his meta narrative isn’t any more real than this table.” I answer. “I suppose he could have just pulled it out of his…”
    “…assorted interactions with authority figures and cultural myths?” the waitress interjected.
    “Well, yes, I suppose that’s what he means by revelation.”
    “But don’t his objections to mediated experience make the comprehension of supernatural revelation problematical?”
    Personally, this question seems to me to be the crux of the problem for Dr. Jack. He asks what makes one mediated experience able to falsify another mediated experience as if they are all relative, but I don’t think they are. Some experiences, like the table, have evidence. But Dr. Jack isn’t listening to any of this. He stands up, visibly disgusted by my inability to doubt the table. He’s actually starting to walk away – ditching me.
    Well, it hurts to be abandoned and I don’t like it one bit. And not only is he ditching me, he has also had the nerve to reference an obscure but incredibly expensive collection of essays. In an emotional frenzy, tears springing from my eyes and not really knowing what I’m doing, I grab the back of Dr. Jack’s neck and slam his forehead onto the table top.

    (Silence for a moment.)

    Then a small, quiet, horrified voice from the waitress, “He’s dead, you killed him…”

    But to this day, the table is still there.

  12. "If I had been your date at the diner, and you had asked me to prove the existence of the table, I would merely have waited for the waitress to set my plate down"

    Scott, with statement like this one, it's clear that we're not on the same page. Namely, you seem unaware of the whole of post-Cartesian western philosophy. I'm not trying to be condescending, but I don't think that we can have a productive discussion unless you first familiarize yourself with a few sources. At minimum, first, I would suggest that you read Decartes' "Meditations." Then I would encourage you to read Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" or at minimum, the "Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics." The later is shorter and gives most of what is in the former. This will familiarize you with the problems in epistemology that I am raising and perhaps after that we can have a more productive discussion. Thanks and I look forward to our disucssions in the future!