How Do We Know What We Know?

From a letter written the day after a visit with a friend, June of '93, reprinted by permission. A few caveats to the reader (please don't say I didn't warn you!): (1) This is dense going, originally written to a close friend who had known for years where my head was at, and so I was able to "pull out all the stops." (2) This was pretty much written off the cuff, quotes and citations loosely reproduced from memory as my fingers flew over the keyboard. It is no doubt replete with misquotes, unfacts, and malinterpretations. (3) And I'm sure there's something here to offend everyone!

Sitting here on a Tuesday morning, feeling well, but am not going to push it today, so as to avoid a relapse. The mechanic reports that my transmission is a total loss. Mixmaster City once again. My initial estimates prove to be roughly correct. As Kurt Vonnegut would put it, "And so it goes."

My brain was not fully in gear yesterday, but (as usual) you have set me thinking. Thought I would try to sketch for you, in somewhat fuller detail, my thinking r.e. inclusive language, "correct" grammar, how usage and meaning grow and develop, etc.

Or, to be P.C. about it, how I am "differently informed" about language, as contrasted with those who are "temporarily informed"!

(1) I assume that all human being and human knowing ineluctibly involves adopting some kind of perspective. There is a cluster here of densely interrelated, but not fully interchangeable, concepts: perspective, judgment, the will, Aristotle's phronesis, practical action, responsibility, commitment, purposiveness, intentionality, goal-orientation, Kierkegaard's "leap of faith," logical propositions (not to be confused with linguistic propositions: see Husserl's phenomenology), etc.

On a superficial level, this is simply a corollary of the fact that we are finite rather than infinite; hence, we can embrace only so much at once. We can never embrace the totality of being. Only God can do that. (Note my divergence from pan[en]theism: "Only God can do that," not "Only God can be that.") As philosopher John Searle has put it, any list of what we are embracing automatically creates a dichotomy between those items on the list, and those items not on the list. This state of affairs is in itself merely an aspect of what Barth (CD III.3) called the "negative side" of creation. Hence in itself it is good. Of course, with the Fall, we seek out all sorts of ways to use this essential creaturely limitation for purposes of evil.

(The mystic tries to escape this limitation by an across-the-board suspension of all listmaking, hence also of all dichotomizing. A dubious enterprise, to say the least.)

But on a deeper level, the fact that all being and knowing entails a perspective (entails judging or willing) is a reflection of our creation in the image of the triune God. Note the Augustinian vestigium trinitatis of being, knowing, and willing. Our being bound to a finite perspective is the creaturely reflection of the Holy Spirit's continual surpassing and infinite transcending of all perspectives and all boundedness. In technical language, the mode of origin of the Holy Spirit is distinguished from those of the Father and the Son by the fact that the Spirit is "unsurpassed," that is, the Spirit is processed from the Father through the Son, but the Spirit himself processes no persons of the Godhead.

(Pace Robert Jensen, The Triune Identity, I would maintain that the unsurpassedness of the Spirit is logically derivable from the five "notions" of trinitarian theology, namely unoriginateness, paternity, filiation, spiration, and procession, and does not in itself constitute an independent trinitarian notion. Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica Ia Q. 32 Art. 3 Obj. 4.)

(2) Hence I assume that we always, by our very nature, adopt, and are bound to adopt, some kind of perspective; but this does not mean to me that "everything is political." The political is a fairly narrow logical determination of the human. In fact, the political is a further logical determination of the God-given "orders of preservation," which would include the state; the family; the cult (at least, outside Judaism and Christianity, where the cult is replaced, at first provisionally and then definitively, by an order which partakes of the new creation); etc.

Again, we can make both relatively more superficial and relatively deeper statements regarding the role of the political in human affairs.

On a more superficial level... As a determination of human existence, the political may indeed be ubiquitous in human affairs-- formally speaking. But it is in some situations much more prominent, and in other situations present only formally or vestigially. As Peirce once remarked, "According to Hegel, you have not adequately considered an entity until you have considered the sum total of its relationships with every other entity in the universe; but the relationships, say, between every atom in the pen with which I am now writing, and every point on the coastline of China, though a set of real relationships, is of no pragmatic import whatsoever, and so according to pragmaticist criteria does not have to be taken into account for any practical purpose."

Contra the left, I would hold that the presence of the political in our lives is, at least in some contexts, of precisely this sort: i.e., perhaps formally present, but in a way that is of no pragmatic import.

Sneezing is not a political act. Neither is watching a robin in the elm tree in your back yard. Neither, in most cases, is a taste for science fiction novels-- except in the trivial sense that time spent reading Heinlein is time that could otherwise have been spent marching with a protest sign on a picket line. But by that standard, anything is "political," anything is "sexual," anything is "literary," anything is "nutritional," anything is "pinochle," anything is "fill in the blank with whatever you think it ought to be instead."

Another analogy: technically, every body in the universe exerts some real gravitational pull on every other body in the universe. In the introduction to a book of tide tables, it might be interesting to point out that, technically, the planet Pluto exerts some microscopic influence on the tides. But one would have to be crazy to take into account, in the actual calculation of the tide tables, anything beyond the local coastal geography, and the gravitation of earth, sun, and moon. It is just this sort of Plutonian craziness that is involved in asserting that "everything is political."

On a deeper level, willing or judging or adopting a perspective is logically subsequent to knowing, just as knowing is logically subsequent to being. (To be precise: being and knowing can be prescinded from willing, just as being can be prescinded from knowing.) Of course, being and knowing are acted out only through willing, just as being is articulated only through knowing. The Father is unoriginate, begotten of none and proceeding from none. The Son is begotten of the Father, but proceeds from none. The Spirit neither begets nor processes, but proceeds from the Father through the Son. To grant boundedness of perspective the kind of all-devouring priority implied in the claim that "everything is [significantly] political," we would have to disavow the claim that being and knowing are logically prior to willing. Theologically, this seems to correlate with Montanism, with the enthusiasm of the schwärmer, if not with some kind of pneumatomonism.

Of course, historically, the priority of willing over both knowing and being is explicitly and variously affirmed by modern thinkers such as Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, and Sartre. But as Sidney Hook once put it, in order to assert that "everything is political," you have to expand the meaning of "the political" until "the political" becomes a virtual synonym for "the ontological." Or, what amounts to the same thing, pitch ontology out the window altogether, and set up as a usurper on its vacant throne the Triumph of the Will.

Modern history has shown us that this is one possible road to take. But I decline to take it, both for the reasons outlined above, and because modern history has also shown us that this road leads inevitably to Auschwitz and the Gulag.

I do concede Marx one point, and one point only: the political is significantly present in human existence to a greater degree than Western thought prior to the nineteenth century had realized. And the West's ignorance on this point was far from innocent: it was in part what Tertullian calls a "willing ignorance." The ignorance of Cain, who blithely claims "I am not my brother's keeper," while in truth the blood of Abel cries out from the earth for vengeance.

But that is a far cry from admitting that "everything is political." The claim that "everything is political" belongs, in the final analysis, neither to Cain nor to Abel, but to Lamech and his ungodly prefiguration of our Lord's "seventy times seven."

(3) I assume that all human practices, including language, gender roles, etc., are "socially constructed." A classic sociology text which closely parallels my own thinking on this point would be Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality. (Berger draws out the implications of this work for the sociology of religion in another book entitled The Sacred Canopy, which you have probably read.)

Hence I assert a fairly radical form of cultural relativism. In fact, it is more radical than the kind of cultural relativism espoused by the left, which always tacitly excepts from its relativizing prescriptions the perspective of relativism. I hold relativism itself to be "culturally relative," hence only one possible perspective among many. This is the conceptual move which Berger calls "relativizing the relativizers." Its practical upshot is that not even relativism can be more than relatively asserted-- contra Hegel's dictum that "you have not grasped the absolute truth until you have grasped the fact that all truth is relative." We must concede, as a real possibility, that we really live in an absolute world, even if everything in the world appears to us merely relative.

I would hold that, in fact, God is an absolutist, and so are the angels. It is also possible for us validly to become absolutists, although no merely epistemological moves will suffice. (Put otherwise: the dispute between absolutism and relativism is essentially irresoluble on empirical grounds alone.) What is required is an act of the will, the adoption of an appropriate set of perspectives.

Such stances are communally pre-given to human societies in the protological "orders of preservation." From one society to another, these stances are subject to indefinite variation in outward form. These stances are very hardy, but they can be-- and, in modern times, have been-- largely demolished through "close encounters" of culture with culture, as well as through corporate acts of hubris. This catastrophe is the communal analogue to Ricoeur's fall from a first naïveté to critical consciousness, and it is the cultural disaster which Nietzsche was trying to diagnose and remedy under his rubric of "God is dead."

It is a commonplace, going back at least to Plato, that the path of relativism is always a self-annihilating Möbius strip. All truth is relative, except that of the relativist. All psychology is psychologically determined, except that of Freud. All thought processes are biologically or behaviorally determined, except those of Darwin or Skinner. All social theories are determined by socioeconomic forces, except that of Marx. And this self-serving relativist exceptionalism of the modern age is no more innocent than the willful blindness of Cain which preceded it.

Liberalism originally embraced relativism as a peaceful alternative to a Yugoslavia of contending absolutisms. But to paraphrase von Clausewitz: "Relativism is merely the continuation of absolutism by other means."

Against such a backdrop, when we "relativize the relativizers," and thereby readmit the real possibility of absolute truth even in this world of impenetrably relativist appearances, we are making a move analogous to Ricoeur's move from critical consciousness to a second naïveté. The semiotic logic behind such a move can be displayed in terms of Gregory Bateson's notion of pragmatic paradox, and the shift to a paradigm of higher logical order which is necessary in order to break out of pragmatic paradox.

But the problem is that this shift is far easier said than done. As Nietzsche realized, the solution to the "death of God" must be something along the lines of positing a new culture within a cultural hard vacuum, creating new cultural values ex nihilo. But how in the world can we do that?

How in the world can the human spirit, hovering over the face of the deep in a world that has become formless and void, create ex nihilo?

That is the $64,000 question.

Nietzsche recommended a triumph of the will, to be accomplished with the coming of the superman. Earlier, the romanticists had recommended a triumph of the imagination. Or one might recommend the triumph of the state (Hegel), or of history (Marx), or of science (Comte), or of biology (Darwin), or of self-understanding individualistically interpreted (Freud).

From a Christian perspective however, such a move to a second naïveté, a "relativizing of the relativizers," a re-creation ex nihilo, can be accomplished only through the same Word through whom all things were originally created ex nihilo. Only through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Only by grace.

The modern age begins in Descartes' "I think, therefore I am," and ends in Al R.'s "I think, therefore... (dot, dot, dot)"

The shift of perspectives, the way out, occurs only via Pascal's "From half past ten at night to half past midnight... Fire... the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not the God of the philosophers..."

(4) So I assume that all human practices, including language, gender roles, etc., are socially constructed. But I do not assume that they are merely socially constructed. Everything human is a sign, ultimately of God, but also penultimately of nature as well. (Here's where Brunner comes in!) Human practices are social constructs, but also at the same time "constructs of nature," that is to say they are semiotically determined in the long run of interpretation as real representations of nature, at least insofar as human sin and demonic forces do not block them from becoming such "constructs of nature."

So everything human is socially constructed. There is nothing human which is not socially constructed. But by the same token, there is nothing human which is merely socially constructed. Everything human is both socially constructed and, at the same time, an expression of nature. What the Greeks called phusis, the Romans natura, the Egyptians maat, the Hebrews 'emeth, the Hindus rta, and the Chinese the Tao, is an objective ontic reality "in, with, and under" the thoroughgoing and seamless "social construction of reality." Of course, this nature is visible only to the eye of a first or second naïveté. The perspective of critical consciousness will systematically filter it out, just as surely as a pair of rose glasses will filter any distinctive redness out of the world.

But, as has long been realized, "nature" is a remarkably slippery and protean concept. Is nature the Order of Being, "the way things are"? Or is nature a Righteous Law, "the way things ought to be"? Or is nature an Ideal beheld through a shimmering veil in a dream, "the way things appear"?

That is, is nature more closely akin to truth, or to goodness, or to beauty? Any attempt to provide a well-focused answer lands us in complications and problems without end.

Nature is solid, like bedrock. Yet nature can be flouted, transcended as if on wings of flight. And yet to rise above nature is to meet what the Greeks called nemesis-- to risk, like Icarus, a fatal meteoric plunge into the sea.

The ancient Romans captured something of this ambiguity in a proverb: "Nature, expelled with a pitchfork, ever returns."

We will not give an adequate account of human language unless we take this ambiguity seriously.

(Theologically, the above can be summed up by saying that the human being is a real sign, ultimately and transcendently, of the one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and also at the same time, penultimately and immanently, of created nature which is the beautiful, the true, and the good.)

(5) Thus I assume that language is capable of truthfully representing both natural knowledge of creation, and revealed knowledge of the Creator.

The capacity for the latter knowledge is rendered an actuality in faith through grace.

The former knowledge is given in the "orders of preservation," though with a titanic effort it can be utterly demolished. And I do mean utterly-- even the simple, empirical knowledge conveyed by statements such as, "the green book is lying on the table," could in principle be eclipsed beneath Nietzsche's "death of God." Our culture has not yet attained that extreme. Isolated individuals who have scouted out that frontier, we label psychotic, just as isolated individuals in the Middle Ages were (often rightly) branded heretics and apostates. Today, apostasy is endemic. The day after tomorrow, with Satan's prompting, even simple empirical statements may, for the masses, be evacuated of existential substance. Words will no longer signify.

(You think I exaggerate. Yet consider the social and linguistic impact, over the past hundred years, of the mass media, and especially television. Now ponder the potential impact of, say, virtual reality. Virtual reality directly interfaced with the human brain, and indistinguishable from-- perhaps even richer and more intense than-- the phenomenal reality of the human sensorium. Science fiction today, true. But today's science fiction is tomorrow's Nintendo.)

As I mentioned yesterday, even under the best of intentions, inclusive language is almost always more abstract and impersonal than the alternatives. Draw your own conclusions.

Such is language in its apocalyptic cross-section.

(6) Yet language also participates in the "orders of preservation." As Augustine observed, the linguistic fragmentation of perspectives under Babel is a merciful protection against what would otherwise be a totalitarian potential inscribed in the very syntactics of human language. As it is, to employ language for totalitarian purposes, we must ascend at least to the level of semantics. And in order to be really effective, we must ascend to the pragmatics of language-- an ancient art which has been greatly refined in the past two hundred years.

Thus the protological dimension of language accounts, even today, for most of what we call the "grammar" of language, as contrasted with its semantics and rhetoric. As David S. once put it to me, you can coin new nouns and verbs and adjectives, but not new conjunctions or prepositions or pronouns. Or at least, maybe in Esperanto, but not in any natural language.

Language and grammar, as historical phenomena, do change over time. But their change takes place largely on what Peirce called the "tychastic" dimension of history, the level of random events which add up and accumulate like snowflakes which fall and swirl into a snowdrift.

Tychasm, anancasm, agapasm: the Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness of history. "Agapasm" is what you or I would call linear history, history directed by a personal God toward a rational telos, history with a purpose. "Anancasm" is what we would designate as circular history, history that runs by blind impersonal laws, the eternal return of all things, "the heavenly spheres forever rolling along in the leaden grooves of change." "Tychasm" we might dub stochastic history: snowdrift history, history as statistical report on the dance of Lucretian atoms, history as random action, rock crystal accumulating into feathery fractals, a tale full of sound and fury pecked out by a monkey at a typewriter, signifying-- not exactly nothing, but only an information-theoretical traffic level a few minimal quanta above white noise.

Stochastic, circular, linear: John Cage, player piano, and Beethoven. As you know, I would maintain that each of these three levels of history is real, and that they are mutually irreducible. I would argue that they are interrelated prescissively. That is, linear history logically presupposes circular and stochastic history, just as circular history presupposes stochastic history. But the stochastic and circular dimensions of history come to expression, and are bound together, only in and through linear history. That is to say, teleologically all three forms of history are governed by, and find their end in, what we think of as linear history. But they do so without denying the independence and integrity of cyclical and stochastic history.

In theological terms, I would affirm the reality of divine providence, of natural law scientifically conceived, and of something like Boethius' rota fortunae. (Yes, I know that drives you crazy!) God's providence does ultimately govern both scientific law and the wheel of fortune, but without compromising the integrity of, or subsuming, either of them.

This situation bears indirectly on the threefold "ambiguity of nature," to which I alluded above. To put it much too briefly... Feminism takes very seriously the social constructedness of things. Feminism takes not at all seriously the everywhere co-present condition of things as a "construct of nature." And it is largely on the level of stochastic history, history as accumulating snowdrift, that naturam expellas furca tamen usque recurret.

Anyhow. To get at last to the point. I would maintain that the historical development and change of language takes place largely within the stochastic dimension of history. My arguments for this would closely parallel those of Cassirer in his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, vol. I, entitled Language. Or see Langer's account of the evolution and acquisition of language in her Philosophy in a New Key. Or Huizinga's account of language and ritual in Homo Ludens. Key contention: the human capacity for language is closely linked with the human disposition toward play, toward self-contained sportive or "ludic" behavior.

As my old Russian professor once answered to a question of "why" a certain point of Russian grammar is the way it is, "With the grammar of a language, it's meaningless to ask why it's this way instead of that. It simply is. All you can do is describe the grammar, at each step in the history of a language."

As any competent linguist will inform you, grammar is not a matter of "thou shalt's" and "thou shalt not's." Regardless of what they may have taught you in school. Grammar is purely a descriptive, not a prescriptive, discipline. The grammar of a language is simply however that language actually is spoken by native speakers-- from the level of the regional dialect down to the level of each individual's idiolect. The grammar of a language is not a study of how a language ought to be spoken, for the very simple reason that linguists can account nonreductively for all the grammatical and linguistic features of a language without recourse to any such superfluous assumptions.

One might as well invoke sylphs and wood nymphs in the field of botany.

So the grammar of a language largely belongs to the stochastic dimension of history. Not altogether, of course. Grimm's Law, in phonology, is anancastic. The irregular and deliberate substitution of initial lamedh for yodh in the imperfect of the verb "to be" in Aramaic, to avoid assonance with the Divine Name, is a rare but clear example of the agapastic or linear-historical dimension of grammar.

But by and large, the syntactics of language, like Topsy, "just grew."

Feminism, like most left thought, denies this, and searches in the grammar of language for deep, dark conspiracies à la Oliver Stone and JFK. Of course, as with JFK's (and now RFK's) assassination, conspiracies are always there to be found, for those who have eyes to see. Which is not at all the same as saying that the conspiracies are actually there.

Paul Watzlawick introduces an interesting threefold categorization of how we read phenomena in the world around us. Do we read these phenomena as communication, disinformation, or confusion? Clearly Watzlawick's trichotomy correlates with the Peircean trichotomy of agapasm, anancasm, tychasm; i.e., with linear, circular, and stochastic history.

Western thought, until the modern age, has tended to see even at the level of syntactics some sort of communication. Witness the correlation of various phonemes with definite meanings in Plato's Cratylus. Witness gematria. Witness anagrams, which have not always been taken simply as entertaining word games. Witness a Hebrew grammar in my possession, printed in 1768, which provides an account of the inward meaning of each of the twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet, as if Hebrew were like those a priori artificial philosophical languages so popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, intended to encode in the very phonetic structure of words a natural taxonomy of being. Such an idea was also current, in classical Islamic culture, regarding the triliteral roots in Arabic. (Given the way words are put together in Semitic tongues, such a misconception is somewhat more intelligible than with European languages...)

I don't want to say that there is absolutely nothing to such ideas. But I think there is next to nothing to them. Slip, slop, slope, slide, slick, sloop, sling: Plato's original idea seems to have something to it. But I wouldn't want to rest much weight on it. That way lies gematria, and Plutonian craziness.

Feminism, like much of leftist thinking, tends to see at the level of syntactics some sort of cabalistic disinformation. I tend to see in syntactics little more than the stochastic white noise of Watzlawick's "confusion." By now, you perceive that my disagreement with feminism on this point is not just a crotchet, but an integral part of a rather densely thought-out view of language, history, human existence, trinitarian theology, and the kitchen sink. My preference has less to do with being "differently informed," and more to do with Occam's razor.

Simply put, I find the whole feminist paradigm on "sexist language," at least at the syntactic level, replete with linguistic entia multiplicata præter necessitatem. I would find leftist assumptions regarding conspiracies "encoded" in the grammar of a language, even less plausible than gematria, and searches for the "real" signification of 666. Why? Because, operating out of a second naïveté, I find critical consciousness even less plausible than I do a first naïveté. Having "relativized the relativizers," I find relativism even less plausible than I do plain-and-simple absolutism.

(7) I find much more rationale for the idea of disinformation woven into language at the level of semantics. Witness terms such as "n*gger." Only at the level of semantics does the distinction between truth and falsehood become meaningful. (Syntactics, in its arationality and amorality, is more like aesthetics, which is simply logically prior to criteria of truth and falsity, or good and evil.)

Purely semantic lies, like wooden clubs and eight-pound brickbats ("Sticks and stones..."), can wreak untold human havoc, but they always have about them the crude air of graffiti spray-painted on a brick wall. Semantic lies may be demonic, but in a manner distinctly subpersonal; they seldom rise to the caped and plume-hatted suavity of the mephistophelean. Their name is Legion, but they are incapable of orchestrating social phenomena much more subtle or sophisticated than a Gadarene stampede. Their blunt force is usually incantatory; it only rarely extends to the truly faustean. Still, dead is dead.

For the faustean proper, which leads to the death not just of the body but of body and soul, we have to proceed to the level of pragmatics, where we open a veritable Fibber McGee's closet of language and "the flowers of evil." Here lies the level of communication which, in its perversion, serves a Hitler or a Stalin. Orwellian doublespeak: "slavery is freedom, war is peace, ignorance is strength." The stifling ideological claustrophobia of Rubashov's prison cell, the interrogations under a bright light at three in the morning, and his eventual willing self-betrayal in the name of the Party, at his show trial, in Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. "We spoke to you of freedom, but our tongues stammered and barked. We claimed to bring you liberation, but in our hands it felt like a whip." "Heads I win, tails you lose," shouted point-blank through a deafening bullhorn at gunpoint. As Chairman Mao once put it, "Truth grows out of the barrel of a gun." With some help from the Little Red Book, a self-described "spiritual atom bomb of infinite power."

At this level, in a state of creation as God created the world and saw that it was good, all our cards would be out on the table and face up. Everything could be directly related, at least teleogically, to agapasm, to linear history, to divine and human purpose, to Watzlawick's reading of phenomena as personal communication. But this is also the level most insidiously and most diabolically affected by the fall, because pragmatics is the level which gives the greatest scope for the free exercise of the human will. An adequate treatment of the pragmatics of human language would require a book, and would be far denser than what has gone before.

Most of my disagreements here with feminists and/or leftists would be not linguistic, but political and ethical. Do we take up machine guns not at all, or in the name of Christ, or in the name of Caesar? I think take them up we sometimes must, but only in the name of Caesar; and then, only as part of the "orders of preservation." Whereas the leftist who starts out saying that we must take up machine guns not at all, usually ends up saying (often without even pausing to shift gears) that we must take up machine guns in the name of the Revolution, or Utopia, or some such secular analog to the kingdom of God.

What I find interesting is the self-blindess of those who can pass without hiccup from unconditional pacifism to unconditional megadeaths. This is a phenomenon which could never transpire, except on the level of the pragmatics of language. See also Albert Camus, The Rebel.

Well, enough. You get the idea. All for now.

Logorrheatically yours,

(s) Paul