Must We Know What We Say?

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  • Must We Know What We Say?Author(s): Leon Andrew ImmermanReviewed work(s):Source: Religious Studies, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Sep., 1979), pp. 265-280Published by: Cambridge University PressStable URL: .Accessed: 12/09/2012 19:17

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  • Rel. Stud. 15, pp. 265-280

    LEON ANDREW IMMERMAN Professor of Religion, Princeton University


    'You cannot satisfactorily explain the meaning of your religious utterances; if you cannot explain the meaning, you don't know it; and if you, the speaker, don't know it, how could it exist?'

    So runs, in schematic form, the typical challenge to the meaningfulness of religious language. The assumption that, on pain of uttering nonsense, we

    must know what we are saying, is so deeply ingrained that more often than not it is left tacit. Yet it is an assumption which religious thinkers may well want to deny, on the grounds that the meaning of religious language must - like God himself- remain partially hidden to us, at least during our sojourn in this world. To confess in this manner our inability fully to comprehend religious language is not to deny - is, in fact, to presuppose - that it has a

    meaning (of which we are incompletely aware). An unknown meaning is a meaning all the same.

    I believe that until recently the philosophical underpinnings of such a religious response have been lacking. I hope to show that recent work on

    meaning and reference has made available a foundation for the logical possibility of this response.

    The main thesis of this paper is that religious language might have more meaning than typical speakers are aware of. A subsidiary thesis is that this partial ignorance would not necessarily interfere with the fundamental purposes for which religious language is used. Section I presents a general thesis in the philosophy of language which, in Section ii, we apply to the special case of talk about God. Section iII suggests that there is something about religion which makes the abstract possibilities imagined in Section II worth taking seriously as an account of the actual use of religious language.


    It is often thought that the meaning of a predicate is something which determines reference or extension.' If two predicates have the same meaning, they have the same extension. 'Bachelor' and 'unmarried adult male' are the stock examples of synonymous terms. Difference in extension implies difference in meaning. How would one argue against the synonymity of

    ' The views expressed in this section derive from the work of Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam, and others. See Kripke, 'Naming and Necessity', Semantics of Natural Language, ed. Donald Davidson and Gilbert Harman (Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Co., I972), pp. 3I4-23; Putnam, 'Meaning and Reference', Naming, Necessity, and Natural Kinds, ed. Stephen P. Schwartz (Ithaca: Cornell

    University Press, 1977), pp. I I9-32; Putnam, 'The Meaning of "Meaning"', Language, Mind, and

    0034-4125/79/2828-2620 $01.50 ? 1979 Cambridge University Press I0 RES 15

  • 266 LEON ANDREW IMMERMAN 'bachelor' with 'unmarried adult male'? Most likely by showing that the class of objects falling under one description differs from the class picked out by the other - that is, by demonstrating that there are bachelors who are not unmarried adult males, or unmarried adult males who cannot rightly be called bachelors. We think it quite clear that since 'book' and 'dog' are true of different sets of objects, the terms do not have the same meaning.

    Another commonly held assumption is that meaning is somehow 'in the head' of the individual using the terms. 'Bachelor' and 'unmarried adult male' have the same meaning for me because my concept of the two is the same. The divergence in meaning between 'book' and 'dog' (as I use these terms) is grounded in my knowledge of the difference between books and dogs.'

    These two assumptions, coupled with religious doctrines stressing God's radical otherness, make plausible the conclusion that religious language is somehow deficient in meaning. If God is totally transcendent, it is hard to see how a finite and fallen human being could so conceptualize his goodness,

    wisdom, power, etc., that the terms expressing these properties would be true of God. But if God's properties cannot be adequately conceptualized, can an extension-determining meaning be in our heads? And if meanings, if they are anywhere, are in our heads, how can there be any meaning at all to the divine predicates?

    Hilary Putnam has attempted to show that one or the other of these assumptions about meaning has to be abandoned: there is no consistent concept which satisfies both. Like Putnam, I prefer to abandon the assump tion that meanings are in the head, and to retain the notion that meaning determines extension.2 However, the crucial point for me is that at least one of the assumptions is false; it matters little which of the two is renounced.

    Our argument will be that the divine predicates can have a meaning even if we have no concept which determines that God is in the extension of the predicates.

    Let us imagine the case of an individual, Jones, whose idiolect includes the terms 'elm' and 'beech'. With both terms Jones associates the same concept.

    Knowledge: Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, volume viI, ed. Keith Gunderson (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1975), pp. 131-93. The Schwartz anthology (Naming, Necessity, and Natural Kinds) contains a good bibliography. Kripke and Putnam differ on

    many points, and my treatment of the topic in some respects diverges from either of theirs. However, it is too cumbersome to indicate all points of agreement and disagreement.

    1 The assumption that meaning is in the head has come under concerted attack by philosophers in the Wittgensteinian tradition. But it should be clear that the attack developed in this paper is along quite different lines from the Wittgensteinian ones. A few contrasts between Putnam and

    Wittgensteinians are drawn by Robert Hollinger, 'Natural Kinds, Family Resemblances, and Conceptual Change', The Personalist 55 (I974), pp. 323-33. See also Eddy Zemach, 'Putnam's Theory On the Reference of Substance Terms', The Journal of Philosophy 73 (1976), pp. 124-27. Zemach believes that Putnam's hypothesis of the 'division of linguistic labor' is not a challenge to

    Wittgensteinian views of reference. 2 See Putnam, 'Meaning and Reference', op. cit. pp. I I9-24, and 'The Meaning of "Meaning"',

    op. cit. pp. 134-44.


    Jones believes each term to denote a species of deciduous tree. Indeed, he believes that the species so denoted are distinct from one another. However, he knows nothing which would enable him to make the distinction. Our claim is that the poverty ofJones' individual conceptual resources is consistent with his using the terms to refer to distinct species, provided he receives a sort of linguistic public assistance.

    Suppose that Jones has acquired the term 'elm' by reading in a newspaper that many Minneapolis elms are dying of Dutch elm disease. Remarks like 'it's a pity about the Minneapolis elms' are soon on his lips. His ability to refer to elms, and not to refer simultaneously to beeches, is borrowed from the newspaper reporter.

    In the ordinary course of events, one acquires the term 'elm' from a speaker who possesses the ability to say something to the effect of: 'Elms are

    whatever have the same nature as that', where, upon uttering 'that' the speaker ostensively picks out an elm. (Non-circularity is best served by the assumption that the present reader and writer both associate differentiating concepts with 'elm' and 'beech'.) The speaker from whom one learns 'elm' stands in an appropriate sort of relation to a particular elm, and intends 'elm' to refer to anything of the same natural kind as that elm.

    If the person from whom one learned 'elm' did not enjoy such a relation to elms, then perhaps it was the person from whom he learned the term, or the person from whom the person from whom... The point is that ultimately in the social-linguistic chain will be found a person who can justly claim such a relation to elms. Jones borrows the term 'elm' from whoever occupies this link in the social-linguistic chain leading to his own use of the term.

    And when he borrows the term, he uses it with the same reference as did the original 'owner'. Persons occupying the pivotal positions in the language community for certain words I will call 'guarantors' of the meaning of those words.

    Note that there might conceivably be different persons serving as guaran tors of ' elm' and 'beech' for Jones. In principle, there need be no one in the community who associates differentiating concepts with 'elm' and 'beech'. (Suppose that through some bizarre fluke Jones is the first person in the community to have acquired both 'elm' and 'beech'; everyone else has at

    most one of these terms in his vocabulary.) Indeed, the entire notion of 'differentiating concepts' may be misplaced

    here. If 'elm' is a natural kind term, it is at least as important that the guarantor stand in a real, nonconceptual relation to elms as that he have accurate concepts of elms. (The notion of a natural kind term is explained somewhat more fully below.)

    Jones does realize that 'elm' refers to elms, whereas 'beech' refers to those other sorts of things, i.e., beeches. So Jones does associate a different concept with each word, doesn't he? The problem is whether this difference



    in concept, such as it is, can account for the difference in reference. Jones tries to explain the difference in reference: 'I use the world "elm", unlike the word "beech", to refer to elms; and it is part of my concept of elms that they, in contrast to beeches, are referred to by "elm".'

    But what does Jones mean by the italicized word 'elms'? His only recourse, I think, is to urge that elms are what 'elm' refers to. And this seems to make his attempted differentiation between 'elm' and 'beech' transparently circular. It is as if he had said: 'The word " elm ", unlike the word " beech", refers to whatever the word "elm" refers to.' But without an independent account of what 'elm' refers to, there is no assurance that 'whatever the

    word "elm" refers to' does not include beeches. No assurance within the concept, that is. What is needed to guarantee that 'elm' has no beeches in its extension is the presence of appropriate social links.

    But perhaps Jones has other conceptual distinctions up his sleeve. Maybe he associates with 'elm' the concept: kind of tree that is dying in Minneapolis of Dutch elm disease, a kind distinct from beeches, and which I read about in a newspaper. But imagine Jones to have forgotten that the elms were in

    Minneapolis, that he read about them in a newspaper, and that it was Dutch elm disease killing them. In that case, Jones might still want to say

    ' elms are dying somewhere', but he would not have a distinguishing concept for elms - Jones surely believes that beeches are dying somewhere too. It seems to me that what makes Jones' utterance about elms, not beeches, is that the utterance was prompted by the half-forgotten article on elms.

    But this suggests another trick for Jones: ' Elms are trees of the kind which I heard was dying; and hearing this now prompts my use of "elm".' If we allow this much to Jones, he does have a concept to distinguish elms from beeches. But two points need to be made.

    First, for a concept of this sort to do the trick, Jones must be related to other members of his community, members who can make 'primary' references to elms. It is a conceptual difference that differentiates only on condition that Jones stand in an appropriate relation to the person from whom he received the term 'elm', and that this person stood in an appro priate relation to elms (or stood in an appropriate relation to someone who stood in an appropriate relation to elms, or . . .

    Second, if conceptual differences of this sort can suffice to determine divergent extensions for the associated words, difficulties surrounding the divine predicates can be cleared up in a similar manner. Our problem was

    that it seemed impossible, given a certain theological picture, for believers to have adequately extension-determining concepts associated with the divine predicates. The core idea in Section ii below will be that possibly, e.g., 'good', applies to God in the sense in which it does because the believer stands in an appropriate relation to God and intends to use the word in the sense in which God understands it. God perhaps needs to know the meaning


    of the terms, or to stand -in some 'primary referring' relation to himself, but the believer does not. If concepts like 'the property God associates with the word "good" when this word is applied to him' figure into the believer's conceptual resources, then there should be no problem in conceptualizing the sense in which 'good' is true of God. But such a concept, to do its referential or denotative job, presupposes what Putnam calls a 'division of linguistic labor' - in our case, a division of linguistic labour between believer and God. The believer presumably has an overriding intention to use the terms in the sense God would find correct, an intention that would overrule his intention to use the term in the sense he himself would find correct.

    Many believers would of course hold that their own understanding of the sense corresponded to the sense understood by God. My point is that a non idolatrous believer would be willing to let his own understanding be overruled by God's, in case of a conflict between the two.

    'Elm' and 'beech' seem to be natural kind terms; and the hypothesis I have been sketching has developed out of a consideration of such terms. But with some modifications the same considerations apply to what might be dubbed 'descriptive predicates'. This is important since it is unclear whether theological predicates are closer to natural kind or to descriptive terms.

    By 'natural kind term' I mean essentially what Paul Teller has in mind by 'special general term'. Teller, however, reserves the expression 'natural kind term' for a subset of the special g...


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