The Matter of Meaning

What is meaning? How does it relate to language and reality? And how do we explain the power of language even when the message isn’t true or just?

Over the last two weeks we’ve been talking about the importance of the letter of the law aligning with the spirit of the law, and the importance of authorial intent and original context when interpreting texts. Two assumptions underlie these discussions. One is that meaning matters. The other is that language has power to convey meaning and even impact the world. Today we wrap this mini-series by looking more closely at these assumptions.

What Is Meaning?

How do we define meaning? A common definition says meaning is the connection between a symbol or sign that represents something, and the actual thing or concept being represented. For instance, if I’m talking about a table, the word “table” is the symbol or sign; it points to a conceptual representation of a table. That connection is the meaning of the word “table”. The word is not itself a table, and the meaning is not itself a table; the meaning connects the word to the idea of a table.

One way to think about meaning is as a chain that links two poles, or as a bridge that connects two sides. These images convey the sense that the things being connected are real and solidly grounded – that language is real and has power, and that it refers to concrete entities. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

Surprisingly, until the early 20th century Western philosophy didn’t pay much attention to language. That changed with the “linguistic turn”. Western philosophers across many strains or schools, like Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, instigated a shift in the importance philosophers gave to language. When that happened, unsurprisingly, modernists and postmodernists alike attempted to weaponize or undermine language according to their worldviews.

Modernists attempted to tie the legitimacy of language to an empirical definition of reality. In other words, only that which modernism considers real is what makes language meaningful. Conversely, being able to talk about something doesn’t mean that it exists or is real in a meaningful way. In this view, being able to talk about God or religion doesn’t make these things real. Going back to the illustration, the pole of language alone is insufficient to hang a chain, just like a bridge can’t lead to open waters. Language that refers to things that modernism doesn’t consider real is meaningless.

It’s ironic that this worldview has no issue using language to express this rather abstract belief and consider it true.

Postmodernism, on the other hand, extends its skepticism of reality to question the solidity of language. I can’t hang a chain from a starting pole (language) that’s weak; I can’t start building a bridge from a crumbling edge. Postmodernists challenged the stability and unambiguity of language, and with it the clarity and unambiguity of meaning.

This aligns best with textual deconstructionism, which is closely associated with French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Deconstructionism argues that words don’t have a deterministic meaning in themselves, but that their meaning is relative to that of other words. For instance, the meaning we give to “chain” is relative to the meanings of “link” or “rope.” In essence, a deconstructionist view of language makes it unstable, unreliable. The same text has a range or variety of meanings, owing to this “mushiness” of language. Authorial intent can’t be divined from a text. In this view, in fact, language is a tool of oppression, and questioning its stability is the key to liberation.

Of course, these are very logical conclusions for a worldview that ultimately questions reality, or at least our ability to discern it.

Power in Words

The thing, however, is that language has immense power. Language is able to not only capture reality, but also to shape it and even create it. This has constructive uses. The philosophy of language defines the idea of speech acts, words that not only communicate but, in some way, carry out an action and affect the world. Thus, a parent naming a child, or a priest declaring a couple married, are carrying out constructive acts through language, using words to materially affect reality.

Conversely, words can affect reality in a negative way. They can tear down or destroy. The conversation between Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass is an example of this. Remember his infamous quote? “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” At its mildest, this speaks to the ability to egotistically distort language in order to exert power, or simply to annoy.

A more sinister distortion of reality through language is political propaganda, a staple of totalitarianism. In literature, George Orwell masterfully satirized this in his novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four. The constructs and ideas that Orwell captured are worthy of study themselves, but our focus today is on the realities they point to. Totalitarianism leverages the power of language and meaning to redefine reality, usually in nefarious ways. This goes hand in hand with other hallmark (and pagan) traits of tyranny, like the cult of personality and the purported deity of rulers. I’ll note that this is not exclusive to political revolutions; cultural revolutions exhibit the same patterns.

One last example of the negative power of language is hate speech, a prominent concern in our society today.

In summary, unless you question the notion of reality, you probably understand and agree that meaning is not arbitrary. At a minimum, language is the tool through which we grasp and reason about reality. Furthermore, language can affect reality too.

The Biblical Explanation

Why is this so? Where does this come from? The biblical worldview considers this an effect of the way God created everything. In Genesis, we see that creation happened through God’s word. His word has power to create reality. This Word is also associated with order and structure. That’s the full meaning of the Greek word “logos,” used by the apostle John to refer to Jesus, God’s agent in creation.

God rested from creation on the seventh day because his work was complete. But ever since Adam was commanded to work the garden of Eden, humans have taken part in caring for, sustaining and evolving God’s creation – and this includes the ability to model and affect reality through language. To be clear, I’m not talking about certain trends involving the “decreeing” or “declaring” of things that you may have heard about. In my personal opinion, they are bad theology, stemming from incorrect biblical interpretation. What I’m saying is that God instilled human language with some measure of power over creation – similar, but separate, to God’s own creational power. And the power of human language, like everything else in this fallen creation, can be perverted for wrong, like propaganda and hate speech illustrate.

How is this useful? I leverage this doctrine in my daily life in at least three meaningful ways. First, when it comes to choosing my words. The Bible acknowledges the power of words, and speaks to the importance of choosing words that build up instead of tearing down. I strive to keep this in mind in all my interactions, whatever the context or the subject.

Second, I’m skeptical of forceful attempts to redefine language and meaning. Languages do evolve over time. It’s normal for the meaning of words to change gradually as societies evolve. Wittgenstein wasn’t entirely wrong when he said that the use of the word by a community is what gives it meaning. We do redefine things through consensus. For example, the modern meaning of the word “bully” is not what it was a century ago, when the expression “bully pulpit” was coined. However, attempts to radically redefine language usually involve some kind of revolution – an intentional attempt to alter the prevailing balance of power.

Last, and closely related, I’m very skeptical of attempts to question the connection between language and reality. Words matter. Definitions matter a lot. And I believe that anyone claiming otherwise is likely trying to distract, and hoping to pull off a redefinition in order to coerce reality through new or revised language.

In the biblical worldview, God created, ordered, and sustains reality through His word, and gave us a limited ability to do so as well. I’m thankful for that, and I hope and I pray that I’m always a good steward of this gift.

Published: July 18, 2021