Divided by a Common Language: A Philosophical Reflection

This philosophical reflection on language is written by Dr. Darren Slade, Research Director for FaithX and General Editor of our sponsored journal, Socio-Historical Exploration of Religion and Ministry. He regularly writes articles for the FaithXperimental blog, primarily curating relevant research as it is published and contributing articles for our FaithXperimental Spotlight series. 

However, in this blog Darren offers a different kind of article: philosophical reflection on how language itself can contribute to incivility in communication. His thesis: un-nuanced and lazy thinking — that words that so clearly carry one meaning for us must therefore carry the same meaning for others — makes it easy for us to condemn those who disagree with us without truly understanding the meaning they attach to what they are saying. He also offers some possible ways to avoid allowing our assumptions about our common language to divide us.

There is a deep divide in our country, and in many parts of the world, that continues unabated. As a civilization, we have become so polarized and so entrenched in our tribal ways of thinking that finding common ground (or even civility in dialogue) appears near impossible. But what if part of the problem has to do with our use of the English language? Is it possible that our method of speaking is, in fact, causing much of the divide in our culture? Here’s what I mean:  

I’d like you to take a moment and try a quick and easy “armchair” experiment. First, find a chair and sit down. Then, ask yourself a question: What is a “chair?” Yes, I’m serious, and no dictionaries allowed. Now, sit down and define a “chair.”

If you think about it long enough, you will begin to realize this simple task is actually very difficult to accomplish. For every definition you can think of, you  can find multiple examples that contradict it. For example, defining a chair as “something to sit on” would seem to suggest that a floor also qualifies as a chair. But that’s not right. A floor is not a chair, even if you can sit on it.

So you get more specific and define a chair as “something you sit on that has four legs.” But that’s not accurate, either. There are some chairs with only three legs. Bean bags can be chairs, and they have no legs at all. A dog has four legs, and you could sit on your dog (if your dog was big enough, that is), but that doesn’t make your dog a chair.

So why is it so difficult to define a chair!?! We all know what one is, right?

I first became aware of this particular example when I was doing research into the philosophy of art interpretation. I ended up attending a course on the philosophy of joke-making (yep, apparently that exists!). The professor  brought up this chair scenario only briefly and in passing, but it still stuck with me (unfortunately, it was the only thing that stuck with me because my jokes still fall flat today). But the scenario brings up an amazing dilemma that we human beings must endure because of our unique ability for syntactical and lexical verbal communication (this is not to suggest that other animals don’t communicate; they just don’t communicate with the same precision as human language). 

This dilemma elicits a philosophical question: How much of our differences and arguments today (in such areas as religion, politics, and ethics) are the result of language? And more specifically, from an un-nuanced and inarticulate practice of a shared human language?

One of my favorite philosophers of language was a man named Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), who argued in his book, Philosophical Investigations (1953), that human communication between different languages (for example, English and German) does not represent a one-to-one correspondence between words and objects, despite our experience sometimes telling us otherwise.

For example, if I wanted to learn the word for “chair” in German, I would point to a chair and my translator would identify it as a “Stuhl.” Consequently, I might conclude that the German word for chair is “Stuhl.” That is, until I point to a different chair and my translator labels it “Sessel.”

What just happened!?!

Well, nuance happened. More specifically, nuance in the way my translator articulated his conceptual thoughts about the reality he perceives and, naturally, assumes that he and I share.

Wittgenstein helped us to realize how much our individual languages construct our expectations and embed a “form of life,” as well as how dangerous this can be, even for those speaking the same language. For instance, imagine I were to tell you to look at a creature’s genitals and tell me if it is a male or female. Naturally, you’d examine the creature’s nether regions and look for something dangling between its thighs. But what if I were asking you to find the genitals of an argonaut octopus (pictured below)? Take a look and tell me whether or not it has a penis.

You may be surprised to find that it does! In plain sight, no less! But the way I phrased my question naturally forces you to have a conceptual expectation of reality that, in this case, does not fit. What is needed here is nuance.

About a month ago, I ran into this problem with a man I highly respect and love. He posted something on Facebook that, in essence, told his followers they needed to start acting like “men” (and stop acting like chumps). As a philosopher (and a bit of a jerk), I replied, “Can you define what a ‘man’ is and how a ‘man’ is supposed to behave?” One of his definitions was that a “man” has no problem resorting to violence if he or his family is “disrespected.” 

I couldn’t believe what I was reading! Being a “man” requires knocking someone’s lights out for disrespecting you!?! I replied swiftly, “That’s not a man. That’s a coward who can’t handle his precious feelings and pride getting hurt, so he just resorts to hitting others.” My friend (and brother) responded, “Allow me to clarify. I’m referring to someone who is coming at you or your family and is running their mouth, etc., etc.” The problem quickly became obvious. We were both speaking English, but we weren’t communicating … at all! What he identified as someone being “disrespectful” I would label as being “aggressive,” “belligerent,” and “hostile” to the point of needing physical intervention. 

This very dilemma was captured in the 2016 blockbuster movie, “Arrival,” starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. Although the film’s plot advances through the largely defunct “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” (the idea that a person’s native language affects the way they perceive reality), the movie does a great job of presenting a conceptual thought experiment for its audience: What would happen if we encountered an extraterrestrial species with such an incredibly different language that it actually changes how people perceive both time and space? 

This same dilemma was amazingly portrayed in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called “Darmok” (season 5; episode 2). Here, Captain Picard is forced to deal with an alien species whose language is so vastly different that it is practically unintelligible (those closest to me know that I am a huge Star Trek fan). The problem, however, is not that the alien race speaks a different language. In fact, Picard’s “universal translator” is able to translate their language into perfectly understandable English. The problem is, their lexicon and sentence structures are so bizarre that the perfectly translated “English” amounted to gibberish! The reason Picard couldn’t initially understand the aliens is because he was expecting to find a one-to-one correspondence between their languages. But we soon learn that this alien’s ego structure does not have the concept of “self-identity.” Instead, they speak in metaphor and allusion to their race’s mythology. In other words, they’re speaking English (through the translator), but their expectation of reality is not ours, and (like Amy Adams in “Arrival”) the only way Picard is able to communicate is through spending time in relationship and attempting to empathize with the perspective of the alien’s culture.

If you haven’t seen the episode, go to Netflix (or wherever) and pull it up.

Even if you don’t like Star Trek, I think you’ll love this episode.

 For my church history friends,
St. Augustine also had a lot to say about this very issue.

So, here’s my philosophical question for you: 

Could it be that the problems we experience today when discussing complex and controversial things like abortion or same sex relations are actually the result of an unnuanced use of the English language? Is it possible that we’re making such hasty, generalized, and demonized caricatures of our “opponents” because we have a very distorted understanding  of what they’re trying to say? Characterizing “pro-choicers” (a terribly un-nuanced moniker) as nothing but “baby-killers” or “hedonists” or suggesting they don’t respect the sanctity of life is completely absurd. Likewise, characterizing “pro-lifers” (an equally un-nuanced political slogan) as nothing but “hypocrites” or “zealots” does zero justice to their position, as well (as if there were only one “pro-life” position).

My hypothesis, derived in part from E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy (1987), is that we have become so isolated and entrenched in our socio-political environment today that we are hearing and seeing only what we want to hear and see. Our socialized use of language has determined what we expect from the world, which (just like the octopus penis) may not fit! In fact, oftentimes we are communicating only with our own tribe, only within our own narrow niche, only inside our own silo, only to the subculture of people who share our same moral sensibilities and understanding of the English language. We live in echo chambers, and it causes us to twist the words and intentions of outsiders.

The result is that the “pro-choice” movement ends up looking like godless and irrational witches because that’s how a subculture’s language conditions the culture’s expectation of their position (I assure you, they’re not wicked devils who have lost all ability for obtaining well-reasoned and well-informed positions). The same is true in reverse (and is becoming even more apparent in debates between Trump-supporters and non-Trump supporters).

How much more so when you’re planting a church just one town over (or clear across the country!)? Or when you’re witnessing to someone, but you continue to use culturally outdated sentiments like “God hates the sin but loves the sinner?”

I would like to encourage everyone (especially me) to think about this problem of language the next time they’re asking a question or about to argue/dialogue with someone about a religious, ethical, or political issue. Am I allowing enough nuance to be certain we’re even talking about the same thing? Are my so-called “opponents” using the same English words as I am but with totally different meanings? Has my tribe become so sequestered in our own bubble that we’re incapable of empathizing and communicating with those outside of it? Or is my use of English really just an embedded form of life that is different from those I consider opponents and, therefore, requires more than just a “universal translator” to truly understand them? 

Maybe, before we presumptuously attack our “opponents” (like I sometimes do), perhaps we need to first build an empathetic relationship that helps us more deeply understand what they’re saying and why they’re saying it before we can actually begin communicating.