Saturday, December 06, 2008

Essences and Word Play

So I have two things on my mind, first this post from Sam HERE.
The basic premise is a stance of non-realism, where nothing exists apart from our knowledge and language about a particular thing; more importantly for the discussion, God doesn't exist outside of our faith and what it is we say about him. Now of course I agree with Sam where he states that this position ignors the mystical tradition.

Secondly there is this snippet from Richard Rorty's "Philosophy and Social Hope":
“To treat beliefs not as representation but has habits of action, and words not as representations but as tools, is to make it pointless to ask, ‘Am I discovering or inventing, making or finding?’ There is no point in dividing up the organisms’ interaction with the environment in this way. Consider an example:
We normally say that a bank account is a social construction rather than an object in the natural world, whereas a giraffe is an object in the natural world rather then a social construction. Bank accounts are made, giraffes are found. Now the truth in this view is simply that if there had been no human beings there would still have been giraffes, whereas there would have been no bank accounts. But this causal independence of giraffes from humans does not mean that giraffes are what they are apart from human needs and interests.

On the contrary, we describe giraffes in the way we do, as giraffes, because of our needs and interests. We speak a language which includes the word ‘giraffe’ because it suits our purposes to do so. The same goes for words like ‘organ’, ‘cell’, ‘atom’ and so on……”

I have then, one simple question in mind; what about the essence of a thing? In other words, to say that God is nothing more then what we say ignores the phenomenal component that lead to the language in the first place – where the phenomenal component may be said to be some pre-existent essence that we’re trying to communicate. I could say the same thing about the giraffe; sure, what we say about the giraffe to a certain extent is based on pragmatic intentions, what other way of speaking about it would make sense. Then I could say, well, certainly there is some essence of giraffe-ness which exists outside of our language and knowledge about it, and to reduce it to mere, let’s say utility, is to miss the point of something seemingly profound.

But, as the pragmatist might say, “Who cares?” To say that God exists, to say that giraffes have essences simply isn’t meaningful, and seemingly in no way useful, so why even consider it?

This gets back to my central question, “Is religious language valid?” And, “What’s it good for?”

I’m going to sleep on this for now……


  1. Anonymous6:53 PM

    On Rorty's view of language it simply does not make sense to speak of essences. Here he is indebted to Wittgenstein and the idea of family resemblance(what is the 'essence' of game - what do lawn bowling and chess and baseball have in common)

    As for religious language Rorty has some essays on religion. I recommend Dewey's A Common Faith too.

  2. I agree that it doesn't make sense to speak of essences in Rorty's view.

    What I'm driving at is, in light of that view can we make sense out of talking about essences? Is it useful in any way?

    Rorty never "takes the mystical into account", which is partly why I'm interested in him. I tend to have pragmatic leanings on the one hand (I agree with Rorty on many if not most things), yet am religious on the other. So how does one reconcile the two?