Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Language Games

Towards the end of James Hall's philosophy of religion class, he makes a subtle shift in focus. Most of the class has been concerned with establishing the truth about religion -- arguments for (or against) the existence of God, and the rebuttals to those proofs. But as the proofs keep running out of steam, scholarship backs up a step and tries to evaluate the whole game. Kuhn gave us the notion of paradigms, but even before that Wittgenstein had deconstructed philosophy, science, and religion into separate "language games," or what he called "forms of life." He said, in effect: "Look, science is all about the objective description of the world -- but describing the world is not the only thing we do as human beings. It may not even be the most important thing we do. There are other things we do with language." Those different "language games" had their own rules (or felicity conditions) that governed them, but they were different enterprises altogether. While Wittgenstein did not explicitly apply these notions to religion, the religious scholars quickly picked up a convenient shield; none of the skeptics could touch religion, because "we're playing a different game." It's not even a question of competing paradigms, different approaches to explaining the appearances; it's a truly incommeasurate activity. From the skeptics' point of view, the theists have stopped arguing and starting dancing a jig.

Professor Hall's tone is skeptical here; he makes haste to point out that just because you're playing a different game doesn't mean that your game doesn't have rules, nor does it immediately imply that your game is worth playing. Nonetheless, he seems to accept it, because for the rest of the course Hall no longer talks about the relative truth of religious discourse, but rather the role religion plays as a social and moral phenomena. Suddenly, we're playing a new game.

Fundamentally, I know this is the only sensible approach one can take. Lots of scholars, especially Ken Wilber, have demonstrated that spirituality can only be understood correctly as a process of transcending problems rather than solving them. But it still feels a little bit like, literally, "changing the subject." "I can't show you that God exists, but I can make a pretty good case for religion being a positive force in the world." Nor does such a redefinition of language necessarily solve any of the questions that drove us here in the first place; redefining religion as a social phenomena or moral imperative does not bring us one step closer to knowing whether we ought to do it.

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