Thursday, September 6, 2007

Nominative vs. Evocative Language

A lot of confusion when discussing matters of religion and philosophy comes with the difference between perception of what language is and what it should do. Nominativists are convinced that language has an isomorphic relationship with material reality; namely, that all language in its relationship to material reality must conform to it. Steven Pinker is a big advocate of this position, and it encourages a very literalist mindset wherein philosophical and religious statements can be evaluated solely on how they conform to the material universe.

Evocative language, in contrast, seeks not to describe, but to enact. The goal of theologians (and magicians, natch) is not to accurately contain reality within its models, but to change it, by changing peoples' lives.

The problem with the nominativist position, as I see it, is that there is no good reason whatsoever to assume that language is ever nominative. Metaphor is at the root of all language, and it's universal to make sense of concepts in terms relative to each other (like George Lakoff points out in "Metaphors We Live By," we're running on the metaphor "arguments are war" in our culture, as in "he attacked her argument"). The idea that language even can or should conform perfectly to material reality is unsupported.

That's why I don't concern myself with dogma or the "literal" truth of mythology, or worry about the objective existence of deities. It's a million miles past the point.


MetalPhil said...

I think that's a linguistically arbitrary distinction. Language both describes and 'evokes.' However, the issue with 'evocative' language is that no matter what kind of feeling it evokes from a person if the literal existence of what one is supposed to be evoking is questionable (or not real at all) then the evocation is a false emotion. Is that beneficial for anyone? Usually not. Particularly if evocative language is used to convince someone of something that isn't true--such as the existence of a deity or spiritual force.

Jason said...

Define what "literal existence" means.

For that matter what the hell is a "false emotion?" Truth and falsehood are utterly irrelevant distinctions when it comes to emotions. It's like questioning the truth of a hammer.

libramoon said...

Language is metaphor, taken from our commonalities that we might transcend a distance. As all attempts, it has clumsiness, misapplications, missteps. And it matters when we send our words into the void whether others catch, coddle, question them for meaning. It is not language that is our limitation. It is an abiding tool, ready to adapt, even metamorph, at our bidding. Intelligent actors of good will so often miss each other's meanings, make assumptions of commonalities not as commonly interpreted as might be thought. Stupid or stunted imps and vandals, happy for their misery, don't help. I think, if we are to communicate our best, we must question our metaphors, our underlying principles, our shared or unshared perceptions, in ever more precise attempts to cover the distance. But who has the time for that?