Sep 20, 2016

Law and Logos: Aristotle, Witte, Wolfe and Confucius

Aristotle taught that a language as a set of symbols was artificial and arbitrary in the following sense: He taught that spoken or written words  -- like "cat" -- are connected to what they signify --- the actual fur-bearing mousers -- only artificially by discrete acts of naming propagated thru cultures, and arbitrarily, because there is no necessary connection between the nature of any given name like "cat" and the referent actual furry cat.

I've always found this Aristotelian and very commonplace view to be not just wrong but surprisingly irritating. First, in one direction, it doesn't cover the universal failure of all attempted artificial languages -- Cu vi parolas Esperanton? -- nor our belief that artificial languages will always fail. My quick-and-rough but strongly felt abduction is that we can't make an artificial language that works because the workings of language are not artificial. If all languages are artificial anyway, as Aristotle argues, then why can't we intentionally make a decent one that catches on?

Second, in another direction, Aristotle's view doesn't address our established ability to improve our existing organic languages by altering them according to our sense of a linguistic ideal, which our actual languages plainly tend to fall short of. This universal intuition of a perfect language is suppressed in the contemporary way that grammar and usage issues are addressed without reference to reason and authoritative examples of beautiful and wise speech. But we know by revelation (as the insightful commenter below notes) that man's naming of things can partake of his original perfection and that the confusion of tongues is associated with our sin. In any case, we all feel that words should be a particular way. Some words should mean one thing rather than another.  

Given my intuitions, naturally, I delighted in this Telegraph report of empirical evidence that all human language is universal and united in the tendency of all men to assign certain linguistic symbols for certain things. Babel burst it apart but evidence of the link between certain symbols and certain ideas remains to be found.

There's a great deal of interest in language right now as an important source of insight into the human condition. Of course, Prof. Witte recently published Berman's long-lost book, Law and Language. If you haven't read it, you should. It delves deeply into the role of law as language and the work of language (including legal language) in creating political and theological communities -- creating real relations between man and God and among men through "communification"-- thus pointing to the deep roots of language in the divine Logos as He for whom and by whom and through whom all exists. All being and beings fundamentally refer to Christ and are directing themselves through Him to God the Father through the outbreathing work of the Spirit. The fine anti-liberal novelist Tom Wolfe (the Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, I Am Charlotte Simmons, Back to Blood) has also weighed in with a new book this year, The Kingdom of Language, where he presents human language as evidence against Darwinian evolution of man and the modelling of man as mere material machine.

I believe that there is a Logos, who relates to all and can reconcile us with God. (The Vulgate's translation of Logos as verbum or word as linguistic symbol, I think following Erasmus and Calvin, is a less valuable translation than sermo.) Christ is not an individual spoken term (i.e. a verbum or language token like "cat"), a word in the linguistic sense, rather a discourse, a speech, an utterance, i.e., a word in the sense of a preacher offering a word of prayer or reading the word of God. This Logos does not relate us to God arbitrarily -- as per the Aristotelian theory -- but in necessary ways through the Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection. Jesus is the Name that must be spoken and heard. The curse of Babel is that we no longer speak this language of the Name and all the Names which flow from it naturally on our lips just as, because of the curse of the Garden, we no longer do in our hearts. But we should. Aristotle's is perhaps a true report on the way we are, but not on the way we should be or will be.

I think Confucius spoke with esoteric understanding of Babel and eschatologically of Pentecost when he identified 正名, Zhengming or "the rectification of names,"  as the first thing to be done in the reformation of a political system. Analects 13.3. Truly, the curse of Babel will remain the fundamental problematic of our political and social dealings until the fullest realization of the Pentecost in Christ. Here, he is:
If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will no be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot.
Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.
Confucius' prior discussion, equally famous, in 12.11 summarizes the seed of a potentially Christian Logos-Ethos very well.
The Duke Ching, of Ch'i, asked Confucius about government. Confucius replied, "There is government, when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son.” [jun jun, chen chen, fu fu, zi zi, 君君臣臣父父子子] "Good!" said the duke; "if, indeed, the prince be not prince, the minister not minister, the father not father, and the son not son, although I have my revenue, can I enjoy it?”
This is a very interesting piece to translate. I think it should be rendered in light of the idea of zhengming or the rectification of names as: There is government, when the "prince" [i.e. the one called prince] is prince [i.e. actually a prince], "minister" minister, "father" father, "son" son.

Today, if we had the right words, we would all say there is no government in our land and we, people, would understand. Or, we would point to those who actually work to punish wrongdoing and commend those who do right (1Pe 2:14) and say here is our king.

But, back to the translation issue, I can equally see it rendered: There is government, when the prince is "prince," minister "minister," father "father," son "son." That is, we can debate whether the essential political problem is that we know public duty and fail to rule and obey, or that we don't know and so fail to identify those who should be ruling and obeying.

Equally, one could interpret the passage in a more Platonic fashion: There is government when the prince is prince ... That is, the problem is that princes need to be more princely, more intensely what they are. But this runs the argument in a different direction from language to ontology.


  1. Being too ignorant to comment on a piece never stopped anyone on the internet... so here goes.

    Charismatic Christians make much over the distinction between the rhema word of God and the logos word. As in the logos of God is living and active, sharper thad a twoedged sword. Versus faith comes through hearing and hearing through the rhema of God. Or the sword of the spirit which is the rhema of God. Is Christ the logos word or rhema word? Or does it even matter and is totally nonreponsive to your point.

    Also, animals were named while man was still clothed in glory or spirit. Language after man fell and was coveree in skin, prior to which we wouldve communicated in the way spirits do which is akin to telepathy or communicating a "knowing". Humans still have spirits, some fallen, some redeemed; but we receive info from our spirits that gets passed on to the mind. So, of course everything has a true name in the spirit that is what the thing actually is in relation to Christ. And that relationship is by nature relational and heirarchical.

  2. It seems that this "zhengming" concept touches on a similar notion in James 3. "If anyone does not stumble in word [logos], he is a perfect man, able to bridle his whole body." Perhaps it is the remedy to the curse of Babel by the renewing of the mind (Romans 12) that would allow us to consider the Logos-Ethos, as Paul says in the following verse: "then you will be able to attest and approve what God's will is--His good, pleasing, and perfect will." This would necessarily involve "the offering of our body as a living sacrifice--holy and pleasing--to God."