Profs. Ogden and Richards on the misuse of language in religion

The following is from The Meaning of Meaning (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968 [1923]), written by the philosophers C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards.  The underlined emphases are mine.

… Words, whenever they cannot directly ally themselves with and support themselves upon gestures, are at present a very imperfect means of communication.  Even for private thinking thought is often ready to advance, and only held back by the treachery of its natural symbolism; and for conversational purposes the latitude acquired constantly shows itself to all those who make any serious attempt to compare opinions.

We have not here in view the more familiar ways in which words may be used to deceive.  In a later chapter, when the function of language as an instrument for the promotion of purposes rather than as a means of symbolizing references is fully discussed, we shall see how the intention of the speaker may complicate the situation.  But the honnête homme may be unprepared for the lengths to which verbal ingenuity can be carried.  At all times these possibilities have been exploited to the full by interpreters of Holy Writ who desire to enjoy the best of both worlds.  Here, for example, is a specimen of the exegetic of the late Dr. Lyman Abbott, pastor, publicist, and editor, which through the efforts of Mr. Upton Sinclair, has now become classic.  Does Christianity condemn the methods of twentieth-century finance?  Doubtless there are some awkward words in the Gospels, but a little “interpretation” is all that is necessary.

“Jesus did not say, ‘Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth.’  He said, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth where moth and rust doth corrupt and where thieves break through and steal.’  And no sensible American does.  Moth and rust do not get at Mr. Rockefeller’s oil wells, and thieves do not often break through and steal a railway.  What Jesus condemned was hoarding wealth.”

Each investment, therefore, every worldly acquisition, according to one of the leading divines of the New World, may be judged on its merits.  There is no hard and fast rule.  When moth and rust have been eliminated by science the Christian investor will presumably have no problem, but in the meantime it would seem that Camphorated Oil fulfils most nearly the synoptic requirements.  Burglars are not partial to it; it is anethema to moth; and the risk of rust is completely obviated.

Another variety of verbal ingenuity closely allied to this, is the deliberate use of symbols to misdirect the listener.  Apologies for such a practice in the case of the madman from whom we desire to conceal the whereabouts of his razor are well known, but a wider justification has also been attempted.  In the Christian era we hear of “falsifications of documents, inventions of legends, and forgeries of every description which made the Catholic Church a veritable seat of lying.”  A play upon words in which one sense is taken by the speaker and another sense intended by him for the hearer was permitted.  Indeed, three sorts of equivocations were distinguished by Alfonso de Liguori, who was beatified in the nineteenth century, which might be used with good reason; a good reason being “any honest object, such as keeping our goods, spiritual or temporal.”  In the twentieth century the intensification of militant nationalism has added further “good reason”; for the military code includes all transactions with hostile nations or individuals as part of the process of keeping spiritual and temporal goods.  In war-time words become a normal part of the mechanism of deceit, and the ethics of the situation have been aptly summed up by Lord Wolseley:  “We will keep hammering along with the conviction that ‘honesty is the best policy,’ and that truth always wins in the long run.  These pretty sentences do well for a child’s copy-book, but the man who acts upon them in war had better sheathe his sword for ever.”  [pp. 15-17; citations omitted; the underlined emphases are mine.]

It doesn’t surprise me in the least that in certain Christian teachings, “A play upon words in which one sense is taken by the speaker and another sense intended by him for the hearer was permitted.”  After all, this is precisely what one finds in the Bible itself.  This practice is what makes the Bible “esoteric” (and it provides the reason why I find religious esotericism so objectionable).  So does anyone really expect that later Christians would have felt compelled to denounce the practice?  Hadn’t they been trained by the Bible not to do so?  There is absolutely no inconsistency between the attitude of the authors of the Bible and the attitude of later clergymen.  The act of misleading people “for a good cause” has always been considered excusable by traditional religionists.

If Christians ever became too scrupulous about honesty, then they would have to come to the conclusion that the Bible is fundamentally a morally defective writing (though, of course, not a completely valueless writing) to which they themselves had become morally superior.  In terms of moral advancement, they would have “gotten out ahead” of their own foundational religious writing; and because to do that would have caused the religious basis of their lives to be undermined—since that religious writing was supposedly revealed directly by God as the Holy Spirit—they made sure that that would never happen.  The existence of the Bible has thus always had the effect of keeping Christians from ever becoming too morally scrupulous; it acts as a restraint on morality.  At best, the Bible makes some people more moral than they would have been apart from the Bible; but, so long as they treat the Bible as an authoritative religious writing, they will never have the ability to become more moral than the authors of the Bible were.  And that is why, if humanity is to reach its full potential, it is imperative that religious writings of this kind lose their authoritative status.

The foregoing should suffice as a response to Christians who claim that the Bible and their religion are not esoteric.  Christians are not innocents.  The Bible is an esoteric writing; and whether or not they’ve been willing to admit the fact, Christians, taken as a whole, have always understood it at some level of awareness.  (I’m sure that some Protestants would like to believe that the way of thinking described is something merely “Catholic” or “Jesuitical,” something in which they are not morally implicated; but again, it is a way of thinking that is endorsed and even required by the logic of Christianity as set forth in the New Testament; the Catholic clergymen were only making the point explicit.)

Later in the text, Ogden and Richards make a distinction between the “symbolic” or “referential” function of language (generally corresponding to the purpose of “prose” writing) and the “evocative” function of language (generally corresponding to the purpose of “poetic” writing).  They advocate

a rule which all those who are aware of the functions of language will support, namely, that in discussion, where symbolic considerations are supposed to be prior to all others, the evocative advantages of terms are only to be exploited when it is certain that symbolically no disadvantage can result.

But a more general consciousness of the nature of the two functions is necessary if they are to be kept from interfering with one another; and especially all the verbal disguises, by which each at times endeavors to pass itself off as the other, need to be exposed.  It ought to be impossible to pretend that any scientific statement can give a more inspiring or a more profound “vision of reality” than another.  It can be more general or more useful, and that is all.  On the other hand it ought to be impossible to talk about poetry or religion as though they were capable of giving “knowledge,” especially since “knowledge” as a term has been so overworked from both sides that it is no longer of much service.  A poem—or a religion, though religions have so definitely exploited the confusion of function which we are now considering, and are so dependent upon it, as to be unmistakably pathological growths—has no concern with limited and directed reference.  It tells us, or should tell us, nothing.  It has a different, though an equally important and a far more vital function—to use an evocative term in connection with an evocative matter.  What it does, or should do, is to induce a fitting attitude to experience.  But such words as “fitting,” “suitable” or “appropriate” are chilly, having little or no evocative power.  Therefore those who care most for poetry and who best understand its central and crucial value, tend to resent such language as unworthy of its subject.  From the evocative standpoint they are justified.  But once the proper separation of these functions is made it will be plain that the purpose for which such terms are used, namely to give a strictly symbolic description of the function of poetry, for many reasons the supreme form of emotive language, cannot conflict with the poetic or evocative appraisal of poetry, with which poets as poets are concerned.

Further, the exercise of one function need not, if the functions are not confused, in any way interfere with the exercise of the other. … [pp. 158-59; citation omitted; the underlined emphases are mine.]

As an example of how “religions have exploited the confusion of function,” consider the willingness of Christian theologians to cite verses from the Bible—which really ought to be viewed as a collection of literary and poetical writings—in support of philosophical and historical arguments.  Doing this represents a highly inappropriate use of writings from one genre as if they in fact belonged to a very different genre of writing.  It is analogous to citing a passage from Moby Dick or a poem by Edgar Allen Poe in support of (as opposed to “in illustration of”) a particular philosophical proposition.

I take the position that the authoritative writings of a religion ought to be “prosaic,” clearly focused on carrying out what Ogden and Richards call the “symbolic” or “referential” function of language.  Any “poetical” or “literary” writings associated with a particular religion ought to be non-authoritative writings only; that is, writings that no member of the religion would be expected to claim to “assent to” or “agree with.”  There is a place for “evocation”—just not in the authoritative religious writings.  When it comes to those writings, the meaning should be as clear and indisputable as possible (even if it leaves some members of the religion feeling a bit “chilly”).

An overview of “practical philosophical communities” (i.e., “non-esoteric religious communities”)

(The following contains most of the second section of Chapter 6 of Part I of my “Against the Lie” essay.  It provides a conceptual overview of “practical philosophical communities” or “non-esoteric religious communities,” which I believe ought to replace the esoteric, i.e. “traditional,” form of religious community.)

In the type of non-esoteric religious communities that I believe we desperately need, a person would effectively be required to take responsibility for assenting to or rejecting any proposition that claimed authority in that person’s life; but, of course, this could only happen if the person were first allowed to understand what the proposition even was—something that esotericist forms of religion (to the extent, that is, that the beliefs of the religion have their source in esoteric writings) effectively make impossible.  In short, members of non-esoteric religions would be encouraged to think more like philosophers—in the best and widest sense of that word.

However, for a person to truly “assent to” or “reject” the type of proposition that I have in mind, he would have to choose whether or not to integrate it into his life and actions:  I do not consider a person who claims to have “accepted” a certain philosophical proposition, but then fails to live his life in accordance with it, or advocate that his social institutions be designed in accordance with it, to have truly accepted it.  So philosophical or theoretical discussion that did not ultimately and finally result in the putting into practice of the theoretical propositions that had been developed would not involve propositions that had ever actually been “assented to,” since there would have been no positive commitment made with regard to those propositions.  And I consider discussion of philosophical propositions that are not capable of being either “assented to” or “rejected” in this practical sense, to be—at best—a waste of time.

I believe that to establish a society suffused with meaning requires the existence of numerous practical philosophical communities, communities in which the virtues of practical usefulness and honesty would be assigned equally high value:  the type of communities which, amazingly to me, our society does not currently have.  What we now generally find is that academic philosophy and scholarship is not seriously interested in making itself practically useful, and esoteric religion is not seriously interested in honesty and clear thinking.  A split currently exists between two sets of values or goals:  on the one hand, those of scholarship, intellectuality, honesty, clarity and precision of thought and expression, and the desire to seek out truth and knowledge; and, on the other hand, those of practical usefulness, the sharing of a sense of common meaning and purpose, the giving of life guidance, and the giving of mutual support and protection.  This split can no longer be maintained.  In fact, I think there is a close relation between the historical legacy of esotericist religion and the sterility of much of academic philosophy and scholarship in its current state (such that modern-day academicians might well be considered the “secularized” successors of the “holy class” found in traditional religious societies—but if anything, showing even less interest in their work being of practical benefit to the “laity” than their predecessors showed).  The kinds of esotericism found both in traditional religion and in modern academia are expressions of the same basic lack of a spirit of commitment, the same unwillingness to first make a rational and socially useful decision, whether through personal reflection or through discussion with others, and then to take action in conformity with that decision; and both are also expressions of the same fundamental split between the “inner” and the “outer,” between theory and practice—the overcoming of which split I believe constitutes the central concern of the New Testament (albeit one often presented in implicit and obscure form).

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