Words as signs
One of the jobs and (occasionally) joys of thinking philosophically is to recognize the things that are overlooked; it is to recognize the forgotten; to highlight the “obvious”. Indeed this is true when considering the nature of our communication. We are a speaking species, and we use a most unique method to communicate with one another: words. No other species we know of uses words as an essential component of their interaction and being. We begin using words as quickly as our parents can make us, and it’s truly a necessary means of adjoining one mind to another and ultimately of forming society.
Every sentient species, or most at least, can communicate with others in some way. They use vocalizations, gestures, or some other means specific to their nature. For humans, our use of words are actually a use of signs: things that point to other things or realities. Indeed, they are a special class of signs that we created and may be thought of as conventional (as opposed to natural); language is natural, but the specific words that inhere are formed by us. As St. Augustine describes in his work On Christian Doctrine, words are used for “drawing forth and conveying into another’s mind what the giver of the sign has in his own mind” (Book II, Ch. 2). For instance, when one uses the word “horse” in conversing with another they are using that sign to point to the animal John Wayne rides on the Silver Screen. Words, in a similar way to thoughts, are intentional, and aim at some other thing.
As is evident, there are two modes of communicating via words, that being speaking and writing. Speech is of course when one vocalizes words normally to be heard by another, a hearer. The spoken word is one that comes in and out being rather swiftly, unless we have utilized some technology to record the moment. The written word is precisely the original technological innovation to do just that; however because it lacks the presence of the speaker and the auxiliary conveyance inherent in personal interaction it can be a more complex phenomenon. As it often transcends the paradigm in which it was etched, and can be read long after the author is gone, it adds further dimensions of concern for a reader. Beyond just knowing the language, the reader must deal with translations, foreign allusions, historical circumstances that illuminate meaning and the like.
But the purpose in using speech and the written word are the same: to allow the hearer or reader to grasp the meaning of the speaker or writer. One has to recognize the word-sign, and that directs him to the object or reality being addressed; in other words, there are two components that the hearer or reader must get in order to get the meaning of a statement: the sign and the thing-pointed-to. We can say there has been a successful communication when the receiver has recognized both. To utilize our example above, if someone says the word “horse”, in order to understand them we must know that “horse” is a sign that points to the four legged, long haired, apple-eating, seemingly complaisant man-carrier.
Because this is where the crux lies, if there is a mistake in either case the hearer or reader will suffer ignorance. For instance, if when the speaker uses the word “horse”, and the hearer recognizes the sign but has a quite insufficient knowledge of the thing-pointed-to, he will adopt or employ a false view. If his knowledge of horses is only gleaned from the Hollywood, he might arrive at the conclusion that horses are eagerly disposed from birth to be saddled and directed by man. But this, of course, is only achieved with great effort and time, with a taming of their nature. Under normal circumstances, his concept of a horse can be corrected by some equine expert or investigated via regular avenues of human reason. Also his ignorance probably doesn’t have much bearing on his livelihood.
With these thoughts in mind, how does it impact our thinking about something that purportedly does have great impact on one’s livelihood? Sacred Scripture is recognized by Christians to be the inspired testimony of the Incarnation and full of the teachings of Christ and His Apostles; if that’s true, one’s understanding of Scripture might make an eternal difference. It is also claimed to be inerrant in its revealed truth concerning the Faith. Knowing what it means would seem to be of the utmost import.
Obviously it is composed of words, which means that if the above analysis is correct, there are at least two things the reader must recognize to come to an understanding. They must recognize the word itself, and the object it points to. They must interpret the signs on the page, and call to mind the realities or things pointed to. How can one know if they are interpreting the sign correctly, calling to mind to right thing-pointed-to, and if they understand the nature of the thing-pointed-to? Who has the authority to correct one’s interpretation, or one’s understanding?
Logically there seems to be these possibilities:
- The individual himself
- A learned individual (an expert or scholar)
- A group of individuals (or a group of experts)
- Some other entity that is particularly authorized to perform that role
For an individual to be the authority of determining the meaning, he will inevitably suffer from subjectivism, and tends towards solipsism. In this case, the individual who believes that horses are not born wild and untrained but domesticated has the authority to overrule reality. If he has the authority to think whatever he wants about the sign and the thing-pointed-to, he seems to be inconsonant with the demands of objective truth. He is wrong, but he “makes” himself right. The nature of something that is true objectively is that in order for one to recognize it, they must conform their minds to it, not vice-versa. Further, if two individuals read the same text and form two contradictory notions, they cannot both be right. The principle of non-contradiction, which underlies not only our minds but all of reality, would be overridden. This literally means the end of truth itself.
What about the situation with the imperfect understanding of a horse? We said an individual could perfect their concept via rational investigation to overcome their ignorance. Why not here in the case of Sacred Scripture? The difference lies in the fact that knowledge of horses is inherently something that can be discovered via human reason, while the objects of faith are beyond our rational penetration. The whole point of revealed truth is that we cannot come to know it on our own. We also said above that the equine-challenged person could consult an equine expert to correct his knowledge. Is this appeal to experts possible in the realm of understanding Scripture?
There are certainly many who are educated in the necessary fields to read Sacred Scripture well. They have mastered the ancient languages, and other disciplines required to read the texts how they were intended by the author. There is not doubt these skills are very helpful, and ultimately necessary to achieve understanding. As most will agree, the historical-critical method of Scriptural scholarship has yielded great return on better understanding the historical paradigm and intricacies therein. However, it is also true that no amount of education can overcome the limitations of the individual; hard as we try, we cannot become omniscient nor experts beyond a fault. Scholars are notoriously divided on essentially every issue they undertake to in study in history, philosophy, and even the physical sciences. The authority they would exercise in the matter would at root be tainted by the same problems as the above case. They would perhaps trip over higher-level issues, but trip they would (and do). In other words, while the expert has a good shot of recognizing the word-signs correctly in Sacred Scripture, they cannot be guaranteed of recognizing the thing-pointed-to.
What about a group of individuals? Can “strength in numbers” provide a basis of how to understand the meaning of Sacred Scripture? We know that individuals, whether learned or not, are not in the position of determining the meaning because they inevitably impose their own limitations on its meaning. But perhaps a group or majority of people can correct the problems one might have on their own? This seems to be a better option, because it does cohere with how we treat other disciplines. Science, history, philosophy, mathematics and others have their way of referring to their community in order to justify results, and that can head off implicit blunder or even aid in critical breakthroughs. However, if we notice, we have already undercut this option. While the democratic principle is useful to recognize how most people think, or even to correct errors in certain cases, it is in principle incapable of being a criterion for truth. If the majority believes something, that doesn’t make it true. We can list countless examples of the predominance of a given idea that was later proved to be false, or can be logically shown to be so. If sixty percent of Americans believe that two and two equal three, that doesn’t make it so; even if they think it is four, that doesn’t make it so.
If these options for safeguarding one’s interpretation from error are lacking, is there an entity that is capable of doing so? Is there a mechanism or authority that doesn’t suffer the limitations of the individual or groups of individuals? It would have to be something that is specially formed or accredited to avoid error in interpreting the meaning of Scripture. If there is objective truth to be had there, it seems the answer is yes. If the Church is what she purports to be, then that is obviously the suitable authority. She has the capability to adjudicate between disputes about the word-signs and the object or realities pointed to. This doesn’t imply that the mysteries of the Faith will be resolved or explained away, but precisely that they won’t. Nor does it imply the Church is right about everything, but only about the content of the Faith and deductions from it. Many Christians will agree with this, though there may by some disagreement about the nature of the Church. That is a discussion for another post, perhaps.
So far I’ve tried to suggest that it is in the nature of words to require a hearer or reader to interpret them in order to comprehend them; that they are signs that require one to recognize both the sign itself and that which it points to. In order to come to an understanding when dealing with words, one must be correct on both counts. In normal cases, this requirement can be met by abilities to gain knowledge and perfect our concepts through experience and reasoning. However, it is precisely not possible in the case of Revelation because it is in principle beyond our reason; it can be explored by reason but not attained by it. This means there must be some kind of authority in order to correct our interpretations if they are wrong or are lacking. It cannot be individuals, scholars, or majorities because all appear lacking in their competency. In the end, it seems the only way to safeguard the objective truth contained within Scripture is if there is some entity specially equipped to correct us. This entity seems to be the Church.