“The Impact of Language on Society” Concept 2000, the Third San Jose Lecture
The Impact of Language on Society
Revision of Original (12/23/1997)
What is the impact of language on society, and what role does language play in social change? Although Jürgen Habermas calls language the medium of the life-world, the way money and power are the media of the economic and political systems respectively, can language be so powerful to play a role in changing the systems as well? Robert Bellah notes that people have often tried to bring the world closer to the life-world by making it a more human place, and they have tried to do so through language,
because on the whole they do not have a great deal of worldly power, but only the words they speak. But through the words they speak and the practices they inaugurate, they create community.
In this way Bellah supports the controversial position I am taking: language can change society. But even if I do not want to short change the media of money and power, I believe the role language plays needs more focused attention, and could reward such analysis and investigation in helping to understand how it is involved in societal change. To discount what Emile Durkheim calls the linguistic culture would be a mistake. He places it along-side of the scientific and historical cultures. If a historicization of totality brings reward, introducing evolution into the study of nature and biology, for example; and the scientific examination of totality also brings untold benefit, then despite the reductionism involved, the investigation of the linguistic totality might also bring reward. Reality is more than the verbalization of it. Thus what role does language play in social change and personal growth?
Language is a very complex phenomenon, and it is easy to become overwhelmed by its complexities. One can move from grammar to logic to linguistics to the philosophy of language. In the latter case, one may delve into J.L. Austin and John Searle’s speech-act theory, especially as it concerns performative language. But all these subjects cannot be dealt with in this short lecture, even if I have expanded it. Within the given limitations here, it will be possible only to mention some insights and observations first in an analytical regard, and then move toward the performative and how it relates to Luther’s peculiar sense of language and his Word of God Theology. Hopefully this newer insight into language will depict reasons why Luther’s language introduced a world-changing momentum into early modern history.
To begin with an observation: one can look up the word “thing” in any dictionary, but seldom is its derivation known. Of course, it is as useful and recurrent a word as one that teachers have militated against, because it is allegedly empty. But a “thing” was an Icelandic or Scandinavian legislative assembly, analogous to a German “diet” or a Russian “duma.” And “things” were the matters considered and the decisions handed down. In German the spelling is “Ding.” Thus the word is like a fossil in our language, quite certainly overused as a word to avoid thought, but unbeknownst to school teachers, it has quite an important history.
But another observation about the word is intriguing. Its meaning extends from an object of consciousness to a form of personal or social being. There are many examples, but it is like the word “system:” one may speak of a philosophical and social system. A Thing is an ancient German assembly or group, and “things” are objects of thought in the emblem of the group. Perhaps the extension of meaning from the group to the thought emblem was first unconscious. But in some cases a conscious extension then went back from the thought emblem to the group, in the word “system” for example. A social system is a very late achievement in thought, while philosophical systems are early, and the latter’s derivation from the former is unconscious.
Although Durkheim and Marcel Mauss in Primitive Classification, do not deal with words but with logic, they add light to this peculiar extension. They find that social distinction had much to do with thought distinctions and a “close link and not an accidental one [exists] between the social system and the logical system.“ Ideas are organized on a model furnished by the society. Thought is like the abstraction of the social, and society is like the concretion of thought. But to speak about thought is abstract. The concrete word and the spoken or written language need to be placed as the mediating agent between the thought emblem and the personal or social being and the process of abstraction or concretion involved. The way almost everything can be turned into money and money can be converted into almost anything again, so language can absorb the world and then reissue it, or extend it back into social reality again.
Thus for Luther it was a very important move to change the basic paradigm of the medieval ecclesiastical world from Church and sacrament, or even priest and sacrament to Word and sacrament. Luther began what Weber later called a religious form of rationalization in his Word of God Theology. In order to instigate change, the social reality of the church and the personal reality of the priest was not fundamental, but the word was. Luther held that the word was not the creature of the church, but the church was the creature of the word. Luther took back the social institution and reality of the church to its basic building block, the word. Not the abstract idea having been stripped down and disembodied from the concrete word, but the word as a social organic building block, in the physicality of its sound. In addition, Luther did not mean words denuded of power, but a word of command that destroyed to create anew.
John Searle brings other evidence to support this executive mode of language. He describes language itself as a social institution, broadly speaking. And some language is peculiar in that it does not “match the world,” but the world matches it. Such language does not first of all have a true or false proposition, but makes its proposition true. Scattered through his books, Searle has many places where he refers to this characteristic of performative language.
Searle never enters into the dynamic logic of change brought by language, but he does for it an analytic service. Not only does he describe language broadly as a social institution, but it is a crucial component of all social institutions. In a recent study he opposes the sociological concept of “the social construction of reality” with the linguistic construction of social reality. What seems to be a nuance is much more than a slight shift. It is a move from sociology to linguistics, marking the latter as crucial. His shift resembles Luther’s from the church and the hierarchy to the word. Luther’s faith involves personal, social, and even divine forces initiating movement. But Searle seems to analyze language in a great social and institutional stasis, even if his analysis is replete with the give and take of conversation. I also imagine Searle would be averse to dialectical logic. These basic differences between the two thinkers obscure the similarity of their positions, but Luther went from the ecclesiastical construction of reality, i.e., by the Church, to the linguistic construction of the reality of the church. He reverted to words as the basic linguistic building blocks of the social reality of the church, i.e., the church is where the Gospel is purely proclaimed and the sacraments are rightly administered (Art. VII of the Augsburg Confession).
Searle argues that all institutions, including language, operate by constitutive rules, and the simple linguistic rule that supplies the formula which constructs social realities is “X counts as Y in context C.” e.g., a package of cigarettes (X) counts as money (Y) in the collapse of public confidence in the Russian currency (C). We will not detain ourselves further with Searle’s analytical theory here. But he gives some support to the basic argument of these lectures. If language escapes a static and abstract logic and enters a dynamic, concrete, dialectical logic, then it becomes the demolition, reconstruction, and emergent source of all social institutions.
Turning to the characterization of Luther’s Theology: according to Prof. Robert Goeser of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Luther’s theology or language is occasional and performative. Because the former is a technical term and the latter is controversial, some explanation is necessary.
By “occasional” Goeser meant that Luther’s theology was non-systematic. Luther reacted to issues in each occasion of crisis with a theology derived from Biblical study. Systematic thinking seizes a measure of control and necessitates some detachment. But Luther is centripetal. He himself becomes totally involved in the crisis. He becomes seized, grasped, and moved by his language-like theology. Drawn in he becomes moved and acted upon, rather than acting.
Secondly, that Luther’s theology is performative should not be controversial. To say that performativity is merely a technical designation for a trivial class of speech acts is misguided. Searle can give this impression. But his last article about “How Performatives Work” corrects and criticizes his own previous analysis and description of the inner working of performatives. In this definitive work on performatives, he notes that the performative utterance is both self-referential and executive. An event is achieved by way of making an utterance. A particular class of actions are carried out by the mere manifestation of the intention in the utterance. Although an assertion takes some commitment to the truth-value it is saying, a performative also bears the obligation for the intention to do an action named by the verb. And in the central thesis of his essay, Searle argues convincingly that assertions are derived from performatives and not conversely. These descriptions of the performative do not seem to relegate it to the trivial.
But in a peculiar way, performatives are often considered earth-shaking in importance, and then almost in the same breath, felt to be of disappointing significance.
In How to do Things with Words J. L. Austin first feels he has made a powerful discovery by isolating performatives, and then apologizes for the very technical and trivial examples he offers. After his definitive article on performatives of 1989, Searle continues his independent work in The Construction of Social Reality in 1995 presenting them as not at all trivial.
While reading J.L Austin’s How to do Things with Words, a funny thought came to my mind: “There seems to be something wrong from the beginning to the very end of this!” A looseness of thinking can unfortunately accompany the elusiveness of ordinary language.
Such a looseness of thinking can hardly be ascribed to John Searle, however. Although even Searle first made do with a very inadequate, not to say misleading, analysis of the linguistic act called the performative. When he finally comes to terms with it in “How the Performative Works” he discovers it to be self-referential and executive. These features do not seem trivial. And if a taxonomy of performative verbs is worked out, then they would include many very crucial to theology: promise, command, baptize, name, marry, confirm, etc.
Permit one more observation in this digression which has been trying to refute the argument of the triviality of performatives and that they are merely a technical class of verbs in language. Perhaps it is only loosely related to this subject: but when focusing on what language is referring to, language almost vanishes from consciousness. When focusing on language itself, what it is referring to vanishes. One can dissect the performative oblivious to the personal, social, cultural, and religious role it plays in language events. When Searle finally comes to the surprising result that performative verbs have no common semantic property that marks them and sets them off from others, that any verb which names the intentional action can be uttered performatively, then he finds that performativity reflects how the world works, and not how a small class of verbs work. Theologically this insight is significant, because how God works in the world through language can thus be perceived by the faithful. God is not only executive, but also self-referential. (“I am who I am.” is self-referential.) God works through language, and does not need to choose only those verbs which name an intention and are simultaneously capable of being an act. God creates out of nothing, but via the Word.
Now let us return from this excursion and attempt to characterize Luther’s theology. Whether promises are highly regarded in Protestant culture, as John Searle observed among Oxford professors, or a promise is merely considered a verb from one technical class of speech acts; it is a promise, and it is one of the earliest performatives discovered, and it still brings home the telling point: “to speak about a promise is not the same as making one.” Now those versed in Luther’s theology know how Luther identified the Gospel itself with God’s promise. Luther discovered that the Gospel was also present in the Old Testament in the form of the promises of God, and that actually, even in the New Testament the word, “Gospel” is interchangeable with “promise.” Even the word, “evangelical” derives from the word for Gospel in Greek, and thus the preponderance of the performative can be seen in Luther’s as well as other Protestant theology. Now the Law and the Gospel is the dialectic with Luther’s “key-signature.” But Luther uses the terms “command and promise” as well as “law and Gospel.” That Luther’s writing is not so much literary as it is recorded speech makes his theology even more intensely performative. In addition, in his writing he addresses the reader with direct speech dialogue, encountering the reader with a dialectic of performative speech acts. Thus there can be no question that Luther is operating with a performative mode of language and speech.
The question now revolves around whether it is deceptive to hold that this language induces social systemic change; whether that kind of power really inheres in language. The question about God acting in the world via language is an additional consideration for those who believe in God. Luther, of course, certainly champions this controversial conviction.
Luther’s language “takes in the reader.” In one sense that can mean that the reader is deceived, or taken to a place where another leads, even against the reader’s interest. But one can also be taken into the immanent dimension as opposed to speaking to another outside, worlds communicating outside one another. The latter requires a linear logic, while the former uses a dialectical one. But when language takes the reader in, then it can also mean that it absorbs the reader, strikes home, moves the heart, and gets into the inmost heart, the very center of the whole responsible self. The person is moved but is also carried in a larger movement.
Luther writes, and he must also have spoken, in an executive mode of language. His words ended institutions and traditions that had existed for many centuries, in some cases, for over a millennium: monasteries, clergy celibacy, ecclesiastical courts, canon law, cult of the saints, purgatory, the Latin mass, etc. In a study that tries to argue for the similarity between the English and the German Reformations in respect to the lack of a rural following, C. Scott Dixon unwittingly illustrates the executive mode of Luther’s writings. (And note that in his writings, Luther always takes a stand.) Since marriage was lacking in its Scriptural basis for being a sacrament, Dixon explains, Luther emphasized its earthly estate: “In one fell swoop, centuries of ecclesiastical law amounted to nothing. Luther’s reinterpretation of marriage thus suspended the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts, but no similar institution emerged in the Lutheran lands as a replacement.”
Where did Luther derive the authority to suspend the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts? From my point of view it needs to be explained paradoxically. Luther always spoke of the Word of God, and was an extremist for the eternal, and that brought proximate changes. If one was not in touch with the ultimate, no proximate change was possible, none that was an improvement, according to Luther, in any case. Human change need not mean improvement. Indeed it might make matters worse. With that in mind, this study takes seriously Luther’s stand on the Word of God and the language of God. Because Luther was an extremist for the eternal, social changes became rampant in the Reformation, changes or reforms that the church had struggled with for centuries but had found itself impotent to accomplish.
Luther has often been represented as taking religion from superficial externalism into genuine internalism, as religion that placed a total claim upon the person, becoming a matter of the inmost heart. This move sets people into motion. It is the escape from the centrifugal detachment into the centripetal involvement mentioned earlier. In an earlier version of this lecture I entitled it, “Getting into It.”
Luther is into another form of knowing by means of inner involvement. Thus he goes “within” a “world” which is not simply his to manipulate, but in which language (or creative art) takes hold of him at the deepest level. Those who stand outside the “world,” created by a work of art, for example, are never seized by its reality. They view it as a mere object of scrutiny, or source of theoretical concepts. Wittgenstein draws a contrast between interpreting something “from the outside” and entering into something as a participant. “It’s as if…we looked at a picture so as to enter into it and the objects in it surrounded us like real ones; and then we stepped back, and were now outside it; we saw the frame, and the picture was a painted surface.”
Wittgenstein helps understand the movement Luther engages in. If one looks at a painting from a detached and distant perspective, one is a subject looking at an object. One does not get beyond the externals of the picture. In such an “Erasmian perspective of disinterest,” if I may coin such a phrase, the viewer is abstracted out. Manipulation, instrumentality, and scientific observation can be associated with such centrifugal abstraction. But when the “world” of the picture is entered, the frame disappears, the space within opens up, and the objects within the picture act upon the viewer. A subject-object reversal takes place.
The Dialectical Style of Thought
Several times already I have noted the difference between dialectical and linear logical thought. Dialectical thought moves by a different logic from that logic which is very much controlled by the principle of non-contradiction. The logic of dialectical thought is dynamic and is a logic of life, of concrete living thought, and of social movement and development. Dialectics open the world from within, while the detachment of linear thought, which is often static, communicates between two subjects outside one another.
Gerard E. Caspary takes a very close look at medieval dialectics when he makes a contrast between two styles of thought. He calls them sequential and symbolic, but these styles or “grammars of thought,” as he calls them, have a family resemblance to what we have been distinguishing in Luther’s theology before. Sequential thought is objective, linear, causal, and very much controlled by the law of non-contradiction. The grammar of circular or dialectical thought does not function by the exclusiveness of contradiction, because there are so many shades and nuances between positively or negatively charged polar concepts when they are kept in tension. In the life of an organic logic, the reverberation and oscillation of dyadic terms in the dialectic are endangered by a collapse into a false unity (identity), or an exclusive isolation into externals, which forfeit relationship and violate the commonality they share.
Examples of the charged dyads he is speaking about are Church and world, Old Testament and New, spirit and flesh, letter and spirit, law and grace, etc. Now the term “world” has a positive charge if it is “the world that God so loved,” while it has a negative charge when we read, “keep yourself untarnished by the ‘world.’” These very basic polar terms can generate new dyads in their own image, pairs which are not at all arbitrary. The “Church and world” can generate the “Church and state” dyad and the “clergy and laity” one, that St. Paul, for example, may never have thought about. Caspary notes that there may be a sharp distinction between Jew and Gentile, but “what could be more incongruous than a God that becomes man and dies an ignominious death of the Cross or a Jew whose message is ultimately accepted by the Gentiles?” Certainly, it is only a dynamic and dialectical logic which has the capacity to think meaningfully in such concrete and contradictory historical realities.
In the grammar of dialectical thought, some words have positive and some have negative charges, and may be reversible, partially reversible, or they may be out in the unassimilated non-dialectical pairs: God and the devil, for an example of the latter. Genuine dialectical pairs echo or reverberate in a network of thought.
Caspary identifies four parameters which balance, reconcile, and exert forces on the polar terms of the dyads. He devised a schema depicting the various regions of what he calls the symbolic, and we call the dialectical, style of thought. The dyads, or the polar terms, climb the schema through four parameters, if their movement is centripetal. He likes to call these parameters the rungs of “Jacob’s Ladder.” The dialectical pairs ascend through these parameters or rungs of the ladder toward unity or descend toward antithesis.
These four parameters are of different kinds and exert either centripetal or centrifugal forces on the dialectical pairs moving in their polar tension. He defines the first parameter as one of ethical polarization, in which the flesh and the spirit, the Old and New Dispensation are opposed to each other as good and bad. This rung of the ladder is balanced by that of hierarchical subordination. These parameters or rungs of the ladder through which polar terms ascend or descend exert a centrifugal pull on the moving terms. These parameters ensure against a false unity, on the one hand, and a loss of unity, on the other, and also insure that newly generated dialectical pairs remain in the archetypical pattern.
The third and fourth parameters are centripetal. The third opposes the inner to the outer and is more complex. Now flesh and spirit are not only opposed to each other as bad and good, inferior and superior, but also as the sign to the thing signified, the shadow to reality, the envelope to the inner life. The inner is closer to the governing center than the outer. This concentric parameter is more basic and explains the two previous linear parameters, especially because the inner and outer already presume a center, a governing geometrical point. The fourth parameter is also centripetal involving time or the temporal, the old versus the new. Here two principles of time oppose each other, which ascertain that, what is earlier, e.g., the Old Testament, or the flesh, and superior, ends up becoming inferior to the New or the young, and the spirit. Caspary points to a reversal taking place in which natural order and natural time becomes reversed by the eternal. What is chronologically before becomes logically after, a principle that Hegel often invokes. What comes afterward precedes what came before it. E.g., spirit and flesh, New Testament and Old. Thus the New becomes superior to the Old, the spirit prior to the flesh. “Amen, amen, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am!” (John 8: 58)
The Symbolic Style of Thought in Caspary’s Schema
Please note that I had to scan in the diagram; it would not come in. Some of the words in it follow:
Tending toward unity
(Collapsed terms are Four Parameters or
Monophysite. Jacob’s Ladder with four rungs
Reconciling, IV___ ___ IV Temporal Parameter
Centripetal. III ____ ____ III Inner/Outer
Dialectical Region—–Complementary Region
Centrifugal forces II _____ _____ II Hierarchical
First rung I _______ ______ I Ethical
Antithetical Region_____Polar Antithesis Non-dialectical
E.g., Light Darkness
Good ___________ Exclusion ____________ Evil
of opposites (my label)
(Loss of tension between terms: Manichean dualism)
Centripetal ¸ forces or pulls
Centrifugal ¸ forces or pulls
Now in the ascent upward into a kind of mutual indwelling, the centripetal forces are overcoming the centrifugal ones, and the shades and nuances of thought within communication are taking place among those who share common assumptions. In sequential thought which is using a formal logic, the law of contradiction is gaining force, and challenges the dialectical grammar of thought with an opposing one. These two styles of thought seem to need each other, and become dominant in intervals. A revolution of thought in the early part of the High Middle Ages replaced a symbolic style of thought with a scholastic one. In Luther we have the scholastic style of thought becoming replaced by a dialectical style of thought. The way symbolic thought had continued in the monasteries in the early part of the High Middle Ages, when scholasticism had begun its historical career, now dialectical thought made an early modern foray into a religious secularism, in the places where Scholasticism ended its career, where the Reformation took hold. In Lutheran territories, a new scholasticism soon replaced Luther’s powerful dialectical style of thought, and this detached sequential style of thought not only made the polar terms fly apart by enforcing the strict and abstract law of contradiction, but also separated thought from affect and emotion. Lutheran Scholasticism was then followed by the Pietist reaction, which detached the intellect and featured the emotions. In Luther’s intensely centripetal dialectics, neither intellect and affect flew apart, and nor did abstract contemplation become detached and disconnected from concrete application.
Caspary throws light on Luther’s centripetal dialectical style of thought. In the third parameter, i.e., the inner and outer reconciliation. Luther takes sin and righteousness into the heart of the believer. Sin is certainly negative and righteousness positive, but when righteousness is attributed to the self, it becomes negative, and when sin is attributed to the self, sin becomes positive. Such identification with sin, magnifies the righteousness and the grace of God. Abundant grace covers the sinner, who does not confuse himself or herself with God. Self righteousness is sin, and identifying as a sinner is righteous. Because of concrete “situations” and who attributes what attributes to whom, the terms receive different values, and righteousness can bring forth sin, and sin can bring forth righteousness. For example, sin is separation from God and neighbor. Now a person uses righteousness for separating him or herself from others. Such righteousness is sin. It is thinkable that sin can be used to assert solidarity. In this sense sin is righteousness. The reversibility of the polar terms may be partial, but in the shifting situations of the attributes or terms in concrete relationships and contexts, sin can mean righteousness, and righteousness can mean sin. E.g., a private perfectionist morality imposed unrealistically on a public and legal policy can be a good illustration of righteousness bringing forth sin. But because this thinking appeals to the emotions and intellect simultaneously, and requires common assumptions to be brought to the apparent contradiction, one must be well versed in this style of thought to understand it. E.g., “Oh Life that is death! Oh death that is life!” Refers to Christ who died that the believer might live. And that life, before Christ entered the believer, was death. After Christ enters the heart of the believer, death changes into the newness of life. Thus Luther exclaims: “Let us perish that thou mayest save us!” in his inimitable centripetal dialectical grammar of thought.
Let us continue with Luther’s unique sense of language. His whole theology has been characterized as Word of God Theology. Because the spirit for Luther is embodied in the word, his Word of God Theology is also his theology of the Holy Spirit. He did not believe that the Holy Spirit was disembodied and abstract. Luther considered the word as the vessel which carried the spirit. The physical sound of the very syllables of a word were important for Luther. For him the word seemed to have a body and soul. The way the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, in that same way the Word was a personal and social incarnation. Words should not be stripped of their physical sounds and left as abstract ideas. Words had to be enfleshed. Words had to have a body.
Luther would have no use for consciousness as such. The language of a people was their embodied consciousness. And although logic functions to constrain language for the sake of correct thinking, and, intellectually, discourse emerges within language as disciplines of fields of knowledge, whose craft, criteria, and contribution cannot be dissolved into the vagaries and notorious ambiguities of ordinary language; still a language is an organic system, a verbal world, containing the distinctive cultural heritage of a people, a nation, or the peoples, English, for example, speaking that language, because they have also become formed and shaped by that language. To bring up the reversal again, people not only express themselves in their language, but they are also an expression of their language. It is like the effort required to get into a book, when the reversal suddenly takes place, and it starts moving and reading you.
At this point let us bring up the sociological guideline of Durkheim’s, which also holds true for linguistics:
“At first we manage only to achieve what are sometimes gross approximations, but they are not without usefulness; for they constitute the mind’s initial grasp of things and, as schematic as they may be, they are a necessary precondition of subsequent specification.”
First of all, in terms of Luther’s theology, we try to characterize it to be like a language. It is not a theological system, but like an organic system, i.e., like a language. That must be distinguished from a language as such, German, English, or Latin, for example. To understand different kinds of theology as different languages, needs to take Paul Ricoeur’s insight into account: the structure of a discourse or discipline of knowledge has emerged within the language and cannot be brushed aside and reduced to a language as such. To say that Luther’s theology is like a language, is to say it is not like a philosophical system with a hierarchy of concepts designed to further human instrumental rationality. Perhaps a Wittgensteinian language game is what George Lindbeck has in mind. Perhaps it is a language within a language, the way a system of thought can be within language.
But if we characterize language as an organic system, what distinguishes the latter from the society as such? What meaning can the term “social language” have in contrast with “social system?” What is the linguistic construction of social reality? It appears that a distinction needs to be made between a verbal society, world, universe and a society, world, and universe per se, although they must be closely related. That consciousness is embodied in a language may mean that language is embodied in society. In Durkheim’s inspired conclusion of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, he describes societies to be
“these vast syntheses of entire consciousnesses! A society is the most powerful collection of physical and moral forces that we can observe in nature. Such riches of various materials, so highly concentrated can be found nowhere else. It is not surprising, then, that a higher life develops out of them, a life that acts on the elements from which it is made, thereby raising them to a higher form of life and transforming them.”
Here Durkheim is comparing the creativity of an individual thinker with that of the society as a whole. Society as the vast syntheses of consciousnesses (includes consciences, because the word translated from the French has both meanings) seems to overwhelm language, even if the latter is considered organically concrete. Perhaps the horizons of meaning, and our earlier discussion of the Habermasian life-world needs to be factored in between this society and language. But language also makes up one of the physical and moral forces shaping the society as defined by Durkheim.
What makes new questions arise for us is our attachment to more concrete considerations than merely abstract ones. And Luther consciously relegated philosophy to the abstract and his theology to concrete questions. And in terms of movement and intensity, the abstract does not penetrate into our inmost being, the way the concrete does. Luther notes that it is “with my bodily voice [that] I bring Christ into your heart,…” in order for Luther to enter the inmost heart of his hearers, he was convinced that the physical sound of the syllables of the words were important, for the very same reason that only through the incarnation could God come and save human beings. Luther took the body of the word one step further and spoke of clinging to the “naked word.” The naked body has power. It may be vulnerable, if merely looked at, as if it were an object. But if in their nakedness embodied words or human bodies become subjects, they spell personal and social force and power, and repelling or attracting, they can set a movement afoot.
Luther does not analyze forms or being in stasis. He is not only concrete, but involved with movement. Kierkegaard notes that for Luther “faith is a restless thing.” He derives his insight from a line in one of Luther’s sermons: “Here you see what a living, powerful thing faith is”. If faith is a restless, moving, forceful thing, then it is never idle. Thus, in the same vein, William Lazareth extends St. Paul, “Faith becomes active in love and love seeks justice.”
In bringing out the characteristics of language that make it moving and “suasive” (from “persuasive”), logic need not be played off against rhetoric. This act of persuasion is for the sake of the truth, for the sake of persons becoming ends in themselves, and not a means to any other purpose. Christ requires the truth from his followers. The way the word is a vessel carrying the spirit, so it can bear Christ, the Truth, into the hearts of the hearers and move them. The self of the speaker can be in the spoken word, or the written one, for that matter, and can enter into the reader or hearer. Thus some terms are required for more powerful speech acts which share selves or new being with their hearers or readers. Luther naturally speaks of Christ entering the heart of the believing hearer through the Word of God. To use direct speech: “No longer is it I who live, but Christ lives in me. Now I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” What is humanly impossible is accomplished by the divine initiative continuing the creation.
James Samuel Preus traces Luther’s development of the sense of words and the Word of God through his early commentary on the Psalms. In Psalm 115:10 the Psalmist asserts: “I believed, therefore I have spoken.” [Luther questions why it does not relate action with belief, e.g., "I believe, therefore I acted."] He observes that we receive our goods only in words and promises, because heavenly things cannot be spoken of as present; they can only be proclaimed by the Word. Therefore it does not say, “I see, therefore I show it by a work,” but “I believe, therefore I speak.” (I do not think Luther implies the false alternative here between speaking and acting, as if he was unaware of speech-acts, but implies that speaking can be more than action. It can be the source of action, and that of personal and social being, to boot, as well as the source of some historical events.) Luther continues that those who boast of their own good works, and glory in something present, do not have the faith of those things, but the sight [of them]. “But,” Luther continues, “we believe and cannot show it by a work. That is why we speak and only bear witness. For faith is the reason why we cannot do other than to show our goods by the word, since faith rests on what does not appear, and such things cannot be taught, shown, and pointed to – except by the word.”
Luther is speaking about God continuing the creation and carrying out the promise of salvation, but language philosophy now discerns personal, institutional, and social actions that are also impossible without language. In Searle”s constitutive rule for institution building, X counts as Y in context C, the change of status function in the Y term is a linguistic move that is only possible because of language. To baptize, to marry, to absolve or forgive are likewise language acts.
Preus notes how Luther becomes overwhelmed by awe before what seem to be this insight into language: “God is speaking. God is promising. God is threatening! Who I ask would not be threatened to the very depths? This is a great word, a great sound, and one to be feared, ‘Behold, the Word of God!’”
Luther suddenly grasps and appreciates how realities become “translated” into words and words “translate” into new realities; how a language absorbs a world, and how that language “translates” into a new world. Faith translates into sight and sight needs to translate back into faith.
Often the executive mode of language is ignored and a vestigial, disembodied and dis-empowered mode of language is only recognized. “I want action, not words!” is often heard in this context. But words and actions are thus set into a false alternative, because, given the new insights of speech-act theory, words are also actions. To be sure, sometimes they function to throw a cover over what the speaker or others are really doing, what stand they are really taking, how disingenuous they are really being. There are also “mere words” that hardly reflect realities, let alone take an executive mode in changing them. But language, the medium of the life-world, needs to take command of money and power, the media of the systems, rather than vice versa.
Mere words plus money and power, even coercion, are one thing, while executive language reinforced with living bodies making their stands inside their language, are quite another. When Martin Luther King, Jr. had to discover that his oratory alone would not accomplish the changes required by the downtrodden Black folk in the civil rights struggle, then he joined the students in their sit-ins and demonstrations. But far from military force or armed struggle. These actions were actually object lessons illustrating his speeches. The people in the civil rights struggle placed their bodies inside his and their language, instead of contradicting their language with their bodies. They had no money or power, but only their language, and the omnipotent and vulnerable One who translates such faith into sight through language.
Hoping to effect social change by the word alone, or solely by means of language, has sometimes been considered ideological. That is understandable if language is considered to have the other media, i.e., only money, power, and, of course, coercion, as an alternative. But if an intensification of language is considered, which in its executive or performative mode, can induce a social movement and personal response, then another possibility presents itself.
There is more support for this mode of language as a source of action. Within a particular verbal climate many incidents occur that this climate fosters. Mostly we are more aware of the negative than the positive dimension here, but both are highly effective. Taking gossip, for example, it is obvious that words spoken in its ugly tone are the source of many fights. A fight itself can be stopped, but while stopping one fight, gossip can start five others before anything can be done to root it out. Here the word is more powerful than the naked act, because the act has its source in the word. Many actions have their source in the word. But not only actions, but persons and societies, and worlds, as well, as the prologue of John states: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things came into being through [the Word], and without [the Word] there was nothing that came into being.” Naturally the word has to be capitalized because we are speaking about the Word of God, the divine source of light and life.
When we now turn to Luther’s “language of address,” we are moving into the performative that transcends mere actions. Here there is a call into existence, a person who is fundamentally placed into question, a person, encountered by the truth. Luther’s word of address strikes home and creates change in the addressee. In a numinous study Daniel Erlander prepared, called Baptized, We Live, he notes that language of address is like a marriage proposal made by a woman to a man, to give his illustration a Sadie Hawkin’s twist. How the man responds will change the rest of his life. So Christ addresses you and me with the words, “Follow me!” and, in the same way, how we respond will change the rest of our lives.
It is possible to relate language of address and language acts and events. Philosophically, R.G. Collingwood notes that actions have an inside and an outside. On the inside actions are thoughts, and on the outside they are events. Then several times already, we have noted a peculiar reversal taking place upon entering linguistic space. And an increased command of language is attained by having experienced a language event. In such an enhanced command of the language, in the intensity and virtuosity of its usage, speakers and hearers become the referents of the words. Often referents are considered to be non-subjective objects: the word “hat” stands for a hat, for example. But when direct speech is involved, the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ can be subjects as well as objects, acting or acted upon. In language of address, the hearer or reader becomes conscious that the language refers to him or her, and inescapably, when spoken with the afore-mentioned skill, it strikes home, it goes to the heart, it places into question, it declares guilt, it offers forgiveness, it opens up new life.
The reversal takes place upon entering into the language, the way Wittgenstein explained entering into a picture. Acts are internal to events, and in the force-field of the linguistic space entered, the language of address is inside the language event. If we try to see Caspary’s schema in our mind’s eye, then the centripetal force, moving into the immanent, internal space, seems to overcome the transcendental, detached, and objective, centrifugal force of separation and outside space, once more. Perhaps the reversal which takes place entering the immanent is a form of the transcendent entering in. Another form of transcendence is bursting through and out. The directionality of one transcendent is centrifugal, while the other is centripetal.
Sometimes in Luther and other writers who have a heightened command of language, it is possible to see how they also consciously communicate with their grammar, while for most writers, grammar remains unconscious however integral it is to their meaning. Let me try to experiment with this skill: we are people who speak the truth, or we can be moved by the power of the truth. We can hold the Word of God, or we can be held by the Word of God. The way a subject in the grammatical passive is acted upon by the verb, we can be acted upon by the integrity, truth, and gracious compassion of God. God is such a verb acting upon us. We are the subjects of the sentences that are our lives. But what is that sentence? Not death, but life forevermore, if we are subjects within the subject, the I am who I am of God.
Here I shifted the meaning of the word “sentence.” That was not using the grammatical for meaning, but otherwise, – perhaps you recognized this as a rendition of Luther’s justification by grace through faith, I was consciously interweaving the verbal, grammatical, and the personal together.
Now with a brief summation, a caveat, and one after-thought I will draw this lecture to a conclusion. A very interesting book of essays on socio-linguistics has appeared, called Language and Power, edited by Muriel Schulz, Cheris Kramarae, and Dale Spender, sponsored by the Rockerfeller Foundation at its Study and Conference Center in 1980 in Bellagio, Italy. In Dale Spender’s contribution she notes that
language is a means of organizing and structuring the world, a means of symbolizing and representing experience, and a vehicle for constructing reality. Her words put much of this study into a nutshell.
She continues by defining power as the capacity of some persons to produce [intended and foreseen] effects on others, effects sometimes contrary to their interests. My study has argued for the power of language to change society, and this book certainly concurs.
But it brings up a very important point that can easily be overlooked because of the focus of my argument. Language can also be used to mark social strata as inferior, and others as superior, and as an effective instrument to control and oppress people as well. Language is not only the means of communication, but also a major barrier to communication. Reality is defined to silence the realities of the oppressed, and the structure of language itself stacks the cards in favor of men, for example, and against women.
An exciting parallel was observable between the use of English in India and that of Latin in Medieval Europe. Both languages developed elites and functioned to place a communication barrier in the way of the masses of people, shutting them out of the important decisions which controlled their lives. English opens the linguistic gates for an elite in India, giving them access to international business technology, science, and travel. And like Latin of old, English is considered to be a tool of “civilization” and “light.”
These observations revert back to our first lecture. Latin was considered a tongue to be learned, which would civilize the northern European barbarians. Latin was of course a high language created in a high culture, a civilization quite highly developed when compared with that of feudal Europe. Thus the medieval lights turned to Latin, the classical language, to gain access to the classical civilization, which the Latin language still contained in its vocabulary, grammar, and literature. But the early modern West began to overtake the ancient classical civilization, and its stature waned as its external authority. The Reformation, especially Luther, represent a new authority, one of the word, of religious ideology, which admitted of no external authority, for the fresh new ground western civilization was breaking. No external authority outside of faith, that is, for salvation. It would certainly take centuries before the classical cultures were really overtaken.
Peter D. S. Krey
Addendum: Some Speech Act Theology: See my post of Feb. 7, 2008 on Speech Act Theology
From a Lecture given in the course: Sociology of Religion, April 12, 1996.
According to Emil Durkheim, there are three distinct educational cultures: a scientific, a historical, and a linguistic one. See Emil Durkheim, The Evolution of Educational Thought, (London: Routledge & Kegan, 1977), p. 348.
I have expanded on the problem of performative language as such, and on the nature of a dialectical style of thought.
An English teacher militated against the use of the word “thing” in our essays by saying, “It doesn’t mean anything.”
Astrid Stedje, Deutsche Sprache Gestern und Heute, (München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1989), p. 10.
E.g., an “order” of monks and an “order” in the sense of a command, or in the sense of a monk taking “orders.” A “canon” as a ecclesiastical lawyer and a law; and “convention” the assembly and the custom. There are many such examples of the various senses of words and a systematic investigation of them might deliver internal evidence for conclusions about the inter-relationship of society and language.
Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, Primitive Classifications (University of Chicago Press, 1963), p. 40-41.
Ibid., p. 32.
Here of course, I am still trying to distinguish the role language plays in social change and thus I am not yet qualifying issues sufficiently. But perhaps the Niebuhr Serenity Prayer might fruitfully be extended here as well: to learn the difference between what language can and cannot change, and have the wisdom to know the difference.
I realize that the ontological issue is involved in the decision not to capitalize “word.” To capitalize it would make the Word be Christ. But I want to focus on another sense of language: one in which the reality is bent to the word and not the word to reality; language that does not merely reflect reality like a mirror, so to speak, but changes it.
Hegel’s characteristic polysemous, or more precisely, three-meaning-word, “aufheben,” here comes to mind. It means annul, save, and lift up, and seems to be transparent, allowing us to see what words as the building blocks of society do. For Hegel this word is rooted in his Christology: Good Friday, death; Easter, resurrection; and lifted up in the Ascension inherent in all social and even natural life. Such a dialectic has a logic that does not reflect the distinctions in society, the way Durkheim noted, but the dynamic movement and development of life in its concrete personal and social forms, and under certain conditions, it is capable of changing the face of the earth.
John Searle, Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language, (Cambridge University press, 1969), P. 52. He also mentions it in The Construction of Social Reality, (New York: The Free Press, 1995), p. 2.
For example in his book, Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts, (Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 16.
John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality, (New York: The Free Press, 1995).
The Third Lecture I gave in San Jose was called “Speech Act Theology” and concerned itself with the different kinds of speech acts as well as a very brief explanation of this rule. It is attached to the end of this lecture, i.e., see the post, and thus I will not go further into the technicalities of this linguistic formula. He first mentions it as a constitutive rule in his Speech Acts, p. 35. He develops the rule much further in The Construction of Social Reality.
For Goeser Luther’s theology was not abstract and systematic but concrete and organic like a language.
Perhaps Luther is occasional in a more philosophical sense still. Following William of Ockham, who had a sharpened sense of the sovereignty of God because of his emphasis upon God’s potentia absoluta instead of potentia ordinata, made Luther’s theology more occasional than systematic.
Compare his explanations relying so heavily on his “illocutionary force device” in Speech Acts, p. 62; Expression and Meaning, p.14; and “How Performatives Work,” in Linguistics and Philosophy 12:535-558, 1989, p. 556, where he does not even mention such a “device.”.
“How Performatives Work,” Page 557.
Searle concludes: “What my argument attempts to show is how the statement is derivative from the promise and not conversely.” Ibid., p. 557.
J. L. Austin, How to do Things with Words , (Cambridge, Mass: A Harvard Paperback, 1955). A revolution in theology on page 3 becomes “the examples now to be given will be disappointing.” p. 5.
See page 52.
A methodological dictum of Durkheim’s is also helpful and for linguistics as well as sociology: At first “we manage only to achieve what are sometimes gross approximations, but they are not without usefulness; for they constitute the mind’s initial grasp of things and, as schematic as they may be, they are a necessary precondition of subsequent specification.” From Mark Traugott, ed., Emil Durkheim On Institutional Analysis, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 19 ), p. 153. J.L. Austin’s constative/performative distinction, even if it did not hold, is a case in point. See How To Do Things with Words, p. 133, 150.
“How Performatives Work,” p. 557.
In class Searle told many humorous anecdotes about one professor there who could not bear the responsibility of making a promise, and always couched his promises in less committed words, “I intend to….”
The speech-act analysis of the promise throws more light on Luther’s Word of God Theology, and is included in Speech Act Theology at the end of this lecture, i.e., see the post in my website.
Robert Goeser defines the “heart” in modern terms as the “center of the whole, responsible self.” In “The Doctrine of the Word and Scripture in Luther and Lutheranism” The Report of the Lutheran-Episcopal Dialogue: Second Series 1976-1980, (Philadelphia: Forward Movement, 1981), p. 100.
C. Scott Dixon, The Reformation in Rural Society: the Parishes of Brandenburg-Ansbach-Kulmbach, 1528-1603, (Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 54.
Dass Ändern und Bessern sind zweierlei. Eines stehet in der Menschen Händen und Gottes Verhängen; das andere in Gottes Händen und Gnaden. To translate: “It is one thing to change and quite another to make an improvement; the one stands in human hands and God’s ordaining, the other in God’s hands and gracious favor.” “Exegesis of Psalm 101,” H.H. Borcherdt and Georg Merz, editors, Martin Luthers Ausgewählte Werke, vol. 5, Zweite veränderte Auflage, (München: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1936), p. 428. Also see LW 13: 217. The English is my translation.
Søren Kierkegaard is perhaps better described as an “extremist for the eternal.” In his individualistic existentialism he mentions society: “Suppose the temporal order was a homogeneous transparent medium of the eternal….” But on the following pages he determines that it is not. The social order needs to be changed to reflect the eternal. Kierkegaard notes that when volition enters the eternal then a ripple effect is set into motion, like a stone dropped into the water, whose waves change the individual. The waves resulting from touching the eternal also result in societal change, because paradoxically the concern for the ultimate in Luther overcame the impotence for reform, i.e., proximate social change. (Kierkegaard, I believe, would not agree with me here, because he does not factor the social component into his individualism.) Søren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart, (New York: Harper Torchbook, 1957),pages 135- 136.
The Rev. A.C. Thiselton, “The Parables as Language-Event” Some Comments on Fuch’s Hermeneutics in the Light of Linguistic Philosophy,” Scottish Journal of Theology, 23, 1970, p. 337-468, here page 443.
My first experience of Caspary’s description of these two styles of thought came from his lectures in Medieval Intellectual Hiastory, ca. 1050-1275: Symbolism versus Scholasticism, Spring Semester at the University of California at Berkeley, 1994. He noted that he himself developed this analysis of these grammars of thought, but had help from Henri Lubac. I have not found a source in the latter’s works. But Caspary has presented his analysis in his work, Politics and Exegesis: Origen and the Two Swords, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), p. 110-122. The schema comes from his lectures.
Ibid., p. 110.
Ibid., p. 112.
Ibid., p. 113.
Caspary notes that the exaggerated dualism is in danger of a Manichean type, and the exaggerated linkage tends to degenerate into Monophysitic pantheism. (Page 121.) The human and divine natures of Christ are here either separated or mingled. Luther’s law and gospel, as well as other central polar terms of his theology, seem to also share this pattern. For example, to explain Luther’s two kingdoms, William Lazareth writes: “The two kingdoms are sharply distinguished from each other, which means that the realms of law and gospel are to be neither separated (in secularism) nor equated (in clericalism).” Theology of Politics, p.14.
For a good example of this dialectical style of thought read his sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, February 1, 1517, Luther‘s Works vol. 51, Helmuth Lehmann, editor, (Philadelphia:Fortress Press, 1959), p. 23-26: “The greatest security is the greatest temptation, the greatest wealth the greatest poverty…the greatest sin the greatest righteousness,” etc. p. 24. In our inner-city Day Camp, exuberant in the spirit, we awaited the coming of the children and prayed: “Oh Lord, send us your worst, so we can do our best!” and as soon as the real trouble with the kids began, we’d pray: “Lord, we didn’t mean it!”
Ibid., p. 25.
Citing Ephesians 6:17 and admonishing councilmen that languages needed to be prominent in the curricula of schools, Luther states: “The languages are the sheath in which the sword of the spirit is contained.” Timothy Lull, editor, MLBTW, p. 717. Also note that Hebrew is considered sacred because “What God spoke is contained in that language.” or because “the holy Word of God is comprehended (written) in them.” See the footnote on the previous page 716.
According to Ulrich Asendorf, Hegel’s concept of the concrete spirit was the signature of Luther’s theology:
Luther und Hegel: Untersuchungen zur Grundlegung einer Neuen Systematischen Theologie) (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag GMBH, 1982), p. 162.
James Samuel Preus, From Shadow to Promise, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1969), p. 252-253. And Wilhelm Pauck, p. 300.
Hegel took this to its philosophical consequence, and considered the creation to be an incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity. If the creation is considered the body of Christ, it may not have to be considered panentheism. The negative and positive polar terms are involved here and no confusion need result. Not the world as the contradiction in itself, but the world that God loves and with his truth, his Son, has overcome the contradiction. Thus the natural body of Christ is the New Creation, while the Kingdom of Heaven is the social body of Christ, and Jesus is the personal body, the Christ.
Latin and other classical languages still contained the high civilizations of classical antiquity, and learning them gave access to this authoritative model after which medieval Europe was attempting to fashion itself. Perhaps this is the real meaning of the name, “the Holy Roman Empire.”
See footnote 72 earlier in this lecture.
George Lindbeck uses the language paradigm to distinguish four kinds of religious theologies in his work, The Nature of Doctrine, (Philadelphia: The Westminister Press, 1984). The language model can be considered exclusive for those who do not know the language.
Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Karen E. Fields, trans., (New York: The Free Press, 1995), p. 447.
In his “Disputation on the Divinity and Humanity of Christ,” (of 1540) Luther argues at one point: “This does not follow in the abstract. But I concede it in the concrete.” from WA 39/2: 92-121. In explanation of thesis XII[a].
“The Sacrament of the Body and Blood – against the Fanatics,” Martin Luther‘s Basic Theological Writings, Timothy Lull, ed., (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), p. 319.
S. Kierkegaard, For Self-Examination/Judge For Yourself, H.V. and E.H. Hong, editors, vol. XXI, (Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 17ff.
Ibid., p. 273.
Galatians 5:6. William Lazareth, A Theology of Politics, (New York: Lutheran Church in America: Board of Social Ministry, 1965), p. 20.
The usage of the words, “truth, freedom,” and “logos,” in the Gospel of John share philosophical as well as religious meaning.
Note the mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity, of Christ in his followers, and the followers in each other here.
James Samuel Preus studies Luther’s hermeneutic development in Dictata super Psalterion, of 1517 in From Shadow to Promise, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1969).
Ibid., p. 247.
Ibid., p. 253.
Daniel Erlander, Baptized, We Live: Lutheranism as a Way of Life, (Chelan, Washington: Holden Village, 1981), p. 12. Erlander has the old fashioned man proposing to the woman. But the feminist new way is more exciting.
R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, (London: Oxford University Press, 1946), p. 118.
When the immanent is entered, the reversal must be the transcendent. The transcendent is immanent. There is an external and an internal transcendent.
See Wilhelm Pauck, p. 122. But this case is quite prosaic.
 Cheris Kramarae, Muriel Schulz, and William M. O’Barr, editors, Language and Power,(London: Sage Publications, 1984),p. 194.
Ibid., p. 194-195. See page 11 for the words “intended and foreseen” added to the definition.
Ibid., p. 279.
Ibid., p. 176.
Luther complains that the universities and monasteries have so corrupted the Latin and German languages that the miserable folk have been fairly turned into beasts, unable to speak or write a correct German or Latin, and have well nigh lost their natural reason to boot. Timothy Lull, MLBTW, p. 717.
Peter von Polenz in Deutsche Sprachgeschichte vom Spätmittelalter bis zur Gegenwart,v. I, (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1991), has some very sophisticated concepts to analyze and consider bi-lingual conditions, as those between Latin and vernaculars in Medieval and Early Modern Europe.