Language is a complicated, messy thing. Anyone who reads poetry, or at least tries to ready poetry with only mild success, knows this. When you think you know what a word or phrase means, a poet uses it in a very different manner.
For instance, take William B. Yeats poem “The Second Coming.” In the first stanza, Yeats reflects on the chaotic and violent status that the world is in1 So, as he starts his second stanza, the poem goes: “Surely some revelation is at hand;/Surely the Second Coming is at hand.” For the attentive reader, you would see the phrase “Second Coming,” probably think of the eschatological hope of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, and think that while the first stanza has described the suffering and violence of life, the second stanza will speak of a coming, future hope. In the context of the first stanza, the phrase “Second Coming” has a salient meaning through its customary usage in the Christian West: it is about Jesus.
This, however, is where the poem then confuses expectations. Yeats goes on to describe a vision of a troubling future where it is said that “the darkness drops again.” What Yeats goes on to see is a second coming of a different sorts; a second coming of the darkness that had already been.2 So, in the context of the rest of the stanza, “Second Coming” comes to be taken not simply as a reference to Christ, but ambiguously also refers to a return of the darkness of the past.
So, language is a messy thing; any word that we use in a customary way can be used in a new novel way in different circumstances. The meaning of our words are not some absolutely fixed entity residing in our head, but as Wittgenstein has famously observed: “The meaning of the word is it’s use.” Because we use words in new contexts, to describe different things, and use different words to describe them, our words take on slightly or even drastically different meanings through it varied uses, and yet somehow in the midst of it all, we are able to make sense of these different usages if we allow that every usage of a word does not have the mean the same thing each time. The semantics of words are multifunctional and adaptive, sensitive to the ideas that they are used to refer to.
However, while they are multifunctional, most words have specific meanings that automatically come to minds. While we saw how the phrase “Second Coming” could be used in a new, novel way, we are going to have a standard idea come to our mind when we see the word “Second Coming.” A certain type of meaning and usage is much more salient to us when we hear or read language. The reasons these words take on such salient meaning are legion, but some prominent factors are customary usage in our social networks and more idiosyncratic uses of the word to describe someone that is pertinent to oneself. Whereas prose is an example of where words are typically used in accordance to customary usage, poetry tends to create idiosyncratic meanings of the poet that may or may not successfully transmit to its readers and hearers. There exists a tension between the usage of words in dialogues with and monologues from other people and in the way we use our words. So, the way I use a word may not fit the salient meaning of a word for other people. Addition, different social networks use words differently, so what is the salient meaning from one person from one social network is different from the salient meaning from another person of another social network.
For instance, the word “love” has various different connotations. In Christian contexts, it commonly takes on the meaning of self-sacrificial care for others, whether one sacrifices for the sake of God or for the sake of others. In popular music, love takes on a feeling of romantic or sexual exuberance, where one is longs for or is united with one’s partner. In conversations about dinner, love refers to that tastiness of food, such as “Oh, I absolutely love the chicken parmesan here!” While each of these different uses may have a common pre-meaning, the salient meaning of the word will differ depending on what context one is speaking to AND which contexts one tends to participate in that forms our language.3
So, this gets into the value of analytic precision of language. Language has the ability to shift the salient meaning of the word in a context, such as described in the Yeats poem. As counter-intuitive as it might sound at first blush, both poetry and conceptual analysis allow for us to create novel salient meanings by how we use words in our poetry and prose. When I seek to describe the metaphysical concept of identity, I would use language in such a way to describe the metaphysical usage of word “identity” in order to distinguish it from the similar but different psychological use of the word “identity.” If I were to say “Identity is the relation each things bears to itself,”4 I would in effect be telling readers from more psychological communities that I am not necessarily referring to my own sense of who I am in a person.” Through this act of generating new salience in defining my terms, I increase the probability that my thoughts will more accurately transmit to another person by clear the brush of other salient meanings that might arise in communication. This is not to mention how such conceptual analysis may help to clarify our own thinking so as to get a clearer grasp precisely what it is we are thinking about. In a way, analytic philosophy and theology shares much in common with poetry.
However, there is one important limitation that analytic philosophy that can be a limitation upon it’s value. Through a) the customary, repeated usage of words in order to establish particular, salient meanings and b) the expectation that all usage of this word will be used in a same or similar fashion, it may lead to a particular illusion: the idea that phenomenon we are describing is uniform. Because the repeated usage of the terms to form salient meanings with the execptations that we should use these words in accordance to the customs, our thinking begins to become fixed as it is form by the repeated, uniform usage of language. Our minds become increasingly numb to the subtle variations of novelty that language can bring, so that when we describe a set of entities, processes, objects, or persons with the same term, we presume that each individual member of the set all shares the same features in common that the fixedly salient meaning of the word describes.
It is this temptation towards the inflexibility of language leading to the inflexibility of thinking about sets of things that can describe precisely why analytic philosophy and poetry are so divergent. It is this difference in how language is used that may in part describe the historical differences of style and substance between analytic and continental philosophy. Where this is most relevant to me, however, is in the nature of Christian theology. If we are attuned to a God who communicates to us in symbolic means, such as the prophets, Jesus, the apostles, the Scriptures, etc., and the usage of this language is sensitive to the same processes of salience and meaning, then we who aspire to do theology in an analytic style can see both the benefits and limitations of our style. We can use language in such a way to convey surprising new meanings by precision and showing how this precision makes sense of and matches the sources of our theology; in so doing, we can increase the possibility of the successful transmission of our thoughts to another. At the same time, we have to be attuned to the possibility that God’s meaning is not fixed by our customary and salient uses of words, nor is God Himself to be understood as matching the uniformity of our language usage about Him.
- Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” in 1920, 2 years after the conclusion of World War I.
- One might say Yeats had a foreboding insight into the status of society leading up to World War II.
- A good book to read on the topic of salience in language is On Our Mind: Salience, Context, and Figurative Language by Rachel Giora.
- This definition is pulled from Wikipedia for the sake of ease. This is not meant to reflect what is the best philosophical deifinition.