Ferdinand Saussure, the father of modern linguistics, outlined a theory of how language functioned in his Course on General Linguistics, that centered around two principles around linguistics signs, which he defines as a relationship between a sound pattern and a concept.1 His first principle, the one that is well-known and is more intuitive to many of us today is the premise that the link between the sign and signification, that is the conceptual representation, is arbitrary. The link the sound we make when we pronounce “apple” (or the visual sensation of “apple”) and an actual apple has no real connection. It could just as easily be “mifflesnip,” except social conventions of the language have chosen one set of symbols/sounds.
One major consequence of this is that the meaning of language is determined by the society which teaches us what our language means. Because society teaches us how to language, both the grammar and the specific words, in relationship to other parts of grammar and words, Saussure’s linguistic principle undergirds the formation of structuralism, which believed that meaning of words comes from the relationship
Then, a critique came from post-structuralists and seriously challenged this notion. They accepted that words had meaning in relationship to other words, but that you could never really know where to fix meaning in the first place. “Table” and “chair” are used in relation to each other, but they really could be referring to anything; you can not really know the significance of the structure in the first place. Furthermore, they rejected the more common-sense notion of meaning that can know what it means from pure
But part of the problem of structuralism is to not recognize the shift in concepts due to usage over time from various sources. Of, more specifically, we can use words in various different contexts, sometimes join together with other words and sometimes by itself. When a mom points to a cow and says “cow” that is forming a neural connection for the meaning of cow in the child, just as when that child hears “the cow goes moo,” modifying the concept of “cow” to include a common noise they make. Over the course of time, the word “cow” will be used in more and more contexts that will expand the child’s knowledge, such as “hamburgers comes from cows.” As they grow, they may even learn a metaphorical usage of the word cow, such as Bart Simpson’s common phrase “don’t have a cow, man” or as a rude metaphor for an overweight female.
Throughout the course of time, their knowledge of cow is mediated by what they are paying attention to when they hear or think the word “cow.” If they are paying attention to speech, then the meaning of “cow” will be impacted by the other words it is being used with, assuming the child pays
What typically happens is due to the very basic social phenomenon of joint attention that is in effect for most people from childhood,2 we learn to pay attention to similar features in language usage. Furthermore, when there are errors in our language usage, others will commonly direct our attention to the error, thereby further modifying the cognitive schema for word usage. As a result, through the normal processes of shared attention, our neural networks are modified so that the cognitive meaning of the word alters over the course of time.
However, this process can happen outside of the context of shared attention. Some people, such as those who have conditions such as ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, sensory integration disorders, etc., may have their attention directed much more differently than the language users they interact with. Furthermore, there are people, like me, who are naturally interested in language, and spend a lot of time in their own minds about how words can be used. Whereas Wittgenstein makes the argument that language can only have public meaning, this is misleading; language as it is employed by individual people can have private meaning, but language usage can only be successful in transferring meaning insofar as the meanings are more or less shared due to some combination of similar experiences of word usage and directed attention,3 or the contexts we use the words to modify the meanings in the necessary manner (such as the most basic, ostensive act of pointing to something while uttering a word for it).
My point in this: it is ultimately to suggest the relationship between the sign and the signified is not purely arbitrary.
It IS arbitrary in the sense that
However, the relationship between the sign and the signified is NOT arbitrary in the sense that in the course of our experiences, the sign and the signified are paired together. A word means what it means because it has been used to mean that way. Certainly, nothing in structuralism would reject this premise, but it is a fundamentally important premise to make about how language starts and the analytic implications we draw from it. From the perspective of parole, that is language as it is actually used, the relationship between the sign and
Signs are not arbitrary in phenomenological experience; that is, signs are not arbitrary from the perspective of the sign user. They are, however, arbitrary from a more abstract point of view, where we can imagine other scenarios where the word can be used in a very different manner. As such, the recognition of the arbitrariness of the sign from an abstract point of view has usefulness for understanding the various possibilities that language can take, but it can not express how language is
However, the problem of post-structuralism is that
Meanwhile, this more psychological/phenomenological view of language retains an abstract, etic posture like structuralism and post-structuralism, but of a different nature. (Post-)Structuralism is built upon the abstraction that it is possible for there to be different links between sign and signified. While this is helpful for us to understand the diversity of possibilities such as between cultures, people, etc., it tells us little about the actual meaningfulness of language as it is actually used by people and formed into people.
To which I am bringing this to what might seem to be a surprising connection to theology. Insofar as our societies understanding how language and discourse functions has been influenced by (post-)structuralism, it has an inherent bias to codify, if not valorize, diversity over an against the value of meaningful unity. Far from simply being tools to help us to make sense of other people and their language usage, the currency of (post-)structuralism it has been embedded in various intellectual discourses, which then trickle-down to more average discourses has crafted certain expectations about language and discourse that dramatically alter how we understand theology and the church. Far from recognizing that language can be used differently within certain speech communities, it valorizes and legitimates a diversity of meaning within singular speech communities. Semantic variability is the norm, not the exception.
There is an important implication of this. When theological views change and shift, they frequently undergo a shift in meaning. But usually, this change of meaning is unbeknownst to the wider speech community, but it occurs within a smaller, sub-culture. This type of semantic change is commonly exhibited in prophetic discourse, hence its affinities for more poetic usage of language that challenge language conventions, and then in the new community of God developed around crisis events of the crucified and resurrected Christ and the Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The possibility of linguistic variability and transformation is the basis upon which the people of God experience changes to the powers and ideologies of the present age, including challenges to the linguistic ideologies.
However, because of the valorization and normalization of linguistic variability and diversity WITHIN speech communities (such, as the United Methodist Church), not simply a recognition of it across speech communities or an allowance for the formation of new speech communities, the prophetic and crisis events have become divested of any true meaning and significance. That which looks prophetic on the surface has been divested of any significance, but itself has become part of the ideology it purportedly seeks to undermine. The significance people make of the cross and the Spirit has largely been reduced to diverse experiences of what we wish for it to mean, rather than it being a challenge to the very structures of meaning and calling us into a new community that is defined by accepting this challenge and critique of these structures, including the linguistic structures. Consequently, the communities of God’s people have
But, before one hears this as a rejection of diversity outright, as if the goal is the return to some known, singular pattern for churches, society, etc. it isn’t this. The critique isn’t against the diversity of language and others forms itself, but rather against the way that individual instances are themselves ensured protection from challenge and change. Rather than having one singular ideology, there are many smaller ideologies that have been immunized from challenge and change. Empires beget ideologies by the opposition of challenge, and in this modern case, empires beget ideologies by the formalization and protection of discourses from change. There is much value to this when empires have a plurality they must manage and watch over peacefully; there is no inherent reason the Church should fight the premise of diversity within our socio-political world. But for the Church to act prophetically and challenge, and even for the Church itself to recognize a prophetic challenge to itself, it must resist a view of language that empties the prophetic and divests the crisis of anything unique and substantive, but merely as one instance of diversity to be considered as normatively equivalent to any other instance.
Furthermore, this is not an argument for a unique speech community among Christians that only insiders can even begin to comprehend. We can use words in a manner that bears a family resemblance to the way words are used outside of the Church, but as people grow and learn within Christian communities, they themselves learn the nuances of language used within the community. Put differently, our language is “in the world, but it isn’t of the world.”
In summary, (post-)structuralism can describe the possibilities for different discourses and meanings, including even the prophetic and crisis language of Israel and the Church, but its bias towards recognizing diversity and tendency to miss the
- Saussure, Ferdinand de la. Course in General Linguistics (Open Court Classics) (Kindle Locations 1593-1594). Open Court. Kindle Edition.
- This phenomenon of joint attention may be more limited and disrupted by people with certain conditions such as ADHD, autism, sensory integration disorders, etc.
- I could imagine a situation where one person learns about the word “cow” only by seeing them whereas another person learns about “cow” only by reading it. But I would suggest there is still some degree of similar experiences and directed attention, based upon the premise that human thought is, essentially, simulated sensations. So, a person who has heard a description of a cow may have some approximately similar experience and attention to what a cow is shared with someone who has only seen cows.