“Can you play chess without the Queen?” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
Moving from one blog to another and thus one audience to another, a writer will invariably experience a certain amount of deja vu. Clearly, for example, Mr. Rowe has had the discussions his posts have started generating here numerous times before (alas, in some cases, repeatedly with the same readers). I understand and agree with his efforts to keep those who claim the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation from, to put it mildly, overstating their case. There are political agendas at play here, and because I oppose much of the “Christian Nation” political agendas, I think Mr. Rowe is doing important work.
But arguing over definitions, however politically important the underlying motives may be, is akin to windmill tilting and jello nailing. Technical vocabularies aside, words in our ordinary or natural languages simply do not have the sort of essential meanings which, if only we could discern them, we could once and for all know with confidence whether the word was being applied properly or not. Having discovered the ‘true essential definition’ of ‘Christian,’ for example, we could dispositively conclude whether Washington or Obama or you or I were Christians – who knows? You might be one without even knowing it or vice versa – we’d finally know whether Mormons were Christians and perhaps even whether it was the Western or Eastern Church that maintained ‘the true faith” during the Great Schism. That would be peachy, wouldn’t it? But alas, in the words of that great theologian, Paul of Simon, God only knows, God makes His plans, the information’s unavailable to the mortal man.
Much of the intellectual history of the West got off on the wrong foot when Socrates (or Plato using Socrates as his philosophical sock puppet) insisted that words and their underlying concepts do have essential meanings. (See, e.g., the discussion of virtue in the Meno.) We are forever indebted to classical Greece for much of our intellectual heritage, but as parents are wont to do, they left us with some unfortunate intellectual baggage, too. Again excluding technical terms stipulatively defined, the meanings or correct uses of words simply don’t have sharp borders. At least none of the really interesting words like beauty, justice, God, etc. The question whether a word is being correctly used in a doubtful or unfamiliar case ultimately depends not on any further discovery or finding of facts but on a decision resulting from a weighing of the facts already known. And, as such, because reasonable people can reasonably disagree about such decisions, what we mean by one side in such a dispute being right or wrong (two more of those philosophically interesting words, by the way) is thus less about truth or falsehood (two more!) than about, for lack of a better term, appropriateness.
Which perhaps seems like a pretty trivial point. Until you consider how much blood has been shed by those who have failed to grasp it.