From the July/August, 2000 issue of Touchstone

Truthless Conversations by Patrick Henry Reardon

Truthless Conversations

As one looks over the array of “concerns” that Christians are officially discussing, and discussing, and discussing, right now, the scene is most perplexing. For example, just how long has it been since the Episcopalians established their very first official dialogue about . . . well, you know what. Was it fifteen years ago? Who can remember? Anyway, are they, or anyone else, any closer to the truth after all this talk? And just why did the Eastern Orthodox think it important, recently, to renew their own official ecumenical dialogue with the Episcopalians? Not only did earlier decades of such discussion not produce a single discernible fruit, but the actual rift between the two groups now is conspicuously wider than ever. Talk seems to be getting us nowhere, on almost any subject, but especially on subjects that require actual decisions.

The problem is not that Christians are talking with each other but that human speech itself has fallen on hard times. The growing enfeeblement of language, the weakening of its structure and dissolution of its content and fiber, is arguably the most serious moral problem facing our culture at this time. Indeed, inasmuch as the composition and vitality of language is the foundation required for moral discourse itself, one may contend that the current and increasing impairment of our native tongue, its expanding attenuation throughout society nearly to the point of intellectual paralysis, is the root of all those other moral problems that chiefly distinguish the present age, and it is most certainly the reason we can barely speak of them with understanding. The relationship between word and truth at the present time has become so insubstantial and evanescent that one fears we are approaching the point at which moral conversation becomes impossible. Laugh as we will—and should—at him who says it, there is already considerable doubt about what the meaning of “is” is.

Diseased Speech

Our current difficulty with discourse seems not adequately explained as mere inattention to verbal content. If that were the root of the problem, we would only have to apply, even now, the Socratic method of asking the right questions in order to stir the mind to a proper level of discipline. Our task would be roughly that of Puddleglum the Marshwiggle who urged on his young companions, in The Silver Chair, the practical wisdom of thinking carefully before speaking.

Likewise, our fundamental task right now does not consist merely in getting people to examine the vacuity of their cliches and buzzwords. Were that the case, we would find a completely satisfactory model of correction in the prophet Ezekiel, who systematically made it his business to deflate the various catchy slogans of his day (cf. Ezekiel 8:12; 9:9; 11:3; 12:22,27; 18:2,25; 33:10,24).

Nor does our dilemma consist, it would seem, in the inadequacy of the people’s substandard linguistic skills to deal with the increasing complexities of modern life. It is not a question of insufficient vocabulary and underdeveloped grammar among the populace. I shall argue presently that our problem with language is not a linguistic problem, but a philosophical problem, nor does it originate with the populace.

The root of our current linguistic lassitude is a disease, not just a lack of proper exercise. The very notion of human speech is being eaten away right now by a sort of fatigue syndrome, an ideological virus that attacks the vitality of language at the level of cell and corpuscle. We are dealing with a sickness of the mind, which consists in the dissolution of what is meant by human discourse, by reducing it to the sounds of brute animals, literally.

Mere Communication

Let us cite but a single instance of this reduction, out of literally thousands of examples in the literature of Sociology, Anthropology, and other disciplines. Writing on the Philosophy of Science in a volume entitled Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism, Robert T. Pennock asserts, as though it were a brand new discovery, something that mankind has in fact always known and often commented on, namely, that animals convey messages by means of vocal sounds. Citing various published studies on the languages of chimpanzees, parrots, and other animals—fairly well known studies, of the sort that even Touchstone editors have read from time to time—Pennock boldly concludes: “Nor may we say any longer with assurance that we [human beings] are alone in our ability to communicate through language.”

Now herein is a marvel. Who in the world says such a thing, with or without assurance? I submit that no observant person will deny or has ever denied to animals their “ability to communicate through language.” The unexamined question, however, the question as obvious and overshadowing as a mountain, has to do with the content of that communication.

For Pennock it is evidently sufficient that discourse among the beasts of the forest involves “what seems to be the rich emotional lives of animals.” He goes on to remark that “we may someday have to admit that animals have feelings of happiness and anger, playfulness and sadness, loss and even grief that are comparable to emotions that we ourselves feel.” Really? We need extensive studies, do we, funded by academic grants, to inform us that animals convey a very wide range of emotions by means of sound? None of this information is revolutionary. Nor need it be tentative (“we may someday have to admit”). Pennock’s nearly breathless hesitation here, as though at the threshold of a sanctuary, borders on ludicrous. He could have learned these astounding and allegedly newfound facts from watching the squirrels in my back yard.

Missing Metaphysics

One hates to insist on the obvious, but Pennock leaves no choice. What is missing in the vocal communication of animals is the slightest evidence of what philosophers call the a priori, the direct, intuitive perception of a permanent principle of thought. At this point in human experience we encounter what no beast—as far as empirical observation can determine—has ever known. At Sea World I paid a modest fee to watch the dolphins do somersaults; I would have paid anything to watch them do syllogisms. Should the dog take up dialectics, or the cat pursue rationalism instead of rats, no heart would rejoice more than mine. Much as we might love for it to be so, however, there seems no hope that the zebra will resolve Zeno’s four paradoxes for us.

When Pennock speaks of the “hitherto unappreciated conceptual and linguistic abilities” of animals, he does not include such fundamental perceptions as the Principle of Contradiction and abstract analogy (to say nothing of the Analogy of Being). Thus, not only can the beast render no assessment of the Ontological Argument, say, it has no access to such fairly simple notions as the specifying characteristic of primary numbers, the distinction between synthetic and analytical propositions, the correct proportion of the diameter to the circumference of a circle, the analogue between a hypothetical syllogism and a constructive dilemma, the difference between a material implication and a material equivalence, or even the plain grammatical distinction, universally and abstractly considered, between a subject and a predicate.

These matters are apparently what Pennock means when he speaks of “tricky philosophical issues” in this respect. Tricky, indeed. If he fancies the mind’s rise to abstraction, intentionality, universals, and critical reflection to be some kind of stunt, Pennock may soon imagine monkeys capable of it. Although various beasts are pretty adept at mimic, metaphysics seems to elude them, and while we readily excuse the animals on this point, we should be less lenient when metaphysics also eludes Pennock. Were this not the case, he would recognize that such basic perceptions as those mentioned above are only the prolegomena, the most primitive tools, for the serious business of thinking. His thesis on language does not ennoble the animal; it degrades the human being.

This very shallow and erroneous presumption destroys what is the most characteristic feature of human speech, its capacity to be employed freely and critically on its own structure and content. That is to say, human speech, the instrument of human thought and free choice, becomes the means of symbolizing abstract identifications, whereby the intellect can arrive at the transcendent “forms” (morphai, formae) of intellection and the permanent principles of correct logic and proper behavior. No other animal known to us has ever displayed the faintest indication of this capacity.

Dialogue & Truth

Our society’s low assessment of human speech goes a long way toward explaining why various ongoing “dialogues” seem to get nowhere. If human beings think they can do no better than dogs and cats in the analysis and evaluation of ideas—if, indeed, they may not justifiably aspire higher—it is no wonder that the Lutherans and Presbyterians are experiencing some difficulty in their various interfaith conversations. If “rich emotional lives” summarizes the limit of human discourse, this would explain why the National Council of Churches has reached an impasse and COCU is going cuckoo.

In Holy Scripture human speech is not regarded, first and foremost, as a form of communication among human beings. Adam already has the gift of speech prior to the creation of Eve. And he uses it. Instead of teaching circus tricks to the animals, he names them. It is through the medium of speech that Adam’s mind, recognizing the predications of the beasts, can identify their essence. His nouns and predicates give voice to formal perceptions, so that the very structure and composition of his mind assumes the distinguishing contours of reality. The voice is the instrument of vision. Word is the expression of truth.

In our present society, which no longer acknowledges either the reality (res) of truth as something actually perceived nor the function of language with respect to its perception, it is very difficult to see how speech can be of much service in its discovery. Consequently, there is good reason to be skeptical about the prospects for “dialogue” in the near future. If discussions among Christians are to go on, their goal must be the service of discernible, real truth, not something as vacuous as “mutual understanding” and “shared perspectives.” Still, even as we defend human discourse against those who reduce it to a circus act, we believers are not, at the end, mere philosophers. Our deeper bounden duty is, rather, to the One called Alpha and Omega, the taproot of language and its final intent.

Patrick Henry Reardon, for the editors

Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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