Words Have Meaning, Or Do They?

Deconstruction _ LEGO PhilosophyWords have meaning. Of course they do, or people would never be able to understand each other. If I say, Thanks for visiting my blog, no one is going to mistakenly think I’m saying you’ve stopped by my home. My blog address is one of my online locations, but it’s not where I reside physically. It doesn’t take any special level of language acumen to understand this.

And yet we are living in a time in which the meaning of language is up for grabs. Postmodern philosophy has played a role in the deconstruction of language.

Here’s a brief summary of what was and what is replacing it:

Western philosophy is in this sense logocentrist, committed to the idea that words are capable of communicating unambiguously meanings that are present in the individuals mind.

Words are capable of communicating unambiguously. Sounds similar to words have meanings.

For the postmodern thinker, however, there’s deconstruction:

deconstruction, a method of textual analysis . . . which by means of a series of highly controversial strategies seeks to reveal the inherent instability and indeterminacy of meaning. . . . Deconstruction is best approached as a form of radical scepticism and antifoundationalism. (quotes from “Postmodernism”)

And why deconstruction?

Postmodernists believe that people are trapped behind something in the attempt to get to the external world. However, for them the wall between people and reality is not composed of sensations as it was for Descartes; rather, it is constituted by one’s community and its linguistic categories and practices. One’s language serves as a sort of distorting and, indeed, creative filter. (from “Truth, Contemporary Philosophy, and the Postmodern Turn”)

If language is distorting reality, then it needs to be deconstructed.

And so, we have a culture–Christians and non-Christians alike–that systematically goes about redefining words. I’ll mention some of the hot-button issues by way of illustration, not to make a point about them necessarily, other than to say, deconstruction is effective.

First, the Mormon church has for years effectively deconstructed a number of terms from the Bible: Son of God, Father, atonement, redemption, salvation, and Christian to name a few. The apparent intent is to shake the identification of cult. Rather than trying to deconstruct the meaning of that word, Mormons instead have couched their doctrines in terminology that means something very different to Evangelical Christians than it does to Mormons.

So in the Mormon community “Jesus Christ” refers to a god, not a member of the Trinity.

Words have meanings, until someone deconstructs them.

For centuries now here in the US, marriage has meant “the formal union of a man and a woman, typically recognized by law, by which they become husband and wife.” For the last fifteen, twenty years, however, this definition is being deconstructed. Consequently, same-sex relationships now claim marriage, though clearly the traditional definition contradicts the concept.

Other words have undergone a similar deconstruction: the concept of glorifying God, for example, and even the meaning of worship.

Most recently “natural” took a hit in order to explain away Romans 1:26-27. The thinking of the author of a recently published book roughly states that God said in Genesis, it is not good for Man to be alone. God then saw there was not a fitting partner for Man, so He gave him one.

For the gay man, the only fitting partner is another man, so this means what is natural for him is a male partner, not a female partner. Therefore when he is joined in “marriage” to his partner, that is good in the same way that Adam and Eve’s union was good.

Extrapolate that then to the Romans passage and you see that in reality for the gay person, same sex activity actually is what is natural.

I undoubtedly have mangled the explanation, but it serves as a good illustration. According to postmodernism, language takes on meaning from within a culture or community. So within the gay community, “natural” has come to mean the opposite of what it means to the rest of society. Or should I say, what it had meant to the rest of society.

The thing is, words actually do have meaning, so society at large either accepts the deconstruction of marriage and natural and Christian or it rejects those re-definitions.

If it accepts them, then the words will have come to mean a new thing.

Living languages, in fact, do change the meanings of words, so there’s no shock there. But the fact is, this manner of deconstructing language seems to carry with it intention. It would seem there are those who wish to a) destabilize culture and/or b) reverse meanings.

What I find so fascinating in all this is that the Bible told us we’d be right where we are:

Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil;
Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness;
Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!

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2 Comments

  1. There is a group in our church who are members of a Christians Scholar Network at Virginia Tech. Over the years they’ve been developing a course to offer to the universities. It deals with the RE-redefining of Knowledge. They presented a short series about the course in Sunday School. It deals with the same issues you discussed as well as the changes of how Knowledge has been defined and applied in academic areas of study. Defeater beliefs are discussed as well. Quite interesting to see how foundations are ripped out to accommodate an anti-God agenda.

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  2. This is a subject I’m interested in.

    I had to read an essay for class that I highly recommend if you’re interested — “A Cultural Approach to Communication” by James Carey.

    I’m not passive-aggressively trying to bombard you with high postmodern scholarship, either. The essay is recent, and I’m sure it has postmodernist overtones in some ways, but it is not especially relativist.

    Carey pays close attention to the critical importance that religious metaphor plays in communication theory. Here’s one quote to hook your interest:

    I want to suggest, to play on the Gospel of St. John, that in the beginning was the word; words are not the names for things but, to steal a line from Kenneth Burke, things are the signs of words. Reality is not given, not humanly existent, independent of language and toward which language stands as a pale refraction. Rather, reality is brought into existence, is produced, by communication–by, in short, the construction, apprehension, and utilization of symbolic forms.

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