On Wanting Language to Say Something

Image two speakers of language

Paradigmatically speaking

I worry about “semantic freewheeling,” at this moment in history in particular.

Bourdieu says this:

…language is the exemplary formal mechanism whose generative capacities are without limits. There is nothing that cannot be said and it is possible to say nothing. One can say everything in language, that is, within the limits of grammaticality. We have known since Frege that words can have meaning without referring to anything. In other words, formal rigour can mask semantic freewheeling. All religious theologies and all political theodicies have taken advantage of the fact that the generative capacities of language can surpass the limits of intuition or empirical verification and produce statements that are formally impeccable but semantically empty. …

One should never forget that language, by virtue of the infinite generative but also originative capacity – in the Kantian sense – which it derives from its power to produce existence by producing the collectively recognized, and thus realized, representation of existence, is no doubt the principal support of the dream of absolute power.1

So, “semantic freewheeling” as I understand it refers to that practice in which we say things that seem intelligible, at least superficially, but when we examine the referents of those things, we can’t find them. That practice might mean we end up saying nothing at all, really. Or, it might mean we produce statements that in some sense go off in search of referents, maybe to find them. (For example, possibly, “national security.”)

Political examples abound, but I do have a non-political one – maybe less inflammatory. The story of the Chudnovsky brothers, who were trying to calculate the value of pi on their supercomputer comes up fairly regularly in our family conversations. “They think that when they get to the end of that calculation, it will be God; they may actually find God.” I object to this. I say: What does that even mean, precisely? How will the results of this calculation, even if it succeeds and finds some incredible pattern way out at the end of pi, they succeed in finding the very long number of digits that result in the final calculation of pi, or they find the place where pi repeats, even if this process has a point of termination, how will this result in “finding God?” I mean – at that point, what do they think they mean by “God”? I do not see it.

My family member the Unitarian Universalist says “well, if infinity is God – which is how I think of God – then finding the place where infinity becomes finite would be … well, would be one way of thinking about finding God. You don’t have a big enough way of thinking about God.” I say: idk, if you find the place where infinity becomes finite, haven’t you just stopped dealing with infinity? Because isn’t the definition of infinity that it has no limit? So if you find a limit, haven’t you just found the place where what you thought was infinite turns out to be finite, after all, … haven’t you just discovered that something is different from what you thought it was, rather than having found some weird paradoxical space … ?

We don’t finish this conversation, because of my lack of imagination. But I return to it from time to time, mentally, and particularly at this political moment. I do sometimes think of my persnickety lexically-bound lack of imagination as a character flaw. I sometimes think I would like myself better as a visionary. But sometimes I object; I think: we need to confront our woeful lack of understanding here. Are we saying anything, or are we just talking in slogans that have feelings attached, but no content? Do we know what we’re talking about? Do we know what this will look like in practice? What do we “have in mind” when we say these words? Do you and I have the same thing in mind?

For instance, what do you mean by “great”?


1 Pierre Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power (London: Basil Blackwell, 1991) 41-42.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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