“Words don’t have meaning, people have meaning…?” (or, “This Last, Dim, Weird Battle of the West” or, “The End of Civilization, Maybe.” (Part 3)

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“Words don’t have meaning, people have meaning…?” (or, “This Last, Dim, Weird Battle of the West” or, “The End of Civilization, Maybe.” (Part 3)

By Mark Williams, Ph.D
Professor of Rhetoric, California State University, Sacramento

(from the regular Column: “Meaningful-Faith: Words, the Word, and a Life of Substance”)

We’ve recently been reflecting on Stultus, an alias for a real student who made the claim that “Words don’t have meaning, people have meaning.” In Part 1 and Part 2, I discounted some silly things Stultus might have meant, and then turned our attention to another, more substantive, way to understand this claim. For example, I suggested that perhaps Stultus was clumsily saying that we need to listen and grapple with each other—especially those we disagree with—in order to hone and sharpen our understanding of realities like goodness and justice. That is a demanding but noble path.

But I suspect that is not Stultus’ view. I suspect Stultus meant that words are not attached to anything real but are empty buckets, and we decide what to put in them.  Under this view, justice itself, not simply our understanding of justice, is open for negotiation.

There are three basic ways to think about a word like justice. The first is to believe that the word justice refers to a reality already filled with meaning: justice is as fixed and as real as the answer to the question, “What do I add to 153 to get 721?” Our debates and our struggles with definitions of justice are an attempt to calculate the answer to the question, “What do I add to or subtract from this situation in order to make it just?” We struggle to make our language, our culture, and our own views more like that real justice itself.  Because that reality—justice itself—is recognizably better than what we are presently doing with our lives.

A second way to think about justice is to say that there is no such thing. There is no fixed eternal nature that the word justice refers to. Justice is a social construct, academics say. We choose to define it from within our social network and, therefore, justice is whatever we decide. Whenever there are disagreements about justice, there will be conflicts, and the winner of those conflicts will get to decide what justice means. Their answer will always be right because the word justice means whatever the strong say it means.

For almost 20 years I have taught a course in systems and theories of language, and every year the vast majority of my students (usually fifteen or eighteen out of twenty) will tell me that had the South won the Civil War, slavery would be just. Had the Axis powers won World War II, the camps would have been good. Understand: when I press them hard on this, they are unflinching. They insist that the statements slavery is just and genocide is good—statements made by brutally immoral slave owners and horrifying fascists—are not mistakes in perception or incorrect descriptions of reality.  Rather justice and goodness actually change according to who wins the war, my students tell me. That is a second way of thinking about how a word like justice comes to mean something.

A third way to think about the word justice is this: if there is a real justice, it doesn’t exist in this world and so it is irrelevant to you, me, and language, because we can never know anything about it. Maybe blue whales do exist, but if we live in the Gobi Desert, there is no point wishing we had one as a pet. For all practical purposes in our life, blue whales could be as fictional as mermaids.

If you have the second or the third view of the word justice, then your approach to how we ought to live together is really very different from that first view. In the first view, we are not trying to create justice out of our own thoughts and actions. We are trying to think and act in ways that conform to a justice that is already there.

If you tell me to paint a Baum, I might paint whatever I like, because this word does not refer to anything I know or understand.  I am limited only by my own imagination. First, I might paint Saturn, then my grandmother, then a Corgi playing bagpipes. All very nice. But then you return and say, “No, you have it all wrong. Baum is the German word for tree.” Suddenly, the word and my creations are disconnected. But having learned what Baum means, I can begin to try and craft a picture that conforms to the reality behind the word.

If we can come to understand what the words true and just and good and beautiful are referencing, then that understanding can be used to try and craft a life that conforms to those realities—a life the flourishes.

But what happens if Stultus is looking at language and meaning like my own students?  That will have to wait for another installment.


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