Meaning and Objectivity


Many conservative Christians are still fascinated with objectivity. For example, they insist upon the objectivity of truth and, consequently, upon the objectivity of meaning. The objectivity of truth implies the objectivity of meaning because truth is normally understood to be a property of propositions. To the degree that the meaning of propositions is subjective, the truth-value of what they express also becomes subjective.

Subjectivity is too dreadful for some to face. They fear that a significant element of subjectivity would render both human communication and divine revelation completely relative. To put it rather woodenly, they assume that if meaning is subjective, then anything can mean anything. Verity becomes an illusion.

In spite of such seemingly dire consequences, we might well ask whether this insistence upon the objectivity of meaning is true to our own experience of communication. Is it really the case that (as one radio commentator is fond of saying) words mean things? Is this the end of the matter?

This question can be answered in many wrong ways. For example, some postmoderns argued that words cannot mean things. They note that when we look for meanings, we do not usually look for the things that the words are supposed to mean. Instead, we look in dictionaries or lexica. Such reference tools do not define terms by their relationship to objective realities, but by their relationship to other terms. A word is defined by other words, which are defined by still other words. Eventually, dictionaries begin to reintroduce into their definitions the very words that they have already defined. If one chases definitions far enough, one eventually ends up back where one started.

Structuralists suggest that language is a web of meaning. It is ultimately self-referential. Deconstructionists believe that this web takes the form of ideology, which is used by power structures to manipulate people and legitimate their own interests. Consequently, deconstructionists seek liberation by untangling the whole web.

These are wrong approaches. While most conservative Christians do not know enough about these philosophies to respond to them, they do find them frightening. Deconstruction, in particular, seems to confirm the fear that if objectivity is compromised, then meaning and truth are in imminent danger.

In other words, many conservative Christians simply retreat from postmodernism into a form of modernism. They counter the relativism of postmodernism by trying to make meaning and truth as objective as possible. They do not see a third alternative.

Our own experience of meaning, however, indicates that this theory is less than satisfactory. Only certain kinds of meaning can be communicated objectively, and even those might be less objective than is frequently supposed. Much meaning is both expressed and apprehended in very subjective ways.

Take, for example, the three terms girl, maiden, and wench. The dictionary definition of these three words is, or ought to be, identical. Each designates an unmarried female, typically of young age. This dictionary definition is called denotation.

Objectively, the words mean the same thing. Subjectively, each of the three strikes us in a different way. Each pulls a different response out of us. This evocative power is called connotation.

What connotation does is to force us to adopt a particular perspective toward the thing that is under consideration. It inclines us to perceive the thing in a particular way. This should come as no great surprise to those who understand that our grasp of reality is never purely independent, abstract, and factual. There are no brute facts. All of our knowledge concerns a reality that is always and everywhere already interpreted.

Consider the term dollar. In colonial times, a dollar was a silver coin weighing a full ounce. Both Americans and Spaniards minted dollars, and because the Spanish dollars were worth eight Reales, dollars were sometimes called pieces of eight. In other words, the terms dollar and piece of eight have identical denotations. The two terms evoke rather different responses, however. While their denotation is the same, their connotations are decidedly different. In a sense, they point to the same object, but they do not mean the same thing.

Connotation can be a powerful thing. The most vigorous words in the English language are those that come down from the old Anglo Saxon. Some of these words—particularly those denoting certain execratory or sexual parts and functions—are so strong that they can only be used as obscenities. Polite discussions of such topics avoid Anglo-Saxon monosyllable in favor of terms that derive from Latin and French roots.

In 1972, comedian George Carlin began performing a routine about “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” The public utterance of these words (at Summerfest in Milwaukee) was enough to get him arrested. Of course, each of the seven words was paralleled by a word or phrase that would have been publicly acceptable. Those synonyms, however, would have evoked neither the laughs nor the outrage that Carlin craved.

The distinction between denotation and connotation is widely recognized. Meaning cannot be reduced to one or the other. Both denotation and connotation contribute to the meaning of an utterance.

Here is the problem: connotative meaning is highly subjective. A dictionary cannot offer definitions of connotations. It might describe them, but reading a description of a connotation is like reading a description of a kiss: it’s not the same thing as the reality. A dictionary might describe a particular phrase as offensive, but reading the description does not communicate the offense.

In this respect, connotations are like jokes. If a joke has to be explained, then it is no longer funny. Likewise, if a connotation has to be explained, it is no longer performing its function as a connotation. To appreciate either a joke or a connotation, you have to “get it.” And “getting it” is irreducibly subjective.

Some people assume that whatever is subjective must be unreal. Connotative meaning, however, is very real, even if it is subjective. It is real enough to have sent George Carlin to jail. Granted, connotations may not be intractably absolute or unchangeable. Even so, hurling a few racial epithets at the wrong crowd could easily produce an applied demonstration of the reality of connotative meaning.

Connotation is only one example of non-objective meaning. Perusing the index of a good volume on writing or speaking will produce others. Tone communicates meaning. Sound communicates meaning (gutturals are harsh, while liquids can be languid, lethargic, lazy, or laborious). Tempo and rhythm communicate meaning. Devices like rhyme, repetition, allusion, and metaphor all communicate meaning. Indeed, these items are barely the beginning of the list.

All of these things mean something, but none of them is exactly objective. Grasping their meaning requires judgment. Judgment always involves a subjective element.

The most vicious philosophies cannot dissolve meaning altogether. Someone always has something to say, and people who have something to say usually find a way to say it. The most radical deconstructionists still write books to persuade others of the value of deconstruction.

Yet meaning is not purely objective, either. Since humans are always interpreting reality, they are always working their interpretations into their utterances. Human communication is rarely (perhaps never) the transmission and reception of purely objective data. A subjective side is always present. Indeed, the ability to communicate this subjective side is what makes us most distinctively human.

Prayer for Grace from The Devotions of Bishop Andrewes
Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626)

My hands will I lift up
     unto Thy commandments which I have loved.

Open Thou mine eyes that I may see,
Incline my heart that I may desire,
     order my steps that I may follow,
     the way of Thy commandments.

Lord God, be Thou to me a God,
     and beside Thee none else,
     none else, nought else with Thee.

Vouchsafe to me, to worship Thee and serve Thee
     in truth of spirit,
     in reverence of body,
     in blessing of lips,
     in private and in public;
     to pay honour to them that have the rule over me,
          by obedience and submission,
     to shew affection to my own,
          by carefulness and providence;
     to overcome evil with good;
     to possess my vessel in sanctification and honour;
     to have my converse without covetousness,
          content with what I have;
     to speak the truth in love;
     to be desirous not to lust,
          not to lust passionately,
          not to go after lusts.

Hedge up, my way with thorns,
     that I find not the path
     for following vanity.
Hold Thou me in with bit and bridle,
     lest I fall from Thee.
Lord compel me to come in to Thee.

[node:bio/kevin-t-bauder body]

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There are 42 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture


About the practicality and Scripturality of the article... my defense of that is that thinking about things requires no defense... and sharing what you're thinking doesn't either. Essays are places to think about things and share what you're thinking. They are not necessarily (or even usually) didactic. So we shouldn't approach them asking "How does this help the people in my church?" A better question is "How does this help me think about the world God has made and the world we all live in?"

Charlie wrote:
Modern epistemology thus rejects Christian epistemology, which insists that faith, hope, and love are essential to the process of knowing, and that wisdom and judgment are functions of our maturity, stemming not from universal reason but from our hearts being purified by God. In short, modern epistemology seeks to eliminate perspective in favor of a perspectiveless godlike knowledge. Christian epistemology embraces our finite perspective and seeks to attune it to how we, as created things, can analogously think God's thoughts after him.

I understand this part and agree that Modern epistemology is way off on this point.
I'm not clear on how we get from there to a sentence like "truth is subjective."
Even saying "language is subjective" is not the same as saying "truth is subjective." So my struggle with this essay is connecting the argument to the conclusion.

Still, I appreciate the piece a lot just for the questions it raises.

JG's picture

I get back to this thread, and Charlie has hit a home run. Smile

Modern epistemology thus rejects Christian epistemology, which insists that faith, hope, and love are essential to the process of knowing, and that wisdom and judgment are functions of our maturity, stemming not from universal reason but from our hearts being purified by God. In short, modern epistemology seeks to eliminate perspective in favor of a perspectiveless godlike knowledge. Christian epistemology embraces our finite perspective and seeks to attune it to how we, as created things, can analogously think God's thoughts after him.

Relevant Scriptures that support what Charlie is saying about Christian (Biblical)epistemology might include passages like Proverbs 1:7, John 3:18-21, Romans 12:2, Ephesians 1:18, etc. We don't "prove" the will of God because we are experts at deciphering objective meaning, but because our minds have been renewed and we have been transformed. Receiving objective truth is vital in that process, but if that were all that is involved, it might say, "Become perfect exegetes in order that you may prove God's will."

The key to rightly knowing is to be in tune with God. That is why elements of subjectivity in communication/meaning are not problematic for the Christian. The search for pure objectivity exalts intellect in a way that the Scriptures do not. If you are just clear-thinking enough, intelligent enough, etc, you can discern pure objective truth, the pure objective meaning of every message, etc.

Dr. Bauder's article is, I believe, both sound Biblically and practical. The Bible doesn't necessarily explicitly state the things he is saying, but much of it, at least, is largely implied by what the Bible teaches about epistemology. It destroys pride of intellect, and emphasizes our dependence on God to know. Part of my disappointment with his article is not what he was saying, but the fact that part of one of my recent sermons touched on this. We can indeed discuss this Biblically, rather than just asserting theory, and it is much more sharpening to do so.

Something that bugs me, though, is the idea that the average layman would simply dismiss the implications of this kind of discussion. Here's the thing- as I read the article, Scripture after Scripture popped into my head, and I made some notes to search out some passages that were on the tip of my mind.

Perhaps that is because Dr. Bauder has earned some credibility with you, so you are assuming that he is giving Scripturally based truth, and you are looking for it. The person who has no knowledge of him might just decide he's an ivory-tower egghead and not bother. But I don't want to trade on my credibility, I want to give Scripture, and I encourage people to expect that of me.

Perhaps I'm coming across as overly critical of Dr. Bauder. If so, it's because A) I think he's right and Cool I have high expectations of him.

Susan R's picture


JG, I was thinking more that, in my experience, the average layman doesn't read much of anything, including Scripture, so they can't think critically or call relevant Scripture to mind. For example, I've been openly mocked and dismissed at church fellowships for reading the Bible and studying 'too much', and the conversation turned back to what are apparently more important topics, like makeup, Dancing with the Stars, and shopping. Hence my rather cynical perspective.

In my mind, a measure of credibility is earned when the information presented is consistent with that which I already know to be true, and is delivered with a humble spirit that invites one to verify it. I think Dr. Bauder meets those qualifications often enough for me to tend to give him the benefit of the doubt when I have one.

BTW, I agree completely with your comment on this thread topic. We need to recognize that only God grants us the ability to know and understand, but not neglect our responsibility to study, or underestimate the required effort and importance of thoughtful and effective communication.

Dan Miller's picture

Charlie wrote:
Subjective - inhering in the subject

Objective - inhering in the object

Interestingly, since modernity, in which truth was assumed to be objective, the words subjective and objective acquired connotative meanings in line with that assumption. So, when people say someone is "objective" today, they often mean that someone judges things accurately, without personal prejudice. This very use of the word, though, is a prejudice. It assumes that true judgment is judgment that removes the personality of the judge. This is the opposite of the ancient idea of the ideal judge, who is selected precisely because of his character, because of an elusive virtue called "judgment."

Not necessarily a disagreement, but here's an interesting quote.
Socrates, per Plato's Apology wrote:
But, setting aside the question of dishonor, there seems to be something wrong in petitioning a judge, and thus procuring an acquittal instead of informing and convincing him. For his duty is, not to make a present of justice, but to give judgment; and he has sworn that he will judge according to the laws, and not according to his own good pleasure; and neither he nor we should get into the habit of perjuring ourselves - there can be no piety in that.

Alex Guggenheim's picture

While most conservative Christians do not know enough about these philosophies to respond to them, they do find them frightening.
"Most conservative Christians....find them frightening"? So any chance of this claim being proved or are we just going to accept it without any support?

Caleb S's picture

Alex Guggenheim wrote:
While most conservative Christians do not know enough about these philosophies to respond to them, they do find them frightening.
"Most conservative Christians....find them frightening"? So any chance of this claim being proved or are we just going to accept it without any support?

Well, obviously ignorance is bliss sometimes. So some are not frightened because of not even knowing about them. However, I can at least speak for myself and say that before I was able to respond to them I found them frightening. And though I am certainly only one, if I may generalize slightly, then there are at least "some" who are frightened.

Andrew K.'s picture

While most conservative Christians do not know enough about these philosophies to respond to them, they do find them frightening.

"Most conservative Christians....find them frightening"? So any chance of this claim being proved or are we just going to accept it without any support?

Most conservative anything find them frightening, as they ostensibly destroy all meaning in and possibility of human communication. I personally found them very frightening, once I was able to wrap my head around them.


Aaron Blumer's picture


Andrew, your comment intrigues me. Maybe I missed the context of that particular quote, but I thought we were talking about pre-modern philosophies. "Conservative" would apply to the attitude that tends to attach value to the old, time-tested stuff and resist innovation... so these philosophies would be more the friend of the conservative than the more modern philosophies that have replaced them.

That said, I still find the whole discussion confusing.
Kevin is fond of saying "there are no bare facts" and "truth is subjective." But unless he's including God as the Ultimate Subject, I can't see how that can work.
The statements are just too broad. Does he mean "understanding language is subjective"? I would heartily agree. Does he mean "the act of apprehending truth is subjective"? I think that's pretty self evident.

But it should be obvious to readers of the Bible that our understanding of things does not determine what actually is.

For example, if somehow all believers in the gospel died suddenly and nobody on planet earth believed Jesus was the Son of God, He would not cease to be the Son of God. The truth that "Jesus is the Son of God" is, in my parlance, a "bare fact" and "objective truth." It exists independently of anybody's--or everybody's--point of view.

And I know Kevin believes "Jesus is the Son of God" to be truth... and truth that is in no way dependent for it's truthfulness on the subject who believes it.

So where does that leave me? Wondering what he means by "objective" and "subjective" and "truth" and "facts." Given how critical these terms are to his essay, I can't make heads or tails of it until several of them are clarified.

He's got another essay on the topic out and we'll post here on Monday. Maybe it'll shed some light for me and others who are likewise confused.

What I suspect is that he is using technical definitions for these terms that are somewhat at odds with most of us understand them to mean. But if that's the case, the essay stumbles a bit because I don't believe those he is answering are using the same definitions for the most part.

Paul Henebury's picture

I'm sorry to say it but the article itself is poor and that is what accounts for these comments. As Christians we are not at leisure to adopt any vocabulary which takes our fancy. Sadly, whenever Dr. Bauder (whom I respect) ventures into this kind of territory, the result leaves more heat than light.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Aaron Blumer's picture


In his defense, Kevin has a fondness for term-definitions that are no longer in general use (for example, in an essay a while back he characterized "panic" as an "appetite"). I'm not sure I can fault him much for that since every day a few hundred more terms are no longer in general use with distinct meanings. That is, the trend--as ignorance of history increases--is that more and more words are conflated.

(Angry people are "mad," frustrated people are "aggravated," secretive people are "not forthcoming" rather than "not forthright," a new gadget is "awesome" and bad coffee is "terrible"... We are turning our language into mush.)

On the other hand, if you're going to talk to people and be understood you have to use words they understand. So the ideal has to be some combination of recovering historic understandings of terms and concepts as well as explaining them in terms today's readers/listeners understand.

Andrew K.'s picture

Aaron, in its context the quote was talking about the philosophies of Structuralism and Deconstructionism and their like. These philosophies are not pre-modern but a form of postmodernism (although I think the actual relationship between them and postmodernism is quite a bit more complicated).

As I understand it, unlike pre-modern thought, modern Theory (of which Structuralism and the subsequent Deconstructionism are examples), building on the thought of Marx, Freud, and Kant, among others, involves a pervasive skepticism about nearly every aspect of communication and understanding one could imagine.

Pre-modernism and conservatism also tend(ed) to focus on the author. Theory went through a stage, if I'm remembering correctly (sure, I could look it up, but it's late here and I'm feeling lazy Smile ), where it "killed" the author and focused on the audience, but currently is focusing more on the phenomenon of text.

Sorry if I've just muddled things more. I'm currently reading and trying to work through some more of this stuff myself.


Aaron Blumer's picture


I think I get what you mean, Andrew. Kant remains a controversial thinker and rightfully so. As I think Kevin acknowledges in today's post, just about nobody buys his thought entirely (including Marx and Freud) but just about nobody has managed to escape its influence.
But I'm definitely open to the idea that "conservative" and "premodern" can still be anti-Kant.


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