Meaning and Objectivity

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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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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Ironically, we need some definitions of "objective" and "subjective" from your point of view, Kevin.

What many of us mean when we insist that truth is "objective" is that there is ultimately one reality determined by God, one meaning of events from His "point of view." But personally, I wouldn't apply that in so many words to human language. In the case of human language, "objective meaning" has mostly to do with authorial intent. Words mean what those who write and speak them mean them to mean.

I'm sure there are scholarly terms for what I'm describing and it's been debated to the tune of a million pages over millennia.

In the case of God and Scripture, those of us who insist that the meaning of Scripture is "objective" usually mean that the Book means what God means it to mean. It has one true meaning (which I would argue, because of inspiration, completely subsumes the author's meaning but sometimes goes beyond it).

If I can sort of speak for the "truth is objective" tribe, what we're usually reacting to is the trend to turn all texts into playdoh that modern readers are free to re-meaning as they see fit... usually in accord with the latest trend of political or scientific correctness.
This is, by far, a bigger problem than emphasizing objectivity in a way that occasionally leaks over into a bit of inconsistent modernism.

(I'll add that I'm not yet convicned that connotation is subjective. What it is is enormously complex. But complex meaning is not necessarily subjective meaning. There is still one meaning intended by the speaker or writer and finite set of possible connotations in a given language or cultural setting... it's just that these are changing all the time and are numerous and analyzing what factors bring what connotation to the "surface" is like trying to chart the trajectories of each burst of light in a fireworks show--while it's in progress)

Charlie's picture

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."

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Alex Guggenheim's picture

Quote:
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.

Identical? Sorry, but they do not all mean the same thing or have identical meanings. A clock and a watch both are time pieces but are not identical in their definition. A girl, maiden and wench are all females, indeed, but each is either a general class or specific class and there is no subjectivity about this, at all.

Meanings can be subjective, at times, but this is speaking as if nuanced meanings themselves cannot be objective but stem from subjectivity. This is a rather startling principle being asserted here.

While the article has a point, I believe Kevin Bauder needs more refinement and vetting of his concepts and distinctions and possibly even this premise:

Quote:
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.

Trying to make meaning and truth as objective as possible isn't a retreat, necessarily and is wrongly described in my opinion as a device to build the argument, rather it stems from a philosophical conviction for those who argue from that position. And to say they do not see a third alternative is a broad stroke without any visible support. Maybe a few examples can be cited but as a general rule this premise has far to go to be proven.

But as well, possibly they see more than a third, but a fourth, fifth and sixth and so on, but nullify them through their objectivity principle.

Still, with these objections, the topic itself is important and the issue needs to be fully identified, developed and discussed.

Larry's picture

Moderator

Quote:
Sorry, but they do not all mean the same thing or have identical meanings.
Will you mind if I take the liberty of just cutting and pasting here from the Concise Oxford English Dictionary?

Girl -- a female child; a young or relatively young woman.
Maiden -- archaic a girl or young woman.
Wench -- archaic or humorous a girl or young woman.

If I understand Kevin (and I may not), you are making his point. The denotation of the words is the same (as he says, and as is confirmed by the dictionrary). The connotation is certainly different (as he says, and you also state). The word in common usage evokes a different response.

Truth be told, we rarely consult dictionaries with the words we use, and that is why we make statements like you made. We use words by convention, by the understanding that we have gained by common usage in a given context. Communication problems result when people use different definitions. An author gets to invest his words with his own meaning, but he risks communication nightmares if he tries to use them in a way that is not common, or easily understood. This is also why we can use certain words in certain contexts but not in others. We can use certain words around certain people because we believe they share a common base of knowledge on which they draw to understand words being used. Someone who doesn't share that base may not understand at all, or worse, they may understand the wrong thing.

The more interesting proposition for discussion than this (all of which is relatively indisputable) is the idea that words don't have meanings, meanings have words.

Paul Henebury's picture

There is clearly a connotative element in any truth-claim we make. However, the fact that our response to any truth-claim may vary (according to e.g., our communication skills; our understanding of what is being said; our feelings about the subject) does not alter the objectivity of actual truth. Indeed, if that were the case, truth qua truth would be non sequitur, public truth would have no absolute referents, and God's Words would not be objectively true whether they were believed or not. Dr Bauder makes many claims, even in the above article, which he appears to think are objectively true. Presumably they are true because they are true; that is to say, they stand on objective ground irrespective of how others feel about them?

Justification by grace through faith is an objective truth. The resurrection of Christ is an objective truth. That this world is created and sustained by the Triune God is an objective truth. There are many whose connotations of these words are at variance with their objective claims, but this does not alter their objective status one bit.

Bauder writes,

Quote:
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.

I would not agree without some important qualifications. But regardless, this (supposedly objective?) statement does not take into account that, as Aaron alluded to, we either interpret reality correctly (in line with its revelatory makeup), or incorrectly. Crucial to this topic is the consideration that "Meaning" is found finally, not in human interpreters, but in God. We are re-interpreters of God's works. The subjective impact of our re-interpretations (and connotations), be they right or wrong interpretations, has nothing to do with their objective meaning, since that meaning is not our preserve! It is on this fact that Christian proclamation stands or falls. This vital element of knowledge and meaning seems to have been forgotten. In fact, if the quotation above is to be taken as "true", it would not only oppose and contradict itself, but more importantly, it would result in a diminution of the Christian truth-claim, since we would have to admit that we "perhaps never" communicate "purely objective data" when we tell people about God and the Gospel. What this does for the interpretation of John's theology I don't know!

May I recommend John Frame's article on "Certainty" at his website?

Dr. Paul Henebury

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

JG's picture

if we modified it slightly. Because, of course, "meaning" has connotations, and for some people, it has the connotation of "truth", and truth is not subjective.

So perhaps it would facilitate communication on this if we were to say that communication is not purely objective, and not drag the word "meaning" into it. It seems pretty clear that this is the meaning of "meaning" in Dr. Bauder's article -- although perhaps I've missed his meaning entirely. Wink

Alex Guggenheim's picture

Larry wrote:
Quote:
Sorry, but they do not all mean the same thing or have identical meanings.
Will you mind if I take the liberty of just cutting and pasting here from the Concise Oxford English Dictionary?

Girl -- a female child; a young or relatively young woman.
Maiden -- archaic a girl or young woman.
Wench -- archaic or humorous a girl or young woman.

If I understand Kevin (and I may not), you are making his point.

Well, if we conveniently leave off the nuances of their meanings a point might be made and this isn't the first time I have encountered such straw men in arguments where vital information is left off to make an argument.

A maiden while referring to a girl, specifically refers to an unmarried girl. It is a sub-category, while girl is quite general and without reference to martial status. So, unfortunately your view is in err in failing to provide complete meanings with respect to their true properties. And as well, with wench, its meaning is not without nuance which removes it from being used identically with girl, rather it refers to a certain class of girl.

As I have already pointed out while they all refer, generally (even this is objectively disputable based on literary use), to girls, the word girls is a general class with (at most but not always) reference to youth while the others allude to other classifications that may include youth but go beyond just youth. That would NOT be called identical definitions. While part of their definitions possess strongly similar identities, they are not identical and that was the assertion.

Paul Henebury's picture

My point concerned the communication "of objective data." Thus, the issue concerns truth and its accessibility and objectivity. I'm afraid reducing "meaning" to "communication" in this case does not work. E.g. Bauder speaks of "communicating meaning." JG's second sentence, while both charitable and clarifying, does not, I think, help us interpret Bauder's "meaning" (pun intended). Objectivity from the human side always includes (or is accompanied by) a subjective element, but objective meaning exists and is often obtainable.

Dr. Paul Henebury

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

Larry's picture

Moderator

Quote:
Well, if we conveniently leave off the nuances of their meanings a point might be made and this isn't the first time I have encountered such straw men in arguments where vital information is left off to make an argument.
Perhaps, but I don't think I would call the OED a "straw man." I think the nuances are probably connotative. They add clarification in search of a particular perception. They don't change basic meaning, do they?

Quote:
So, unfortunately your view is in err in failing to provide complete meanings with respect to their true properties.
Just to be clear, it's not my view. It is the view of the OED (the concise version, to be sure, but the OED nonetheless).

And "complete meanings" are provided. If you actually look them up, you will see that I copied the complete first meaning from each entry. The OED seems to think that is enough for meaning.

Typically, in dictionaries, I think each entry under a word is considered a "complete meaning," and the first one is the most basic one. Other entries give other meanings, or nuances as you call them.

Quote:
That would NOT be called identical definitions.
So two definitions that have the exact same words in the exact same order are not "identical"? Perhaps you can clarify because my understanding of identical would include this. (Maybe I need a different nuance of identical.)

Quote:
While part of their definitions possess strongly similar identities, they are not identical and that was the assertion.
But your assertion is wrong if "identical" means what it is usually understood to mean isn't it? They are not just "strongly similar identities." They are the same words in the same order.

It seems like you are depending a very narrow definition that fits your purposes. You are depending on connotation to force us to perceive the thing in a very particular way. But the fact remains that the dictionary says they mean the same thing.

Alex Guggenheim's picture

Us? You represent a group? Which group? This is interesting. As to the rest of the post, if you could respond to my comments in context and quit imagining that all we need for word meanings are basic elements and not whole meanings, well we could get somewhere, in the mean time there is some coffee brewing that knows how to stay in context.

Yeah, girl, maiden and wench, identical words. Next think you know someone is going to suggest bimbo to be identical as well. Related or similar but not identical. Time for someone to visit their vocabulary teacher.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

@Charlie...

I'm not sure I understand the observation you made here...

Quote:
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."

First, isn't the idea that truth is objective at least as old as Aristotle? I'm pretty vague on all that, but it seems like ontological realism is not really all that modern nor is correspondence theory of meaning.
But maybe I'm getting categories mixed up.
I find it hard to believe that the idea that reality exists independently of what we call it or what we say about or how we feel about it is "modern."

Second, how is the the idea that a good judge has a virtue called judgment "the opposite" of "objectivity"? I see that "removing the personality of the judge" would include removing his character, but I think "without personal prejudice" does not mean the same thing as "removing the personality."

(I'll readily grant though that "without partiality" is a poor definition of "objectivity"... but it's where the language has gone.)

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Quote:
Us? You represent a group? Which group? This is interesting.

Alex, I'm not sure what sort of argument you're trying to make here... "us" obviously represents everyone who does not already agree with you and/or everyone who shares Larry's point of view. And I'm sure he's not alone.

In any case, whether he represents a group or not is irrelevant to whether his argument is valid or true.

As I understand his point, his argument seems to be--in part--that OED gives these terms the same meaning and that the OED is generally viewed as complete and authoritative on the meanings of English words.

Pretty hard to argue with that.

But not impossible... I'd suggest that since these different words exist, there is almost certainly some subtle differences in meaning. So my own counterargument would be that where multiple synonyms exist in a language, there is almost always some subtle differences in meaning. (In the case of the example, OED apparently regards the differences as so subtle as to be impossible to describe or perhaps not worth the trouble to describe).
But I'm not sure what any of this really has to do with the essay.

I think I probably lack the background to understand what Kevin intends by "objective truth." I only know what most people seem to mean (in my experience) when they use that expression.

Alex Guggenheim's picture

Dear Aaron,

Uh the OED definitions he gave were partial definitions, not whole meanings, so yes it is easy to argue with that. My suggestion is that you contact a vocabulary teacher at a high school and ask any of them if the suggested words are identical in meaning then come back and make your argument. Hey, contact a college instructor in English. They will tell you they are related but NOT identical.

As to "us", my response is in the form of sarcasm, sorry you don't recognize it. You see Aaron, it is a common form of fallacious arguing to employ the plural which seeks to assume the posture of many instead of the one who is arguing to give false aid to response. Like a cat who seeks to enlarge itself with the presumptive puffing up. Without others ever enlisting someone to represent more than themselves, their use of the "us" is just that, a fallacious posture, hence a fallacious element of their argument.

And up to that point, no one else argued my point therefore there was no warrant for the use of "us" and this precisely makes my point.

So again, as to Bauder's assertion, girl, wench and maiden are NOT identical. All wenches may be girls and all maidens may be girls but not all girls are maidens or wenches, again disqualifying them from being identical.

One might argue that lass and girl are identical but not wench and maiden, these are types of girls and lass and girl are both general references. I cannot help you if you cannot recognize these categorical distinctions, that is your problem, but their properties remove them from being IDENTICAL.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Properties of words are granted by their usage. The word 'bad' now has a completely different meaning, thanks to Michael Jackson. Many words we read in earlier translations of Scriptures are considered obscene or at least crass today. One look at the urban dictionary makes me want to hide under the covers and not come out until I hear the shout.

Quote:
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.


Alex, I think all your posts have done is prove Dr. Bauder's point. The connotation of certain words is so ingrained in us that we often can't separate the connotation from the plain, stark, no frills, dictionary definition. I'm certainly not going to take a high school teacher's word over the OED, especially since the English teacher is probably also the basketball coach and has about as much training in grammar and etymology as a bowl of coleslaw.

BTW, the OED definitions were whole definitions, although not every definition. Of course, Larry did not include the fact that 'maiden' can also refer to a type of guillotine or a horse who has yet to win a race. And my husband has a wench in the back of his truck. They also rent them where he works. So maybe you got him there.

I think the problem is that in our proud natures we often consider ourselves able to be impartial, but it just ain't so. We all bring our own personal experiences and indoctrination to every interpretation, every exchange.

The word 'indoctrination' is another example- its primary definition is simply to teach, instruct. But it has an unpleasant connotation. You should see the response I get when I tell people I indoctrinate my kids. The lions, the tigers, the bears. Oh my.

Quote:
...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.

What he said. We can't even agree on the meaning of "meaning".

But IMO, that's OK. I personally think that the variation of perspective and experience is what makes life fun and interesting. Why would anyone want to send in the clones?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Alex, FWIW, I think your argument has some merit but it's hard to see the merit through the condescending tone. I confess I've actually never heard of such a thing as a "vocabulary teacher," high school or otherwise (though I think I've heard of vocabulary coaches). And I have an education degree. But if your point is "anybody with expertise would say I'm right," we only need to hear from some experts to know if the premise is likely.

Maybe a better place to go is to cite some sources regarding what the makers of dictionaries mean by their enumerated definitions etc. I'm sure there's something in the introductory material in the OED about that.

My understanding has always been that your #2, #3 etc. definitions list other usages of the word and, therefore, other "meanings." So if we speak of meaning of words in terms of "semantic range," all the listed definitions are part of that range: meanings possible in different contexts.

In the final analysis, we probably don't disagree, but I'm not sure the way you're making your case is persuasive.

... and maybe somebody can help us see how this relates to the essay. We've kind of lost the connection I think.

The gist of my take is that complexity of meaning is not the same thing as subjectivity and I'm not sure Kevin's examples are examples of subjectivity or complexity.

Greg Long's picture

Susan R wrote:
And my husband has a wench in the back of his truck. They also rent them where he works. So maybe you got him there.
You know, Susan, your husband could get arrested for that...having a young girl in the back of his truck and renting them out where he works.

I think you might mean "winch," correct? Wink

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

JG's picture

If I understand Dr. Bauder correctly, I think I mostly agree with him. Another way to state part of his point, it appears to me, is that not every message is propositional, and the interpretation of non-propositional messages is at least partly, but not necessarily entirely, subjective. If I'm reading him rightly, I'd agree with that. But I still have a problem with this article.

I'm a pastor. Some of the people in my church wouldn't find this interesting or relevant at all. Lots of people won't have a clue what Dr. Bauder is talking about. There's no Scripture in the article. There's not any obvious tie-in to Scriptural truth. If I printed this article and passed it out on Sunday, some people would look at it, say, "This guy sure sounds smart, but I'm not sure he said anything, and if he did, I don't know what it was." And then, they would throw it away, because it means nothing to them. Others would take differing messages from it -- maybe that's part of his purpose, but I find such an approach dubious when talking about "meaning", which has the connotation of "truth".

Is this all just interesting theory, or does it have practical application? How does it relate to how we understand and apply Scriptural truth? Are there any Scripture passages that we will understand better if we keep in mind the things Dr. Bauder has written, or are we just disputing about words to no profit, but to the subverting of the hearers? What is the point?

I can think of several Scripture passages and several applications of Scripture to the point he seems to be making, if I'm understanding him correctly. But perhaps I'm not, since meaning or communication or whatever it is we are talking about is so "subjective". Perhaps it wouldn't be wise for me to start giving practical applications, lest I've got the objective part of his meaning wrong because my subjective interpretation has mangled it, or something. Wink

I guess I'd ask Dr. Bauder, first, can you give any Scriptural support or indicators to convince us to accept this theory of "meaning", and second, is this any more than an interesting theoretical discussion from the ivory towers of learning, or does it apply to anything I should teach from the Scriptures to the people in our church, or the way I should teach them? Does the rubber actually touch down and meet the road anywhere, or is it just drifting in the clouds?

I admit I'm being a little facetious in the way I'm expressing myself here, but it's a serious point. Little has been done in this article to help people along the way in determining whether its assertions are Biblical, and if so, how these assertions practically impact our understanding, application, or communication of Biblical truth. I believe that is a serious deficiency in an article dealing with "meaning".

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

Greg Long wrote:
Susan R wrote:
And my husband has a wench in the back of his truck. They also rent them where he works. So maybe you got him there.
You know, Susan, your husband could get arrested for that...having a young girl in the back of his truck and renting them out where he works.

I think you might mean "winch," correct? Wink


I've seen it spelled both ways, actually, but you know I'm just having a bit fun here.

Charlie's picture

Susan R wrote:

I think the problem is that in our proud natures we often consider ourselves able to be impartial, but it just ain't so. We all bring our own personal experiences and indoctrination to every interpretation, every exchange.

Aaron, to begin to answer the questions you asked me, I'd like to start with this quote from Susan. We want to be objective BUT we have all this personal stuff. Modern philosophy was born out of the recognition that human knowledge is finite and always comes from a particular perspective. That is, where a person grew up, what religion(s) she was exposed to as a child, what life experiences she had undergone, influenced which beliefs she would find plausible or ridiculous, elegant or repulsive.

So, Descartes' method is essentially subtractive. Eliminating anything that can vary from person to person - customs, language, tradition - we rely solely on universal reason. Descartes' re-defines concepts such as truth and certainty to exclude anything that does not fit a geometric model. What we have in Descartes is the death of the subject. All the things that make us unique individuals are considered barnacles on the hull of our mind, accretions to be scraped off. 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.

Some useful materials:

The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic by James K. A. Smith

Loving to Know: Covenant Epistemology by Esther Meek

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Andrew K.'s picture

The problem with equating the objective meaning of words with authorial intent is that in the absence of an author to clarify his or her meaning, the only truly objective thing we have is the text itself, composed of bits of matter arranged in various patterns, and our own subjectivity. How can we be certain, then, we are understanding it as it is meant to be understood?

Furthermore, could the author be communicating things through the text of which he or she is not (fully) conscious? If so even the author's explanation might not satisfactorily account for all that the text contains.

From my own admittedly brief readings in Theory, I've become convinced that the problem is that our tools to dissect and destroy meaning have outpaced any meaningful explanations we are capable of developing for the phenomenon. We can show how it shouldn't work, but we can't explain what we all experience: that it does.

Perhaps God has not granted us the capability of understanding such. He certainly hasn't me, at least. Smile

神是爱

JobK's picture

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

Actually, most conservative Christians are unaware of this debate and could care less concerning it.

"Deconstruction, in particular, seems to confirm the fear that if objectivity is compromised, then meaning and truth are in imminent danger."

No, deconstruction - and similar - are merely proof of how people profess themselves to be wise and become fools.

"In other words, many conservative Christians simply retreat from postmodernism into a form of modernism."

No. Christianity reflects the predominant culture, and generally lags a bit behind it. Conservative Christians are modernistic because the larger culture was modernistic. Now you see conservative Christianity becoming Oprah Winfrey type postmodern/Freudian. You have to remember that all postmodernists, deconstructionists etc. assent to a core or kernel of objective or propositional truth, and then move on to use their radical language theories against what they choose to deny. The same is true of modern (or postmodern) conservative Christians ... they have some degree of orthodoxy to a point, then veer off into "the new perspective on Paul" and such.

"They counter the relativism of postmodernism by trying to make meaning and truth as objective as possible. They do not see a third alternative ..."

It is shocking that you would say that regarding any evangelical that has been exposed to hermeneutics. Been exposed to any of the Revelation 20 debates between the amillennials and dispensationalists lately? Or for that matter, what is the whole inerrancy debate about? Or the Isaiah 7:14 controversy? (Which shouldn't be a controversy considering how Jews translated that text in the Septuagint ... oh there I go being objective again.)

The real dividing line is whether one views the intent of language as being political or not. The language theorists (and by this I do not mean the actual science of linguistics) hold that language is political, because in their mind everything is political. The problem is that language theory is inconsistent in its scope and application. I suppose that there exists a deconstructionist somewhere who would find the statement "I would like butter and grape jam on wheat toast" to be anti-Semitic, homophobic, imperialistic classism, but that deconstructionist still goes to the restaurant and orders breakfast! And if a deconstructionist does hold that the act of ordering toast is neutral, that denies their thesis that all language is political.

It was so frustrating attempting to read Millard Erickson's systematic theology book when he was giving so much valuable space to dealing with these - and a great many other - false ideas. He could have omitted that junk and the result would have been a book that was half as long. (Or better yet, he could have omitted that junk and replaced it with actual Christian doctrine along with a history or process of how such doctrines developed and the thinking and scriptures behind him, which he did do, but not nearly enough thanks to his commitment to examining as many falsehoods as possible.)

We should just apply Colossians 2:8 to these people, leave them to their affairs, and get about the business of attending to ours.

Solo Christo, Soli Deo Gloria, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura
http://healtheland.wordpress.com

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

I agree that we do need to bring this down to earth to make it useful, and support it with Scripture. IMO, it boils down to Biblical principles of the difference between knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. To recognize that God gives us the sense to tie our shoes, and the Holy Spirit guides the humble spirit to truth, while allowing the arrogant to destroy themselves in the brilliance of their own intellect. It's OK to recognize that we each bring our 'truth' to how we view the world, but in the end it has to be consistent with Scripture to be beneficial.

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. If someone can't think of any Scriptures- maybe not the specific references, but at least the gist of a passage or two- to either support or contradict the idea, then they are still needing to be spoonfed. That is not a good thing, because people read stuff all the time that doesn't contain chapter and verse, and they need to be able to call to mind the Scriptural teachings that apply to the book/movie/newspaper article/water cooler discussion... KWIM?

I suddenly feel like I'm channeling my high school English teacher "Must I treat you like children? Must I always hold your hand?" Oy vey.

Paul Henebury's picture

The "meaning" of any fact is its true meaning, and everything that can be truly said about something constitutes its meaning! There are subjective meanings but these only approach (or digress) from the true meaning. The true meaning is that which God has invested the fact with. Hence, to ascertain the true meaning we need to find God's intended meaning. Can this be done? If so, how is this done? The "Evangelical" answer is, through God's Word. Now, has God given us a Word which is objectively true? Has He provided the means whereby we may come to know that truth? If so, what are they and how do we know they are God's means of coming to the truth He has revealed in His Word? Those are the important questions. And the answers will not come from immanentistic theories, but from God Himself. For believers, there is no vicious circle, since we know God has spoken and God is the Source of language.

When Jesus declares "Truly, truly, I say to you...." are we to reply that the meaning of this statement resides with us? We may, for sure, place our meaning upon it, but the utterances of Jesus have both a meaning which is His, and a meaning which He assumes we can know. The same thing arises with God's commandments. Or again, since "all Scripture is God-breathed out and is profitable for doctrine..." we must assume we can know what that doctrine is.

While recognizing that there is always a subjective element to our reception of truth (and Dr Bauder starts out by discussing meaning and truth), we must not muddle the objective claims of Scripture, and thus of the churches, with the suggestion that perhaps all of our proclamation cannot arrive at and define "purely objective data." What we do with that data is another matter. I think Dr Bauder needs to explain his "third way" some more.

Dr. Paul Henebury

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

Larry's picture

Moderator

Quote:
The problem with equating the objective meaning of words with authorial intent is that in the absence of an author to clarify his or her meaning, the only truly objective thing we have is the text itself, composed of bits of matter arranged in various patterns, and our own subjectivity. How can we be certain, then, we are understanding it as it is meant to be understood?
We assume that the author intended to communicate, and that he chose words that his audience would understand as he intends them. So by reading the text in its context, it actually isn't that hard. We do it everyday, but somehow when it comes to an ancient text like the Bible we throw out all the principles that we use to communicate every day.

The text exists because the author thought it expressed his intent. So we do have access to the mind of the author.

Quote:
Furthermore, could the author be communicating things through the text of which he or she is not (fully) conscious? If so even the author's explanation might not satisfactorily account for all that the text contains.
Communicating? Yes. Intending or meaning? No.

I think this is an area that people talk about, but the very fact that we can talk about it shows that we really, at least in some sense, don't need to talk about it. We do it quite well. And the fact that misunderstanding exists proves authorial intent. There is no way to misunderstand something unless it meant something. And if it means more than the author intended, there is no way to know if it is being misunderstood.

Alex Guggenheim's picture

Aaron,

Maybe persuasion wasn't on my mind since to me and to others I have talked to who read the pertinent posts through out the day, it was rather obvious. And while you might find my words condescending, I believe they were warranted sarcasm but with due respect to your observation, I will focus on the substance of the argument if I have a further one and not on the clever style.

In the mean time I am going to contact some professionals, one I know and a few recommended ones, in the field of English language and see what their response is. I believe the use of the word, "identical" will fail in their eyes and they will opt for either similar, related or semi-synonymous. But if I am wrong, of course being the humble soul I am, I will acquiesce to their expertise.

So anyway, back to the main issue of objectivity and subjectivity.

Thanks...Alex

P.S. In the mean time I recommend anyone in the Pastorate refer to the young daughters of any of their congregational members as "wenches" as see how the identical theory pans out. Smile

dmicah's picture

Quote:
And while you might find my words condescending, I believe they were warranted sarcasm...

The reason we can't accept your tightly wound and misguided conclusions are because of your obvious lack of understanding and use of the English language. You say "warranted sarcasm", but you actually employed acerbic sardonicism. The mundane repetition of your trivial digression against one component of Bauder's article left a deceased equine with multiple post-mortem fractures. His simple illustration has validity to his theme and is quite obvious to all of "us." Though the article in general bore the scent of academic fodder useful primarily for theoretical discussions.

Alex Guggenheim's picture

dmicah,

Your condescension toward me is rather amusing but always illustrative of those who cry the loudest; employing the very thing with which they claim to find fault. Now when one speaks of boring, you have provided the best illustration.

But here is what is saddest about your post and reflection of yourself. After an exchange with Aaron and my qualified acknowledgment of his observation the issue is laid to rest and we move on...but not dmicah. He didn't get to preach his sermon. No, let's re-infect the healing wound just so dmicah can pontificate. Reconciliation was restored but no, this wasn't to dmicah's satisfaction. Sad dmicah, but clearly you have a need to posture.

As to simple illustrations when they err they damage arguments, particularly when they are foundational to the premise. If this is something of little concern, well that isn't unusual for many people because often people are not interested in facts, just posturing. But now that this apparent necessity of yours has been exercised let's stay off the personal approach and on topic with your comments.

Greg Long's picture

dmicah wrote:
Quote:
And while you might find my words condescending, I believe they were warranted sarcasm...

The reason we can't accept your tightly wound and misguided conclusions are because of your obvious lack of understanding and use of the English language. You say "warranted sarcasm", but you actually employed acerbic sardonicism. The mundane repetition of your trivial digression against one component of Bauder's article left a deceased equine with multiple post-mortem fractures. His simple illustration has validity to his theme and is quite obvious to all of "us." Though the article in general bore the scent of academic fodder useful primarily for theoretical discussions.


Biggrin

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Charlie's picture

It really doesn't matter whether the words in question are synonyms. Dr. Bauder's argument doesn't really depend on it. The central proposition seems to be that anything you have to "get" is subjective rather than objective meaning. He distinguishes between connotative and denotative meaning and aligns them with subjective and objective meaning, respectively.

Quote:
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.

I'm not sure this holds up. "Getting it" may be subjective, but I don't think that "getting it" works as a definition or description of subjective meaning in general. Even more importantly, I can't agree that the denotative meaning of the word is objective. Words gain and lose meanings over time, and in poetry, it may take quite a bit of sensitivity and judgment to "get" which denotative meaning is being expressed.

At least in the literature I've read in this subject (admittedly quite fractional), the distinction between objective and subjective occurs more in the referents of certain statements. For example, "This food contains 324 calories" is an objective statement. The statement is about the food and excludes any reference to the speaker's or listener's private mental processes. "This food is tasty" is a subjective statement. According to some theories, the statement is not so much about the food itself but about my intra-mental response to it. No one else has access to my qualia, my sensations that lead me to use the word "tasty." Even if you agree with me, "Yes, this is tasty," there is no guarantee that we are actually experiencing the same sensations; thus, the two statements remain statements about you and me, and our subjective responses.

I think a problem in this discussion stems from the intersection of two fields, epistemology and semiotics, which don't necessarily have the same goals or terminology. If one accepts, as I do, the proposition that not all truth is propositional or linguistic, then epistemology is wider than semiotics. However, we can't discuss non-linguistic truth except through language. It can get difficult, and requires an above-average measure of calmness, sympathy, and rigor from those in the discussion.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

rrobinson's picture

How is this article practical? How is it practical? Perhaps in a little thing we call communication that we only do every day with everyone me meet. As this discussion seems to amply illustrate.

Communication takes work. That's the bottom line. We acknowledge that with our spouses of 17 years: she still doesn't mean what I think she means! Wink How much more does it apply with virtual strangers whom we want to convince of life-changing truths! And we wonder why our words are misconstrued?

Communication (between humans) is a two-way process that involves some give and take. Boy, don't I have to remind myself of that when dealing with my two little boys -- apparently I am not as clear as I think I am; but they at least are predisposed to listening to me and agreeing with my point of view. They are my captive audience, in a way :). I think an example of the defensiveness and the retreat into negative aspects of modernism that Dr. Bauder is speaking of has to do with our thinking that everyone else is our captive audience. Another is that there is some kind of construction that we must defend to the death, or life as we know it ceases to exist. If we see any little part of it crumbling, we think the sky is falling.

Communication is imperfect. Deal with it.

Different people attribute different meanings to things than do we. Deal with it. There are still ultimate meanings behind ideas -- we sometimes just have to dig a bit to reveal some common points of reference in order to better communicate.

If clear communication is your goal, it is your duty to accommodate your listeners as much as practically possible. If an audience is varied and you have given it your best shot, be prepared to go deeper with individuals. Effective communication will take effort, so deal with it. You could be speaking to children, you could be speaking with people from different cultures, you could be speaking with older folks who remember a time in the hazy past when more than 19 percent of the population knew what Easter was all about. Yet, we continue to make all kinds of assumptions in our communication.

Everyday, Christians have to deal with the fallout from hardened perceptions, and new allegations of, our apparent arrogance. We could put this ALL down to sinful reaction to the bald truth, and shake the dust off our feet as we so often do… or, we could practice a little humility and sensitivity (aka love, which is getting a bad rap in conservative circles).

Do humility and sensitivity necessarily involve compromise, capitulation, denial of the truth or renouncing everything we hold dear? Not at all. The God of the universe is still there, and propositional truth has not changed. Either certain things are true or they are not. Deconstructionists can't change that. God can defend himself. And the gift of language to communicate will survive and win out no matter if words are lost, change meaning in common usage, or new ones creep in.

The things that are true are not true because we say them in a certain way, or because we say they are! That's the impoverished Modernistic default. And yet, that is exactly how we very often act or come across.

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