Words and Transgressions 1 - Fallacy of the Alchemists

In 1976 a former pupil of Wittgenstein's called Maurice O'Connor Drury wrote a book called the Danger of Words in which he made some very interesting Wittgensteinian observations on his own profession, namely, psychiatry. Ray Monk, Wittgenstein's biographer, thinks that, "though much neglected, it is perhaps, in its tone and concerns, the most truly Wittgensteinian work published by any of Wittgenstein's students" (Monk p. 264).

In Drury's opening chapter, called Words and Transgressions he offers the reader five fallacies about language that I think are of great practical interest to us as a liberal religious congregation and I hope they may prove to be very helpful in our individual and collective reflections (all quotations in this post are found between pp. 1-5). I have four weeks before my vacation starts and I intend, though don't promise, to look at four of them - and maybe squeeze the fifth one in too.

Drury opens by noting that in Proverbs 10:19 it is written: "With a multitude of words transgressions are increased". He does this because he is aware that in psychiatry - as I am aware in religion - "words can lead us into confusion, misunderstandings, error. Confusion when talking to patients, misunderstandings when we discuss mutual problems with our colleagues, error when in solitude we try to clarify our own thinking".

Together we are an admixture of patients and colleagues - in the sense that we come here looking for something helpful and healing in our lives (which I, as minister, supposed to provide, or at least point to, in some way) but also colleagues because we must work together to make this an effective liberal religious institution - which, as yet, it is not. In so far as we actively think about the things I speak about and about which we later converse, we, too, will spend time in solitude trying to clarify our own thinking. So, Drury's work seems to me to be highly relevant to us and, although the reason for this won't immediately be obvious, don't worry, I will lead you to my religious point before I conclude.

Drury's first fallacy - which we'll consider today - is what he calls the "fallacy of the Alchemists." He gives it this name because of something noted by the eighteenth-century chemist Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (1743-1794). You will recall that it was Lavoisier who, rather than continuing to use the old system of inherited names which often went back to the Alchemists, introduced the modern system of naming into chemistry in which different substances were named in terms of the elements from which they were formed. So, for example, what we now call 'sodium sulfate' (the sodium salt of sulfuric acid) was once known as 'Glauber's salt' or 'sal mirabilis'. Another wonderful old name he cites is 'Fuming liquor of Libavius' (spiritus fumans libavii) which today we call 'stannic chloride' or 'tin tetrachloride'.

Lavoisier made it clear (in his Mémoire sur la nécessité 1787, 14, 16-17 and Rapport sur les nouveaux caractéres chimiques 1787 in Oeuvres 5:378]) he thought he was introducing 'a method of naming' as distinct from a 'nomenclature' (See Jessica Riskin's book Science in the age of sensibility from Chicago University Press).

Why is this important? Well here is what he says in the introduction to his treatise (Traité Élémentaire de Chimie of 1789):

If languages really are instruments fashioned by men to make thinking easier, they should be the best possible kind, and to strive to perfect them is indeed to work for the advancement of science. For those who are beginning the study of science the perfecting of its language is of high importance.

A little later he continues, musing on the problem of using the old names, to say that:

It is not therefore surprising that in the early childhood of chemistry, suppositions instead of conclusions were drawn; that these suppositions transmitted from age to age were changed into presumptions, and that these presumptions were then regarded as fundamental truths by even the ablest minds.

Drury realised that if he was honest with himself he had to admit that the vocabulary of psychiatry in his age was "only too comparable" with what Lavoisier has to say about the way chemistry in its childhood went about naming things. Likewise, if we are honest with ourselves we can see that the vocabulary of religion of our age is also comparable with what Lavoisier has to say about chemistry. In our religion, as (according to Drury) in psychiatry, we need to be highly alert to the fact that we use a *nomenclature* we do not, I repeat, we do NOT have a *system of naming*.

(Excursus: I realise the word 'nomenclature' refers to a kind of naming but I'm using the word to distinguish between the slow, unsystematic, unscientific, way names are appended to things or sets - or apparent 'things' and apparent 'sets' - by a culture, and the consciously systematic and scientific application of words in a scientific context - i.e. a system of naming. That doesn't mean the latter is perfect for all time but it does mean that when further evidence presents itself or is discovered, a meaningful clarification can be made in the system of naming that can take the new knowledge into account. Religious nomenclature, however, cannot be used, developed and further clarified this way. That doesn't mean it is useless, it is simplyto recognise that its use is to be found precisely in its inexactness and its ability to evoke or gesture 'towards' certain important aspects of human experience.)

Now, the issue is that even in our own modern age (which we like to see as 'advanced' though what that might mean is not always clear) we really have no better religious terminology to hand and, as Drury said in his own field, "we must for the present do the best with what we have." But, Drury warns, "let us beware lest from this unsystematic nomenclature suppositions are drawn, which then become presumptions and only too easily pass over into established truths."
It should be apparent to most of you that many religious people (liberals and conservatives) make the mistake of regarding religious nomenclature as "mutually exclusive and completely exhaustive" and many of them also wrongly believe that traditional religious language is a system of naming.

Here's what I mean. I can still delight in and explore the sound, poetry and history of a piece of nomenclature such as 'fuming liquor of Libavius'. However, when it comes to doing modern chemistry, I can (thanks to Lavoisier) turn to a system of naming which gives me 'tin tetrachloride' and this system, through its words, gives me and the community of chemists a certain objective purchase on the world that is not available to me if I continue to try to work with the complex tangled web of nomenclature which includes 'fuming liquor of Libavius'.

Here's a religious example - though, as you will see, a vitally important asymmetry appears. I can still delight in, play with and explore the sound, poetry and history of that piece of nomenclature 'God'. But, unlike in chemistry, I cannot also turn to a system of naming that tells me what God is in a way that through the word gives me and a community of religious people anything like an objective purchase on the world. Here we see clearly that the word 'God' is part of a nomenclature - it is *not* part of a system of naming.

Let's return to the issue I just noted which is that there are some people who believe that religious nomenclature is, really, a system of naming. Consequently the word ‘God’ can easily become fixed in metaphysical systems of naming, be they Trintarian, Unitarian, Spinozean, Hegalian or 'whateverean', and that, instead of arriving at genuine empirical conclusions supposition are drawn from them; then these suppositions, which have been transmitted from age to age, get changed into presumptions; then these presumptions have been regarded, and still are regarded by many - even the most able minded liberals and conservatives - as fundamental truths.

Some of you have been very puzzled (disturbed even) at why I have recently self-declared as an atheist whilst at the same time continued to be happy to use the word ‘God’ in my own private devotions, in public worship, and in our shared conversations. Well, here you have it. God, as part of a system of naming, is something in which I strongly disbelieve and I think it does more harm than good. I think one of the duties an intelligent, liberal self-aware congregation has is to make it clear that in such a ‘God’ we disbelieve - we are (technically speaking) atheists. After all it is belief in this ‘God’ that is so effective at setting one person against another, one religion against another, is fuelling the depressing and unedifying fight between religious conservatives and the new-atheists and helping to widen the wholly unnecessary gap that still exists between religion and science.

However, whenever I can see that the word God is being used as part of religious nomenclature, and the person or community using it (and the guests among them) are *aware* of this, then we can see the word begin to do again what it should - namely help us experience and converse together about that 'something' which is beyond all words and which can only be shown; shown in the incarnated love, compassion, justice and beautiful action of people motivated by a sense of commingling and belonging to ever larger networks of being. For this church - and me as your minister - the paradigmatic showing of this is, of course, Jesus. Now in that God I most surely do believe.

Systems of naming help us share a certain kind of knowledge but God is not an object of human knowledge; I do not believe such a God exists and so I am compelled to express my atheism when I see systems of naming being improperly applied to religion. But nomenclature, when properly and knowingly used, can help us share wisdom and understanding and, wherever wisdom and understanding is found, then the word God comes alive again and God is 'known' - but NOT in an empirical scientific way. In such an understanding of God, even the profoundest atheist like me, can have real faith and say with Jesus, "Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee . . . not what I will, but what thou wilt" (Mark 14:36).


Yewtree said…
Awesome post, thank you. I very much like the distinction between nomenclature and systems of naming. The assumption that religious language is objective is exactly what makes me uncomfortable about certain forms of religious discourse.