Words and Transgressions 5 - Fallacy of the Pickwickian Senses

Jesus said: Again you have heard that it was said to the men of old, You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn. But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply Yes or No; anything more than this comes from evil (Matthew 5:33-37).

I left you a couple of months ago having explored four of five fallacies of language that the psychiatrist, and former student and friend of Ludwig Wittgenstein Maurice O'Connor Drury identified in his essay "Words and Transgressions." Today, to complete that series, we'll consider the fifth which he calls the fallacy of the 'Pickwickian senses'.

We'll begin to address this by noting that in our reading we heard Jesus encouraging us to say what we mean and to do this in as simple, clear and honest a way as possible. But it is all too easy to assume that this means one can achieve clarity using words that are, at all times, absolutely clear, unambiguous and unchanging in their meaning. But all of us know that all our words are embedded in a complex nexus of contexts and so even an apparently simple 'yes' can in certain circumstances really mean no and a 'no' yes and, of course, all shades in between. If this is the case with the apparently simple and apparently unequivocal words 'yes' and 'no' when it comes to many of the words more obviously associated with religion then the scale of the problem we face becomes evident - indeed lack of clarity seems endemic. Why? Well because within any cultural tradition enormous amounts of freight is carried by our words; some of those elements we find valuable and helpful and others unpleasant and problematic.

One long held liberal dream was to be able to develop a religious language in which the words used clearly and unambiguously meant what they said - a sort of pseudo-scientific religious language. For those interested this points back to the first of Drury's fallacies, that of the fallacy of the Alchemists. But, as we saw then, religious language doesn't work like that and its meaning and clarity - and therefore real bite and traction on the world - is available only to those who take the time to understand HOW religious language is USED to speak, not only to the faithful, but to the wider world.

To speak meaningfully to a particular gathered religious community and to have a hope in hell's chance of communicating that community's insights and hopes with the wider world the words they use must have REAL currency internally and externally. There has to exist some kind of real 'exchange rate'. It is in negotiating the differences in meaning between internal and external use of words that we can talk meaningfully with each other across our human divisions.

Now, at this point I can turn directly to what Drury called the Pickwickian fallacy. He derives the name from the first chapter of Dickins' novel 'The Pickwick Papers':

The name was taken from a famous scene which took place one evening at the Pickwick Club. Mr Blotton had the temerity to call Mr Pickwick a humbug. This was the occasion for some heated words between various members, and order was only restored to the meeting when the chairman suggested to Mr Blotton that he had only used the term 'humbug' in a purely Pickwickian sense, and not with its usual connotation. Mr Blotton agreed that he had the highest regard for the honourable member Mr Pickwick and only described him as humbug in a purely Pickwickian sense. After this explanation Mr Pickwick said he was completely satisfied with his friend's explanation and that he had used certain terms of abuse during the incident in a purely Pickwickian sense also. Peace was restored once more to the meeting (Drury p. 19)

This is, of course, presented to us as a comic incident and it is intended to make us laugh. On the surface it is a story which lampoons the obsessive desire of the English when in their clubs and in social situations generally try to avoid saying anything which might be taken as impolite. As every non-English person knows this can make the English (and I can say this because I am English) painfully difficult to deal with - they never seems to say what they mean. However, what makes Dicken's description work and, therefore, funny, is the important truth that context and knowledge of that context is vital to any understanding of what anyone is trying to say when they use certain words and not others.

The fact is that the most useful and powerful words - by which I mean those that really have the power to speak to and change both ourselves and our wider culture - are those which have both Pickwickian senses and broader, general and a more diffuse nexus of popular meanings. The interplay between these various meanings is precisely what can help us clarify what we and others are really trying to say. As I have just noted when you loose one sense or the other the ability to communicate in the most widely effective sense is lost.

But amongst many liberal religionists there remains the very real temptation to avoid the constant hard and disciplined work that is required to untangle and clarify the religious words they use by short circuiting the whole process and one way of doing this is to invent new and supposedly baggage free terms to stand for what it is they are saying. But when you try to create these new baggage-free words something truly bizarre and distancing emerges. What I'm about to tell you really did happen in a liberal church meeting I attended a few years ago.

It was claimed that one of the things that put people off from coming to our churches was the word 'worship'. The claim was that, although they knew, in a Pickwickian sense, what they meant by the word worship, non-members didn't. The person speaking claimed that what was needed was a new word which avoided this and, to this end, they suggested putting on their noticeboards, not that they met for 'worship' at time 'n', but that they met for "Metak". My jaw hit the floor and I expressed my utter disbelief only quickly to discover this was no joke. We were informed, as I recall, that the word was a combination of meta (meaning above) and the letter 'k' referring to, I think, knowledge. The proposer of this scheme thought that this, in a dash, would make the aims of their liberal church clearer and baggage free to those whom they hoped to address.

But, of course, this is nonsense for although the new word 'Metak' clearly had no cultural baggage, for precisely the same reason it also had no bite or traction on people in the wider world. From outside the community a person could only look at the word 'Metak' on their noticeboard and ask themselves whether this group of people meant by 'Metak' something like worship? Standing in front of their noticeboard one would have only been able to stare at this culturally empty word that for you lifted nothing - except perhaps, as it did for me, one's heart-rate and blood-pressure!

This church tradition still describes itself as 'Christian' precisely because it is a word that can legitimately and creatively be used in both Pickwickian and popular senses. It is a word that lets anyone who comes into this church community quickly get a basic meaningful and secure handle on what we are basically trying to do - namely to encourage us to follow Jesus' example in our living our lives through the love of God and neighbour (and I'm going to come back to the word God in a moment). In doing this we affirm that Christian language can still help us to articulate genuine human hope, to encourage in us a continued revolution against oppressive status quos, and still help us articulate the belief that humanity can do a lot better than we are at present doing and that we can all become better and more just people. Those basic aims are, we hope, encouraged amongst ourselves and as we go out into the world as individuals or representatives of this liberal Christian community we then dialogue with and SHOW to the wider world what we think being a liberal Christian means. It means we can be liberal in a disciplined strong and coherent fashion.

Now, one of the most important Pickwickian senses in which, as the minister of this church, I use the word 'Christian' is that I don't think it is at all necessary to tie the practical spiritual discipline of following Jesus' human example to a particular theistic/metaphysical belief. Although many people who attend this church can, and do, combine this practical spiritual discipline with a belief in a traditional theistic conception of God, many of us don't and so we also count amongst our number more than a few agnostics and atheists. You see it is not just the word 'Christian' that can fruitfully and legitimately explored in Pickwickian and popular contexts but also the word 'God'. In the coming months I'll try to show why it is perfectly consistent for both theists and atheists to commit to a kind of practical Christianity. Now this is a particularly important to do because one of the most dangerous fault lines in contemporary Western culture is to be found between the liberal atheists, agnostics and liberal religionists who, if they could start working together creatively, could make a truly effective stand against militant religion and also militant atheism.

I think that a religious community like this could contribute in no small way to the creative healing of this fracture and go on to create the kind of secular, religionless Christianity that Dietrich Bonhoeffer tantalising glimpsed in a Nazi jail in 1945. As I say this remember 'religionless' does not mean proceeding without meaningful spiritual practices - it simply means a spirituality that doesn't need wildly top-heavy church superstructures and hierarchies to impose its will upon all and sundry.

So - in this very Pickwickian way - may we in the coming continue to encourage in each other the desire to strengthen our liberal Christian witness so as to develop genuine courage and strength which, in turn can help us challenge the many illiberal and unjust forces that continue to stalk our society.


Yewtree said…
Funnily enough Cat at the Quaker Pagan Reflections blog is also reflecting on the usage and traps of language - you might find it interesting.

Regarding Jesus: yes, for the most part he is a good example to follow (though he occasionally got it wrong, as many Unitarians love to point out). But, as I said to a Unitarian Christian the other day (and he agreed with me), things are good and true and right because they are good and true and right, not just because Jesus did or said them. So whilst I have enormous respect for him (or I wouldn't have joined Unitarianism, which I do see as having a lot to do with him) I do not exclusively follow his example (and I don't imagine you do either, actually).
Yewtree said…
PS - welcome back!