Words and Transgressions 1—Fallacy of the Alchemists

READINGS: Proverbs 10:19

“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is prudent.”

Potted biography of Maurice O'Connor Drury (1907–1976) constructed from his entry on Wikipedia and p. 264 of Ray Monk's excellent biography of Wittgenstein. "The Duty of Genius".
Maurice O'Connor Drury was a psychiatrist and follower of Ludwig Wittgenstein born in Exeter, Devon, England, of Irish parents. He was educated at Exeter Grammar School and then studied philosophy at Trinity College, Cambridge. His tutors included G. E. Moore, C. D. Broad and Ludwig Wittgenstein. In 1929 Drury became one of Wittgenstein’s friends until the latter’s death in 1951.
          After first meeting Wittgenstein almost every major decision in Drury’s life was made under his influence. He had originally intended, upon leaving Cambridge, to be ordained as an Anglican priest. “Don't think I ridicule this for one minute”, Wittgenstein remarked upon being told of the plan, “but I can’t approve; no, I can’t approve. I would be afraid that one day that collar would choke you.” This was on the second, or possibly the third, occasion on which they had met. On the next, Wittgenstein returned to the theme: “Just think, Drury, what it would mean to have to preach a sermon every week; you couldn’t do it.”
          After a year at theological college (Westcott House, Cambridge), Drury agreed and, prompted by Wittgenstein, took a job instead among “ordinary people”. He worked on projects to help the unemployed, first in Newcastle and then in South Wales after which, again prompted by Wittgenstein, he trained as a doctor. After the war — in which he served with the Royal Army Medical Corps in Egypt as well as taking part in the Normandy landings — Drury specialized in psychiatry (a branch of medicine suggested by Wittgenstein), and from 1947 until his death in 1976 worked at St Patrick’s Hospital, Dublin, first as Resident Psychiatrist and then as Senior Consultant Psychiatrist.
          He also lectured medical students on psychology in Trinity College and the Royal College of Surgeons and was described as relating to his student audience as “quite an intellectual man, who was very much speaking and relating to an audience as an intellectual.” He was promoted to Senior Consultant Psychiatrist in 1969.
          Drury was the author of “The danger of words and writings on Wittgenstein” which has been described by Ray Monk as “the most truly Wittgensteinian book published by any of Wittgenstein’s students”. Drury brought Wittgenstein’s “critique of language” to bear on the practice of medicine, and particularly psychology that promised the same control over the mind that physics achieved with matter. Drury pointed out that this promise was one where the delivery date was always being pushed into the future.

Antoine Lavoisier (1743–1794) in the introduction to his treatise Traité Élémentaire de Chimie (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, musing on the problem of using the old terminology borrowed from the alchemists, Lavoisier continues:

“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.”


 Words and Transgressions 1 Fallacy of the Alchemists

Maurice O'Connor Drury
In 1976 one of Wittgenstein's former pupils, Maurice O'Connor Drury, wrote a book called the “Danger of Words” in which he made some very interesting Wittgensteinian observations about his own profession of psychiatry. In the opening part, called “Words and Transgressions”, he begins by offering the reader five fallacies about language that I think are of great practical interest to us as a 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). In the coming weeks I’ll try to work my way through them one by one.

Drury begins quoting Proverbs 10:19: “With a multitude of words transgressions are increased.” He does this because he is aware in psychiatry — as I am acutely aware in religion — that:

“. . . 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.”

Here in this congregation, we are ourselves a kind of admixture of patients and colleagues. Patients in the sense that we all come here looking for something helpful and healing in our lives; colleagues because we are working together to make this an effective free-religious institution. Also, in so far as we take time later in the week actively to continue to think about the things we have explored together on a Sunday morning we, too, will be spending time in solitude trying to clarify our own thinking. In all of these settings — although we hope to clarify our own personal and corporate thinking — we have to acknowledge that it is also  highly likely that confusion, misunderstanding and error will enter into play. So, all in all, Drury’s work seems to me to be highly relevant to us.

Let’s now turn directly to Drury’s first fallacy which 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 went back to the alchemists, introduced the modern system of naming into chemistry in which different substances were designated 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 alchemical name is ‘Fuming liquor of Libavius’ (spiritus fumans libavii) which today we call ‘stannic chloride’ or ‘tin tetrachloride.’

Lavoisier made it clear in his writings (in Mémoire sur la nécessité 1787, 14, 16-17 and Rapport sur les nouveaux caractéres chimiques 1787 in Oeuvres 5:378]) that 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).

Now why is this of interest to us? Well, to begin to see this let’s turn to what Lavoisier 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, 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 own age was “only too comparable” with that used by chemistry in its childhood. Likewise, if we are honest with ourselves we can see that the vocabulary of religion in our own age remains stubbornly comparable with what Lavoisier has to say about the vocabulary used in early chemistry. In our religion, as Drury was in psychiatry, we need to remain completely aware that we use a nomenclature and NOT a system of naming.

(Excursus: I realise ‘nomenclatures’ are themselves a kind of naming but please note that I’m using the word here to distinguish between, on the one hand, the slow, unsystematic, unscientific, almost poetic way names are appended to things or sets by a culture — or to apparent ‘things’ and ‘sets’ — and, on the other, the consciously systematic application of words that occurs in the scientific context — i.e. a system of naming. This doesn’t mean that a system of naming is perfect for all time and in all situations 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 is able to 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 simply to recognise that its use is to be found precisely in its inexactness and its ability to evoke or poetically or imaginatively gesture ’towards’ certain important existential aspects of human experience.)

Now, the issue is that even in our own modern age (which we like to see as ‘advanced’ — although what we might mean by that is not always clear) we really have no better religious terminology to hand and, therefore, as Drury said in his own field, “we must for the present do the best with what we have”  and as Drury rightly warns us we must also “beware lest from this unsystematic nomenclature suppositions are drawn, which then become presumptions and only too easily pass over into established truths.”

Here's an example of 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 actual modern chemistry, I can (thanks to Lavoisier) turn to a rigorous system of naming which offers me the name “tin tetrachloride”. This system gives me and the community of chemists a certain objective purchase on the world that is simply not available to me were I to continue to try to work only with the complex tangled web of nomenclature which includes “fuming liquor of Libavius.”

Here’s a religious example — although, 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 rigorous system of naming that offers me another name for “God” that 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.

As many of you will be acutely aware there still exists, alas, a worryingly huge number of people who continue today to believe that their religious nomenclature is in fact a system of naming. When this is the case, for those people, the word “God” becomes fixed in their own preferred apparent metaphysical systems of naming, whether Trinitarian, Unitarian or “whateverean” and, instead of arriving at genuine, empirically derived conclusions about the world these same people draw suppositions which become changed into presumptions and which, in turn, become regarded as fundamental truths.

The word “God”, when and wherever it is being used by people in this fashion as if it were a word belonging to a system of naming, is something I, myself, refuse to use. I personally do not, actually cannot, believe that the word “God” attaches to any actual, existent entity whose being and attributes can rigorously be defined and understood in the way we can, in chemistry, rigorously define and understand sodium sulphate or tin tetrachloride.

However, whenever I am reasonably sure that the word “God” is being used by the people around me as part of a religious and poetic nomenclature, and the person or community using it (and the guests among them) are fully aware of this — as I try to ensure is the case here — then I think the word “God” (and other religious words too of course) can be useful in helping us converse together and try better to understand and relate to that mysterious ineffable “something” which is beyond all words and upon which human life, all life in fact, is dependent for its very existence.

One of Drury’s major objectives in writing his essay was to show that there are limits to human knowledge and that his job as a philosopher was constantly to examine critically the assumptions of scientists and gently to point out that, at times, they are attempting to do the impossible. He thought (along with Wittgenstein) that philosophers are there, in part, to encourage scientists to state clearly what they mean and to limit their statements to what they can actually demonstrate. It strikes me that my job as a philosopher in this church setting is to do something analogous to this and to remind all of you of at least two things.

Firstly, that, frustrating though it undoubtedly is, when it comes to talking about the phenomenon of religion (understood in its widest sense) for the present we have no choice but to do the best we can with the language we currently have available to us.

And, secondly, to remind you that as a religious community with a goodly part of its roots firmly grounded in the skeptical, radical Enlightenment tradition of Spinoza and David Hume (at least as interpreted by Paul Russell) et. al., we have a sacred duty, as Drury indicated, to remind ourselves and others that from our unsystematic nomenclature we must never allow ourselves to draw the kind of suppositions which become presumptions and which, alas, alas, only too easily pass over into established truths.

In this community dedicated to ensuring the complete freedom of thought and conscience in matters of religion we must never forget that there is and can be no such thing as the established truths of religion.