Books

Rowan Williams has been reading too much Wittgenstein

A review of ‘The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language’, by Rowan Williams. Atheists have nothing to fear from this attempt to find a proof for God in linguistic philosophy

27 September 2014

8:00 AM

27 September 2014

8:00 AM

The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language Rowan Williams

Bloomsbury, pp.224, £20, ISBN: 9781472910431

It used to seem rather obvious that the world was full of evidence for God. These days, theologians no longer beat this drum — but some of them still give it soft little taps from time to time.

Such tapping is what Rowan Williams is drawn to, now that he’s free of the obligation to dance around homosexuals and Muslims, so to speak. In this book, adapted from his recent Gifford lectures (a famous lecture series devoted to ‘natural theology’), he ponders the philosophy of language, and suggests that there is a deep affinity between how humans make meaning and how religious language makes sense.

It’s a meticulously restrained and complex performance, as you’d expect — but worth straining to hear. Is he saying that there is some sort of proof of Christianity’s truth in the linguistic structure of reality? No; but he is saying that serious attention to language tells us that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in the crude scientism of the atheists.

He argues that we must get away from the idea that language essentially describes reality, as best it can. If you say that the cat is on the mat (and the cat is on the mat), you are not mirroring reality through language; you are making some weird noises with your mouth (and maybe waking up the cat). Language is creative, poetic; metaphor’s its métier. And it’s practical; it’s what humans do. Language isn’t a tool for describing a non-linguistic, brutely material reality: it is more like the engine of reality.


And, Williams convincingly argues, language underlies scientists’ theories. The idea that language can be understood as a product of evolution gets things back to front: rather, it is language that allows us to see this process in nature:

We have no choice but to talk about [matter] as a linguistic or symbolic reality, whose processes we can only understand by analogy with our own conscious systems of recognition and collaboration.

This view of language as creative of meaning (which he sums up in the term ‘representation’) has a sort of ethical implication, he begins to argue. It shows us our dependence on those around us, and inherited patterns, for meaning is a shared, public thing, and a practical thing, made by bodies in time and space. (Wittgenstein is still at the heart of Williams’s thought.) This view ought to make us utterly resistant to neat tidy systems, and final explanations. And he suggests that the secularism of our day tends in this direction; it sees language as a means to technical mastery and individual autonomy.

He therefore argues that there is a sort of wisdom in language, when carefully attended to: it teaches us to affirm our dependence and finitude, and it leads us towards acceptance of linguistic difficulty (or ‘mystery’), and silence. For these things are aspects of how complex meaning is made, rather than just deficiencies. One learns to be patiently attentive to such strange, challenging forms of communication when one grasps that ‘there is no level of representation to which all others can be reduced’.

You could say that attention to language-as-representation promotes a sort of slow humanism, an intense tolerance for how human beings actually make meaning (at one point he discusses the fraught communication of a severely autistic child as illustrative of how all language is rooted in finite bodily life). Furthermore, although one’s meaning-making is limited (by one’s embodied nature), one needs to trust other forms of language that are somewhat alien to one — perhaps this entails positing a general meaningfulness in which all particular, limited meaning shares. Is there an argument for God here?

Well, the atheist is unlikely to have broken into a nervous sweat. And Williams cheerfully admits it. But maybe this is what ‘natural theology’ should do, he ventures: not try to find evidence of the Christian God in the world (an erroneous aim, as it undermines the concept of revelation), but give an account of the world that is congruent with the religious view.

So he is not really putting the case for Christianity; he is just raising a preliminary question: how does meaning-making work? In a sense he is saying to his fellow theologians: let us sharpen our grasp of this crucial territory before we attempt a new apologetics. This might sound like wise long-term thinking. But on the other hand, Williams was ploughing this furrow 30 years ago, and what’s resulted, besides lots of theologian-pleasing erudition? This form of theology has a limited ability to persuade or interest outsiders.

The philosophy of language is indeed a crucial resource for theology. But perhaps it is also a temptation: when theology puts all its eggs in this basket the result seems to be a certain insularity, a dulling of the impulse to construct an engaging, accessible apologetics.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £17, Tel: 08430 600033. Theo Hobson is the author of Reinventing Liberal Christianity. 

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • Psygn

    “crude scientism of the atheists”.

    Wow, anti-intellectualism much?

    • Rebecca Nichol

      scientism isn’t intellectual, it’s an irrational belief in scientific theories for which there is no evidence

      • Psygn

        Sort of like belief is gods?

        • Rebecca Nichol

          No

          • Dave The Happy Singer

            Your entire comment is pants-on-head crazy.

          • stag

            And your comment is pants. And lazy.

          • Rebecca Nichol

            I’m afraid personal insults don’t qualify as evidence. If you lack the intellectual capacity to understand and respond to rational argument then perhaps you could consult with someone who could explain it to you.

          • Marshal Phillips

            There’s more evidence for universe design than evolution? Who knew?

          • stag

            Could you present me with some evidence for evolution, then? The evolution from one species into another…?

            I would be very much obliged.

          • Marshal Phillips

            Start with the classic works of Charles Darwin; for up to date news and information try Science Daily: News at http://www.sciencedaily.com And lastly use a good academic science search engine; evolution is an ongoing science project

          • stag

            “Evolution is an ongoing science project.”

            That is a roundabout way of saying “no, I can’t present you with any actual evidence”.

          • Marshal Phillips

            Nope, that not the same as no evidence; but read about the process of evolution from the above sources. Or not. No problem for me.

          • stag

            If there is a clear piece of evidence, even just one (from the fossil record, say, or through observation under controled conditions), why don’t you just present it to me in a few words? Because it doesn’t exist. We both know that, Marshall.

            My problem is not that I don’t know what Darwinists say; my problem is that they neglect to provide actual evidence in support of their claims. They put a few pieces of a jigsaw together, and ask us to fill in the rest with our imaginations. Fair enough – but to claim that you have thereby demonstrated something is either dishonest or stupid.

          • Rebecca Nichol

            Charles Darwin believed in God according to his autobiography and proposed many hypotheses to try and explain variation between generations. The theory of evolution as we understand it today has no more evidence supporting it than there is evidence for the existence of the flying spaghetti monster.

          • Marshal Phillips

            Darwin did NOT state he believed in god in his bio.

          • Rebecca Nichol

            Look on page 92

          • stag

            Dear Rebecca,

            I invite you to have a look at my latest exchange with this “Marshall” character if you have the time and inclination. It is boring and repetitive, but that is not my fault. Notice how slippery he is, how he just won’t address the point at hand.

            And then notice how quickly he picked you up on your mistake (I believe it was a mistake, though I could be wrong) about Darwin’s autobiography. Marshall wasn’t slippery there, he addressed the point in hand – because he had some definite knowledge that he could employ against you. However, when it comes to evidence for Darwinism, he is slippery. he tells us to go read this, or that, or the next thing. Why? Because he himself doesn’t have any knowledge he can employ against us. He doesn’t know any actual evidence for Darwinism.

            His reply to your above post is perhaps the most telling one of all. It tells us Marshall is not simply someone who enjoys circumlocution. He does not beat about the bush by choice, but by necessity, ie., when he feels it is his only alternative in the face of grim defeat.

          • Rebecca Nichol

            According to Cardinal George Pell, Darwin says he’s a theist on page 92 of his autobiography. You can see the context of this quote from 28 minutes on the following video:
            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8hy8NxZvFY

          • stag

            Regardless – my point was about Marshall. It’s not that he’s unwilling to say something definite – it’s only an avoidance strategy for when he has nothing definite to say.

          • Marshal Phillips

            One species doesn’t turn into another or several different species — not in an instant, anyway. But read a basic science text on the slow changing adaptability of the evolutionary process.

          • stag

            In other words, there is no evidence to corroborate the central claim – the CENTRAL CLAIM – of Darwinism: namely, that the diversity of species is accounted for by the gradual evolution of one species into another.

          • Marshal Phillips

            You have misstated Darwinism.

          • Rebecca Nichol

            So if the diversity of species is not accounted for by the gradual evolution from one species or another, how did we all get here?

          • Marshal Phillips

            To know Darwinism read Darwin’s classic books and the many subsequent contributions by evolutionary biologists. Use a good academic science search engine. How did we all get here? Check out Harvard biologist Andrew Knoll’s book Life on a Young Planet.

          • Rebecca Nichol

            I already know about these theories. What I’m asking YOU is how has stag mis-stated Darwinism by saying that the diversity of species is accounted for by gradual evolution from one species to another (which has never been observed to take place and therefore isn’t science). That’s the basis of the theory of evolution and if you’re saying it didn’t happen then you’re saying that evolution didn’t happen. Don’t refer me to any more books because all you’re saying is that you don’t know or you can’t explain it.

          • Marshal Phillips

            If you understand Darwinism you don’t need to ask me.

          • Rebecca Nichol

            So you have no answer

          • Marshal Phillips

            No, you just don’t like the answer.
            Do your own homework.

          • Rebecca Nichol

            I’ve done the homework, that’show I know you have no answer.

          • Marshal Phillips

            You have failed in your homework.

          • kentgeordie

            This is a futile conversation, but Rebecca wins on points. We don’t need to read a book to know that the evidence such as it is contradicts the thrust of Darwinism. If that means denying the authority of the scientific establishment, so be it. Eppur si muove.

          • Marshal Phillips

            The debate between science and faith will continue forever; but the scientific establishment wins on science. Faith wins on faith. We all have free choice.

          • stag

            The scientific establishment might also win on things other than science. Things like power, say. Or influence. Or money. Or closing ranks. Scientists can be motivated by greed, by pride, by ideology, by undeclared interests – just like everyone else can.

            Even on this thread, you are not “winning on science”. Scientists win by presenting evidence to back up their theories. The moment you do that, you win. Until then, you are trying to win through non-scientific means such as appeal to authority and appeal to consensus.

          • Marshal Phillips

            I’m not “winning” or losing; I post my opinions the same as all others.
            Bible based or faith based beliefs are fine; but science is another matter entirely.

          • stag

            Well, if you are correct, and can show the other person to be wrong, you ‘win’ the debate. In that scenario, of course, the biggest winner is me: I leave behind my false opinion and acquire a true one. If you have some evidence, then I want you to bring it forward: I want to lose this debate, I want to be divested of false beliefs – if indeed they are false. So far, you have given me no motivation to change my stance. Which, BTW, is not faith-based. I am talking about scientific criteria here.

          • Marshal Phillips

            No one is winning or losing here; we’re all just posting our opinions in a public forum.

          • stag

            What is the point of this opinion-posting, in your view? Fun? Exercise for your fingers?

            Myself, I am looking for an answer to a specific question. An answer you are singularly failing to provide.

          • Marshal Phillips

            Sorry, you can’t be satisfied. But there’s always the internet to explore the subject in depth from many sources in academic scientific search engines.

          • stag

            Well, for pete’s sake, Marshall, why didn’t you just say that at the beginning????

            Why not just say “Sorry, I can’t provide you with evidence for evolution – but go looking online, I’m sure you’ll find something”???

            Could have saved a lot of time and trouble.

          • Rebecca Nichol

            You’re just trolling

          • Marshal Phillips

            “trolling” with my real name and my honest opinions

          • Rebecca Nichol

            Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

          • Marshal Phillips

            and yet you replied

          • Rebecca Nichol

            zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

          • Marshal Phillips

            you’re not even asleep.

          • kentgeordie

            Enough already! Say sorry, both of you, and make friends.

          • Rebecca Nichol

            Lol. Sorry for what?

          • Rebecca Nichol

            zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

          • stag

            Because she happens to have arrived at a conclusion other than yours?

          • Marshal Phillips

            Nope, cuz she didn’t complete her assignment.

          • stag

            You said “do your own homework” – not yours. Perhaps she has studied these matters to a sufficient degree that she feels confident in saying – as I have and do – that there is a massive evidence-shaped hole right in the middle of Darwinism.

          • Marshal Phillips

            You’re speculating about what she read.
            Darwinism was the foundation; but science has added further to his theory. And science continues with evidence as that’s how science works as opposed to faith based or religious dogma.

          • stag

            No – I said “perhaps”. I said that hoping you would realize it was *you* doing the speculating, by assuming (correctly or incorrectly – you don’t know) she had not read widely enough to form a responsible opinion.

          • Marshal Phillips

            Perhaps you’re speculating too much.

          • stag

            Come on, Marshall. I’m not interested in chasing you around. Can I get some straight answers? You tell me to read Darwin. I will not find evidence for the evolution of one species into another in his works. It was a theory, based on observations, but not actually corroborated thereby. So come on. Why so coy? Just cite me the scientific evidence for evolution. One piece. Then we can go and do other things with our lives.

          • Marshal Phillips

            You seem overly obsessed with me. Use a good academic scientific search engine for many papers on Darwinism. Or take a very basic course in evolutionary biology.

          • stag

            I can assure you I’m not. I am pursuing this discussion somewhat wearily, because you are being slippery, and I want to pin you down. I want you either to say “Here is a bit of evidence for evolution:…” – or to say “Sorry, I can’t really give you any evidence for evolution”.

            You are very reluctant to say either of those things. If you had a bit of evidence, I can’t believe you would have kept it back only to produce it now, after beating around the bush for ages. I am assuming, then, the you are being coy because you actually don’t have evidence. But, for obvious reasons, you don’t want to say that. So you have decided to be slippery instead and waste my time.

          • Marshal Phillips

            Relax your weariness, dude. Go and do your homework.

          • stag

            Enough, Marshall. You are just a troll after all. You simply will not answer a straight question. You are p****** me about, and I’m not having that. Good night.

          • Marshal Phillips

            Keep calm and carry on, dude.

          • Rebecca Nichol

            That’s hilarious, lol

          • stag

            You can’t “state Darwinism” in a single pithy sentence. However, Darwinism does say that the evolution from one species into another takes place, doesn’t it? Because that’s all I was really saying.

          • Marshal Phillips

            Nope, your pithy statement is simplistic.

          • stag

            So the evolution of one species into another does NOT take place? Is that a better statement of the central claim of Darwinism?

            It either does or it doesn’t, Marshall. Once we get that out of the way, quibble all you like.

          • Marshal Phillips

            Read his classic works. You’ll find your answers there.

          • stag

            Stop dodging, Marshall. Does the evolution of one species into another take place, according to Darwinism? You seem strangely reluctant to address this point.

          • Marshal Phillips

            You seem reluctant to read his classic works.

          • stag

            I know the content enough to know that if I did, it would not provide me with what I seek, which is actual scientific evidence for evolution. Finches beaks don’t constitute that, I’m sorry. Darwin presented it as a theory, not as scientific fact.

            And anyway, since you have presumably read them, rather than insisting I do the same, why not give me an example drawn from them, where the theory of evolution from one species to another is backed up by solid evidence?

          • Marshal Phillips

            Perhaps your “enough” isn’t sufficient.

          • stag

            So Darwin DID produce actual evidence for inter-species evolution, then? Not simply data that suggested it to him, but that proved his theory beyond reasonable doubt?

          • Marshal Phillips

            Read his works and the many scientific papers about his works.

    • John Thomas Whalen

      Scientism–though explicitly held by very few–is an epistemological (relating to knowledge) position. It differs from Naturalism, which (in its most simplified form) is the rejection of the existence of all supernatural entities and the assertion that all that exists is natural/physical in some sense. Scientism, on the other hand, which Dawkins, Krauss, and Harris slip into, is the (implicit) belief that science is the only form of knowledge acceptable in serious discourse. That’s sort of a rough definition, but that’s essentially the spirit of it. It’s self-defeating though, because arguing that science is the only to path to serious knowledge is not actually a scientific claim but a philosophical one. That might explain why the author used the term “crude.” It’s sort of an untenable position, even for the most staunch atheist. I don’t quite know why Rebecca got into the whole creationism thing.

  • Mark Moore

    And after we prove that god exists we can get out our crayola and write a letter to Santa Claus.

    • Rebecca Nichol

      Get an argument, don’t just regurgitate what’s been poured into your brain through popular culture.

      • Dave The Happy Singer

        The argument would be that there is as much evidence that Christians are in a personal relationship with the creator of the entire universe as there is for Santa, and therefore it is as rational to believe in the Christian God as it is to believe in Santa.

        • stag

          But there is positive evidence that Santa does not exist: the North Pole is barren of human habitation and of reindeer; there is no-one flying round the world on a sledge on December 25th; etc etc. We can prove these things as well as we can prove any scientific proposition. That God does not exist is not susceptible to the same kind of proof. So the two beliefs are not equally irrational – Santa is more so.

        • Rebecca Nichol

          And the source of this data is what?

  • kentgeordie

    The fossil record is entirely at odds with the evolutionary notion of a large number of small changes over a long period.
    It would be interesting to collect the responses of Darwinians to this plain fact. My son says: “Sampling error”. I take this to mean: “The evidence must be wrong because it doesn’t fit the theory.”

  • stag

    Does the world need to hear this erudite piffle?

  • Batesie

    C.S. Lewis, THE GREAT DIVORCE: ” “down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him.”

  • Pastor Adam

    This discussion got off on the wrong foot when scientism was defined as “an irrational belief in scientific theories for which there is no evidence.” Scientism is the belief that science (empirical investigation) is the ONLY reliable way to obtain knowledge, rather than the belief that science is ONE reliable way among MANY of obtaining knowledge. It’s “crude,” not because it’s held by atheists (many do hold this view but some don’t) but because it leaves us without answers to many of life’s most important questions, including the question “How do we reliably obtain knowledge” (can’t answer that question by scientific investigation). The problem arises when people naively think that science can answer every question, or that questions that cannot be answered by science are not worth asking. Science is very useful for answering certain types of questions, and not at all useful for answering others. As it turns out, the most important questions and the most fundamental questions we ask, tend to be the questions that science isn’t able to answer. Good scientists recognize the limits of what science can tell us. Bad scientists tend to pass off their philosophical convictions as “science” when they are not.

  • JHRW

    I’m afraid this is an unimpressive review. Dr Hobson fails to describe what the book actually is: a presentation of what the linguistic turn in philosophy means to an acutely sensitive Christian thinker, in fact one of the (undeniably) most eminent theologians of our age, and one who is not kowtowed into reducing all theology to ‘accessible apologetics’, but gives genuine space to important questions, a basic necessity (perhaps surprisingly for Hobson) for the church to answer in order to be taken seriously. It seems Dr Hobson is unable to disentangle his distaste for Rowan’s ministerial career in the CofE and theological flavour from serious critique of this and other works by Rowan. Readers wishing for a better survey of this important book by Rowan should turn their attention to the Academic Journal Modern Theology which published a whole volume of academic responses to The Edge Of Words, such was its importance in their eyes. Were it simply ‘ploughing the same furrow’ Rowan was 30 years ago, it would not have gained such widespread attention from the academic community and beyond.

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