Narrative, Religion, and Science: Fundamentalism versus Irony, 1700-1999

By Stephen Prickett | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6
Twentieth-century fundamentalisms: Theology,
truth and irony

RORTY: LANGUAGE AND REALITY

The relationship betweenwords and things has always been problematic. Even if the most simple-minded attempt at translation quickly dispels any naive realist illusions that words stand simply for things, actions or thoughts, with a one-to-one correspondence between one language and another, the precise function of language in describing our material and mental experience was, and still is, deeply mysterious. Though, contrary to popular mythology, it seems that Eskimo languages have no more words for snow than English, there are huge variations in the ways various languages describe the world.1 As we all know, French has two words for knowledge where English has only one; according to Benjamin Lee Whorf, Hopi Indians have different verbs for motion towards and away from the observer; the Japanese have different vocabularies for men and for women.2 Until recently, however, few scholars were tempted to sever completely the Gordian knot tying words to the world, and argue that there is no necessary relation at all between our material surroundings and the stories we tell ourselves about them. Only with the advent of postmodernism has there appeared what we might call 'a linguistics of absence', rather than presence, and the idea of a theology and even a science based not on observation of phenomena, but simply on other, previous, stories about the world.

In his book Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (1989), Rorty suggests that there is now a quite fundamental split between those who see language as a secondary medium, describing in words objective truths about the universe, and those who, on the contrary, see language as a primary activity.

____________________
1
Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, p. 64.
2
Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, Thought and Reality, ed. J. B. Carroll, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1956.

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