Wittgenstein’s ‘family resemblance’ concept and the language of love

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations: The German Text, with a revised English Translation (Blackwell; Oxford, 2001) third edition.

I wont pretend to have read all of Philosophical Investigations thoroughly (though it was surprisingly easy to read) but I have skimmed the whole and digested the relevant bits as required for my research.  It became evident very early on in my PhD research that doing theology at this level is very difficult without a background in philosophy!  (Those first year BA lectures in 1989 where I zoned out and wrote bad poetry have come back to haunt me!)  Hence, I have taken crash courses in Wittgenstein, Hegel, Heidegger, Riceour, Plato and more!  Yes, it has been as hard going as that sounds and I have frequently felt overwhelmed!!

Anyway, I need to get into Wittgenstein because he presents a solution to the problem of the language of love.  Love is sometimes described as a game.  Now philosophers are not known for their frivolity, but with Wittgenstein, it is true: to speak of love is a word game.

The problem is that l-o-v-e, this four lettered word in the English language, basically defies empirical definition.  When employed as a noun it denotes different emotional and relational states of the human person.  When employed as a verb it denotes a range of actions towards others and within ourselves.  The phenomena of love is essentially multiform and complex.

I love my family, chocolate and Jesus – each of these experiences has a distinct feeling about them and the actions flowing out of my feelings are different for each one (except for the occasions when I eat my children!)  And yet, you seem to understand what I mean when I say each of these things.  I have deep commitment to the well-being of my family; I enjoy chocolate more than any other food; Jesus makes my world go around!

Affection, attraction, interest – these attributes of human relationship figure strongly in the experience of love, but without further clarification, these words do not get close enough to confining the dazzling array of  feelings, actions and propositions that love can entail.  However, that does not mean that we don’t know what we’re talking about whenever we deploy the word; on the contrary, we know what we mean, it’s just that we mean a lot more than the word can literally say!  The word evokes meaning, depending on its context.

In this sense, the word functions similarly to a whole range of abstract language that I am interested in for my research – beauty, God, prayer, mystical experience – and its not confined to English.  This category of words which defy empirical definition preoccupied the mind of Wittgenstein and, upon reflection, he came up with an illustration of what was going on based on the word ‘game’.  He shows how some words gain their meaning not through reference to a concrete absolute, but through a process he named ‘family resemblance’.

Here are the key paragraphs – #66 and 67 –  in Wittgenstein where he explains his concept of family resemblance in word games, which I think explain how we should understand the word ‘love’ in the English language (you can skip Wittgenstein if you want to short cut to my conclusions, but he is fun!)

Consider for example, the proceedings that we call “games”.  I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on.  What is common to them all?- Don’t say: ‘There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games'” – but look and see whether there is anything common to all. – For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that.  To repeat: don’t think, but look!- Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships.  Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear.  When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost.- Are they all ‘amusing’?  Compare chess with noughts and crosses.  Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players?  Think of patience.  In ball-games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared.  Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis.  Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared!  And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear.  And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.

I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc., etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. – And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.   And for instance the kinds of number form a family in the same way.  Why do we call something a “number”?  Well, perhaps because it has a – direct – relationship with several things that have hitherto been called number; and this may be said to give it an indirect relationship to other things that we call the same name.  And we extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre.  And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.    But if someone wished to say: “There is something common to all these constructions – namely the disjunction of all their common properties” – I should reply: Now you are only playing with words.  One might as well say: “Something runs through the whole thread – namely the continuous overlapping of these fibres”.

So, as Wittgenstein says, there is something that runs through the whole thread, whenever we use the term ‘love’.  It is a poetic word: a word that alludes rather than proscribes; a word that suggests rather than stipulates; a word whose meaning grows within its context.  When writers employ the word they rely on the ambiguous nature of the language to fill their work with colour; to paint a picture in the imagination; to evoke a memory of an experience.  It is a word that conjures a whole scene of meaning rather than a snapshot frozen in time and space.

Traditionally, theology has sought to confine the meaning of love to a particular sibling within the family of meanings.  C.S. Lewis canonised this approach for a generation of Christians through his explanation of four Greek words for love in his 1960 book The Four Loves.  For example, most Christians would confine ‘agape’ love to describe the love of God and ‘eros’ love as that between two sexual lovers.  Whilst it is true that agape is the preferred Greek word used in the Scriptures, and in fact eros is not used at all, the reasons for the original writers employing those particular terms did not intend to segregate meaning in the way that we have done in the scientific era.

Now, I’ve been wondering, what if the poetics of the word love is maintained in its usage?  At the very least it will change the way that I write about love.  But what will happen if I take seriously the actual phenomena and experience of love which is always complex, dense and messy?  Love is rarely experienced in any single form: even when I love my children, it is mixed in with love (or otherwise) of my parents, love (or not) of their father, love (hopefully) of the life that I lead with them, our friends, our activities, and the God whom I believe is involved with it all?

So, what if we reject a single dimension approach to love when it comes to theology?  What if God’s love is fundamentally and irreducibly multidimensional?

What if God’s love for humanity is eternal and unconditional, just because God loves us (agape), and God loves us because we are valuable (eros), and God loves as a family member loves another family member – as a father and a brother (storge), and God loves us because that’s the way relationships work best to produce mutually beneficial outcomes (phileo)?

To write of God and human love like this requires beauty, poetry, feeling, intelligence, slowness and openness.  We cannot do away with the stage upon which the love is spoken, the story within which love unfurls or the conversation into which the word is uttered.  That’s the theology of love I want to write.

Conditions of Love: a Philosophy of Intimacy by John Armstrong

John Armstrong, Conditions of Love: a Philosophy of Intimacy (Penguin; London, 2003)

“‘What is it to love another person?’ This is to raise one of the deepest, and most puzzling, questions we can put to ourselves.” (p1)

I’ve been wading through the difficulties of defining love for what seems like a lifetime but in reality is only a few months of PhD work.  How does one write sensibly about love when love is so uncontainable by words?  It is a problem preoccupying scholarship of various kinds in the present era and no less importantly a dilemma of the everyday that we all come across: how many times can I say to my children ‘I love you’ before it loses all meaning to them?  But how else do I communicate the ache in my chest which throbs with the urge to wrap them in my arms and squeeze them till they squeal?

John Armstrong is a British philosopher, who resides in Melbourne and is currently Senior Advisor in the Office of the Vice Chancellor, University of Melbourne.  His books are a delicious gourmet meal, though easily digestible, on topics of life, love, art, beauty and wisdom.  You can taste the delights of his writing on his website, where there are various articles written for a broad audience:  www.johnarmstrong.com

Twenty-two succinct chapters in this short book – each a morsel of goodness in and of itself – describe the nature and experience of intimate connection.  Love is a human experience which defies empirical definition, yet we all seem to know what we mean when we use those four letters strung together into a single word.  Armstrong invokes Wittgenstein to explain how this is not anything to be concerned about, as far as language is concerned, and I’m going to post about Wittgenstein’s word-game solution shortly, so stay tuned.  (It was exciting, gratifying and most of all a great relief, to discover the solution that I’d come up on my own is the one Armstrong suggests!)

Despite the difficulty of empirical definition when it comes to love, we can identify themes or key characteristics which we seem to assume when we use the word.  What we are referring to with the word ‘love’ is sometimes a feeling, sometimes an action, sometimes a moral principle.  Always though, there will be a seeking of positive human connection that can be described as ‘good’.

When we understand something about the ‘conditions’ under which love is produced, we discover we need not be parallelised by this defining frustration.  There are things that can be said about love.  For example, we grasp something of the nature of love through the (persuasive) evolutionary perspective about the development of love as a driver in the human species reproduction and improvement.  However, biology can’t tell us everything, as we can also observe that the human experience of love changes over time and place depending on the cultural context – expectations and judgements produce a morality within which the experience of love is shaped and shaded.  Furthermore, the individual human’s personal psychology, particularly the foundations of love laid in childhood and the creative capacity of imagination, will direct the particular manifestation of love in their experience.

There is much more in Armstrong’s book than what I pick up here.  I suspect each reader will take away some insight unique for themselves as they luxuriate in this beautiful piece of wisdom.  Apart from the book’s academic usefulness, I came away feeling encouraged in regard to my own humanity: I could see afresh my own capacity for love and the goodness of a life lived with love as its main pursuit.

Because I have enjoyed the style as much as the content of conditions of love, I’ll let Armstrong present you with his own conclusion:

“In this book I have tried to argue two things – each argument runs through the book as a whole.  Firstly, the need to love and to be loved is deeply placed in human nature.  It springs from certain inherited evolutionary characteristics but it is also bound up with much more recent developments of self-consciousness: we long to be understood, to be close to another person, to matter in another’s life.  These concerns may have had some rudimentary presence in the lives of our remotest ancestors, but they have been massively increased, and brought to the foreground of experience, only in recorded history.  And because they are aspects of culture, they vary to some degree from society to society – as these needs are variously interpreted.  It is, however, precisely the same factors – the factors which draw us into love – that constitute the roots of love’s difficulties.  We long to be understood, but it is often awkward to have another see too much of one’s inner troubles.  We try to be charitable, but we are susceptible to boredom and impatience.  Above all, we do not go through life with a strictly coherent set of desires, and anyone who charms us in one frame of mind may be annoying in another.

Secondly, love is an achievement, it is something we create, individually, not something which we just find, if only we are lucky enough.  But although it is a creation and an achievement it is not something which can be forced simply by effort.  You can’t just sit down and decide to love someone and, through doing this, find that you do really love them.  This is unsurprising if we reflect that love is dependent upon many other achievements: kindness of interpretation, sympathy, understanding, a sense of our own needs and vulnerability.  And these kinds of capacity and awareness do not spring suddenly into being.  Each requires patient cultivation: we have to take whatever fragile presence each has in our lives and build upon that.  If this is true of loving it is also true of being loveable.  Being loveable cannot really be separated from being a good person in general.  There seem to be counter-instances in which physical attractiveness or glamour make individuals the target of love.  But it is obvious that these characteristics play a much smaller role in generating a love that lasts – one which can weather the inevitable periods of disenchantment and dissatisfaction on both sides.  In our culture have become rather disinclined to pay attention to individual responsibility in loving.  We place too much emphasis on finding the right person and not nearly enough upon the cultivation of qualities which allow us to deserve love and which enable us to give loge – even when things are difficult.”

The Age of Breath by Luce Irigaray

‘The Age of the Breath.’ Translated by Staci Boeckman, Katja van de Rakt & Luce Irigaray . Chap. 14 In Luce Irigaray: Key Writings, edited by Luce Irigaray (London, New York: Continuum, 2004:165-70)

Luce Irigaray

In the last decade, Luce Irigaray has started to draw together insights from her philosophical and psycho-linguistic scholarship with her personal experiences of spiritual practice, primarily through the Yoga tradition, but undoubtedly influenced by her infant Catholicism.  Not everyone is a fan of this move of course, the idea that there are different types of knowledge that might share an egalitarian platform is strongly resisted in academia, but I think that this move is entirely consistent with Irigaray’s development as a radical feminist thinker.  To embrace spiritual ways of knowing is, for her, to embrace the particularity of her Self as a person and as a woman.  The objectified, empirical knowledge privileged by the Academy, and by public political discourse in general, is one that privileges a male perspective; hence, her investigation into body ways of knowing and the feminine divine are a natural extension of her earlier work conceptualising gender.

For Irigaray, ‘god’ has no independent reality outside of the human psyche, so although I will not follow her into that territory, she is an interesting and instructive traveling companion on my journey towards a love epistemology.  If the human psyche comes in two forms, again as Irigaray asserts, then there will be two distinct projections of the divine: masculine and feminine.  Therefore, women must recover their own unique conception of the divine as part of the process of discovering their own uniqueness as women.  Irigaray argues this centres around the body; specifically the breath of the body.

‘The divine appropriate to women, the feminine divine, is first of all related to the breath.  To cultivate the divine in herself, the woman, in my opinion, has to attend to her own breathing, her own breath, more even than to love.  Breathing, in fact, corresponds to the first autonomous gesture of a human living, and it is not possible to be divine without being autonomous with respect to the mother and the father, to the lover, to the child, to the others in general, women and men.’ p.165

If we take care to step around the reductionist tendencies in Irigaray’s work, there is an insight here worth paying some attention to.  Unless we know ourselves, we cannot know what we are projecting on to others; unless we take the time to listen to all of our amazing capacity for knowledge – body, soul, mind and strength – we limit our natural human resources for engaging with life, the divine and the universe.  This need not exclude the operation of other, non-subjective sources of knowledge that originate outside of us as human persons, which is what the Christian doctrine of ‘revelation’ is all about.  Rather, human subjectivity and revelation work hand in hand.

Integrating the body in the process of intellectual discernment increases the pathways of spiritual enlightenment, one human being at a time.

‘If the gesture of God shows in the myth of Genesis – the necessity of making matter divine through the breath, this gesture cannot take the place of the woman-mother’s breath.  If it were so, God would have to create all the humans one by one.  This cannot be the meaning of the creative gesture in Genesis.  Nor can it be that of the incarnation of Jesus, in which God entrusts his spirit to the woman twice: the first time as woman-daughter, spiritually virginal, the second time as woman-mother of a divine son.’ p.169

You can access this fascinating chapter of Irigaray’s on line through google books.

I Love To You by Luce Irigaray

I Love to You: Sketch of a Possible Felicity in History. Translated by Alison Martin.  New York: Routledge, 1996.

Luce Irigaray

In 1989 Luce Irigaray  shared a speaking platform with politician Renzo Imbeni  at an Italian Communist Party meeting in Bologna.  It was such a significant experience for her – of one man and one woman speaking together to create a forum for men and women to freely share sociality – that she dedicates this book to him and introduces her purposes by describing what was extraordinary about that event.  Prior to this Luce Irigaray worked on articulating gender as a way of articulating ‘différance’ – a particular preoccupation of late twentieth century, french philosophy, the term itself coined by Derrida. After the event with Renzo Imbeni she shifted her focus to communication between the genders, starting with this book, I love to You.  In the last decade her interests have shifted again to feminine ways of knowing and being, integrating insights from her spiritual explorations, particularly in the yoga tradition, alongside her philosophical reflections.

Like most of the French philosophers, Luce Irigaray is difficult to read, as much in her native French as well as in the English translations, I am led to believe by my French enabled colleagues.  For those of you following the blog since last year, you’ll have noted that I post less often: that’s because this stuff takes time to digest and it is only when you have ‘lived with them’ for a while that you can really say anything sensible!   Well, I lived and breathed Luce Irigaray for 6 weeks in preparation for a presentation at the annual conference of the UK Mystical Theology Network.  My paper workshopped three Irigarayan strategies for reading mystical love language, of which I used an example from St Therese of Lisieux.  The first two can be found in I love to you, the third is more substantially in later works.

Three strategics for communication in a feminine mode

Strategy One:  Speak/Listen subject to subject:

In I love to you Irigaray presents a fair chunk of linguistic research to back up her claim that women tend towards relational exchange in communication and men tends towards object relations.  So, in recovering what she describes as a uniquely feminine way of speaking and reading, Luce Irigaray insists that we do not turn a text, an audience, an author, or ourselves as reader into an object.  Subjects are responsive, fluid, complex and multidimensional.  They are a living, dynamic, evolving thing.

‘I love to you thus means:  I do not take you for a direct object, nor for an indirect object by revolving around you.  It is, rather, around myself that I have to revolve in order to maintain the to you thanks to the return to me.  Not with my pray – you have become mine – but with the intention of respecting my nature, my history, my intentionality, while also respecting yours.  Hence, I do not return to me by way of : I wonder if I am loved.  That would result from an introverted intentionality, going toward the other so as to return ruminating, sadly and endlessly, over solipsistic questions in a sort of cultural cannibalism.’ p.110

Strategy Two:  Seek out the lost feminine:
Like Simone DeBouvoire (though seemingly independent from), Irigaray insists that if there is only one perspective articulated in a text or speech, in a patriarchal context that perspective will be masculine.  Hence, readers need to seek out the lost feminine by asking ‘what is not being said’.  What life experience and knowledge is not being represented? It is clear at this point that Irigaray uses masculine and feminine as polemical opposites and there is little subtlety around these two poles pitched against one another.  In a more general sense though, this is an excellent question: what perspectives are missing?

‘The “to” is the guarantor of two intentionalities: mine and yours.  I you I love that which can correspond to my own intentionality and to yours.  I recognize you, thus you are not the whole; otherwise you would be too great and I would be engulfed by your greatness.  You are not the whole and I am not the whole.I recognize you, thus I may not revolve around you, I cannot encircle you or introject you.’  p.103

Strategy Three:  Speak/Listen with body and breath:

I’ll say more about this in my next post, because Irigaray only briefly touches on this concept in I love to you.  She argues that feminine subjectivity is essentially embodied, primarily through the breath.  We we must take time to listen and acknowledge ‘space’ in the conversation because it is far from an empty pause.

‘To love to you and, in this “to,” provide space for thought, for thought of you, of me, of us, of what brings us together and distances us, of the distance that enables us to become, of the spacing necessary for coming together, of the transubstantiation of energy, of the oeuvre…  The to you comes through breath trying to make itself speech.’ p.149


In summary, to speak in love is to speak as one whole person to other whole person or persons (plural), maintaining a constant openness to both person and knowledge.  It means we resist the utilitarian pull to use others for what they can do or be for us, continually redirecting our attention away from what we know to what we don’t know and away from ourselves to the Other.  It’s in this most general application of Irigaray’s work that I am comfortable.  I think if we push the gender categories into a universal and mutually exclusive binary we lose too much.  Irigaray is striving for a loving freedom in communication, a noble goal I am very happy to endorse.

‘I am listening to you not on the basis of what I know, I feel, I already am, nor in terms of what the world and language already are, thus in a formalistic manner, so to speak.  I am listening to you rather as the revelation of a truth that has yet to manifest itself – yours and that of the world revealed through and by you.  I give you a silence in which your future – and perhaps my own, but with you and not as you and without you – may emerge and lay its foundation.  This is not a hostile or restrictive silence.  It is openness that nothing or no one occupies, or preoccupies – no language, no world, no God.

This silence is space-time offered to you with no a priori, no pre-established truth or ritual.  To you it constitutes an overture, to the other who is not and never will be mine.  It is a silence made possible by the fact that neither I  nor you are everything, that each of us is limited, marked by the negative, non-hierarchically different.  A silence that is the primary gesture of I love to you.  Without it, the “to,” such as I understand it, is impossible.’  p.117

‘The Expressible and The Inexpressible’: John Stuyfbergen

This post is the fifth in a series of responses to papers delivered at the Biennial Conference on Philosophy, Religion and Culture at the Catholic Institute of Sydney, 5th-7th October 2012.

Western Churches’ difficulty with Femininity and Mysticism

by John Stuyfbergen
John introduced his paper with a little quip about Freudian slips.  When he first sent of the proposed abstract to the conference committee, he unintentionally wrote the title as ‘Western churches difficulty with feminism and mysticism.’  Interesting indeed!  What is the relationship between conservative western churches rejection of feminism (with a pseudo embrace of femininity) and on a broader canvas, western churches difficulty with femininity, particularly as it is expressed in the mystical tradition?

Then John presented us with a proposal that Jacques Lacan’s theory of four fundamental types of discourses can reveal the underlying commitments of western church culture.  For Lacan, the word ‘discourse’ is important, because both our individual and corporate (cultural) unconscious take the same form as language.  I’m reading Lacan for my thesis, particularly through the more recent work of Luce Irigaray.  It’s complex and technical, so I was pleased to feel like I actually understood John’s presentation!

I’ll post more about Lacan in the future, for now, you can read an introduction to him here:  http://www.cla.purdue.edu/english/theory/psychoanalysis/lacandevelop.html.
Or you can go to wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Lacan

Lacan suggested that there is a master discourse (a master signifier in the singular) which works it’s way into a set of canonised propositions (university discourse), counter-culture (discource of hysteria) and deliberate subversion.  The question in John’s paper is, what is the master discourse driving the western church’s dominant discourse which marginalised both the feminine and the mystical?  Why does the mystical act as a prophetic voice from the edges of the church (discourse of hysteria), resulting frequently in renewal movements of contemplative spirituality (discourse of subversion)?

Ten years ago (can’t believe it’s that long) I was regularly involved in preparing couples for marriage at St Johns Toorak, a big ‘wedding church’ in Melbourne.  I developed a way of helping couples talk through difficult issues when they were in disagreement or anger, which drew upon the analogy of the anger volcano.  The core danger of the volcano is buried deep inside it’s heart, and only gradually rises to the surface as the fires are stoked.  The issue which ‘breaks the camel’s back’ and leads to an explosion of anger, is rarely the same issue which started the build up of the anger.  Plus, there may be several other issues along the way.  Psychologists sometimes talk about anger as a ‘secondary emotion’ in this regard – anger is provoked by other primary emotions such as hurt, frustration, disappointment, betrayal, insecurity and so on.  I would give couples a sheet of paper with a line drawing of the volcano and ask them to choose an issue that they had conflict around.  On the left hand side they had to name the issue, starting at the top of the volcano with the thing that had provoked the confrontation, then identifying what was underneath that concern, and then the issue that was underlaying that deeper concern and so on and so on until they felt like they got to the bottom of it.  It is amazing to watch people ‘get to the bottom’ of an issue, you can see their shoulders relax and hear them exhale in unmistakable relief to be talking about what really matters most.  Down the right hand side they had to name the feelings that issue evoked in them.  In general, men found it easier to start with the left hand side and women found it easier to start with the right hand side and identify the issues after they had named how they were feeling.

I wonder now whether Lacan’s primary signifier can be represented in this same way.  Ironically, the conference itself presented an ideal illustration of the exclusion of feminine and mystical energy or knowledge.  There was no space in the program for liturgy, meditation or prayer; no moments of quiet or corporate reflection; no intentional facilitation of relationships or networking; and a lot of talking about beauty, emotions and spirituality without room for enacting or embodying it.  What is the commitment driving this preoccupation with masculine modes of being and thinking?  Lacan would call that commitment the master signifier.  In my analogy above I would call it the fire of the volcano.

Dr. John Stuyfbergen is Acting Director of USBA, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, School of Communication, Arts and Critical Enquiry at LaTrobe University, Melbourne.  He specialises in autobiographical writing and is passionate about migrant stories and justice for refugees. You might like to check out his interesting blog: hereweareagainblog

‘The Expressible and The Inexpressible’: John O’Neill

This post is the sixth in a series of responses to papers delivered at the Biennial Conference on Philosophy, Religion and Culture at the Catholic Institute of Sydney, 5th-7th October 2012.

Towards the Whole: Exploring Raimon Panikhar’s Cosmotheandric and Ken Wilber’s Integral Visions.

by John O’Neil

Raimon Panikkar and Ken Wilber are more often marginalised in the disciplines of theology and philosophy, criticised for their ‘spiritual’ approaches.  In this conference paper John O’Neill presented their work as they both themselves see it: an expansive project of philosophy that considers knowledge in all it’s forms, not just logical and/or empirical, which is what much Western Philosophy continues to demand.  Here are two quotes John gave us:

“The heart of integral philosophy is primarily a mental activity of co-ordinating elucidating and conceptually integrating all the various modes of being and knowing.  It fully acknowledged the higher modes and is open to the practices and modes of contemplation.  It both includes and is critical of less encompassing approaches eg. in philosophy, psychology, religion and social theory.  it is a theory inseparable from practice, on all levels and all quadrants.”  (Ken Wilber, Eye of the Spirit, p. 309)

“Authentic philosophy is not a speciality, it is the intellectual and contemplative activity of humanity, a conscious involvement in the life of reality, which makes humanity co-responsible with reality itself.  It can be found in basic research as well as in contemplative thinking; it may be cultivated in solitude and in conversation and with both the sciences and humanities.” (Raimon Panikkar, Rhythm of Being, p.20)

Both Panikkar and Wilber present a challenge to mainstream Western thinking.  They draw on resources across cultures, religions and academic disciplines.  It’s difficult not to read their material as reductionistic, though that is quite contrary to their intention.  Panikkar uses Christian language (plus Hindu, plus Buddhist) to draw his vision, outlining a vision for the Trinity that includes the whole of reality without the dualistic distinction between human and divine.  (Read more at his official website: www.raimon-panikkar.org)  Wilber’s project reads to me more anthropological or maybe it’s just that he is most well known for his evolutionary theory of human development.  (Visit Ken’s website to find out more about him: www.kenwilber.com)

I am by no means well informed about either writer, though Wilber is more familiar to me and I have engaged a little with the Integral Psychology movement.  Both of them differ from my theological project in the way that they engage the ‘particular’ within the universal.  That is, I am seeking a way of affirming my certain knowledge in the uniqueness of Christ, whilst simultaneously affirming my certain knowledge that I do not need to condemn, belittle or even ignore other knowledge which might at first seem to be in competition with the ‘proposition’ that Christ is all.  I have no time for imperialistic Christologies which subsume all other perspectives within my own (eg. Rahner’s ‘anonymous’ Christians’ or the less sophisticated ‘it’s all the same God’).  Nor do I have patience for the arrogant assumption that my knowledge is greater than anyone else.  So, the only ‘logical’ option left to me is some kind of sophisticated pluralism.  Sophisticated, because it is nonsense to speak of a plurality of truths if the only form of knowledge we are willing to consider is propositional.  I want to be able to say that I know myself to be right, whilst being open to the possibility that you also might be right.  This is what my ‘hermeneutic of love’ is trying to achieve – but it only works if there is more than one type of knowledge!

Panikkar and Wilber dabble in the mystical tradition, as do many philosophers who are searching beyond Enlightenment thinking for resources to answer this question.  I find it very interesting, but am not yet sure of how to manage the growing plethora of agnostic mystical approaches to knowledge.  More reading required – at some stage I’ll need to come up with a definition of mysticism for my thesis.

‘The Expressible and The Inexpressible’: Inja Stracenski

This post is the eighth in a series of responses to papers delivered at the Biennial Conference on Philosophy, Religion and Culture at the Catholic Institute of Sydney, 5th-7th October 2012.

The Name of God – Judaism and Hermeneutics: Structure and Meaning of Language  (Inja Stracenski)

Inja is a gorgeous German woman living in Sydney and doing research on the ethics of Spinoza.  She is a Consultant Philosopher, which is interesting in and of itself, and you can view her profile here: .  This hour with Inja  was a fabulous reminder of how language captures meaning, sometimes in a negative sense rather than a positive one.  As discourse around the invisible and ‘inexpressible’ develops, major philosophical assumptions become embedded in the grammar and etymology of its terms which, ironically, become invisible to the speakers of that language.

Inja illustrated this in her paper by examining the words for God found in the Hebrew language of the Old Testament.  In Hebrew language, to name something is to describe it, as opposed to the Greek and Latin predisposition for using words to label.  This is part of a more general dynamic of the Hebrew language to articulate the Hebrew way of relational thinking.  Naming God in Hebrew can in itself be an act of worship, or at least the acknowledgement of who God is, as opposed to an impersonal identification of an object.

Of the different examples Inja gave, I was most intrigued by the Hebrew habit of naming one thing at a time about God.  That is, there are many words employed throughout the Old Testament to (S)he who is beyond us, but only one aspect of God is referred to at any one time.  God is known in the particular, in a great variety of ways.  Western thinking would then seek to systematise this plurality into a single overarching term, but the Hebrew resists this.  I like this way of talking about God.  I can ‘know’ God in the particular, particularly through my experience of the divine, but I actually have no access to the universal – that is God’s domain.

Earlier in the conference program, Inja was sitting in front of me to listen to Tim Chappell’s second lecture on Varieties of Knowledge, at which I asked a question about the epistemology of love.  At the close of the lecture, Inja leaned over her shoulder and quietly mentioned to me that in the shema – ‘love God and love your neighbour as you love yourself’ – the Hebrew word for love there might also be translated ‘knowledge’.  Later in her own paper, she elaborated to say it could even, by extrapolation, mean ‘worship’.  Now that’s what I’m talking about!  Cool.

Rumi was a 13th century Persian Muslim mystic

‘The Expressible and the Inexpressible’ Conference with keynote speaker Timothy Chappell

Biennial Conference in philosophy, religion and culture, Catholic Institute of Sydney, 5-7th October 2012.

I’ve spent the past weekend in sunny Sydney at an interdisciplinary conference titled ‘The Expressible and the Inexpressible’.   It was a great time of head-thumping words and world-changing notions from philosophers, musicians, artists, theologians, literary academics and biblical scholars.  Today kicks off a series of reddresstheology posts as I reflect upon the jam-packed program of papers.  Apart from two lectures from the main speaker, all sessions involved making a choice between 3 or 4 different papers, which was frustrating when you wanted to be in two places at once but testimony to a dazzling array of interesting people to meet during coffee breaks.  I went to papers on music, beauty, poetry, prose and architecture; continental philosophy, integral psychology and theology of various kinds.    The key note speaker for the conference was Timothy Chappell, a philosopher who heads up an Ethics centre at Open University Ethics Centre in the UK. You can check him out here.  As usual, each post in the series will respond to a different paper.

To kick off, I’ll open with my initial gut response to the weekend: that is, after (too) many years of academic study, I still feel like I do not ‘get’ philosophy!  Sitting in Tim’s lectures (which were very good – well delivered, clear and engaging) made me feel like a first year philosophy student, completely disempowered and disoriented by these intellectual surroundings!  For someone who thinks of herself as a postmodern (or maybe these days post-postmodern) person, I find it puzzling that philosophy often leaves me with a desire for objectivity.  Why should I be persuaded by something that comes entirely from internally created human thought?  It doesn’t feel grounded in reality for me, I want (Lord help me) empirical evidence so that I can ‘observe’ something upon which to reflect!  For me, this is quite a surprising and challenging emotional response.

I wonder what this is about?  Is it a problem with the nature of the discipline or is it a limitation of my overly visual imagination?  Sociologists are often criticised for the empirical credibility of their own discipline and theology is rarely grounded in either quantitative or qualitative research, so if empiricism is really my difficulty, I am vulnerable to being criticised for hypocrisy.  Hence, I’m going with the later of my hypothesis: philosophy is frequently not something you can visualise, and this indeed, was the very theme of the conference – how do we make meaning together about that which cannot be seen and that which is resistant to containment by human language?  However, perhaps this is not just my own personal problem, as some critics of Enlightenment thinking identify the dependence on visual information (including that which we can imagine) as a severely limiting criteria for for knowledge about the inexpressible.  Why would we things existence is limited to that which finite human beings can see?  Why should we think language can only function for that we can be observed?

In Tim’s two lectures he had a philosopher’s go at answering this question.  

The major point that has stuck in my brain from the opening session of the conference is Tim’s passion for complexity: we gain much when we resist the urge to reduce explanations to a single answer.  Comparing early and late thoughts of the twentieth century’s philosophy giant, Wittgenstein. Tim argues that later in life, Wittgenstein began to think of ‘simplicity’ as a relational idea.  A meaning, or explanation, can only be simple in relation to a purpose, that is, in relationship with some other purpose, person or thing.  If we are open to language having more than one purpose, then perhaps there are less things that we will decide cannot be expressed by language.  This is related to Tim’s second lecture in which he proposed that there is a variety of categories of knowledge, and that at times we get into trouble describing the inexpressible because we confuse what type of knowledge it is.  In this midst of this I was reminded that Iris Murdoch proposed love as knowledge, by which she meant ‘paying attention’.

All this reminded me of talking to couples preparing for marriage.  Something I introduce to them for improved communication is the phrase:  ‘answer fact with fact, and feeling with feeling’.  Which I mean, not every word that comes forth from your wife’s lips is a fact to be argued with or a problem to be solved.  Not everything that comes out of your husband’s mouth requires empathic attentiveness!

For those of you interested in the technical terminology, Tim suggested three varieties of knowledge, probably a fourth, and possible a fifth.
Knowledge of the…
1.  – how (Knowledge How)
2.  – what (Propositional Knowledge)
3.  – experience (Experiential Knowledge)
Plus knowledge about
4.  – objects (Objectual Knowledge)
and possibly knowledge from
5.  – other persons (Inter-personal Knowledge)

You can hear him yourself via youtube: Timothy Chappell on Personal Knowledge.

And as if to illustrate this search for knowledge which goes beyond the observable, tomorrow I will blog about the first paper I heard on Saturday morning – expressing the inexpressible through music!