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January 1973 · Vol. 2 No. 1 · pp. 7–9 

Linguistic Analysis and Religious Language

Marion Deckert


A. Classical Empiricism. A brief outline of classical empiricism might proceed thus: The only thing man has available to him is the totality of his experiences. Words are names for experiences or complexes of experiences. Knowledge consists of saying or believing that which corresponds to our experiences. Any belief or statement which pretends to be about something beyond experience is plainly nonsense because it goes beyond what is available to man. This view naturally leads to a concept by concept or word by word assessment of our conceptual or linguistic machinery. This was Hume’s way. Any concept or word which did not touch an actual or possible experience for man was forthwith consigned to outer darkness. Naturally, religious, poetic, moral, and metaphysical talk all fared badly. And, maybe even more importantly, philosophical talk fared badly too. Material things can be seen, but the nature of “matter” cannot be.

B. Positivism. Positivism is essentially the dogma that all knowledge is scientific knowledge. It may be thought of as an attempt to salvage science, mathematics, and philosophy while maintaining the basic empiricist position. One important positivistic insight which makes this salvage operation seem possible is that language or thought does not need to match experience word by word. After all, it might be possible to salvage talk of magnetic fields and gravitational forces and neutrinos (none of which can be directly experienced) if a way can be shown whereby every meaningful statement about them can be hooked up indirectly to the world of experience. So the positivist shifted his emphasis to a statement by statement examination of thought and language rather than a concept by concept examination. Once again religion, poetry, morals, and metaphysics fared badly. But science seemed to flourish. To be sure, mathematics still was not on solid ground; but the positivist soon came to believe that mathematics did not intend to say anything about the world of experience and so could not be blamed for not “hooking up” with the world of experience. Mathematics was not the content of talk but only the framework of talk. What of positivist philosophy? Alas, once again it fell under the blows of its own axe, for not even extended statements could lead it to the world of experience.

C. Linguistic Analysis. The young Wittgenstein had been one of the important architects of positivism. Later, as Wittgenstein painfully began to dismantle and largely destroy his earlier positivism, a new light began to appear in the philosophical world. Anglo-american philosophy began to stir with the feeling of new beginnings and new possibilities. The worlds of religion and poetry and morality sensed a new openness in the new philosophy. Scholars began to talk about family resemblance universals, about complexity and dissimilarity. There was the feeling that old philosophical problems need to be dissolved rather than solved, that philosophical {8} analysis is like psychoanalysis rather than mathematical analysis. And then there were language games; yes, one began to hear the rallying cry of the language game from every scholarly rooftop. After all, science is only one among many legitimate language games. Certainly the old philosophy was correct in much of its view of scientific language; it only erred in supposing that it was the only legitimate language. So now poetic language, moral language, and even God language could be recognized. The world seemed to be safe again for the humanities.


So much for the story which I think has become accepted as the canonical account of contemporary Anglo-american philosophical history. I believe there is a great deal of truth in this account. I believe that every Christian apologist who wants to be effective in the cultural and scholarly circles of our day ought to be familiar with this story in substantial detail. However, I would like to suggest that this story, like most folk history, is a serious oversimplification. The basic problem with this story is that it does not deal with the root of the whole matter. What, after all, is to be said of the empiricist’s fundamental insights?

In the final analysis how can one quarrel with the notion that the only thing man has available to him is the totality of his experiences? And if this is true, then surely knowledge must be defined as some sort of relation to this total experience. But then what of all these different language games? I believe that the answer to this question must still be given basically in empiricist terms. That is to say, the language games can only be validated if they relate in some more or less specifiable way to our experience. Positivist philosophers of science have shown in astonishing detail how the language of science relates to experience. The same sort of account is being sought for other “languages.” To be sure, there is a new openness here. The language of morals need not have the same “logic” as the language of science. But it must have some logic; it must hook up in some definite and reasonable way to our experience. In this sense the basic empiricism remains, though positivism is gone.

The situation might be summarized in this way: Classical empiricism attempted to carry out its program on a word by word basis. This proved too restrictive. Logical empiricism (positivism) tried to carry out the program in a statement by statement fashion. This still proved too restrictive. Linguistic analysis or ordinary language philosophy is trying to carry out the old empiricist program on a “language” by “language” basis. But the fundamental question of how moral or aesthetic or religious language “hooks up” with our experience is still with us.


This question of the empirical or experiential content of religious language can be answered in any number of ways. But the question can not ultimately be ducked. It will not do to simply investigate the inner logic of God talk and glibly declare that after all it is one language game among many others which one can choose to play. Philosophy, and ordinary common sense, demand that the language deal in some recognizable way with our world of experience. This is the hard core remaining in the empirical tradition. It is an element of the tradition which users of religious language apparently believe can be safely forgotten. But it is a requirement of empirical philosophy which is ignored at our own peril. It {9} is true that there are few restrictions on how we account for our use of religious language. But account for it we must if we want to be taken seriously by our culture. The old positivism flatly rejected the idea that the statement, “God is love,” is to be explained as the attribution of a certain emotion to a certain kind of transcendent being. This explanation is no more possible today than it was thirty years ago. The difference is that whereas thirty years ago positivism decreed that no explanation could possibly be satisfactory, now there is a new openness to the possibility of an explanation. But if the new philosophy is open to an explanation it does not thereby arbitrarily declare that there must be one; that is, it is also open to the possibility that positivism may have been correct. If one can show what such a statement means, what use it has, how it relates to men and their experiences, then all is well. But if one can not explain it, it may very well be because it is nonsense. It is certainly much better to be asked to explain oneself than to be declared incoherent out of hand; but, on the other hand, it is all the more dangerous if one has no explanation.

Dr. Deckert is the Academic Dean at Bethel College, Newton, Kansas. A member of the General Conference Mennonite Church, he holds the Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Chicago.

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