Language as unfinished business

By Simon Barrow
November 7, 2013

In his second of six Gifford Lectures on Tuesday 5 November 2013, Dr Rowan Williams landed some rather effective blows on a deterministic view of language, which renders free will obsolete and ends up seeing speech as wholly conditioned by impulses.

He cited the difficulties of speaking as counting against a finally reductive view, and observed the contradiction of using language to deny the meaning of language. A particularly inept and humanly deficient way of issuing that denial was a recent claim that "consciousness is a mistake", he said. More controversially, he suggested (and indicated that he will develop) the the notion of "unconditioned intelligent energy" comes into focus as one possible way of reading the account of language habits he is seeking to advocate and reason with.

Tonight (Thursday 7 November), the series moves on to examine the dimension of 'No last words: language as unfinished business'.

Dr Williams writes by way of introduction: "Intelligent life has something to do with knowing what to do next, and how to 'go on'. The focus of knowledge is not necessarily the would-be final, or exhaustive, system. We can learn something about the nature of knowing if we think about the sorts of knowledge involved in physical crafts, where a good and credible performance makes ever new performances possible.

"This also reminds us of the significance of our having learned our language from others and of our developing our thinking through exchange and not simply soliloquy. We speak in the hope of recognition. And our language carries in it a moment of radical trust in the meaningfulness of what we 'exchange' as well as an awareness of how we are all answerable to what is not only the aggregate of what we all know already."

Unfortunately I will miss the live lecture, as I will be at a meeting in London and then proceeding to a conference in Derbyshire. But I shall look forward to the video-cast (all the Gifford Lectures are being live streamed).

The topic also reminds me of a talk I gave to a Mennonite gathering in Washington DC in 2002, entitled 'Being truthful in a media and PR universe'. I re-issued the printed version in 2010 on Ekklesia:

One of my four key points on communication was that it was necessarily unfinished.

"Maybe that sounds strange. Isn’t one of the first rules of good communication that we should finish sentences and round off images? Yes, but even then they are only ever part of the story, part of an incomplete narrative. Communication that recognises its own incompleteness is able to evoke more truth, make space for a response, open up more possibilities.

"By making space for ‘the other’ it becomes possible to recognise that (as in the current Israel-Palestine tragedy) there are two wounded parties, not just one. By contrast, "half truth cuts dialogue", as Darryl Byler, formerly of Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington Office, has observed.

"Unfinished communication acknowledges that God’s ways with us are not ended and totalised. There is a sense of deferral involved in faith that expects more, that is willing to receive the future as divine gift rather than packaged possession."

* Tickets for the Gifford Lectures are free, but booking is essential. You can book online for each lecture via EventBrite. Full details and booking links are here:

* On the whole series:

* Representing reality: Williams is back in his element:


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

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