Getting Personal

Language Is a Sign of Our Spiritual Nature

Part of my job is to think up titles and subtitles for articles. I enjoy the challenge, but it does take time. A good title conveys the essence of the work in a relatively brief phrase; it's even better if it has multiple resonances that complement the theme—perhaps a double meaning.

Titling or naming is a uniquely human habit that never ends. We name our children with great care. We see names and titles everywhere. Cars, shoes, restaurants, hamburger variations, paint and nail polish colors, clothing lines, television shows, and so on are given names to evoke certain feelings or to create associations in the mind, like strength, luxury, or sexiness, for example.

What's in Naming?

This naming faculty is recorded at the start of human history with Adam naming the animals. From the beginning, not only does the Divine Word bring things into existence, but the human word is the means by which we encounter, interpret, describe, record, and pass on our experience of these created things to others.

Materialism cannot explain the ability of human speech to conceptualize, ponder, and admire creation. For the materialist, language is merely a "tool" that must have arisen somehow to bestow some as-yet-unknown evolutionary advantage on its users.

Consider what the mind can do through language—philosophize, write poetry, remember the past, plan for the future, discover and formulate mathematical equations that describe physical laws—these are not reducible to material causes. A mind is not the same thing as a physical brain. Apes have brains but no minds. Minds belong to persons.

Personal Subjects

Moreover, persons are subjects, not mere objects. British writer Roger Scruton describes the limitations of the materialist view of the person:

When I give a scientific account of the world . . . I am describing objects only. I am describing the way things are, and the causal laws that explain them. This description is given from no particular perspective. It does not contain words like "here," "how" and "I"; while it is meant to explain the way things seem, it does so by giving a theory of how they are. In short, the subject is in principle unobservable to science, not because it exists in another realm but because it is not part of the empirical world. ("Scientism and the Humanities" in Scientism: The New Orthodoxy, p. 137)

You, dear reader, are that unobservable personal subject. Your experience of Bach's St. Matthew Passion is personal. Even if its notes can be charted and described in terms of pitch, duration, texture, and timbre, your appreciation of them as a whole composition and story will never be described scientifically. Science may describe or measure aspects of your physical responses, but those descriptions are not what we feel. It might record, "Subject has goose bumps," but not "The music makes him rapt with wonder at Divine Mercy." To describe your experience requires language and a sensibility beyond what science can encompass. Moreover, to share it with a good friend is also personal.

This mysterious subjectivity, our personalness, our self-consciousness, lies "on the edge of things, like a horizon," writes Scruton. You can never reach a horizon. Our deep and mysterious sense of self, inwardness, and personal experience are part of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God.

The titles and names we think up matter. Should we call man "a spiritual person," or merely, as C. S. Lewis quipped, "a trousered ape"? The latter is a clever materialist's title for a man, but for us to think of ourselves this way is simply beneath us.

is the executive editor of Salvo and the  Director of Publications for the Fellowship of St. James.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #36, Spring 2016 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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