Thursday, July 21, 2016

In the Beginning was the Word

"In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God."  I wonder what Chomsky and Berwick think about this.  Of course John lived a mere 2000 years ago more or less and any legends of the beginning would have been old.  But Genesis written much earlier is also concerned about language.  God's method of creation was to speak words.  Later in Exodus God speaks to Moses and tells him to go to the Egyptians and rescue the Israelites.  Moses asks God "if the people ask who sent me, what shall he answer?"  "God said to Moses, 'I am who I am.  This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM has sent me to you.'" 

Was this emphasis upon "the word" as a means of creation and later another name for Jesus faddish, that is, a popular word at the time and nothing more, or did it have some deeper significance, some mythic emphasis that theologians can only speculate about?  It was believed in those days or in earlier days that to have person's name was to have power over him.

But faddish words have existed and continue to exist.  Here is something from pages 47 and 48 of Carl Becker's The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers  (first given as a lecture at Yale in 1931 and then published in 1932)"If we would discover the little backstairs' door that for any age serves as the secret entrance-way to knowledge, we will do well to look for certain unobtrusive words with uncertain meanings that are permitted to slip off the tongue or the pen without fear and without research; words which, having from constant repetition lost their metaphorical significance, are unconsciously mistaken for objective realities. In the thirteenth century the key words would no doubt be God, sin, grace, salvation, heaven, and the like; in the nineteenth century, matter, fact, matter-of-fact, evolution, progress; in the twentieth century, relativity, process, adjustment, function, complex.  In the eighteenth century the words without which no enlightened person could reach a restful conclusion were nature, natural law, first cause, reason, sentiment, humanity, perfectibility (these last three being necessary only for the tender-minded, perhaps).

"In each age these magic words have their entrances and their exits.  And how unobtrusively they come in and go out!  We should scarcely be aware either of their approach or their departure, except for a slight feeling of discomfort, a shy self-consciousness in the use of them.  The word 'progress' has long been in good standing, but just now we are beginning to feel, in introducing it into the highest circles, the need of easing it in with quotation marks, that conventional apology that will save all our faces.  Words of more ancient lineage trouble us more.  Did not president Wilson, during the war, embarrass us not a little by appearing in public on such familiar terms with 'humanity,' by the frank avowal of his love for 'mankind'?  As for God, sin, grace, salvation -- the introduction of these ghosts form the dead past we regard as inexcusable, so completely do their unfamiliar presences put us out of countenance, so effectively do they, even under the most favorable circumstances, cramp our style."

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