On Meaning [2]

It’s been a knackering week, so this is going to be even more lacking ‘meaning’ than it’s going to anyway, but here we go with part two.

In response to the previous post ‘on meaning’, Nic wrote:

[I want to react against] some sort of pre-ordained meaning, rules of engagement or ‘isness’- a divine database with tags that define ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ usage. Any illegal use (which I love) automatically stands outside the official cannon, rendering it relative. This is why I don’t understand the notion of absolute with all its borders and restraints. It’s the space of the ‘bottom-inspectors’ and the elites…

I thought it might be interesting to add to that a quote from the godfather of Neoconservatism, Leo Strauss:

“Western liberalism has led to nihilism, and undergone a development that has taken everything praiseworthy and admirable out of human beings and made us into dwarf animals satisfied with a life in which nothing is true and everything is permitted.

“People believe that the liberal idea of individual freedom leads people to question everything – all values, all moral truths. Instead people are led by their own selfish desires. And this threatens to tear apart the shared values which held society together.”

I’d better now state that I’m not a neo-con (!), but if the opposite of that (as Strauss would like us believe) is a wooly liberal for whom everything is relative and everything goes, then I’m not that either, and I want to try to set over the next few posts a) why I believe in absolute truth and b) i) what some caveats to that are and ii) what relevance that might have to us practically.

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The discussion began with ‘meaning’, and we have talked about the restraints of language to effectively communicate meaning. It is an imperfect medium. My problem with a view that sees language /meaning being a purely relative thing that is created between us is that it actually can work to draw a boundary around the self. Strauss is right in this respect: the liberal ideal is that we all listen to and question each other, but what can happen is that people simply hole up inside themselves and withdraw into their own truth-construct. They have become a system in stasis – there is no newness that can draw them out, because, as everything is relative no one can challenge their view.

Expanding this principle universe-wide we begin to touch on ideas of entropy: that the universe is a sealed system with finite amounts of heat/energy that is simply going to cool into flat greyness over time. In such an entropy-based system there can be no further inputs; no energy or newness can be added. And I have a big problem with this, as it leaves no room for God, for creativity, for newness. It leaves us with no grounds for hope.

It was mentioned in the previous discussion that ‘God spoke things into being’ – and thus language ‘creates’. In further discussion I’d rephrase this: God spoke, and we now re-present that when we speak. Yes, from our frame of reference, when we name things, discover things, we are bringing them into existence. But I think that before they are dragged into our light, they are still out there. Before we discovered radiation, it still existed, still had impacts. And to suggest that we are the creators by speaking is the height of arrogance – and one reason why we have trashed the planet.

My problem with the relativist’s position is that – as Strauss hints – it inexorably leads into difficult corners where people are not prepared to believe anything at all. That Auschwitz was wrong. That abuse is bad. And that worries me.

So do I believe in absolute truth? Yes. But I don’t think that it’s a view of absolute truth that would sit happily with many others who would say the same thing – and I want to come on to the connection between belief in truth and Stages of Faith later.

But finally, even if I do believe it, can I effectively communicate that, share that belief in the public sphere? No, because to do that requires language. So it boils back down to faith. Faith in an ‘other’. Faith in the possibility of newness. What I will end by saying


14 responses to “On Meaning [2]”

  1. Lets get busy…
    Not a ‘neo-con’, how about a bottom-inspector?

  2. Cheers, I’ll look that up.
    Another interesting piece was Billy Bragg and Norman Tebbitt discussing whether the BNP were hard left or hard right. The conclusion was that fascism was independent of left/right leaning.
    And I think there is something to say about that in this case too. Bottom Inspectors are alive and well in the relativist camp too. And in fact appear to be even more evangelical and certain of the rightness of their case than many absolutists, which reflects the massive complexity of the issue.

  3. Kes,
    You could flip a lot of this round. As so much of the thought that is labeled ‘relativist’ (mostly post-structuralist) was conceived as a reaction to oppressive regimes- political and academic. That’s why I’m attracted to it- justice-making opportunities. It provides a space for difference and critiques authoritarian institutions and structures.
    Same could be said for the ‘newness’ project. That’s why the avant-garde, progress and innovation have all been found to be ‘suspicious’. As it is these imperatives that place the planet in such do-do.
    What do ya think? A third space perhaps, ‘Il y a toujours l’Autre?’

  4. As you say, there are possibilities in both. But, as I’ve mentioned, I think attitudes to truth perhaps follow ‘Stages of Faith’… Relativism is a reaction to the dogmatic, oppressive, imperialist version of absolutism. But I think we can pull through that to a more helpful form, that retains the searching, questioning of relativism, but also retains that hope and vital ‘otherness’ of absolutism.
    That 3rd Space I’d call ‘Stage 5’ – which is the Conjunctive stage. Which matches your ‘always other’ quite nicely.

  5. “My problem with the relativist’s position is that – as Strauss hints – it inexorably leads into difficult corners where people are not prepared to believe anything at all. That Auschwitz was wrong. That abuse is bad. And that worries me.”
    This is the problem that Jean Baudrillard has run into with Simulations and Simulacra. He got into a lot of trouble a few years ago, because he was compelled, logically, to argue that the Gulf War (and all its attendant atrocities)didn’t happen.
    Far better to take the line pursued by Noam Chomsky, who’s seminal work in the arena of language has lead him to be an extremely active force for good in the political arena.
    I do have more to add, but I can’t miss Ronnie O’Sullivan’s match against Graham Dott just now.

  6. barry in la

    nothing about the post, although it is very interesting, just a note of comiseration on united’s loss to chelsea today–actually got up at 4:30 to watch it live here in la–what can you say? next year? Hopefully Ferguson has a plan for renewal up his sleeve

  7. You got up at 4.30 to watch football?
    Snooker. Now THAT’s a proper sport.
    You can’t call football a proper sport.
    Derrida would appreciate Snooker.

  8. How can anyone doubt absolute truth when you’ve just been done 3-0 by Chelsea. Pah. Hope Taggart knows what he’s doing. Cos I’ve no idea. How about a midfield Sir? Oh no, no one wants to live in Manchester.
    At times like this I’d like to be a relativist. Or a darts fan. Come on Mike, THAT’S true sport.

  9. Snooker requires mental ability, agility, concentration, a knowledge of physics, and determination – the ability not just to pot a ball, but to make the cue ball return exactly where you want it, whilst thinking three shots ahead.
    Darts and snooker aren’t even in the same league.
    And giving 11 men 90 minutes to get a ball into a net doesn’t really seem like a challenge by comparison. Especially when if, let’s say, they don’t manage to do so, they get a bit more time to do it. Why would I watch that exactly?

  10. …But to return to the subject in hand.
    I think what’s bothering me about this discourse, is that of course we want to do the morally right thing, in terms of acknowledging oppression and trying to make a difference to injustice, but so far linguistic debates tend to send us in the other direction, as Kester has suggested in the original post. There simply isn’t really a language of moral imperative – in fact it appears to go the other way. The problem is that we know where we want to go, but we have no idea of how to end up there. As I have suggested, Chomsky has some interesting things to say, and someone has dug out a rather interesting quote from Foucault on our blog by way of Pete Rollins’ blog.


    There’s only one true english sport….
    Fox-Hunt-Sabatuer Hunting. Bring the elephant gun and release the hounds.

  12. We don’t have Coyotes in England. The nearest we have to the Coyote is the Fox, which seems to be the English trickster figure.
    Interesting then, that the fox is treated as vermin, and hunted by the upper classes as “a great day out.”


    “I have a plan so cunning you could stick a tail on it and call it a fox, Baldrick.”