“Natural” Language: Beware the Binaries

A is not non-A
–Aristotle, Nature’s Afterward (i.e., Metaphysics, OR τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά)

In the previous post, I started with three epigraphs. One is enough here. Nonetheless, I want to discuss the three quotations you started with last time in light of the one we’re starting with this time. You remember:

Mike Sangrey was saying “languages don’t use ‘have’“; Joel Hoffman was talking about “what the words originally meant” in the Bible; and Scott Lencke was quietly assuming that, naturally, “autentein means ‘to exercise authority’ as in a male’s natural, bible-endorsed authority over females.”

Let’s not argue the facts of nature here. Aristotle did, of course. Many of his objective observations have proved to be flat out wrong. Prudence Allen has thoroughly enumerated how incorrect Aristotle’s concept of woman has proven to be as developed by men over two millennia. Alan Lightman, morevoer, has rightly noticed that

Scientists often wish powerfully for some theory to be true that is later proved wrong by the facts. Aristotle’s idea that the planets move in perfect circles was simple and elegant, but proved wrong by Brahe, Kepler, and Newton.

So instead of focusing on his incorrect facts, let’s focus on his “concept” and his “theory” that gave us Aristotle’s objective facts.

We could write a dissertation on how frustrated Aristotle was with the slippery Greek concept of language, of λόγος or logos, and how he instead coined and created λογ-ική or “logic” to control knowledge, to use language for knowing. In this post, nonetheless, let’s just focus on a little way in which logic worked for Aristotle. It was to presume the Nature of the binary. It was to observe how objective, and how Natural the binary must be. Logic has the power of Nature. The concept of non-contradiction has the power of Nature.

Already, we’re getting a little too technical. And Aristotle was so 300BC.

Let’s talk about the language of Mike Sangrey, of Joel Hoffman, and of Scott Lencke. Let’s get current and go simple.

Mike is talking about “idiomatic nature” of “the Greek.” The other side of “the idiomatic nature of language” binary, for Mike, is what his co-blogger Wayne Leman calls “the literal translation.” Please note that we don’t really need to dispute the “facts” here. What we could be more interested in is how the facts are derived. The divisions between “Natural” language and contrived or between “idiom” and “literal” are distinctions that Mike and Wayne have made. Okay, fair enough; maybe Mike and Wayne didn’t invent the binaries, but they do use them. Somebody invented them, is my point. The sharp divides that Mike and Wayne assume are divisions that they assume are inherent to Nature.

Now, let’s look at Joel Hoffman’s binaries. He has plenty of them. A notable one is shown in the title of one of his blogs: “God Didn’t Say That.” You get it, don’t you? The other side of his binary is “God Did Actually Absolutely Say The Other.” His blog’s subtitle makes the division clear: “Bible Translations and MisTranslations.” Hoffman, likewise, insists on the binary of A) “what a word means” / non-A) the “etymology” of that word. The question that Rachel Barenblat asks about Hoffman’s binary (the Natural Meaning/ the Etymological Meaning) is this: Whether Dr. Hoffman is “the complete opposite of someone like Everett Fox, whose translation of the Torah plays a lot with word-roots and etymology.” Rachel wonderfully translates and wonderfully reads the Bible in Torah ways that defy this constructed binary of Hoffman’s.

We should move on. Scott Lencke lets Paul’s Greek word to Timothy (in the New Testament) mean “to exercise authority.” The Natural Greek naturally says that Paul “does not allow a woman to exercise authority over a man”; naturally, Timothy shouldn’t either. Lencke is satisfied that “The new creation has come!” — in other words, he’s happy that what the word meant no longer applies now to any specific woman or to women in general. Nature has been overcome! This is subtle stuff. The binary here is not so obvious. But when is the language that we use without minding it ever really so obvious? The binary is between “man” / and “woman.” Any man, Paul, Timothy, the men in their congregations, everyman, because of their sex are naturally over females because of their sex. This is the nature of things. At least its the Nature that the binary of Aristotle constructs. And the word, as if it has a Nature of its own, well it naturally means what it means. This, despite Suzanne’s protests and challenge to examine how men (and women) actually use it elsewhere, everywhere else.

Elsewhere, I’ve said a few other things about the binary. What do you think? Isn’t Nancy Mairs on to something when she notes how the binary “is a structure, both spatial and temporal, predicated upon separation, not relation”? Isn’t she astute to get at the power issues of Nature for anyone (who would use the binary)? She explains, minding even the prepositions:

To have power is to alienate oneself, however, because power is always power over and the preposition demands an object.


2 responses to ““Natural” Language: Beware the Binaries

  1. “We could write a dissertation on how frustrated Aristotle was with the slippery Greek concept of language, of λόγος or logos, and how he instead coined and created λογ-ική or “logic” to control knowledge, to use language for knowing. ”

    Quite interesting that today in many biblical interpreting circles, scholars claim that the term logos is the origin for the term logic without mentioning Aristotle’s role in changing the meaning of the word. Many implication when it comes to Christian theology. If Jesus is God’s logic (logos made flesh), so to speak, knowing God is all about knowing God according to reason (whose reasoning/whose justice, right?) God can be seen as being more rational than compassionate. just a thought.

  2. Rod, I like your thoughts. I like how you’re bringing Jesus into relationship with logos, as John the Greek gospel writer/translator does. Paul is the only biblical writer or translator (counting the gospel writer/translators and the LXX translators) to use Aristotle’s word λογ·ική. I think he might of known how risky it was to use the politically charged word, how rhetorical. I’ve written a few posts elsewhere on this, one of my favorite lines of questions:





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