We’re Not Cold-blooded Thinking Machines

I’ve just started reading Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning. Since my husband Jimmy has absolutely devoured a ton of linguist books over the past year I asked him to suggest one for me to read. Louder Than Words by Benjamin K. Bergen was the book he chose so off I go.

Though my interests are not specifically linguistic at this point I am still very interested in how our brains work, how it is we learn and think, and especially how it is we make meaning. So far I’ve only read the epilogue but the following quotes from George Lakoff give you a hint of what the book is about:

They [Merleau-Ponty and Dewey] argued that—quite to the contrary of the traditional view—our bodies have absolutely everything to do with our minds. Our brains evolved to allow our bodies to function in the world, and it is that embodied engagement with the world, the physical, social, and intellectual world, that makes our concepts and language meaningful. (ix)

The Embodiment Revolution has shown that our essential humanness, our ability to think and use language, is wholly a product of our physical bodies and brains. The way our mind works, from the nature of our thoughts to the way we understand meaning in language, is inextricably tied to our bodies—how we perceive and feel and act in the world. We’re not cold-blooded thinking machines. Our physiology provides the concepts for our philosophy. (x)

Meaning is a slippery concept… how do we actually make meaning? And how does the making of meaning affect how we understand texts? Ancient texts?? Inspired texts???

And what does having bodies have to do with it all?

In Which I Disagree With Mark Driscoll (and it has little to do with women)

Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill recently posted a blog over at The Resurgence on Why Mars Hill uses the ESV Bible. He starts with 6 theological reasons behind choosing the ESV (or why the ESV is the King of all Bibles).

I have my own qualms with the ESV (one of which he mentions, although he sees it as a plus) but I do own an ESV bible and use it at times when I need to read an English text. I consider it to be one among many readable translations. However, I found Driscoll’s six theological reasons for choosing the ESV highly problematic from a linguistic perspective.

What Driscoll puts forward as obvious truths I see as common misconceptions concerning Bible translation, interpretation, and hermeneutics that I hear quite often in the church.  The original post is rather long so I won’t quote it all here, but I did want to take a look at Driscoll’s third point and his reasoning behind it.

“The ESV upholds the truth that words carry meaning

Some scholars will argue that thought-for-thought and paraphrase translations do not change the meaning of Scripture, just the words of Scripture in an effort to clarify the meaning of Scripture. But this reasoning is misguided because meaning is carried in words. So when we change the words of Scripture, we are changing the meaning of Scripture.

There are a couple of problems with Driscoll’s reasoning here.  For one, linguists and other language scholars have argued the very opposite — that meaning is not carried in words.  I learned early on in my language studies that “words don’t have meaning.”

Fellow HBU graduate Kris Lyle has a great post (go read it!) on this very subject – Do words have meanings?  Kris points out the importance of CONTEXT in determining meaning because words do not come “pre-packaged” with meanings.  Linguistic research, particularly in the areas of semantics and pragmatics, has corrected this false idea that “meaning is carried in words.”

Kris provides a great excerpt from an article by linguist Vyvyan Evans (Evans, V. “Lexical concepts, cognitive models and meaning-construction,” Cognitive Linguistics 17:4 [2006], p. 492):

“That is, the ‘meaning’ associated with a word in any given utterance appears to be, in part, a function of the particular linguistic context in which it is embedded. Put another way, word ‘meaning’ is protean, its semantic contribution sensitive to and dependent on the context which it, in part, gives rise to (Croft 2000).

To illustrate consider the following ‘meanings’ of fast.

(1)   a. That parked BMW is a fast car.

b. That car is travelling fast.

c. That doddery old man is a fast driver.

d. That’s the fast lane (of the motorway).

In each of these examples the semantic contribution of fast, what I will later refer to as its informational characterisation, is somewhat different. In (1a) fast has to do with the potential for rapid locomotion. In (1b) it has to do with rapid locomotion. In (1c) it relates to ‘caused’ motion beyond an established norm: a speed limit. And in (1d) fast concerns a venue for rapid locomotion. Examples such as these show that the view of open class words, as possessing fixed meanings, is untenable on closer scrutiny. The precise semantic contribution of any word is a function of the utterance context in which it is embedded, and, moreover, the sorts of (conceptual) knowledge these lexical entities provide access to, as I shall argue in detail. In other words, words don’t have ‘meanings’ in and of themselves. Rather meaning is a function of the utterance in which a word is embedded, and the complex processes of lexical concept integration, an issue which is developed below.

Second, Driscoll argues that thought-for-thought translation changes the words and meaning of scripture by adding additional interpretation and commentary whereas a word-for-word translation does not.  Earlier in his post, Driscolls writes:

“A word-for-word translation (like the ESV) best enables this to occur by seeking, as much as possible, not to insert interpretive commentary into the translated text of Scripture.”

The problem here is that there simply isn’t an exact one-for-one correspondence between languages.  What I mean is, there isn’t one word in Greek that is perfectly and always represented by another word in English.  It is inaccurate to say that δικαιοσυνη means ‘righteousness’.  What we can say is that ‘righteousness’ is one of the English words that we can use in some instances to represent the Greek word δικαιοσυνη (depending on the context!)  Choosing a word from one language to represent a word from another language always involves a choice.  The truth is all translation involves interpretation, whether you employ a formal equivalency method (which Driscoll assumes is almost completely devoid of interpretation or commentary) or a dynamic equivalency method.  Formal equivalency translation seeks to represent as closely as possible the grammar and syntax of the original Greek or Hebrew while dynamic equivalency is concerned with representing the meaning or intention behind the original Greek or Hebrew as closely as possible.  (It’s interesting to see that both methods were employed by translators of the LXX throughout different books of the Hebrew Bible!).

In many conservative circles formal equivalency is often seen as ‘pure’ and ‘more accurate’ while dynamic equivalency is seen as ‘muddied’ and ‘less accurate’.  The truth is both methods have their strengths and weaknesses and both methods involve interpretation.

I imagine Driscoll’s post could generate a lot of discussion on Bible translation and the nature of language and it’s unfortunate that the blog does not allow comments.  What about you?  Did you find Driscoll’s reasons convincing?  Why or why not?  Is a word-for-word translation better than a thought-for-thought translation?