Language as ritual: saying what cannot be said with Western and Confucian ritual theories
Whitney, Lawrence Arnold
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This dissertation addresses one of the classical philosophical and theological problems of religious language, namely, how to speak meaningfully about matters that appear to be inexpressible. While addressed extensively in a variety of literatures across cultures, the problem persists, particularly in regard to harmonizing theological, philosophical, and linguistic perspectives. The dissertation argues that (i) language is best understood as a species of ritual; (ii) so understood, religious language speaks to and about religious realities subjunctively, that is, as if such realities could be talked about; and (iii) this way of understanding language achieves greater harmony among philosophical and linguistic approaches while achieving some degree of cross-cultural generality. The argument begins with a cross-cultural comparison between modern social scientific ritual theories, especially that of Roy A. Rappaport, and the Confucian ritual theory of Xunzi. This generates a novel theory of ritual capable of engaging theories of language that have emerged in modern linguistics, philosophy of language, logic, and hermeneutics. The semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce provides the unifying framework for the theory, which leads to the first conclusion that language can be understood as a species of ritual. When language is understood as ritual, there are several options for interpreting religious speech as meaningful. An analysis of these alternatives on terms semantically demarcated by Hilary Putnam leads to the conclusion that language expresses theological insights in the same way it expresses anything else: as if reality and its elements were the way the language form and process construes and renders them. This analysis both advances critiques of language as understood under the linguistic turn, especially by Terrence W. Deacon and Daniel L. Everett, and establishes the second and third conclusions of the thesis. The proposed theory of language as ritual is in need of further development in the directions of a philosophy of mind, an underlying metaphysical semiotics, and a comparative logic. But it does formalize a novel solution to a long-standing problem in religious language that is applicable to a wide variety of religious-cultural contexts and capable of registering insights from several relevant disciplinary domains.