In going through my reading list I came across The Book of Woe, which for the moment I am not going to reveal the subtitle. Reading about the subject matter of the book, I was reminded of a phrase that I thought originated with Noam Chomsky in relation to linguistics, but turns out to come from someone who greatly influenced him, Alfred Korzybski.
Korzybski came up with a system he call General Semantics which sought to show how human know things and what the limitations of our knowledge are. His famous dictum that Chomsky also used was, “The map is not the territory.” Or to put it more directly, any expression of reality is going to fall short of that reality.
Now, back to The Book of Woe, which is not a collection of bible or q’ran critiques. The full title is: The Book of Woe, The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry.
The DSM is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. It is essentially the dictionary of psychiatry in that it seeks to describe every mental disorder, naming them and giving their diagnostic criteria or symptoms. As you can imagine this is a very controversial work, even naming something as a psychiatric disorder has a profound effect.
For example, homosexuality was listed in the first edition of the DSM, published in 1952. Surely labeling homosexuality as a mental disorder had it effects and I’ll let each reader decide what those effects might have been. Perhaps even more controversial than including homosexuality was the removal of same from the 1973 edition and moving forward. You might be surprised to learn that Asperger’s syndrome is no longer a valid diagnosis according to the DSM-V, it is not in there. Those symptoms may qualify for some other diagnosis, but for now Asperger’s is history.
We know that when we name or describe things that it shapes our thought about those things. We also know that most definitions and descriptions are somehow incomplete. I feel very sorry not only for the people who compile the DSM, but those who compile dictionaries as well.
Here is one, what is the definition of obscenity? Well here is the definition you get if you Google it: “the state or quality of being obscene; obscene behavior, language, or images.” Right. That was helpful. OK, how about “obscene.”
(of the portrayal or description of sexual matters) offensive or disgusting by accepted standards of morality and decency.
Oh, but wait aren’t certain words about excretory functions also considered “obscene?” And let’s look at the example sentence for the second definition (offensive to moral principles; repugnant): “using animals’ skins for fur coats is obscene.” I know lots and lots of people who would not agree with that sentence!
And herein lies my problem with any kind of fundamentalist, be it biblical or constitutional, how can we possibly know exactly what was meant by the words when words cannot capture all of reality. Even when it comes to the Constitution where the framers kept some kind notes and publications that explained what the intent behind the words really were, even with that we argue all the time over what phrases mean.
Here are the words that make this blog possible:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The first sentence is one of the most contentious in our history with some saying that government can’t say anything about god. Others say it can say all it wants about “god” as long as it is non-denominational. Even with all those notes, it is hard to get inside the heads of our 18th century forebears to see what they actually meant. This is why we have a Supreme Court to try and decide what the words and ideas of the founders mean in today’s society.
With the bible it is even worse. We don’t even know who wrote most of it. Trying to get inside the heads of bronze age nomads or first century Hellenized Jews to really find what they meant by the words they left is near impossible. In some ways I have to give credit to the Catholic Church™, Inc. in that built into their system is sort of a Supreme Court that tells us what the words mean for them. Now of course, they use more words, which are subject to interpretation. And there are certainly more than a few people (most of the Protestant world for example) that feel the Catholics got those updates and interpretations wrong, wrong, wrong.
Another sad example of this is Thomas Aquinas who as he was finishing work on his magnum opus, the Summa Theologiae was suddenly struck with a vision and he stopped writing, completely and forever. All he said was the after the vision (which he never described) was that his words seemed “like straw.” The apologist explanation is that Thomas glimpsed heaven or perhaps god himself which made mere words seem like nothing. Even if that is true, if Thomas Aquinas can’t describe the reality of god, what theologian can? Even the best interpretation of the event makes theology a pretty much useless enterprise.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not making a post modern argument that words have no meaning whatsoever, that is going too far. The Wikipedia summarizes Korzybski’s ideas this way: “His system included modifying the way we consider the world, e.g., with an attitude of “I don’t know; let’s see,” to better discover or reflect its realities as revealed by modern science.”
Admitting that you don’t have all the answers was also Socrate’s prescription. In admitting our ignorance we can learn and grow. Thinking we know all the answers is the way to stagnation. Merely accepting answers because someone else said so is the way to be an intellectual fossil.