Re: positivistic view of language

On Fri, 22 Apr 1994, James Sennett wrote:

> There was a group of philosophers early in the 20th century known as 
> positivists -- highly influenced by the early Wittgenstein (the 
> _Tractatus_) and the works of Bertrand Russell.  This group became known 
> as the "Logical Positivists."  They proposed definite theories concerning 
> the nature of language, truth, and other fundamental issues.  Their view 
> might reasonably be referred to as "a positivistic view of language," 
> no?  This is all I was referring to.  I didn't mean to get the linguistic 
> world in an uproar.  :)

I have followed this discussion with great interest, as one who did
undergraduate work in philosophy, graduate work in linguistics, and now
doctoral work in NT.  I wish you had gone into this a bit more, though. 
It prompted me to take A. J. Ayer off the shelf and blow the dust off. 
His is probably the best statement (*Language, Truth & Logic*) of the
fact/value distinction characteristic of logical positivism.  James
Sennett's statement was a very helpful remark for the discussion [the one
that is supposed to have ended--sorry].  Ayer's position left relatively
little within the realm of the factual, which must be (for Ayer) at least
in principle empirically verifiable.  That left matters of value,
including all metaphysics, theology and ethics, in the realm of the
"merely" emotive.  These matters are not verifiable in principle, and thus
theological and ethical statements have no truth value--they are NON
SENSE, factually speaking. 

The importance to those of us in other disciplines, such as linguistics,
NT, etc., is that positivism was relatively short-lived in philosophy, and
yet many persons (even scholars) seem to continue with a fact/value
distinction that should have gone the way of Newtonian physics (understood
as a world-view).  A careful review of why positivism was so short-lived
might remind us why it is fruitless to argue over which statements belong
on which side of the fact/value distinction--there are no value-free

I don't think it is stretching things too much to say that this has direct
relevance to our discussion of NT Greek.  I frequently have the
uncomfortable feeling while reading various discussions of problems
relevant to this list that we are struggling with questions of how a word
or phrase should be TRANSLATED (usually into English on this list), but we
THINK we are struggling with what it MEANS.  It is as though there is an
objectively given [FACTUAL] meaning that we can get at apart from the
particularities of our perspectives (including our own languages).  To do
this is [perhaps unknowingly] to impose categories of meaning on our texts
(much as the old English grammarians who measured every language against
Latin).  We cannot determine some sort of objective, value-free meaning of
words, and this is no great loss.  What is a loss is to think we are doing
this when in fact we are answering different questions (such as the very
practical question of how to translate something into another language, or
how to explain it or apply it in a given context).

Philip Graber
Emory University

Follow-Ups: References: