THE ROLE OF PERFECTIONS IN INTER-RELIGIOUS DISCOURSE
This paper is not a discussion of the
concept of perfection but discusses the concept of perfection in
The way we present arguments
depends on the kind of references we are using. In religious
discourse we often do not present arguments and draw conclusions from
the concept of God, but from singular perfections such as 'ultimate
goodness', 'absolute love', 'superior wisdom', etc. These denote,
under certain conditions, God although «God» does not
have the same meaning as «ultimate goodness».
This form of discourse has become normal in inter-religious debates, where
a rigid concept of God (whatever is meant by this) is often replaced
by more flexible referential descriptions. Some philosophical
theologians, too, see good reason for the flexible talk about God:
Conceptual frameworks come and go. This does not
mean that we should not try to understand the very meaning of the God
of Israel and the God of Jesus, but that we have to look for another
conceptuality, one that will take into account all that we know about
the world in which we live. (Van der Vekken 1992: 163)
This strategy enables us to overcome cultural differences and construct
inter-religious discourse in which the univocal use of «God»
has been substituted by equivocal and analogous uses of the concepts
of good, love and wisdom.
There are, however,
problematic cases, if we suppose that some cultures or religious
groups lack one or more concepts of perfection. Semantic
investigations have established a provisional set of human concepts
that are expressed by identifiable words in all languages. This set
includes nearly sixty elements, providing a trans-cultural framework
for analysing meanings across languages and cultures in the form of
According to linguistical
investigations, certain Papuan tribes lack the concept of love
(Wierzbika 1995: 210). This fact, stated by linguists as an empirical
one, creates a theoretical problem: Which forms of argumentative
discourse are effective when speaking with Papuas about God as
ultimate love? Can inter-religious argumentation be construed in
trans-cultural metalanguage if there is no place for the concepts of
divine perfections like 'love' or 'wisdom'?
The concept of perfections and conceptual framework
Good arguments usually convince people. At least they convince those that
understand how the argument works. It is also widely assumed any
argument which uses commonly understandable and univocal concepts is
more convincing than one using non-understandable and equivocal
concepts. For instance, missionaries who work with natives know well
that preaching in the name of 'ultimate love' is usually much more
effective than the concepts of 'primal cause' or 'first mover'. For
to provide effective arguments they need to rely on a conceptual
framework suitable for the audience.
Now let us come to
the question: What are the concepts common for all humanity?
According to linguistic semantics, in particular to the Goddard and
Wierzbicka's «NSM» school of semantics (Goddard &
Wierzbicka 1994) the answer is: the set of universal human concepts.
The set of universal human concepts has been established on the basis
of cross-linguistic investigations and contains several substantives
(I, you, someone/person, something/thing, people, body), determines
(this, the same, other), quantifiers (one, two, many, all, some),
mental predicates (think, know, feel want, see, hear), etc. As to the
attributes: «good», «bad», «big»,
«small» are universal, while for instance «love»,
«wisdom» are not universal concepts for the humanity.
According to Wierzbicka, there are some tribes for whom arguments of
«love» are non-understandable because they do not
have a corresponding concept in their tribal language. How, then,
could the missionary tell something about Jesus as Perfect Love? Not
telling about this concept would badly harm the very understanding
what Christian God is. In Biblical parables, love is a central and
highly important topic. It is also true that the most effective
inter-religious arguments will take their start from
Wierzbicka's parable explication
Prof. Wierzbicka's project offers a solution to the problem in the use of
universal human concepts. For the Biblical parable of the Lost Sheep
(Lost Son, Lost coin) in which the idea of love is central, she
proposes following explanations in the set of universal human
God wants to do good things for all people
all people can line with God
God wants this
God does many things because of this
sometimes a person doesn't want to live with God
because this person wants to do bad things
this is bad for this person
if you don't want to live with God
because you want to do bad things
this is bad for you
God wants you to think something like this:
«I don't want to do bad things any more»
«I want to live with God»
God does many thing because of this...
(Wierzbicka 1997: 18)
Wierzbicka seems to think that her explanation of the Lost Sheep in terms of
universal human concepts refers to God of Love principally in the
same way the original parable does (Wierzbicka 1997: 18). She rejects
the view that metaphorical expressions could not be paraphrased, and
her project is aimed to provide Christian missionaries with many
other universalised parables, which, however, turn out to be
strikingly sketchy and similar to each other.
Let us next consider the quesion: Can good inter-religious arguments be
construed by such highly artificial explanations of the parables?
Could any better understanding of what God of Love really mean be
achieved by the tribesmen by using them? I personally doubt this.
Moreover, Wierzbicka's idea of the set of universal human concepts
seems strange to me. Practising missionaries will probably be able to
tell more exactly why Wierzbika's concepts do not work in practice; I
will limit my criticism to philosophical objections. In the following
I aim to show why Wierzbicka's project could be called
Frankensteinian, how despite the good intentions it fails to
recognise the essential way humans are having their life. I will also
provide an alternative approach for arguments from
Why is Wierzbicka so certain that the concept 'love' is not universal?
That linguistical investigation has proved that certain cultures lack
this concept simply means that a particular culture does not have a
corresponding expression as an identifiable word in their vocabulary.
But does this empirically stated fact mean that this culture lacks
the very idea of love? And that in order to explain tribesmen what
God means in therms of love, one has to use Wierzbicka's
translations? Moreover, why should we recognise this strange tribe as
humans and not human-like robots, or human-like lions? Just to think
of the different forms love is manifested and manifests, and how
these manifestations are related to humans' everyday life. The
relations between a mother and her child, the feelings between a
young man and woman; and the mixture of love and pain you feel when
someone close to you suddenly dies? Should we suppose that nothing of
the kind exists in some culture? Could anyone imagine that
members of a culture experience the feelings we call 'love'? Or that
they have feelings, thoughts and ideas, but are never conscious about
them. If so, how do we know that we are dealing with a human
What I mean is not that the tribesmen are not
always kind or friendly, or that they never prefer wise acts to silly
deeds. Certainly, there exist some cultures, where love is not part
of everyday life. What I want to emphasise is that it is very odd to
imagine the human race without it having the slightest idea
what 'love' and 'wisdom' are. Because manifestations of love are
universal for humans, and because the way of life led by people
who have no concept or manifestaion of 'love' would be very different
from ours, we would be quite uncertain about how to interpret their
social practices. Even if such a tribesman were addressing us using
plain English expressions, we would not be able to decide whether he
in fact has in mind the same meaning we normally attribute to these
expressions. George Pitcher has commented on Wittgensteins' saying
«If the lion could speak, we would not understand
Suppose a lion says: «It is now
three o'clock» but without at a clock his wrist-watch-and we
may imagine that it would be merely a stroke of luck if he should say
this when it actually is three o'clock. Or suppose he says:
«Goodness, it is three o'clock; I must hurry to make that
appointment», but that he continues to lie there, yawing,
making no effort to move, as lions are wont to do. In these
circumstances - assuming that the lions general behaviour is in
every respect exactly like that of an ordinary lion, save for his
amazing ability to utter English sentences - we could not say
that he has asserted or stated that it is three o'clock, even though
he uttered suitable words. We could not tell what, if anything, he
has asserted, for the modes of behaviour into which his use of words
is woven are too radically different from our own. We could not
understand him, since he does not share the relevant forms of life
with us. (Pitcher 1965: 243)
In which sense then
are the members of a culture without love more humans than talking
lions or marionettes? If they do not posses the slightest idea that
love is, could we not say that their life is too different from ours?
(Raukas 1996: 39).
An Augustinian model
Why not admit that a culture without the explicit words for it still has
the concepts of, for example 'love' and 'wisdom'? It is more
realistic to deduct that from whether these concepts are manifest in
their everyday life and practices. But this is what Wierzbicka's
investigation indirectly denies. Of course, she probably
admits that the absent of a certain concepts in vocabulary does
not make Papuas non-humans, but she denies (at least indirectly)
their conceptual consciousness of love.
Why are some linguists reluctant to embrace these conclusions? It seems they
fear that if concepts and ideas are not equated with easily
identifiable linguistical expressions discoverable by simple
empirical methods then they lose every possibility to see how these
concepts and ideas work in the human mind. The philosophical
understanding of language-world connections of such linguists is the
old-fashioned Augustinian idea. They tend to think, as Wittgenstein
puts it in his Philosophical Investigations, that
the individual expression in language name objects - sentences are
combinations of such names. - In this picture of language we
find the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning. This
meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the
word stands. (Wittgenstein 1953: 1)
Let us presume for a moment that there are also other concepts besides
'love' that a certain human culture does not have in its vocabulary. What
about the ideas of 'nonsense' or 'criticism'? The linguist who follows her
Augustinian empirical methods is probably telling us that this
culture does not have the slightest idea what 'nonsense' and
'criticism' are just because this culture lacks easily identifiable
words to denote them. Therefore, all attempts to present argumentats
based on the concept of nonsense to this culture should be explicated
via the set of universal human concepts, similar to
Wierzbicka's Biblical parable explications.
But is this
really the way out? If the way of life of the members of such a
culture is similar to ours then we are admitting not only that they
are human beings but also that in their behaviour they express
desires, feelings and thoughts just as we do. Wierzbicka ignores the
diverse ways in which the language of the tribe does enter the lives
An alternative approach to the
In Philosophical Investigations
Wittgenstein describes two men working with building stones. One
of them shouts orders, the other reacts to the orders. Wittgenstein
says this might be not only the language but the entire
language of the tribe.
To understand what Wittgenstein
means by 'entire language' I present an example from Malcolm in his
Language Game (Malcolm 1995: 179). This example should
explicate my claim that 'love', 'nonsense' and 'criticism' can be
seen in the language of any culture simply because they are humans
and their behaviour is similar to ours, not because linguistical
investigations have proved that there are (or are not) linguistical
expressions in their vocabulary.
Let us suppose that a worker is building a wall. Only slabs are used in
walls: beams are used only in roofs. We may even suppose that beams
physically cannot be used in walls because of their shape. Now
this builder, at work on a wall, calls out to his helper «Beam».
The helper looks at him in astonishment - then bursts into laughter.
The startled builder looks at the helper, then at the wall, then back
at helper with grin of embarrassment. He slaps himself on the head,
and then calls out «Slab». The chuckling helper brings
him a slab. Cannot we say that the builder's original call, «Beam»,
was, in that situation, nonsense, and that first the helper
and then the builder perceived that it was nonsense?
Likewise with love. It is true, that
some languages lack the explicit word for love. However, only the
blind and dumb cannot see and hear the way love is naturally
manifested in their everyday life.
I have discussed two different approaches to
the inter-religious (or inter-cultural) discourse. First, I tackled
prof. Wierzbika's highly optimistic project to translate Biblical
parables into a trans-cultural language which contains only universal
concepts. I claim that Wierzbika's inter-religious discourse lacks
(beside its theological and philosophical point) argumentative force.
Firstly, because her model interprets the empirical facts of
linguistics by the too much simplified philosophical Augustinian
theory of language and how words could have their meanings in
language. Secondly, the phrasal equivalents to 'God', 'love' and
'wisdom' in the set of universal human concepts are greatly
An alternative approach takes its start from
the Wittgensteinian idea that according to which speaking a language
is participating in a social activity with elaborate rules. I
maintain that referential practice does not necessarily require the
use of universal concepts, but necessarily assumes certain common
practices. If we have good reasons to presuppose that different
cultures are not too far from ours - in the sense that in their
natural behaviour they express their desires, feelings and thoughts
just as we do - using in argumentations perfections such as
'love', does not necessarily imply equivocation, which would
undermine our normal argumentative models.
I had originally intended to say more about Wittgensteinian-type arguments
about perfections. However, in the process of writing the paper I
changed my mind and merely called to your attention the way good
arguments could not be stated.
Translated by the author.
For exact view, here is a pdf version of this article,|
perfect.pdf, size 161 kb.
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