Coordinating Language and Experience

Coordinating Language and Experience

How should we understand the relationship between the contents of human experience and their articulation in language? Must mastery of a language be taken for granted before any particular experience is even available as a possible object of consciousness? Or is it the case that the notion of a pre-linguistic experience is perfectly intelligible?

This first pass, from Joseph Sittler, draws a soft/moderate line. Sittler claims that language serves only as a sufficient condition for some experiences. Language can broaden our field of experience, but he remains silent as to whether some experiences might still remain available to us prior to our induction into language.

We sometimes suppose that people look upon the world and find it beautiful and then look for a language with which to adorn what they behold. I think that is true, but it also works the other way. Sometimes we are partly blinded toward this world, and then someone puts the beauty of which we had not been aware into a gorgeous line. Thereafter we behold it in a new way. We go not only from beholding to language, but we may go from the beauty of language to the enhancement of beholding.

from Gravity & Grace: Reflections and Provocations (Augsburg, 1986), 84.

In contrast, this second remark, from George Lindbeck, takes a harder line. Here language is a necessary condition for any experience.

There are numberless thoughts we cannot think, sentiments we cannot have, and realities we cannot perceive unless we learn to use the appropriate symbol systems. …In short, it is necessary to have the means for expressing an experience in order to have it, and the richer our expressive or linguistic system, the more subtle, varied, and differentiated can be our experience.

from The Nature of Doctrine (Westminster Press, 1984), 34, 37.

It’s the categorical character of Lindbeck’s claim that makes it such a provocative one. But even if we don’t follow him all the way down that road, and leave open the door to the possibility of there being some pre-conceptual thoughts/pre-linguistic experiences, it’s still the case that a greater linguistic repertoire does expand one’s intellectual, emotional, and volitional capacities. That much should be uncontroversial. Either way, as Lindbeck has labored to demonstrate, this is a question of considerable theological consequence.

All that to say, the following clip offers a serviceable introduction to a version of this same question, though without an eye to its theological horizons. I wanted to share it here anyway because it’s still taking a crack at a question of interest across the humanities and beyond. It comes from the School of Life youtube channel. I won’t endorse all their productions, but I watched this one all the way through.


To take us back to theology. If this thesis has any traction, it should give us reason to reevaluate the (in)dispensability of our inherited theological lexicon whenever we come to asking whether any given term has lost all cultural currency, and therefore should be dropped from our active vocabulary, or whether it remains the best tool at our disposal for bringing to experience its intended referent. Can we really do without talk of, say, confession and absolution, or would our world be made hellishly smaller without them?

If this seems like a topic of interest to you, you can dive deeper into this line of inquiry with the help of Charles Taylor’s The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity, (Belknap, 2016).

Joseph Sittler on Community as a Problem

Joseph Sittler on Community as a Problem

It is simply not true, as is widely affirmed these days, that the matrix of close human relationships is a theater within which fulfillment is guaranteed. Close relationships do provide an important resource—one of which we could probably use more. But there is a time when it simply will not do to declare such human bonds as the absolute, ultimate resource of the Christian gospel. There is, finally, a loneliness in every human life; I am simply not impressed with the promise that happiness in human existence will devolve from the mutuality of personal relationships. Such connections are not fulfilling; in fact, if I could push my thesis further, I would say that the community can actually get in the way by promising fulfillment. Fulfillment is finally not possible in human existence. That is why we have a gospel of divine redemption.

Because human relationships have a limit, and because even the most powerful of them leaves individual solitude uninvaded, the gospel of the divine redemption carries so astounding a promise. Is it not possible that this promise constitutes the allure of the phrase from the confessional prayer “…and from whom no secrets are hid”?

from Grace Notes and Other Fragments (Fortress, 1981), 100.

See also Rowan Williams on Solitude

Joseph Sittler on preaching beyond personal experience

Joseph Sittler on preaching beyond personal experience

It is only honest to say that I have never known fully that kind of life within the full, warm power of that faith for whose declaration I am an ordained minister. The very term “Christian experience” as generally understood, has small meaning for me. I have not seen any burning bushes. I have not pounded at the door of God’s grace with the passion of a Martin Luther. John Wesley’s “strangely warmed” heart at Aldersgate Street—this is not my street. I have not the possibility to say of the Christian faith what many honest persons have said about it. But I have come to see that to declare as a gift of God that which I do not fully possess is, nevertheless, a duty of obedience. Is the opulence of the grace of God to be measured by my inventory? Is the great catholic faith of nineteen centuries to be reduced to my interior dimensions? Are the arching lines of the gracious “possible” to be pulled down to the little spurts of my personal compass? Is the great heart of the reality of God to speak in only the broken accent that I can follow after? No. That ought not to be. Therefore, one is proper and right to sometimes talk of things one doesn’t know all about. In obedience to the bigness of the story which transcends personal apprehension, one may do this.

from Grace Notes and Other Fragments (Fortress, 1981), 50-51.