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Religious Language Resources
Annotated Bibliography

This bibliography is organized according to the proposed syllabus of the Boston University Religious Language Research Seminar. Being a research seminar, however, the course may change direction without warning, thereby disrupting the organizational parallel with the bibliography. But that is to be desired, and the bibliography is no less useful when it happens.

The bibliography is the product chiefly of Tim Knepper, research assistant for the Religious Language Research Seminar. The first person pronouns in the annotations are his. Other students are gradually filling in the gaps, either writing annotations for works already listed here or adding annotated entries for new works. As they do so, their annotations are accompanied by their initials in square brackets. The key to the initials is here.


Section A: Background

1. Linguistics

2. Anthropology

3. Neuroscience

4. Embodied Mind

5. Philosophy of Language and Logical Positivism

Section B: Theories and Analyses

1. Speech Act Theory

2. Metaphor Theory

3. Late-Wittgensteinian Cultural-Linguistic Approaches

4. Semiotics

5. Hermeneutics

6. Power Analyses (Post-Structuralism, Feminism, Critical Linguistics)

7. Grammatical and Literary Analyses

Section C: Applications

1. Mysticism: Views of Language in Writings of Mystics

2. Mysticism: Views of Language in Theorists of Mysticism

3. Madhyamaka Buddhism: Views of Language



1.1. Linguistics: General Introductions and Backgrounds

Akmajian, Adrian; Demers, Richard A.; Farmer, Ann K.; Harnish, Robert M. 1995. Linguistics: An Introduction to Language and Communication, 4th edition. Cambridge: MIT Press.

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Parker, Frank. 1986. Linguistics for Non-Linguists. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

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Robins, R. H. 1967. A Short History of Linguistics. London: Longmans.

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1.2. Linguistics: Generative Grammar and Language Universals

Chomsky, Noam. 1965. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press.

Chomsky makes his renowned distinction between ‘competence’ and ‘performance,’ asserting that the central goal of linguistic theory should be that of modeling the psychological system of unconscious knowledge that underlies linguistic behavior (competence) rather than that of studying such behavior itself (performance).

Chomsky, Noam. 1972. Language and Mind. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Language and Mind is a collection of six essays, the first three of which pertain to past, present and future contributions to the study of mind made by linguistics. Of the remaining three essays, “Form and Meaning in Natural Languages” contains an accessible account of Chomsky's linguistic theories (generative grammar, deep structure, surface structure, universal grammar, etc.).

Comrie, Bernard. 1989. Language Universals and Linguistic Typology: Syntax and Morphology, 2nd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Language Universals defends linguistic universality, while Comrie’s The World’s Major Language (1990) defends linguistic diversity.

Croft, William. 1990. Typology and Universals. Cambridge University Press.

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Crystal, David. 1987. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Pinker cites Crystal as a proponent of linguistic diversity.

Greenberg, Joseph H., ed. 1978. Universals of Human Language, 4 vols. Stanford University Press.

A proponent of language universals, Greenberg pioneered several early investigations into this subject and is responsible for the claim that languages with prepositions place objects after verbs, while languages with postpositions place verbs after objects. Greenberg has also forwarded a theory concerning the evolution of the world’s languages from a single source.

Hawkins, John A. 1988. Explaining Language Universals. Malden: Basil Blackwell.

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Pinker, Steven.1984. The Language Instinct. New York: HarperPerennial.

A remarkably accessible Chomskyan account of language as biological instinct, grounded not only in the traditional sub-disciplines of linguistics (language acquisition, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, etc.) but also in the disciplines of evolutionary biology and cognitive/neuroscience. Language is “a distinct piece of the biological makeup of our brains,” argues Pinker, “a complex, specialized skill, which develops in the child spontaneously, without conscious effort or formal instruction, is deployed without awareness of its underlying logic, is qualitatively the same in every individual, and is distinct from more general abilities to process information or behave intelligently” (18).

Pinker, Steven. 1999. Words and Rules.

Pinker’s latest work details his ideas about the cognitive organization of language. He argues that the brain’s representation of language is rule based: morphology occurs according to a system of discoverable rules. In arguing this point, he rejects the idea that morphology occurs based on the specific pattern of neural connections. The entire book is therefore a discussion on regular and irregular verbs in order to argue the above point. Words and Rules does not have the breadth of The Language Instinct, nor does it hold one’s interest as well. Readers of Pinker’s earlier work should be able to anticipate his arguments, and even his humor. The style is typical Pinker, full of panache and rather off-handed dismissals of alternate views, but this time not so original - several of the examples are even annoyingly borrowed straight out of his earlier books. However, this book might possibly be of use to those studying irregular verbs and morphology, or those fascinated by the rule-based model vs. the connectionist model debate. (bs)

Shibatani, Masayoshi. 1990. The Languages of Japan.

A serious and broad linguistic study of the Japanese languages (Ainu and Japanese) by a Japanese linguist, writing in English. Shibatani aims primarily to dispel ‘myths’ regarding Japanese. To do so, he provides a history of the development of Japanese, as well as chapters on lexicon, phonology, morphology and grammatical structure. Importantly, he points out ways in which Japanese is similar to and different from Indo-European languages. He shows among other things how Japanese is a high-context language - subjects are often omitted, there are no overt personal pronouns - but this only makes the language seem ‘vague’ when sentences are artificially removed from context. (bs)

Shopen, Timothy, ed. 1985. Language Typology and Syntactic Description, 3 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Volume one (“Clause Structure”) constitutes a “cross-linguistic survey of syntactic and morphological structure” intended for use as a field-work manual for linguists. Paul Schachter’s essay “Parts-of-Speech Systems” provides a cross-linguistic comparison of major grammatical distinctions. While a good deal of linguistic diversity exists with respect to most major grammatical distinctions, all languages contain both noun and verb parts-of-speech and the distinction between open-classes and closed-classes.

Uriagereka, Juan; Piatelli-Palmarini, Massimo. 2000. Rhyme and Reason: An Introduction to Minimalist Syntax.

Written entirely in Plato-like dialogue style, the authors provide an entertaining introduction to the ‘minimalist agenda’ laid out by Noam Chomsky. This book is friendly for linguists and non-linguists alike; where the latter may get confused, diagrams and explanations are provided along the pages’ margins. The dialogue takes place between the Linguist (L) and the Other (O), the linguist being the Chomskyan 'expert' and the Other being the interested non-linguist, who is obviously highly intelligent and speaks several languages, but doesn't know much about linguistics or how language works. Thus, as L tries to explain language, O asks questions, gets upset, cracks jokes, etc. This makes this very long book rather readable, and the arguments are built up step by step. For those who don’t want to read Chomsky, it is a better (albeit more challenging) introduction than Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, because it concentrates on syntax alone and goes further in depth on that subject. Unfortunately, the authors aren’t terribly concerned about presenting alternate views on the subject. (bs)


2.1. Language Universals

Berlin, Brent; Kay, Paul. 1969. Basic Color Terms. University of California Press.

A classic work in the field of semantic universals. Berlin, Kay and their students test native-speaking informants from 20 different languages (and draw in comparative written data representative of another 78 languages) to determine the focal point and outer boundary of each of the basic color terms. They conclude not only that basic color term universals exist, but also that these universals developed in all languages in a remarkably similar evolutionary manner.

Bloom, Alfred. 1981. The Linguistic Shaping of Thought: A Study in the Impact of Language on Thinking in China and the West. Eerlbaum Associates, Publishers.

A rehabilitation of the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis grounded in the discipline of cognitive structuralism. Bloom texts his claim that “language shapes the underlying cognitive structures in which we think” against a five year investigation into the differences of cognitive impact produced by speakers of the English and Chinese language.

Brown, Donald E. 1991. Human Universals. Temple University Press.

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Degler, Carl N. 1991. In Search of Human Nature. Oxford University Press.

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Ingold, Tim, ed. 1996. Key Debates in Anthropology.

This very interesting volume consists of a series of annual debates held by leading British anthropologists, including the 1991 debate “Language is the Essence of Culture” (pp. 147 - 198). For the motion are David Parkin (Prof of Anthropology at the University of Oxford) and Brian Moeran, while Alfred Gell and James F. Weiner oppose. Tim Ingold provides a concise introduction to the debate, the debaters present, and then a general discussion ensues. As Ingold writes, “Ostensibly, the argument is about whether language calls into being the cultural worlds in which people live, or whether these worlds are given form and meaning by virtue of a cognitive engagement that precedes language, and to which language gives no more than superficial and incomplete expression” (p. 149). This book does not present new information so much as show an attempt by anthropologists to raise what they perceive as some of the key questions regarding language and culture, drawing on philosophy and the empirical sciences, in lively debate. (bs)

Sapir, Edward. 1949. Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.

Sapir was an anthropologist at Yale with whom B. L. Whorf studied. Together Sapir and Whorf expounded the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” of linguistic relativity. (see Whorf)

Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1956. Language, Thought, and Reality. Technology Press of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Neither a linguist nor an anthropologist by training (at least not until late in life), Whorf served as a fire prevention engineer up until his death. Nevertheless Whorf’s intense interest in and diligent research of the culture and language of several North and Central American Indian tribes established his reputation as a scholar in these fields and eventually brought Whorf to Yale where he studied with Edward Sapir (anthropologist-linguist, student of Franz Boas). Whorf is best known for his “Principle of Linguistic Relativity” (a.k.a. the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis”), defined as follows: “users of markedly different grammars are pointed by their grammars toward different types of observations and different evaluations of externally similar acts of observation, and hence not equivalent as observers but must arrive at somewhat different views of the world” (221).

Wierzbicka, Anna. 1980. Lingua Mentalis: The Semantics of Natural Language. New York: Academic Press.

In Lingua Mentalis Wierzbicka forwards the hypothesis that 13 primitive semantic universals located at the core of all natural languages constitute a universal mental language. As primitive universals, these semantic concepts are “not only necessary but also sufficient for modeling all intuitively felt semantic relations” (28).

Wierzbicka, Anna. 1992. Semantics, Culture and Cognition: Human Concepts in Culture-Specific Configurations. Oxford University Press.

In Semantics, Culture and Cognition, Wierzbicka begins by rejecting two extreme views with respect to the translation of meaning (viz. meaning cannot be transferred at all from one language to another, meaning can be fully transferred from one language to another). Redirecting attention to the question “To what extent may meaning be transferred from one language to another” (or to what extent are languages shaped by human nature/culture), Wierzbicka calls first for the construction of several approximated lists of semantic universals, and second for a rigorous, empirical, cross-cultural analysis of such proposed lists. Semantics, Culture and Cognition is not itself such an analysis; instead, it is an attempt to do cross-cultural comparisons of concepts that are not universal by employing semantic universals as the basis of comparison (e.g., the Russian word dusa and the English word soul, the Russian word sud’ba and the English word fate).


3.1. General Works

Deacon, Terrance. 1997. The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Deacon's dense yet remarkably readable work draws together data from the disciplines of cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary biology, linguistics, semiotics and anthropology in order to provide a symbolic-social account of language origins at odds with the universal grammar/language instinct accounts of Chomsky and Pinker. Peircean semiotics grounds Deacon's account of the stark difference between symbolic representation and non-symbolic representation, a difference unaccountable in terms of an innate language instinct, moreover, one which points to both the preeminently social origin and nature of symbolic representation and the co-evolution of symbolic representation and the brain.

Modular theories of the mind (provided by Deacon):

·        Barkow, J.H. Barkow; Cosmides, L; Tooby, J, eds. 1992. The Adapted Mind.

·        Chomsky, Noam. 1984. Modular Approaches to the Study of Mind.

·        Fodor, Jerry. 1983. The Modularity of the Mind.

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Critiques of modular theories of the mind (provided by Deacon):

·        Elman, Jeff; Bates, Elizabeth; et. al. 1996. Rethinking Innateness.

·        Karmiloff-Smith, Annette. 1992. Beyond Modularity.

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Accounts of language origins in opposition to Deacon include:

·        Bickerton, Derek. 1990. Language and Species.

·        Bickerton, Derek. 1995. Language and Human Behavior.

·        Corballis, Michael. 1991. The Lopsided Ape.

·        Donald, Merlin. 1991. Origins of the Modern Mind.

·        Dunbar, Robin. 1997. Gossip and the Evolution of Language.

·        Liebermann, Philip. 1984. The Biology and Evolution of Language.

·        Liebermann, Philip. 1991. Uniquely Human.

·        McCrane, John. 1991. Grooming, The Ape That Spoke.

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Other cognitive/neuro-scientific accounts of language and/or consciousness include:

·        Dennett, Daniel. 1991. Consciousness Explained.

·        Jaynes, Julian. 1976. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

·        Luria, A. 1973. The Working Brain.

·        Luria, A. 1982. Language and Cognition.

·        Sperber, Dan. 1975. Rethinking Symbolism.

·        Sperber, Dan. 1986. Relevance Communication and Cognition.

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3.2. Works Written from a Religious Perspective

d'Aquili, Eugene; Newberg, Andrew. 1999. The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

The central thesis of d’Aquili and Newberg’s neuropsychological analysis of religious experience is admittedly paradoxical – God is generated by and generates the brain. “We will demonstrate the intriguing paradox that although God or pure consciousness is generated by the machinery of the brain, nevertheless a strict phenomenological analysis can logically and coherently see absolute unitary being or pure consciousness not only as primary over external material reality but as actually generating it” (18). Fortunately, the majority of The Mystical Mind treats the first half of this “paradox,” viz. the neuropsychological mediation of religious experience.

D’Aquili and Newberg first delineate several components of the mind-brain which prove to be integral to their account of religious experience: five states of extraordinary consciousness (from hyperarousal, to hyperquiescent, to simultaneous maximal discharge); four areas of tertiary association (visual, orientation, attention, verbal-conceptual); seven cognitive operators (holistic, reductionistic, causal, abstractive, binary, quantitative, emotional-value); and deafferentation, the physiological “cutting off” of incoming information into the brain that allows cognitive operators to word on themselves rather than reality. D’Aquili and Newberg then apply these components of the mind-brain to various types of religious phenomena. Myth is the necessary “subjective manifestation of inherent stable relationships within the mind-brain’s structure” (83); ritual causes both partial deafferentation of the orientation association area and the functioning of the holistic operator; and mediation causes partial to total deafferentation of the orientation association area, thereby creating what is commonly referred to as a mystical experience. In the case of total deafferentation, such an experience – referred to by d’Aquili and Newberg as a state of “absolute unitary being” (AUB) – is unmediated by both linguistic categories and cultural norms: “We maintain, however, that the actual experience of AUB is itself is necessarily the same for any individual who experiences it. This is necessary from a neurophysiological as well as a philosophical perspective. It is necessarily experiences as an infinite, unified, and totally undifferentiated state” (117). Does this constitute a second paradox of d’Aquili and Newberg’s work? Religious experience must be neuropsychologically mediated in order for it to be culturally-linguistically unmediated.

In the final chapters of The Mystical Mind, d’Aquili and Newberg leap from the realm of neuropsychology into that of neuro-theology and phenomenology. After fleshing out several neuro-theological categories grounded in the deafferentation of the seven cognitive operators, d’Aquili and Newberg hone in on the state of AUB, approaching it form a phenomenological standpoint. If subjective awareness (rather than material reality) is given ontological priority, they write, “then we must conclude that AUB or pure awareness represents absolute reality” (189). Thus, although an experience of God is generated by the mind-brain, God or AUB, taken from the perspective of subjective awareness, generates both the mind-brain and the world. “One is force to conclude that both conclusions about God (AUB) are in a profound sense true” (193).

For an early version and reviews/criticisms of d'Aquili's argument see: Zygon 28.2 (June 1993).

Ashbrook, James B. 1984. The Human Mind and the Mind of God. Lanham: University Press of America.

Although James Ashbrook’s The Human Mind and the Mind of God claims to attempt to reveal the very mind of God via an analysis of the human mind, it carries out this goal much more modestly (than it stated it). Ashbrook begins by discussing the specialized functions of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and then draws correlations between these functions, patterns of religious (Christian!) belief, and historical-cultural expressions. Ashbrook’s hypothesis, simply put, is that “beliefs reflect brain processes” (76). Theology, therefore, is rendered more intelligible by neuropsychology. And the mind is an “analytic metaphor” or “tool with which to identify and assess how humanity reflects and expresses God” (75).

The first part of Ashbrook’s work relates left (“step-by-step”) and right (“all-at-once”) brain asymmetry to parallel theological emphases. The left brain corresponds to a theology of proclamation, God’s redeeming activity, and the reason side of the reason and revelation dialectic, the right brain to a theology of manifestation, God’s creating activity, and revelation. “Such correlations,” claims Ashbrook, “allow us to use the human mind as an analytic metaphor with which to understand God’s mind” (xx). In part II Ashbrook relates these correlations to the architecture and theology of the Byzantine and Medieval periods. The “dome-like” architecture and mind of Byzantine Orthodoxy reveals belief in God’s mystical presence and unity, while the “spire-like” architecture and mind of Medieval Catholicism discloses a rational and hierarchical-sacramental understanding of God. Finally, in part III Ashbrook claims that the Byzantine and Medieval cultural-theological-architectural differences might be understood as the unbalanced development of one hemisphere of the brain at the expense of the other. Such unhealthy polarities are healed in the symbolic-paradigmatic event of Pentecost, the unpolarized deep-structure of the brain upon which the true image of God is stamped.

Language enters Ashbrook’s account at several junctures, particularly in his attempt to link various religious beliefs, theological tenets and religious images to either the right of left hemispheres of the brain.

Ashbrook, James B.; Albright, Carol Rausch. 1997. The Humanizing Brain: Where Religion and Neuorscience Meet. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press.

To steal a page from the philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach, James B. Ashbrook and Carol Rausch Albright’s The Humanizing Brain might best be summarized as theology qua neuroscience. Theological representations of divine reality reflect (or, less sympathetically, are projections of) activities of the mind-brain. To put matters in the authors’ own words: “The nature of God may, to an imperfect extent, be indicated by the brain” (51). The authors’ seem to be working off the similar hypothesis of Ashbrook’s 1984 The Human Mind and the Mind of God (which makes an appearance in chapter six), except whereas Ashbrook employed the left-right mind-brain as a model for divine reality then, Ashbrook and Albright now turn to the “concept of the triune mind-brain as a suggestive analogue for God’s ways of being God” (51).

Part I of The Humanizing Brain begins by correlating the two primal human urges of knowing and relating with theological understandings of God as the source of order and love, respectively. More importantly, the authors then lay down the methodological assumption that grounds both the preceding correlation as well as the correlations to come: the concept of “mind” is a bridge between neuroscience and religion. What does this mean? For Ashbrook and Albright it means both that the brain “humanizes” reality, stamping order and purpose on the universe, and that this order and purpose is already there, inherent in the very nature of life (here the authors call upon evidence from complexity theory to support their claims). Thus, “evolutionary emergence of the brain reflects – implicitly – the nature of the universe” (110). Moreover, for the authors, “the nature of the universe” includes religious intuitions and divine reality. The fact that the brain perceives religious phenomena, therefore, necessitates both the reality of such phenomena (since the mind-brain reflects the nature of reality) and the similarity between the nature of God, the cause of such phenomena, and the structure and function of the mind-brain.

In part II the authors flesh out the implications of their hypothesis, employing Paul MacLean’s notion of the brain as “triune” (a notion that the authors admit is currently contested, though in ways that are not damaging to their use of it) as a means of getting at the nature of the divine. The sensory-based reptilian brain that attends to matters of surviving and thriving reflects God as territorial, hierarchical, watchful, persistent and unchanging. The mammalian brain that is responsible for personal attachments, emotional responsiveness and meaningful memory discloses a God that is both a loving nurturer and a provider of meaning. And the ordering and organizing power of the neocortex reflects a powerful and creative God who not only purposively orders a vast and incomprehensible universe but also intimately knows and guides the lives of individual humans.

Language enters Ashbrook and Albright’s account in a symbolic-metaphoric manner – an experience of the numinous, which corresponds with sub-cortical events or the non-conscious, is literally ineffable, expressible only at the cortical, conscious level via culturally-conditioned, metaphorical-symbolic means.

Austin, J. L. 1998. Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness. Cambridge: MIT Press.

An eclectic work -- or should I say "tome"? (over 800 pages long!) -- that bounds back and forth between autobiographical anecdotes of Zen-related experiences and a neurological account of brain states during Zen meditation. Language enters into the account in the form of ineffability, a phenomenological state attributable to the fact that input to the thalamus bypasses (or passes extremely slowly to) the temporal lobe.

Hefner, Philip. 1993. The Human Factor; Evolution, Culture and Religion. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Though much of this work does not concern religious language, one chapter tackles the subject of "God-talk," accounting for it pragmatically (via the criteria of personalness, coherence, and individual meaningfulness).

Persinger, Michael A. 1987. Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs. New York: Praeger.

One part neurological account of God-experiences (as transient electrical instabilities in the temporal lobe), two parts social-psychological account of God-concepts and God-beliefs, and three parts rhetorical meandering. Although God-language takes the center stages for one whole chapter, little more than the following is said: Culturally conditioned God-language helps reduce the anxiety of death. (To be fair, God-language is also tied to the following three linguistic peculiarities: the failure to recognize the distinction between concrete and abstract words; the inability to realize that not all question have answers; and the illusion that the inability to disprove something doesn't necessarily mean it exists.)

Wildman, Wesley J; Brothers, Leslie A. 2000. “A Neuropsychological-Semiotic Model of Religious Experiences. In Robert Russell et al., eds., Neuroscience and the Person. CTNS and Vatican Observatory.

Two goals both motivate and structure Wesley J. Wildman and Leslie A. Brothers’ “A Neuropsychological-Semiotic Model of Religious Experiences.” In the first half of their essay Wildman and Brothers forward a multi-disciplinary taxonomy of “ultimacy experiences” [UE] (a term that the authors believe is more inclusive than “religious experiences”). The authors then turn to the “constructive” component of their essay, presenting a process by which typical and authentic UE can be distinguished as well as a theory concerning the causation of UE.

Instead of providing a precise definition of UE, Wildman and Brothers offer a set of “markers” of UE. Such markers come from no less than four separate disciplinary vantage points: phenomenological, neurological, social-psychological, and theological-ethical. Phenomenological descriptions of UE are divided into discrete and extended types. Discrete UE are characterized by the elements of sensory alterations, self-alterations, presences, cognitions, and emotions, while extended UE are both classified as social UE and transformational UE, and characterized by the elements of existential potency, social embedding, transformation of behavior and personality, and transformation of beliefs. These phenomenological characteristics of UE are correlated to five classes of relevant neurological data: temporal lobe epilepsy, semantic processing, alterations of person experience, chronic personality changes related to temporal lobe pathology, and neurological considerations relevant to sociality. The authors’ taxonomy is then enriched by both social-psychological considerations of typical UE from the fields of psychoanalysis, life-stage psychology and evolutionary psychology, and theological-ethical perspectives pertaining to the social embeddedness, linguistic expression, and spiritual discernment of authentic UE.

Having completed their detailed taxonomy, Wildman and Brothers now utilize this taxonomy as a means of identifying typical and authentic UE. Typical UE, the authors contend, are constituted by an ideal type lying at the center of an imaginary target – “recognizable by traditional theological criteria; richly describable in consistent ways by, say, a psychoanalyst or an evolutionary psychologist; with brain activity known to be strongly correlated with what are usually accepted as ultimacy experiences; and with experiential phenomena embracing several of the categories discussed earlier” (389). The authors then contend that authentic UE differ from judgments of typical UE solely with respect to “the willingness of a social-linguistic context [e.g., psychological, theological] to stipulate what ought to occur” (394). Authentic UE, therefore, may be described impartially – although, it should be noted, authentic UE “cannot be confirmed from beyond the social-linguistic community within which those judgments are made without evaluation of the underlying causal interpretation of ultimacy experiences” (394).

It is for reason – viz. the impartial evaluation of claims made concerning the ultimate cause and value of UE – that Wildman and Brothers propose their own causal model of UE in the final section of the essay. Such a model focuses on “causal traces” rather than on causes themselves (thereby keeping ontological presuppositions to a minimum), employing semiotic theory in order to map such traces via sign-transformations. The value of UE is addressed by the claim that “more complex levels of reality are registered in (or just are […]) a denser flux of signs” (404). Semiotically-dense UE, therefore, constitute a deep, complex and valuable dimension of reality: “Deep engagement with reality in the forms of morality and religion is both incontestably important in the history of human life and, necessarily on our critically reality point of view, indicative of reality” (406). Finally, the authors take up the cause of UE, both by stating that their semiotic theory of sign-transformations is a useful neutral model for the evaluation of causal claims about UE, and by suggesting that Ultimacy – conceived of in apophatic mystical, deep-mysterious natural terms – is really showing up in (or causing) UE.


Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1962. Phenomenology of Perception.

Cited by both Varela/Thompson/Rosch and Lakoff/Johnson as the forerunner of both an embodied approach to the mind and an integrative approach to the cognitive and social sciences.

Douglas, Mary. 1970. Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. New York: Pantheon Books.

Embodied mind – or more accurately, embodied society or socialized embodiment – from an anthropological perspective. Douglas’ thesis is “symbols based on the human body are used to express different social experiences.” Or to state it differently, a strong correlation exists between conceptions of society and conceptions of the body. While conceptions of society constrain conceptions of the physical body, conceptions of the physical body in turn sustain conceptions of society.

Varela, Francisco J.; Thompson, Evan; Rosch, Eleanor. 1991. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge: MIT Press.

The authors’ aim, in their own words, is that of building “a bridge between mind in science and mind in experience by articulating a dialogue between these two traditions of Western cognitive science and Buddhist meditative psychology. “In so doing, they defend a new approach in cognitive science as an “enactive” approach that calls into question the separation between world and mind presupposed by representational accounts of cognition, instead understanding cognition as “embodied action.” Parallels are then drawn between this non-objectivist and non-subjectivist account of world and mind and the emptiness of Nagarjuna’s philosophical school of Madhyamika Buddhism.

Lakoff, George; Johnson, Mark. 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh.

Three findings of cognitive science ground Lakoff and Johnson’s work – the mind is inherently embodied, thought is mostly unconscious, abstract concepts are largely metaphorical – findings that, according to Lakoff and Johnson, challenge the foundations of traditional Western philosophy, and therefore warrant a reconstruction of philosophy along empirical-embodied and largely metaphorical lines. After presenting a sophisticated embodied-metaphorical account of language and a conceptually-relative account of truth, Lakoff and Johnson turn first to basic philosophical ideas (time, causation, mind, self and morality), and second to the work of several philosophers (e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Chomsky), in an attempt to provide an embodied cognitive science of philosophical ideas and philosophy.


5.1. Background Works

Diamond, Malcolm L.; Litzenburg, Thomas V., Jr., eds. 1975. The Logic of God: Theology and Verification. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.

This invaluable resource begins with an extremely informative fifty-page recapitulation of the verification-falsification controversy. Nine additional chapters provide a fairly comprehensive selection of relevant primary sources (including selections from Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic, Braithwaite’s noncognitivism, Wisdom’s “Gods,” Hick’s eschatological verification, the falsification debate between Flew, Hare and Mitchell, Phillips and Nielsen on fideism).

Cell, Edward. 1971. Language, Existence and God. New York: Abingdon Press.

Explications and interpretations of Moore, Russell, Ayer, Wittgenstein, Wisdom, Oxford Philosophy and Tillich.

Smith, Quentin. 1997. Ethical and Religious Thought in Analytical Philosophy of Language.

Looks promising!

5.2. General Works

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus-Logico Philosophicus.

Wittgenstein’s Tractatus heavily influenced the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle. In the Tractatus Wittgenstein maintains that linguistic propositions are logical pictures of facts (obtaining states of affairs) in the world. Correspondence between linguistic propositions and the world requires that both propositions and the world possess the same logical form. (This form is expressed in the case of simple propositions as “aRb” where “a” and “b,” are simple names that refer to entities in the world, and “R” is the relationship that obtained between these entities.) Philosophy’s task, Wittgenstein held, was that of the logical clarification of such linguistic propositions. By means of such clarification, a line could be drawn around that which could and could not be said. Included among that which could not be said (and therefore was not meaningful) were not only the propositions of ethics and aesthetics but also the propositions of logic, including all of the propositions of the Tractatus itself.

Contributions from members of the Vienna Circle:

·        Schlick, Moritz. 1930. Questions of Ethics.

·        Schlick, Moritz. 1936. “Meaning and Verification.” Philosophical Review 45.

·        Carnap, Rudolph. 1935. Philosophy and Logical Syntax.

·        Carnap, Rudolph. 1959. “The Elimination of Metaphysics.” in Logical Positivism (Ayer, ed.).

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Ayer, A. J. 1946. Language, Truth, Logic, 2nd ed.

Although A. J. Ayer was not a member of the Vienna Circle, he was heavily influenced by their work. In Language, Truth, Logic Ayer maintains that there are two types of propositions: a priori or analytic propositions of logic and mathematics, and a posteriori or synthetic propositions of science. While a priori propositions are universally true, a posteriori propositions are probable if and only if they can be empirically verified. Thus, the meaning of an a posteriori proposition is its method of verification. Metaphysical propositions – propositions that are neither analytic nor empirically verifiable – are therefore literally meaningless. They have no factual content, and therefore are neither true nor false (although they do possess ethical, emotional, and aesthetic value). Philosophy’s task must be that of clarifying language by warding off meaningless metaphysical propositions.

A religiously generous interpretation of Ayer’s work takes Ayer to be reiterating what advocates of religion have affirmed throughout the ages, viz. the object of religious language is both indescribable and unintelligible. See What I Believe (1966) for Ayer’s abandonment of the verification principle and adoption of conceptual relativism.

Quine, W. V. O. 1951. “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” Philosophical Review 60.

Quine’s early work effectively spelled the end of the logical positivist agenda by claiming that the distinction between analytic and synthetic truths was itself a mere metaphysical article of faith. Quine claimed that analytic truths of one type (non-logically true analytic statements, e.g., “No bachelor is married”) depend on the notion of synonymy, which, in turn, depends on empirical observation and linguistic definition (i.e., it is relative to a particular language), and therefore are not analytically true. Quine also argued that synthetic truths do not refer to the external world as directly and non-problematically as empiricists thought. Only as a corporate body (or web) do the propositions of our language face the tribunal of experience. Language is underdetermined by experience (except at its periphery where language does play a confirmatory role).

Wisdom, John. 1952. “Gods.” in Other Minds. (also located in The Logic of God)

In his essay “Gods” John Wisdom argues against a facile classification of metaphysical propositions as meaningless. Herein he tells a story about an unseen gardener. Two people return to their own long-neglected garden to find not only that it is overgrown by weeds, but also – and surprisingly – that a few of their old plants have survived and thrived, thus leading person A to say to person B that a gardener must have been attending to their garden while they were away. And so the two together set out to investigate the matter, learning all the relevant facts together. At the end of their investigation person A affirms the existence of a gardener, while person B denies the existence of a gardener. Wisdom’s telling of the story is notable in two respects: first, both persons learn the same facts about the garden; and second, some of these facts are supportive of the hypothesis of the existence of a gardener, while other facts are supportive of the hypothesis that there is not a gardener. For Wisdom seeks to point out that disputes can agree on all the facts (and therefore not be disputes about the facts) and yet remain genuine, live, non-idle (i.e., purely verbal or emotional-expressive) disputes. The dispute between sophisticated theists and atheists is, according to Wisdom, such a dispute. Although it began – as did the dispute over the gardener – as a dispute over the facts, it has become a dispute over the interpretation of facts agreed on by both parties.

Flew, Antony; MacIntyre, Alasdaire, eds. 1955. New Essays in Philosophical Theology.

A seminal collection of essays written by twentieth century Anglo-analytic philosophers of religion. Most of the essays take up issues involving religious language and religious belief.

The most significant contribution in the collection is a discussion between Antony Flew, R. M. Hare and Basil Mitchell concerning the falsification of religious language. Herein Flew puts a different spin on John Wisdom’s gardener parable. Flew’s rendition of Wisdom’s parable is notable insofar as all the facts are damning to the assertion that there is a gardener. The original assertion in support of the existence of a gardener is slowly reduced to the status of an unverifiable and unfalsifiable expression. This gives Flew occasion to ponder the relationship between assertion and falsification. Flew claims that asserting that such and such is the case is equivalent to the denying that such and such is not the case. Therefore, if we want to know whether an utterance is in fact an assertion, we can ask what that assertion counts against. If nothing counts against an utterance, then that utterance is not an assertion. Thus, theological statements that cannot be falsified cannot be claimed to be asserting anything, and therefore are not in fact assertions. Since gardener A’s original assertion is unfalsifiable, it is not an assertion. Moreover, in its erosion from the appearance of an assertion to the status of an unverifiable and unfalsifiable expression, it dies “the death by a thousand qualifications.”

Braithwaite, R. B. 1955. An Empiricist’s View of the Nature of Religious Belief. Cambridge: Cambridge at the University Press.

Braithwaite defends logical positivism’s critique of religious language, presenting a non-cognitivist interpretation of religious language. At the very same time, however, he invokes Wittgenstein’s dictum “meaning is use” in order to show that meaning can be ascribed to religious language, though in a predominantly moral-emotive (non-cognitivist, non-factual) manner.

Hick, John. 1957. Faith and Knowledge.

Hick maintained that religious assertions were factual, conforming to ordinary standards of meaningfulness from within a religious context (intrareligiously). Moreover, verification of religious assertions occurs eschatologically (in the afterlife).

Hempel, C. G. 1959. “The Empiricist Criterion of Meaning.” in Logical Positivism (Ayer, ed.).

A survey of the formulations and reformulations of the verification principle, buoyed by the hope that an adequate formulation of the verification principle was close at hand. Later, in Aspects of Scientific Explanation (1965), Hempel admitted this hope unrealized. For other attempts to revive the verification principle see: David Rynin, “The Vindication of L*G*C*L P*S*T*V*SM,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 30 (1957); Wesley C. Salmon, “Verifiability and Logic,” Mind, Matter and Logic (1966); Michael Tooley, “Theological Statements and the Question of an Empiricist Criterion of Cognitive Significance,” The Logic of God (1975).

Popper, Karl. 1959. The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

Falsification championed vis-à-vis verification.

Ferre, Frederick. 1961. Language, Logic and God.

A helpful background to the attacks on theological discourse followed by a smattering of theological responses. Also see: Ferre and Kent Bendall Exploring the Logic of Faith (1962).

Plantinga, Alvin. 1967. God and Other Minds.

Plantinga dismisses verification out of hand as a futile critique of religious language, mystified at why theology took it so seriously in the first place.

Mavrodes, George I. 1970. Belief in God.

Contains rebuttals of both Hick’s and Nielsen’s (quite different) defenses of the verification principle. Verification as a test of factual meaningfulness involves (vicious) circular reasoning (the factual meaningfulness of statements must be known before the observations that test factual meaningfulness can be carried out).

Nielsen, Kai. 1971. Contemporary Critiques of Religion. New York: Herder and Herder.

Nielsen is best know both for his defense of the verification principle and his anti-fideistic rebuttal of D. Z. Phillips (both contained in the work cited above along with a helpful summary of the verification and falsification controversies). For more on his defense of the verification principles see the following: “Eschatological Verification” Canadian Journal of Theology 9 (1963); “God and Verification Again,” Canadian Journal of Theology 11 (1965); “On Fixing the Reference Range of God,” Religious Studies 2 (1966). For more on his anti-fideistic critique of Phillips see the following: “Wittgensteinian Fideism,” Philosophy xlii (July, 1967).



Austin, J. L. 1962. How To Do Things With Words.

Among the first works to point out that utterances constitute acts. Austin’s distinction between performative utterances and constative utterances is blurred toward the end of the work – every genuine speech act contains locutionary meaning and illocutionary force (and sometimes also perlocutionary effect).

Searle, John. see below

A student of Austin, Searle extends and systematizes Austin’s work in Speech Acts (1970) by providing the necessary and sufficient conditions for the successful performance of simple speech acts (rules for the performance of a dozen or so illocutionary acts, rules of reference, rules of predication). Searle’s Expression and Meaning (1979) not only taxonomizes illocutionary acts (as fivefold – assertives, directives, commissives, expressives, declarations) but also takes up issues such as indirection, fiction and metaphor. Searle’s Intentionality (1983) completes Searle’s early trilogy together by grounding his theory of speech acts in a theory of mind via intentionality.

Grice, Paul. 1989. Studies in the Way of Words.

Among other things (theories about implicature and conversational maxims), Grice’s work contains an account of meaning at odds with Searle’s.

Blum-Kulka, et. al. 1989. Cross-cultural Pragmatics.

A cross-cultural study of speech acts.

Kasper and Blum-Kulka. 1993. Interlanguage Pragmatics.

A cross-cultural study of speech-acts.

Evans, Donald D. 1963. The Logic of Self-Involvement.

A student of Austin, Evans analyzes the self-involving (i.e., how utterances commit, express, etc.) nature of Christian language concerning creation using Austin’s insights into performative language.


2.1. General Works

Richards, I. A. 1936. The Philosophy of Rhetoric.

The first to propose a “tensive” theory of metaphor, emphasizing the conceptual incompatibility between a metaphor’s two terms.

Black, Max. 1962. Models and Metaphors.

A collection of essays, some of which directly concern metaphors and models, but all of which concern issues pertinent to the philosophy of language. In seeking to answer questions concerning the “logical grammar” of metaphor, the essay “Metaphor” rejects substitution theories of metaphor (metaphors as figurative substitutions for their literal equivalents) in favor of an interaction theory of metaphor. Metaphorical statements involve an interaction between two distinct subjects such that one subject’s system of “associated implications” shifts or extends another subject’s system of associated implications.

Wheelwright, Philip. 1968. Metaphor and Reality. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

After giving an account of language as that by which all of reality is conceptualized and experienced, Wheelwright turns to tensive, metaphorical language, claiming such language more adequate, alive and fluid than “stereotyped” or discursive language. Wheelright then develops notions of symbol and myth as grounded in metaphor, and finally expounds upon the nature of reality as tensive, interpenetrative and perspectival, and therefore best intimated when traditional modes of conceptualizing are supplanted by metaphorical and expressive forms of discourse. See also Wheelwright’s more extensive account of metaphor and symbol, The Burning Fountain: A Study in the Language of Symbolism (1968).

Goodman, Nelson. 1968. Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.

A comprehensive, sophisticated and influential theory of art as symbolic representation (not resemblance). Four “symptoms” characterize aesthetic experience: syntactic density, semantic density, syntactic repleteness and exemplificationality (not denotationality). In declaring, “aesthetic experience is cognitive experience,” Goodman seeks to undermine many commonly accepted differences between science and art, claiming instead that the difference between science and art is “a difference in domination of certain specific characteristics of symbols.” In such a way Goodman intends is work as a prolegomena to a general theory of symbols.

Turbayne, Colin. 1970. The Myth of Metaphor.

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Ricoeur, Paul. 1977. The Rule of Metaphor.

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Ortony, Andrew, ed. 1979. Metaphor and Thought. New York: Cambridge University Press.

A collection of essays dealing with issues in the study of metaphor from philosophical, linguistic, psychological and educational perspectives, divided into two main section, the theoretical (What are metaphors?) and the practical (What are metaphors for?). The bulk of the collection’s essays (but by no means all of the collection’s essays) are written from a constructivist vantage point. Contributers include Max Black, Thomas Kuhn and John Searle.

Scheffler, Israel. 1979. Beyond the Letter: A Philosophical Inquiry into Ambiguity, Vagueness, and Metaphors in Language. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

A philosophically sophisticated and highly technical theoretical account of ambiguity, vagueness and metaphor that seeks to explain these subjects not as deviations from some semantic ideal but as necessary components of language.

Sacks, Sheldon, ed. 1979. On Metaphor.

A collection of essays based on a symposium “Metaphor: the conceptual leap” held at the University of Chicago in 1978. Includes an essay by David Tracy.

Lakoff, Geroge; Johnson, Mark. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff and Johnson’s ground-breaking work argues that metaphors are not merely a matter of (hyperbolic or poetic) language, but rather constitute in large part both the thought processes of humans and conceptual systems of cultures. The bulk of Lakoff and Johnson’s work concerns itself with four interrelated issues: how metaphors are typologized; how metaphors are grounded; how metaphors cohere; and how metaphors are defined. Finally, Lakoff and Johnson tackle the topic of truth, forwarding an experiential, conceptually-relative account of truth in opposition to both objectivist and subjectivist accounts of truth. See 3.4. (Embodied Mind) for Lakoff and Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh.

Lakoff, George; Johnson, Mark. 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh.

Three findings of cognitive science ground Lakoff and Johnson’s work – the mind is inherently embodied, thought is mostly unconscious, abstract concepts are largely metaphorical – findings that, according to Lakoff and Johnson, challenge the foundations of traditional Western philosophy, and therefore warrant a reconstruction of philosophy along empirical-embodied and largely metaphorical lines. After presenting a sophisticated embodied-metaphorical account of language and a conceptually-relative account of truth, Lakoff and Johnson turn first to basic philosophical ideas (time, causation, mind, self and morality), and second to the work of several philosophers (e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Chomsky), in an attempt to provide an embodied cognitive science of philosophical ideas and philosophy.

Davidson, Donald. 1984. “What Metaphors Mean.” in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press.

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2.2. Religious Works

Soskice, Janet Martin. 1985. Metaphor and Religious Language. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

A sophisticated account of religious language as metaphorical, written from an analytical perspective. Taking issue with a good majority of metaphorical approaches toward language (including Ricoeur, Lakoff and Johnson, McFague), Soskice defends a critical realist account of metaphorical and religious language, as well as a pseudo causal theory of reference. While God is not directly describable in terms of religious (theistic) language, God may be “pointed at” linguistically via God’s effects or causes in the world (religious experience). Consequently, as a “speaking of one thing in terms which are seen as suggestive of another,” metaphor plays an important role in religious discourse by providing referential terms for an area of experience that eludes direct description.

McFague, Sallie. 1982. Metaphorical Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

The self-avowed aim of McFague’s work is that of envisioning “ways of talking about the relationship between the divine and the human which are non-idolatrous but relevant,” “ways which can be said to be true without being literal.” Grounded by a Ricoeurian understanding of the metaphor as a tensive is/is-not way of seeing one thing as something else, and a claim that metaphorical indirection is the basis of human thought and language, McFague deconstructs harmful literal ways of imaging and conceptualizing God (especially God as “Father”), offering in their place the non-literal or metaphorical, transformative and culturally-relevant model of personal, relational existence (God as “friend” as exemplified by the life and teachings of Jesus).

Barbour, Ian. 1974. Myths, Models and Paradigms: The Nature of Scientific and Religious Language. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers Inc.

A work written in opposition to both the naïve realism of logical positivism and the instrumentalism of relativistic epistemologies, Myths, Models and Paradigms draws upon the similarities (and differences) between religious and scientific language in order to defend a critical realist account of language. Although Barbour believes no experience un-interpreted, no falsification conclusive and no neutral means to comparing paradigms, he does think the shared aspects of experience do provide the possibility of a comparative theology of dialogue.

Tracy, David. 1981. The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism. New York: Crossroad.

Through the major issue that Tracy’s book addresses is that of pluralism (more specifically, the need to develop a non-relativistic yet non-absolutistic public theology capable of making general religious truth claims), along the way he develops three notions pertinent to the domain of religious language: systematic theology as a hermeneutic enterprise; the phenomena of religion as a classic; and theological language as analogical (similarity-in-difference) language.

Burrell, David. 1973. Analogy and Philosophical Language. New Haven: Yale University Press.

An explication of the views of analogy in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas and Duns Scotus followed by the author’s own modest account of analogical language.


Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953. Philosophical Investigations. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

How is it possible to summarize a work that has been interpreted so variedly? Wittgenstein turns his attention toward “ordinary language,” employing a game-playing metaphor for language, considering the usage, rules and customs that shape and regulate language. For Wittgenstein’s thoughts on religion (as an incommensurable language game?) see: Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief.

Cavell, Stanley. 1979. The Claim of Reason.

Wittgenstein qua skeptic.

Kripke, Saul. 1982. Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language.

A conceptual-relativistic interpretation of Wittgenstein.

Putnam, Hillary. 1992. Renewing Philosophy.

After taking up and refuting several philosophical worldviews (e.g., physicalism, relativism), Renewing Philosophy turns to Wittgenstein’s Lectures on Religious Belief, explicating and dismissing several notions of linguistic incommensurability.

Smart, Ninian. 1958. Reasons and Faiths.

Comparative religious inquiry into the nature of religious doctrines and concepts.

Ramsey, Ian T. 1957. Religious Language: An Empirical Placing of Theological Phrases.

A logical analysis of religious language’s distinctive uses and contexts (e.g., language about God’s attributes, language of the Christian Bible, language of Christian doctrine). See Models for Divine Activity (1973) for Ramsey’s metaphorical approach to religious language.

Zuurdeeg, William. 1961. An Analytical Philosophy of Religion.

An ambitious work that I did not have time to browse. Appears to integrate an analytical philosophy of religion with psycho-social issues of worldview construction.

Nakamura, Hajime. 1964. Ways of Thinking of Eastern People.

A particular community’s “way of thinking,” embedded in its linguistic forms, creates its cultural and cognitive norms (or patterns of rationality). By analyzing the linguistic forms by which judgments and inferences are expressed, Nakamura elucidates the ways of thinking of India, China, Japan and Tibet.

Phillips, D. Z. 1971. “Religious Beliefs and Language Games.” in The Philosophy of Religion (Mitchell, ed.).

Phillips is best known for his defense of so-called fideism in the name of Wittgenstein’s later work. Rationality is constituted by language games. There is no way of getting outside of a language game to determine what is and is not factual. See Kai Nielsen (Logical Positivism section) for a critique of Phillip’s fideism.

Winch, Peter. 1967. “Understanding a Primitive Society.” in Religion and Understanding (D. Z. Phillips, ed.).

A Wittgensteinian approach to anthropology. The limiting notions of particular cultures, embedded in language, bestow a sense of reality upon the world.

High, Dallas. see below.

Language, Persons and Belief (1967) contains an explication of Wittgenstein, followed by an analysis of religious belief (belief as performance, belief in, belief that, and reasons for belief (High opposes fideism)). New Essays on Religious Language (1969) contains essays on religious language that explore the “second phase” of twentieth-century philosophy of language – viz. philosophy of language influenced by Wittgenstein that moves beyond verification-falsification to consider the actual uses of religious language.

Hudson, Donald. see below.

After a short summary of Wittgenstein’s life, Wittgenstein and Religious Belief (1975) takes up three themes: Wittgenstein and the mystical, Wittgenstein and verificationism, and Wittgenstein on religious belief. Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Bearing of his Philosophy on Religious Belief (1968), a short work from the Makers of Contemporary Theology series, appears to be a decent work on the religious dimensions of Wittgenstein’s writings.

Vesey, G. N. A., ed. 1969. Talk of God.

The 1967-1968 Royal Institute of Philosophy lectures, most of which take up the issue of veridicality in religious language. A partial list of participants includes John Hick, Paul Ricoeur, Frederick C. Copleston, Charles Hartshorne, Ian Ramsey, Ninian Smart and John Wisdom.

Gilkey, Langdon 1969. Naming the Whirlwind: The Renewal of God Language. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company.

Gilkey’s work proceeds in two main directions. First, it expounds, assesses and critiques the challenge to God-talk (or theistic theology) brought by logical positivism, death of God theology and secularism. Secondly, it forwards two modest proposals: a secularly relevant religious language of ultimacy; and a Christian discourse about God grounded in the notion of ultimacy.

Durrant, Michael. 1973. The Logical Status of “God”. London: The MacMillan Press, LTD.

Investigation into the logical status of God with a view toward determining the function of predication in “God is . . .” sentences (e.g., God is good). Durrant concludes that it is impossible to offer a coherent account of the logical status of God.

Lindbeck, George. 1984. The Nature of Doctrine.

A cultural-linguistic theory of religious language influenced by later Wittgenstein, and championed over and against both cognitive-propositional and experiential-expressivist accounts of religious language. Religious doctrines as intrasystematic rules rather than propositional truth claims; religious experience as derivative of religious language.

Franklin, Stephen T. 1990. Speaking From the Depths.

A Whiteheadian account of religious language, motivated by a desire to explain how human language can speak of God, and grounded by an attempt to view religious language within a larger metaphysical context.

Stromberg, Peter. 1993. Language and Self-Transformation.

In this text, the author utilizes the example of conversion narratives among American Evangelicals to dispute essentialist theories of language and subjectivity. With regard to language, Stromberg wishes to problematize the 'common sense' referential theory of language, where language is seen to stand in for external reality and convey meaning in some ideal realm. Drawing upon the later Wittgenstein, pragmatism, and speech-act theory, Stromberg insists that referential meaning 1) is in constant negotiation within the social context, 2) does provide something of a foundation through "patterns of use," but 3) must be seen in a dialectic with contextual, "constitutive" performance (e.g., a gesture or facial expression). A ritual promotes the movement of this dialectic through its employment of canonical and metaphorical communication: "as the canonical becomes constitutive, aspects of religious symbolism comes to be real for believers as the metaphoric becomes referential, heretofore mysterious behaviors come to be replaced by religious convictions" (14). The shifts along this axis represent moments of transformation and these moments are documented in the ritual performance of conversion narratives in this text. Stromberg argues that the 'common sense' view of language (and its problems) is not the sole province of academic inquiry. The view is a "referential ideology" and all language-users (English users) must negotiate its problems. The "referential ideology" presupposes a "core self," that abiding entity which 'means' what it says and has clear and persistent intention (say, a 'mind'). And yet this presupposition is constantly challenged, particularly when experience crosses the boundaries of clear reference and discernible intention. According to Stromberg, the conversion narrative is a ritual whereby a "particular social reality" is created through the use of canonical and metaphorical communication; "in the case of the conversion this social reality is a particular identity" (16). The double move of canonical and metaphorical communication conditions a social reality which is self-integration; this process (and its goal) is compared to what occurs in psychodynamic therapy. In his middle chapters, Stromberg explores the 'Character and Intention' of his subjects and their conceptions of 'Dreams,' 'Miracles,' and 'Roles' to reach his conclusion. (bh)

Lawson, E. Thomas; McCauley, Robert N. 1990. Rethinking Religion: Connection Cognition and Culture. Cambridge University Press.

Lawson and McCauley take religion as a case of symbolic-cultural systems. Their balanced account first describes symbolist, intellectualist, and structuralist theories of religious actions, but criticizes them for their over-emphasis on semantics. Later the authors offer an appraisal of speech-act/performative theory, ritual as a system of communication, and generative linguistics, noting the value and shortcomings of each. In the case of generative linguistics, the authors are skeptical that a syntactical/sequential interpretation will match up precisely with the religious acts in question. Nevertheless, according to Lawson and McCauley the combination of the syntactic, strategic move of generative linguistics and the semantic, "substantive" move of earlier theories is the sythesis which is crucial for an appropriate (and culturally specific) account of religion. (bh)

Rhees, Rush. 1997. Rush Rhees on Religion and Philosophy.

Essays on religion and philosophy by one of Wittgenstein’s more notable students.


4.1. Background Works

Noth, Winfried. 1990. Handbook of Semiotics. Indiana University Press.

A broad, detailed and “pluralistic” (insofar as it tends not to define and delimit) survey of the field of semiotics. Individual chapters are devoted to such topics as the history of semiotics, signs, semiosis, code, structuralism, text semiotics, etc. An invaluable resource, though sometimes its pluralistic approach constitutes not only its strength but also its weakness.

Harvey, Sandor. 1982. Semiotic Perspectives. London: Allen and Unwin.

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Krampen, Martin, ed. Classics of Semiotics.

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4.2. General Works

de Saussure, Ferdinand. 1983. Course in General Linguistics. Chicago and La Salle: Open Court.

A synthesis and reconstitution of Saussure’s course on general linguistics (offered on three separate occasions in the early 1900’s at the University of Geneva) compiled from the lecture notes of several of his students. In the lectures Saussure pioneered a new approach to the discipline of linguistics founded upon two insights: First, language was conceived primarily as a system of signs (langue) rather than as individual speech acts (parole); Secondly, signs were understood as an arbitrary link between signifier and signified, in difference or contrast with other signs in a semiotic system. Saussure called his new approach to signs semiology, a term that now serves to distinguish European schools of sign study from the semiotic approach of American schools of sign study.

Peirce, Charles Sanders Peirce, Pierce on Signs. 1991. University of North Carolina Press.

This collection of Peircian writings on semiotics unfortunately omits Peirce’s essay “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs” (see Philosophical Writings of Peirce (Dover Publications, 1995)), an essay that takes up the triadic nature of meaning (signs, objects, intrepretants) and the triadic nature of signs (icon, index, symbol). Several of the essays in Peirce on Signs do, however, concern themselves with both the semiotic nature of thought, the incessant task of interpretation (“unlimited semiosis”), and a realist theory of reference (in particular see Peirce’s three essays from the “Cognition Series,” viz. “Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Men,” “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” and “Grounds of Validity of the Laws of Logic”).

Barthes, Roland. 1972. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang.

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Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1983. Structural Anthropology. University of Chicago Press.

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Jakobson, Roman. The Selected Writings of Roman Jakobson.

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Eco, Umberto. 1984. Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

In Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language Eco seeks to reconcile two seemingly incompatible approaches to semiotics: Saussure’s dyadic sign and Peirce’s triadic process of (umlimited) semiosis. In so doing Eco argues (based upon the history of semiotics and philosophy of language) that the “semiotic process of interpretation is present at the very core of the concept of sign.” In other words, the sign should be understood as an inferential or interpretive process (not as equivalence or identity), best represented by the model of the encyclopedia (rather than the dictionary). Finally, although semiosis is in principle unlimited, interpretation of signs always aims to get at that for which signs stand, and arrives at this real, “dynamic object” in an inter-subjective community of interpretation. For more on Eco’s theory of semiotics, see A Theory of Semiotics (1976).

Hodge, R.; Kress, G. 1989. Social Semiotics.

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Threadgold, T. 1986. Semiotics—Ideology-Language

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Scholes. 1982. Semiotics and Interpretation.

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4.3. Religious Works

Tillich, Paul. 1957. The Dynamics of Faith. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Chapter III contains a concise, though unsophisticated, exposition of religious symbols. Unlike arbitrary signs that merely point to or signify, religious symbols participate in the reality to which they point. Though symbols can express religious truth as ultimate concern, insofar as they are finite they can do so only imperfectly or non-literally. Religious symbols therefore are broken.

Neville, Robert. 1996. The Truth of Broken Symbols. Albany: State University of New York Press.

A sophisticated analysis of religious symbols founded upon Peircian semiotics, and written in opposition to cultural-linguistic and instrumentalist approaches to religious language such as George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine. Succinctly stated, Neville’s hypothesis is his title, viz. religious symbols are both true and broken. Though religious symbols are true insofar as they refer to or carryover value from religious referents (the infinite/finite contrast or boundary conditions of a socially-constructed nomos), religious symbols are also finite or broken and therefore cannot (and must not) be literally identified with the divine. Neville also spends considerable time analyzing both the meaning-structure of religious symbols (how religious symbols are interpreted and referred both extensionally to other symbols within semiotic systems and intentionally in acts of actual interpretation) and the three contexts within which religious symbols are interpreted (theological, practically, devotional).

4.4. Myth and Symbol

Jung, Carl, ed. 1964. Man and His Symbols. Doubleday & Company Inc.

A collection of essays by Jung and four of his closest followers, planned, supervised and edited by Jung in the final year of his life. Designed with the “general reader” in mind, the essays take up various facets of the unconscious, the structure of the unconscious (archetypes), the language of the unconscious (symbols), and the means by which the unconscious communicates (dreams).

Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God, 4 vols. (vol 1: Primitive Mythology, 1959; vol. 2: Oriental Mythology, 1962; vol. 3: Occidental Mythology, 1964; vol. 4: Creative Mythology, 1968).

A comprehensive comparative study of mythology and symbolism, founded upon a belief in “the fundamental unity of the spiritual history of mankind.” Campbell first turns inward toward the human psyche to locate the “structures or dynamic tendencies” that explain the origins of myth. He then looks to the symbolic forms of mythology in primitive cultures (vol. 1), oriental cultures (vol. 2), occidental cultures (vol. 3), and modern or “creative” cultures (vol. 4), interpreting the different myths and rites of different cultures as expression of a universal human nature/psychology. Also see The Mythic Image (1974) for Campbell’s Jungian approach to religious symbolism and myth.


5.1. Background Works

Mueller-Vollmer, Kurt. 1985. The Hermeneutics Reader. New York: Continuum.

A very good general introduction to hermeneutics in the German tradition, followed by primary sources of Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Husserl, Heidegger, Gadamer, and Habermas (among others).

5.2. General Works

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. (lectures on hermeneutics)

The founder of modern hermeneutics. Hermeneutics illuminates the conditions for the possibility of understanding and the understanding’s modes of interpretation. Understanding is an activity analogous to that of speaking, for both derive from humankind’s capacity for speech (or linguisticality). Understanding consists of a twofold process: (1) the understanding of an expression in terms of its relationship to its linguistic system; (2) the understanding of an expression as part of a speaker’s life-process (or mental history). Corresponding to these two sides of understanding are two distinct tasks of interpretation: (1) grammatical interpretation; (2) psychological interpretation.

Dilthey, William. On the Construction of the Historical World in the Human Sciences.

Dilthey’s hermeneutic interest stems from an attempt to provide a philosophical foundation and methodology for the human sciences (which he believed were separate and distinct from the natural sciences, and therefore could not borrow methods from them, as the positivists believed). Ultimately, Dilthey rejects Schleiermacher’s notion of understanding, asserting that understanding is rooted in the process of human life itself (rather than in linguisticality). Understanding is a “category of life”; human beings constantly attempt to “understand” their environment (and react in light of such understanding).

Husserl, Edmund. Logical Investigations.

The aim of Husserl’s Logical Investigations is that of providing the phenomenological conditions for the possibility of meaning (both verbal and nonverbal). For Husserl meaning consists in the coincidence of intention and intuition, i.e., when the intended meaning (or intended object) of an intentional act is fulfilled (or intuited), that intentional act is phenomenologically meaningful, and consequently corresponds to some objective utterance (or object).

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time.

For Heidegger phenomenology and hermeneutics coincide insofar as both are attempts to uncover and interpret the “Being” of Dasein. Moreover, insofar as human beings are that type of being who attempts to uncover and interpret their existence, human beings are fundamentally hermeneutical creatures. Understanding is a primordial mode of human existence (as “Being-in-the-world”), the means by which human beings project possibilities into the future. Individual acts of understanding are grounded in this fundamental mode of understanding. All forms of interpretation in the human sciences are grounded in the understanding, and in fact are nothing but the explication of that which has already been understood. For interpretation occurs within a given horizon of pre-understanding (or “hermeneutical circle”).

Heidegger, Martin. On the Way to Language (1952); Poetry, Language, Thought (1971).

Heidegger’s later work on language – enigmatic and neologistic mediations on Being transposed into the domain of language. In Heidegger’s words, “language is the house of Being,” a “saying” that “shows” or discloses authentic being insofar as it does not reify Being as beings.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 1965. Truth and Method.

Hermeneutics is a “fusion of horizons,” the uniting of the horizons of the interpreter and interpretant. Understanding therefore is historical in nature; interpretations of the past occur from within the interpreter’s own historical situatedness, and therefore necessarily involve cultural prejudice. Consequently, the interpreter’s horizon (which is constituted by tradition, a historical chain of interpretations) should be made the object of hermeneutic study. (Gadamer referred to such awareness of the interpreter’s horizon or cultural prejudices as “effective-historical consciousness”.)

Ricoeur, Paul. 1976. Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press.

A series of lectures delivered by Ricoeur in 1973 at Texas Christian University that attempt a comprehensive philosophy of language grounded upon an understanding of language as discourse and a distinction between semantics and semiotics. For Ricoeur, human discourse, the “event” of language, is ontologically prior to the “virtuality of the system,” and alone gives actuality to language. With writing, however, the event of discourse is separated from the semantics of the sentence; yet nevertheless, the text discloses a world, a mode of being in the world -- the reference of the text. Also notable in these lectures is Ricoeur’s treatment of metaphor as a “tensive use of language,” a signification of both “is and is not” that creates a “surplus of signification” above and beyond literal signification. For more on Ricoeur’s tensive-semantic theory of metaphor, including his designation of metaphor as “impertinent predication,” see The Rule of Metaphor (1977).

5.3. Religious Works

MacQuarrie, John. 1967. God Talk: An Examination of the Language and Logic of Theology. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

MacQuarrie begins with the premise that the problems of God-talk (or theological language) are not problems specific to or caused by logical positivism and the scientific method but rather are the result of the decline of animistic-type religions (or the withdrawal of the gods from the sensible world). Focusing particularly on the problem of speaking about the infinite in terms of the finite, MacQuarrie applies a Heideggerian account of language as openness to being-in-the-world to theological language, dubbing the formal character or “basic logic” of theological discourse an “existential-ontological language.” Finally, MacQuarrie applies his general notion of theological language to different particular types of theological language (mythology, symbolism, analogy, paradox, and empirical language, expounding the salient features of theology’s various dialects and logics.

6. POWER ANALYSES (Post-Structuralism, Feminism, Critical Linguistics)

6.1. Post-Structuralism

Lacan, Jacques. Ecriture (1977); Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis (1981)

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Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology (1976), Speech and Phenomena (1973), Writing and Difference (1978).

Derrida’s early (1967) works on language as difference. Of Grammatology contains both the claim that language is best characterized as writing (since writing is marked by the absence of both authorial intention and referential fullness), and that philosophy and semiology (Saussure, Rousseau and Levi-Strauss are Derrida’s favorite targets here) have consistently attempted to reduce or negate difference via some notion of complete presence. Speech and Phenomena continues the attack on a metaphysics of presence, turning to Husserl’s theory of signs. Here Derrida contends it is not the coincidence of intention and intuition that constitutes meaning (as Husserl argued in The Logical Investigations); rather the absence of both authorial intention and referential intuition are essential to the structure of signification and the possibility of meaning. Finally, Writing and Difference contains eleven essays on a whole host of topics pertinent to language qua writing as difference. Accessible introductions to Derrida’s early thought are contained in the essay “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” in Writing and Difference and the essay “Difference” in Speech and Phenomena. Although the concept of difference does play a major role in Derrida’s early writings (as that which is not, yet is the origin or production of differences), the notion that presence must function as the horizon or condition of language (although it is not and will never be – in Derrida’s words univocity is an “impossible possibility”) is either absent or muted in Derrida’s early works.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge.

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Pickstock, Catherine. 1998. After Writing: On Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy. Malden: Blackwell Publishers.

A postmodern, radical orthodox rehabilitation of both Plato and medieval Christianity as liturgical or doxological philosophy: “Language exists primarily, and in the end only has meaning as, the praise of the divine.”

6.2. Feminism

6.2.1. Feminism: Background Works

Cameron, Deborah, ed. The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader (New York: Routledge, 1998).

As Cameron notes in the preface to her reader The Feminist Critique of Language was compiled and edited with two aims in mind, that of providing a historical overview of twentieth-century feminist ideas about language, and that of offering an orientation to major debates in the current study of feminist linguistics. Though the book is split into three sections -- speech and silence: the quest for women’s voices in culture; representations: sexist language and sexist discourse; and talking gender: dominances, difference, and performance -- a good majority of the essays take up one of two debates concerning difference: Is women’s language significantly different from that of men (and if so, how)?; To what extent does women’s language differ within itself? It is the final debate, a debate that pits essentialism against difference, that Cameron spends much time with in her introductory essay, concluding that although significant differences do exist between, for example, black, lesbian and middle-class women, the common concerns of and productive dialogue between all women make it possible to defend and continue some notion of the feminist critique of language.

Cameron, Deborah. “Gender, Language and Discourse: A Review,” Signs (Cameron, ed., 1998).

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Mary Eagleton, Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader (1996); Pam Morris, Feminism and Literature (1993); Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, New French Feminisms (1981).

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6.2.2. Feminism: General Works

de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex (1949).

A classic (feminist critique of patriarchy and the Church) – despite much criticism directed toward both her assertion “one is not born a woman, one becomes a woman” and her belief that women should strive to be equal to rather than different from men.

Arendt, Hanah. The Human Condition (1958).

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Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman (1985), This Sex Which Is Not One (1985), Je, Tu, Nous: Toward a Culture of Difference (1993).

Irigaray is known, among other things, for her emphasis of the difference between men and women, her resistance of essentialism (with respect to women), and her attempt to locate feminist discourse outside of the logic of discursive (male) discourse (language as we know it, according to Irigaray, is inherently masculine). Steeped in psychoanalysis and deconstruction, her works are dense, difficult and jargon-laden. “Questions” (an interview) in This Sex Which Is Not One is an accessible overview of her thought; Je tu, nous is remarkably lucid; and both “Equal to Whom?” (Differences: A Journal of French Feminist Cultural Studies, ½, 1989), Irigaray’s rebutal of Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza’a In Memory of Her, and “Divine Women” (Sexes and Geneologies) directly broach the issue of religious language.

Kristeva, Julia. see below.

Like The Kristeva Reader (1986), we can divide Kristeva’s writings into two categories, on the one hand, “Linguistics, Semiotics, Textuality,” on the other hand, “Women, Psychoanalysis, Politics.” Kristeva’s work within the later category emphasizes the linguistic implications of male/female differences. The aforementioned The Kristeva Reader is not a bad place to start, containing several essays on women and language. Although New Maladies of the Soul (1995) primarily deals with new directions in psychoanalysis, the final essay “Women’s Time” takes up issues of women and language. While a brilliant essay about psychoanalysis and faith, one that contains a rather concise exposition of Kristeva’s philosophy of language, In The Beginning Was Love (1987) does not deal expressly in feminist linguistics. Finally, Language The Unknown: An Initiation into Linguistics (1989) is a fabulous, mostly historical introduction to linguistics.

Lakoff, Robin. Language and Woman’s Place (1975).

Deborah Cameron hails it as a “classic,” the first work of feminist linguistics, though it has recently come under considerable critique for its assumption that women’s language is a special or deviant case.

6.2.3. Feminism: Religious Works

Trible, Phyllis. God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (1978).

Though this feminist critique, exposition and reconstruction of certain Biblical passages is probably not suited to our interests, Trible’s work constitutes one of the first feminist works on religious language.

Daly, Mary. Webster’s First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language (Harper SanFrancisco, 1987).

Although nearly all of Daly’s work aims to free “words from the cages and prisions of patriarchal patterns,” her Wickedary takes up this aim explicitly, thoroughly and (oh so) creatively. After a “preliminary web” of feminist takes on spelling, grammar and pronunciation, Daly provides a nearly two-hundred page lexicon (“wickedary” not “dick-tionary”) of feminist terms gleaned from both her own work and the work of other feminist writers.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (1983).

Ruether’s work revolves around the recovery and revalorization of biblical and other sacred resources in accordance with a feminist hermeneutic. Sexism and God-Talk draws from many different biblical-textual, historical and cultural sources in reconstructing feminist symbols for both the divine (as God/ess) and the themes of woman/body/nature.

Schussler-Fiorenza, Elisabeth. See below.

Most of Schussler-Fiorenza’s work has been done within the field of feminist biblical interpretation, and though it does constitute a historical-textual reconstruction of the language and semantics of the Christian tradition, it does not concern language per se (see: In Memory of Her (1983), Bread Not Stones (1984), But She Said (1992), Sharing Her Word (1998), Rhetoric and Ethic (1999)). Feminist Theology and Different Contexts, a series of essays edited by Schussler-Fiorenza, explores just what its title states -- feminist theologies of liberation in different religious, geographical and theoretical contexts -- and may be of use for just that reason. Finally, The Power of Naming: A Concilium Reader in Feminist Liberation Theology looks enticing, but I was not able to locate it.

Grace M. Jantzen, Becoming Divine: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion (1999).

Although chapter eight concerns language directly, a feminist critique of language permeates Grace’s entire work (which she envisions as paving the way to a “new religious symbolic,” that of natality and flourishing). Jantzen is perhaps best at her critique of the God beyond all names, a God who nonetheless is all too often described positively using masculine language. See also: Jantzen’s Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism for a feminist critique of mysticism and ineffability.

Rebecca Chopp, Rebecca. The Power to Speak: Feminism, Language, God (1989).

I’ve read good things about Chopp’s work, but have not had a chance to peruse it.

Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (1992).

An exploration of feminist symbols for God, grounded by a recognition that all symbols of the divine -- feminist symbols included -- are metaphorical at best.

6.3. Critical Linguistics

Fairclough, Norman. 1989. Language and Power.

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Fairclough, Norman. 1992. Critical Language Awareness.

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Fairclough, Norman. 1995. Critical Discourse Analysis.

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Fowler, Roger; Hodge, Bob; Kress, Gunther; Trew, Tony, eds. 1979. Language and Control. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

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Fowler, Roger. 1981. Literature as Social Discourse: The Practice of Linguistic Criticism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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Fowler, Roger. 1986. Linguistic Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press.

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Kramarae, Cheris; Schulz, Muriel; O’Barr, William M., eds. 1984. Language and Power. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.

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Kress, Gunther; Hodge, Robert. 1979. Language as Ideology. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

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Mey, Jacob L. 1985. Whose Language? Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

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Sells, Michael. 1994. Mystical Languages of Unsaying. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

One of the few (perhaps the only) comparative grammatical analyses of apophasis in existence, Sells' work represents a fresh, new perspective on the age-old topic of mysticism and language. Sells' thesis is that apophasis is an inherently instable language, one that breaks down the logic and semantic structures of ordinary language, constantly turning back upon itself in an effort to undo itself or "unsay." At the very same time, however, apophasis is a distinctive literary mode that possesses its own logic and grammar, a common set of conventions shared cross-culturally by certain Western mystics (Plotinus, John the Scot Eriugena, Ibn 'Arabi, Marguerite Poerte and Meister Eckhart). Via such conventions apophasis performs, rather than asserts, mystery, ineffability or referential openness.



1.1. Christian Mystics

This list may strike some as considerably arbitrary (and either way too short or way too long). I tried to pick out those Christian mystics who make extremely creative use of language, noting others briefly. Invariably, however, I may have under-emphasized (or missed altogether) some mystics and over-emphasized others. (For a quick and easy (though outdated) history of Christian mysticism, see the appendix of Eveyln Underhill’s Mysticism. For a detailed history of Christian mysticism, see Bernard McGinn’s Presence of God: A History of Christian Mysticism, 4 vols. (vol. 1: The Foundations of Mysticism: Origins to the Fifth Century (1994); vol. 2: The Growth of Mysticism: Gregory the Great through the 12th Century (1996); vol. 3: The Flowering of Mysticism: Mean and Women in the New Mysticism (1200-1350) (1998); vol. 4: yet to be published).

Plotinus, The Enneads.

Of course, Plotinus was not a Christian mystic. However, it was Plotinus who in many ways influenced larges expanses of not only Christian but also Jewish and Sufi mysticism. The fifth and sixth enneads are most relevant to issues involving language (the ineffability of the one), especially the following sections: 5.3, 5.5, 6.8, 6.9.

Pseudo-Dionysius: Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works (New York: Paulist Press, 1987).

Now believed to be a sixth-century Syrian monk, Pseudo-Dionysius is most creative and systematic in his integration of Neo-Platonism and Christianity (for other late ancient - early medieval Neo-Platonic-Christian accounts of language, see: Augustine’s Confessions, Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy; John Scotus Eriugena's Periphyseon; Bonaventure’s The Journey of the Mind to God). Two works within this collection are of particular importance. The Divine Names, within the context of the question: “How may we speak of the divine names?” (given the Transcendent’s ineffability and incomprehensibility), explicates a series of positive, conceptual names of God, ending with a recognition that God eludes all names, concepts and expressions. And The Mystical Theology, a terse and dense work, constitutes Pseudo-Dionysius’ methodology in a nutshell. Affirmations about the divine, arranged in decreasing order of importance or accuracy, are systematically denied in reverse order. God is beyond not only affirmation but denial as well. The following commentaries on Pseudo-Dionysius were recommended to me: Pseudo-Dionysius by Paul Rorem (1993); and The Unknown God: Negative Theology in the Platonic Tradition: Plato to Eriugena by Deirdre Carabine.

Meister Eckhart. See below.

Fourteenth-century German mystic. I am only familiar with Eckhart’s more well-known works (e.g., three of his German Sermons (6, 48, 52), and his Commentary on the Book of Wisdom (7:27a)), all of which can be found in the following two works from The Classics of Western Spirituality series: Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises and Defenses (1981); Meister Eckhart: Teacher and Preacher (1986).

Other 14th century mystics (all of whom have works dedicated to their lives and writings in The Classics of Western Spirituality series) include: John Ruusbroec, the unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Jullian of Norwich, John Tauler, Henry Suso.

The Beguines. See below.

The mystical-love poetry of this medieval women's order (later declared heretical by the Church) is breathtaking: Margaret Poerte (whose The Mirror of Simple Souls played an important role in the "Free Spirit” movement/heresy and may have also influenced Eckhart); Hadewijch (the following work looks promising: Poetry of Hadewijch, Marieke van Boest, 1998); Mechthild of Magdeburg.

The Spanish mystics. See below.

I probably should not forget to mention both Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, though I am not familiar with their work, and have not heard about any terribly interesting uses of language in their work (save Teresa's crafty, proto-feminist rhetoric).

Finally, two later German mystics influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius, both of whom make creative use of language (particularly the identification or reconciliation of opposites): Nicholas of Cusa (Of Learned Ignorance); Jacob Boehme (Jacob Boehme: The Way to Christ).

1.2. Jewish Mystics

Though the medieval Kabbalists Abraham Abulafia and Moses de Leon probably utilize language most creatively, the following is a cursory overview of Jewish mysticism:

Scholem, Gershom. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism.

The classic history and exposition of Jewish mysticism.

Blumenthall, David. Understanding Jewish Mysticism: A Source Reader; Volume One: The Merkabah Tradition and the Zohar Tradition (1978); Volume Two: The Philosophic-Mystical Tradition and the Hasidic Tradition (1982).

Another tremendous history and exposition of Jewish mysticism. Unlike Scholem’s work, above, Blumenthall’s includes primary texts.

Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment (in The Classics of Western Spirituality series); Zohar: The Book of Splendor by Gershom Scholem (1949).

Excerpts from the Zohar, putatively written by Moses de Leon.

Ideal, Moshe. Language, Truth and Hermeneutics in Abraham Abulafia (1989).

For Abraham Abulafia's theory of language

Scholem, Gershom. On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism (1965).

This book treats the issue of language in Jewish mysticism.

1.3. Sufi Mystics

The most philosophically interesting account of language by a Sufi is probably that of the 12th-13th century "theosophical" Sufi Ibn Al 'Arabi. (Rumi, of course, should also be noted for his poetical use of language.) Neo-Platonism does not have an influence on Sufism until the so-called later period of Sufism (after Hallaj (9th-10th century), if not later). Until then, Sufis do not seem very concerned with the theoretical status or role of language (although remembrance (dhikr) of the divine names is, from Sufism’s very origins, of utmost importance). Nonetheless, here is a cursory overview:

Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam.

The classic treatment of Sufism   

Arberry, A. J. Attar's Muslim Saints and Mystics

A Persian treatises on Sufism containing anecdotes about many early Sufis.

Nicholson, R. A. Kashf al-Mahjub of Hujwiri.

A Persian treatises on Sufism containing anecdotes about many early Sufis.

Al Ghazzali would probably make for some interesting reading on this subject, though I have not had time to peruse his writings. The following works have been suggested: W. M. Watt's The Faith and Practice of al-Ghazzali; Watt's Muslim Intellectual: A Study of al-Ghazzali; R. McCarthy's Freedom and Fulfillment; N. Heer's "Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali's Esoteric Exegesis of the Koran," Classical Persian Sufism: from its Origins to Rumi, L. Lewisohn, ed.

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For primary writings of and commentary on Ibn Al' Arabi, see any of the following: Ibn Al ' Arabi: The Bezels of Wisdom, in The Classics of Western Spirituality series; William Chittick's The Self-Disclosure of God: Principles of Ibn al'Arabi's Cosmology; and Chittick's The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-Arabi's Metaphysics of Immagination.

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For the primary writings of and commentary on Jalal al-Din Rumi, see the following: Chittick's The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi: The Essential Rumi.

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1.4. Buddhism

Not my area of expertise, but here are some interesting texts to consult:

Early Sources: The Milindapanha (contained in The Sourcebook of Indian Philosophy, pp. 281-284).

This contains an interesting account of annata.

Mahayana Sutras: Early Mahayana sutras on emptiness: The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines and Its Verse Summary, Edward Conze, trans.; The Lotus Sutra, Watson Burton, trans.; The Teaching of Vimalakirti, Etienne Lamotte, trans.

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The Madhyamika Philosophical School, especially Nagarjuna, a master of the rhetoric of emptiness: The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika, Jay L. Garfield, ed. (1995); The Literature of the Madhyamika School of Philosophy in India, D.S. Ruegg (1981); "Does the Madhyamika have a Philosophical Thesis?," D.S. Ruegg, in Buddhist Logic and Epistemology, Matilal and Evans, eds. (1986).

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Zen/Ch'an: "The Platform Sutra of the Fifth Patriarch" is contained in The Sourcebook of Chinese Philosophy

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The Kyoto School: 20th century Zen Buddhists: An Inquiry Into the Good, Kitaro Nishida; Religion and Nothingness, Keiji Nishitani

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1.5. Hinduism (the same caveat applies as did with Buddhism!)

The Upanishads.

Most all of the ten or fourteen principle Upanishads employ language creatively, especially the Isa, Chandogya, and Brhadaranyaka Upanishads

Bhartrihari: 5th century Indian grammarian with a rather positive view of language. See any of the following: On Sentence and Word (Vakyapadiya) by Bhartriharti; The Vakyapadiya of Bhartriharti by K.A.S. Iyer (1965, 1973); The Word and the World by Bimal Krishna Matilal (1990).

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Sankara: 8th-9th century Indian philosopher, and the chief exponent of Advaita Vedanta. His commentaries on both the Upanishads and the Bhrama Sutra are the best places to start. See the following: A. J. Alston’s Samkara on the Absolute: A Samkara Source-Book (chapter three “Knowledge of the Absolute” presents Sankara’s “negative theology”); Natalia Isayeva, Sankara and Indian Philosophy (chapter four “Pure Bhraman as Consciousness: Apophatic Theology and the Problem of Contradiction” looks interesting).

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1.6. Taoism

"The names that can be named are not the eternal name," or so my translation of the Tao Te Ching reads. In addition to early Taoism’s (Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu) emphasis on the ineffability of the Tao, its problematization and transvaluation of both Confucian moral distinctions and the Logician's logic-chopping rules make it a very interesting case study in creative uses of (religious) language.

1.7. Native American (Navajo)

In the course of my research I came across references to two works on Navajo language.

G. Witherspoon, Language and Art in the Navajo Nation (1977).

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Sam D. Gill, Sacred Words: A Study of Navajo Religion and Prayer (1981).

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2.1. Mid Twentieth-Century Perennialist Accounts of Mystical Language (and Rebuttals)

W. T. Stace, Time and Eternity (1952); Mysticism and Philosophy (1960).

Mysticism and Philosophy provides an interesting perennialist account of mystical language, one that generated a good deal of academic response. Although mysticism is an experience of undifferentiated unity (and therefore wholly unconceptualizable and wholly unspeakable), Stace is concerned to give an account of why mystics have a difficult time expressing even remembered mystical experience. His account runs something as follows: Although mystics usually attempt to describe their experiences literally (not metaphorically), mystical experience is inherently paradoxical, therefore, descriptions of mystical experiences are either partial at best or appear to violate the laws of logic (language must obey the laws of logic, one cannot assert both x and -x at the same time).

William Alston, "Ineffability," Philosophical Review 65 (1956).

A fictitious debate between a skeptic and a mystic regarding in what sense "ineffability" can be considered a predicate of God. The skeptic has the last word: "We must make explicit the sorts of conception, predication, characterization, and so forth we are asserting to be impossible with respect to God in contrast to the sorts we are admitting to be possible. To label something ineffable in an unqualified way is to shirk the job of making explicit the ways in which it can be talked about." For more on Alston’s philosophy of mystical language, see Alston's entry in Steven Katz's Mysticism and Language. For Alston’s more general work on religion and the philosophy of language, see “Can We Speak Literally of God?” (in Is God God?, 1981), Divine Nature and Human Language (1989), and Perceiving God (1991).

Richard Gale, “Mysticism and Philosophy,” The Journal of Philosophy 57 (1960).

Another critique of Stace’s use of the term “ineffability.”

Paul Henle, “Mysticism and Semantics,” Philosophy and Phenomenoligical Research IX (1948-1949); Pletcher, Galen K. “Mysticism, Contradiction and Ineffability,” American Philosophical Quarterly X (1973).

Both constitute attempts to show how a contradictory set of statements might be true.

Huston Smith, Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition (1976).

Language is inherently limited (unable to refer to the Infinite), a component of our fallen nature; the right brain, therefore, must remain language free.

2.2. The Katz/Forman Literature

Though this list does not include all of Katz’s and Forman’s work, it does include their work most relevant to mystical language.

Mysticism and Language, Steven T. Katz, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1992).

Almost everything in this collection is worth reading. Here, however, are a few essays more pertinent to language:

·         "Mystical Speech and Mystical Meaning," Steven T. Katz, pp. 3 - 41. A survey of the many positive uses of language by mystics: language as transformational; language as sacred; language as power; language as information. "Whatever else the world's mystics do with language, they do not, as a rule, merely negate it."

·         "Literal and Nonliteral in Reports of Mystical Experience," Willaim P. Alston, pp. 80 - 102. An account of the literal uses of language in reports of mystical experience.

·         "Mysticism and Ineffability: Some Issues of Logic and Language," Bimal Krishna Matilal, pp. 143 - 157. The essay rambles about, exploring ineffability from different philosophical-analytical angles. Searle's illocutionary force negations eventually ground an account of ineffability as non-asserted statements.

Mysticism and Philosophy, Steven T. Katz, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978)

This collection contains fewer essays the deal expressly with mystical language.

·         "Mystical Literature," Carl A. Keller, pp. 75 - 100. On the gap that separates linguistic expression from experience, the inaccessibility of charting a passage from the text to the experience, and the consequent necessity of concentrating scholarly efforts on the study of mystical language.

·         "Language and Mystical Awareness," Frederick J. Streng, pp. 414 - 169. Language serves different functions in reports of mystical experiences depending upon underlying conceptions of ultimate reality (viz. if reality is conceived of as transcendent, language has a negative descriptive function, but if reality is conceived of as immanent, language has a positive, transformational function).

·         "Intuition and the Inexpressible," Renford Bambrough, pp. 200 - 213. Understanding is often inarticulate, but that is not to say it is not understanding: There is no permanently insoluble problem, no permanently unanswerable question.

Wayne Proudfoot, Religious Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

Along with Steven Katz’s early work on mystical experience, Wayne Proudfoot’s Religious Experience lays the foundation of the contextualist (constructivist?) program in religious studies. Like Katz, Proudfoot takes aim at the claim that experience – be it of the mystical or religious type – is unmediated, a claim that Proudfoot locates in the work of theorists such as Schleiermacher, James and Otto. Such a claim, according to Proudfoot, is employed merely as a protective strategy, a means of precluding inquiry and staving off demands for justification from outside of the religious life (xv).

Four lines of argumentation serve as support for Proudfoot’s thesis. First, religious experience possesses cognitive or noetic content insofar as it can be described and identified only by reference to certain concepts (e.g., the infinite, whole, immediate, etc.). Secondly, such concepts are not only descriptive of religious experience but also prescriptive of religious experience: “Language purportedly descriptive and neutral with respect to evaluations of explanations of the experience actually conditions that experience and places constraints on what kinds of explanation are deemed appropriate” (119). Thirdly, Proudfoot claims that an ambiguity between description and explanation is built into allegedly neutral accounts of religious experience – language that purports merely to describe religious experience also carries an explanatory understanding of that experience. Moreover, protective strategies overlook a crucial distinction between descriptive reductionism, the unacceptable failure to identify some component of the religious experience under the description of the subject, and explanatory reductionism, the justifiable procedure of explaining a religious experience in terms that are not those of the subject and might not meet with her or his approval. “Many of the warnings against reductionism in the study of religion conflate descriptive and explanatory reduction” (198). Finally, Proudfoot turns such protective strategies around, using warnings against reductionism as the tacit criteria of religious experience: “The distinguishing mark of religious experience is the subject’s belief that the experience can only be accounted for in religious terms” (223).

Forman, Robert K. C. “Introduction: Mysticism, Constructivism and Forgetting,” The Problem of Pure Consciousness (1990), “Introduction: Mystical Consciousness, the Innate Capacity and the Perennial Psychology,” The Innate Capacity (1998).

Leading the charge against Katz's so-called constructivism is Robert K.C. Forman. Forman's introductory pieces to his two edited collections are probably most representative of his thought. See also Forman's full-blown development of his position in Mysticism, Mind, Consciousness (1999).

Most concerned with refuting Katz's "constructivist thesis" and its preclusion of "pure experience," Forman does not make much mention of mystical language. Then again, since language and conceptual structures do not in any way enter into the pure experience itself (or are forgotten during such experiences, according to Forman), why would Forman make much mention of language in his account of mystical experience?

2.4. Postmodern Accounts of Mysticism

Finally, there are three postmodern accounts of mystical language worth noting:

Jacques Derrida, “How To Avoid Speaking: Denials,”Languages of the Unsayable: The Play of Negativity in Literature and Literary Theory, Stanford Buddick and Wolfgang Iser, eds. (Columbia University Press, 1989); “Sauf le Nom,” On the Name, Thomas Dutoit, ed. (Stanford University Press, 1995).

These are difficult essays, but in my opinion well worth the effort. “Sauf le nom,” written in response to a colloquium on Derrida and negative theology (that Derrida himself could not attend), takes up the mysticism of Angelus Silesius in the context of a question concerning the linguistic nature of negative theology (i.e., Is negative theology a language?), while “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials,” which I believe set the agenda for the aforementioned colloquium, deals with the mysticism of Pseudo-Dionysius. What is most interesting about these essays is the way Derrida plays with the double nature of negative theology, i.e., negative theology is both a language with its own set of syntactical rules and semantic meanings that determines the nature of God in advance and that which “questions and casts suspicion on the very essence of language,” “what, in essence, exceeds language, so that the ‘essence’ of negative theology would carry itself outside of language.” I believe that both of these essays, along with the essays of the colloquium participants are included in Derrida and Negative Theology, Howard Coward and Toby Foshay, eds. (State University of New York Press, 1992).

Michel de Certeau, The Mystic Fable, vol 1: The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).; "Mystic Speech," Heterologies: Discourse on the Other (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).

I highly recommend the essay in Heterologies. I have not perused The Mystic Fable.

Don Cupitt, Mysticism After Modernity (1998).

A work rife with contradictions. Mysticism qua “writing,” a language of secondariness or mediation (without presence, absolutes, truth, etc.) that oddly enough makes complete happiness possible.

2.5. General Account of Ineffability

Ben-Ami Scharfstein, Ben-Ami. The Failure of Words in Philosophy and Religion. Albany: State University Press, 1993).

Though extremely eccentric (as in “un-centered”), occasionally to the point of being both incoherent and un-cogent, Scharfstein integrates such a large body of material that his work is certainly worth a perusal, if not a close reading. Really this book could be listed under any one of a number of categories. Though it begins with some psychological accounts of ineffability, and ultimately attributes (or partially attributes, see below) ineffability to the relative security an infant feels in the prelinguistic relationship with her primary caregiver (and subsequent acquisition of language), Scharstein deals at length with philosophical and religious attitudes toward language, and in the end, opts not to reduce ineffability to a single account. In fact, when all is said and done, Scharfstein pays as much tribute -- if not more -- to effability, our amazing ability to express ourselves in language.


3. Madhyamaka Buddhism: Views of Language

John Whitney Pettit, Mipham’s Beacon of Certainty. Illuminating the View of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 1999).

Dzogchen (The Great Perfection) teaches that reality is not an object of verbal expression or conceptual analysis. Reality and enlightenment are the identical; in the final analysis “being” and “knowing” are the same. Dzogchen meditation is described as effortless, free of concepts (4). Therefore, it has occasionally been criticized within Tibetan Buddhism by those committed to critical philosophical approaches, i.e. Madhyamaka philosophy, which employs extensive reasoning to show that all phenomena are empty of intrinsic existence. In his text, “The Beacon of Certainty,” the great 19th century lama Jamgön Mipham addressed this issue and showed the harmonious relationship between Madhyamaka philosophy and Dzogchen. In Pettit’s book, which is based on his doctoral dissertation under Robert Thurman, we are provided with a translation and commentary on the “Beacon,” as well as very helpful and readable context chapters on Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, Madhyamaka, how Dzogchen fits into the Tibetan traditions, and Pettit’s critical analysis of the Beacon itself. These chapters are clearly written and will be very helpful for the non-specialist, but unfortunately the meat of the book (on Dzogchen and Mipham’s thought) may remain impenetrable to most unless guided by an expert on Tibetan meditation and philosophy. [by BROdS]

Chandrakirti, Introduction to the Middle Way. With Commentary by Jamgön Mipham. Transl., Padmakara Translation Group (Boston: Shambhala, 2003).

This book is among the first volume studied (and memorized) by Tibetan monks as they embark on their multi-year course on Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosophy. Although the classic work on Madhyamaka remains Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika (Root Stanzas on the Middle Way), Chandrakirti’s text (Madhyamakavatara, which means “Introduction to Nagarjuna’s Root Stanzas on the Middle Way”) is seen as a good stepping stone. Since Chandrakirti’s text is hardly easy itself, the addition by the Padmakara Translation Group of Mipham’s commentary is salutary.

Madhyamaka is a soteriological philosophy expounding emptiness of self and phenomena through critical analysis. In Mahayana Buddhism, “wisdom of emptiness” is the sixth of the “perfections” (paramitas) of bodhisattvas, the other five comprising the “method” (or compassion) aspect of generosity, patience, discipline, and so on. Thus, Chandrakirti’s text begins with the latter in short chapters, before turning to a long exposition on wisdom and Madhyamaka in chapter six. He raises the objections of competing philosophical schools and refutes them (Mipham’s commentary is very helpful in elaborating on the often very condensed verses). For those interested in Madhyamaka, this is therefore an excellent place to start and a must-read. Just one quote: “For hearing and the rest [of the senses], these three [the sense faculty, its object, and the resultant consciousness] are likewise unproduced. / As in dreams, so also in the waking state, / Phenomena are false illusions – indeed, there is no mind, / There are no objects, and there are no senses.” (ch. 6, v. 52) [by BROdS]

Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva. A translation of the Bodhicaryavatara. Transl., Padmakara Translation Group (Boston: Shambhala, 2003)

This classic text is most well known as being the classic exposition on compassion and “relative bodhicitta” (the altruistic awakening mind), but it is just as valuable for its very complex ninth chapter on wisdom (“absolute bodhicitta”), in which Shantideva (possibly 8th century) explicates the two truths (conventional and ultimate) and other Madhyamaka teachings, following Nagarjuna. He thus writes: “When real and nonreal both / Are absent from before the mind, / Nothing else remains for mind to do / But rest in perfect peace, from concepts free.” (ch. 9, v. 34) In other words, since real, independent existence is merely imputed on phenomena by words, conceptual thoughts, and so on, and yet it is not the case that nothing exists (which would be nihilism), direct perception of ultimate reality requires being able to see beyond the dualism of real and nonreal.

No commentary is provided in this particular translation, which focuses instead on generating and stabilizing relative bodhicitta, and the helpful introduction and appendices make no effort to tackle the fabled ninth chapter on wisdom, which is written in such a condensed fashion as to be impenetrable to the average reader. Therefore, consulting one of the numerous commentaries on the ninth chapter is recommended, such as Transcendent Wisdom by H. H. the Dalai Lama. [by BROdS]

H. H. the XIV Dalai Lama, Transcendent Wisdom: A Commentary on the Ninth Chapter of Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1988).

This is a translation from the Sanskrit of Shantideva’s ninth chapter of the Bodhicaryavatara on the basis of commentary by the 14th century Tibetan master Lama Je Tsonkhapa, accompanied by a translation of an oral commentary given by H. H. the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, given in 1979. In his commentary, H. H. the Dalai Lama explains the various philosophical tenet systems being refuted by Prasangika-Madhyamaka and elucidates Shantideva’s text. While this book still presumes some basic understanding of Mahayana Buddhism, it is very helpful in understanding Madhyamaka. [by BROdS]

Contributors to the Annotated Bibliography

Tim Knepper did most of the initial work, and the annotations are his unless otherwise designated by another author's initials. Other authors are listed here.

BROdS       Brendan R. Ozawa de Silva

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