“I know that the Church is true” strikes me as one of the most rankeling phrases that I heard in my early childhood. I desperately wanted to know that the Church was true, but I never could figure out precisely what it meant to know that it was true. The phrase held the promise that one day, if faithful enough, I would be initiated into knowledge of “the” truth. But in the meantime, it teased me for my lack of understanding. At the moment, I still can’t claim to understand precisely what the phrase means. But I have concluded that a substantial part of the phrase’s considerable use and power resides precisely in its lack of definable meaning.
Lately, I have been thinking about why we use the rhetoric and reasoning skills that we do, and I have concluded that we use the language and thinking skills that are most rewarded in the local contexts in which they apply. For example, English professors often consider texts and language to lack clear meaning, because their professional livelihoods depend on them uncovering new meanings and connections with a canonical text. This commits them to thinking that no one can easily determine what a text “means.” By contrast, a legislator wants to create language that is unambiguous, since society functions more smoothly when the rules are clear. Professionally and socially, they have incentives to minimize misunderstandings. What makes rhetoric and reasoning skills good is always a function of their suitability to local contexts and needs. [Read more…]