Tag Archives: context

Putting Quaker faith & practice in context

This is the last month of the project to as Quakers to read Quaker faith & practice together. Many groups won’t finish yet, some people are just starting, and I hope we’ll all go on engaging with the book in different ways. If you’ve been reading and you’d like to give some feedback, you can do that through this one-question survey. The material suggested by the calendar for this month, though, falls nearly-but-not-quite outside Qf&p itself: the ‘Introduction’ at the beginning, and the ‘Notes on the history of the text’ at the end (no link because it’s not, currently, in the online version: I’ve made enquires about that). Layout nerds will note that while most parts of Qf&p have paragraph numbers (chapter number, dot, paragraph number, like this: 13.02), both these sections have page numbers.


The first page of the Introduction, showing page number rather than paragraph numbers.

Both sections also have the function of putting Qf&p into a broader context. The Introduction describes some of the history of the text and also talks in some detail about the composition of this text, noting concerns of the Revision Committee: “special attention has been given to the inclusion of a wider range of contributions from women”, for example. It ends with this comment: “In the Religious Society of Friends we commit ourselves not to words but to a way.” This isn’t, as I read it, intended to diminish the value of the book, but rather to point to the purpose of the book. A book of discipline, of which Quaker faith & practice is an example, aims to steer the reader towards the right way of living. In some cases it will be very specific about that (about the right ordering of meetings for worship for business, for example). In other cases it will offer the prayerful reflections of some who have faced the same or similar challenges before, and leave the reader to discern their own way forward.

For me, the value of reading these sections right at the end is that they help to make sure we understand what Quaker faith & practice thinks it is, and how it came to be. The ‘Notes on the history of the text’ are especially useful in clarifying that Qf&p is one stage in a process, a process which has been changing with technology (books of extracts were circulating in manuscript form before a printed volume was produced in 1783) and with the needs of the Society (people often tell me it should be produced in two volumes, but in the late nineteenth century our book of discipline was printed in three volumes). I don’t know where that process will take us next, but I hope and pray that knowing this text – and some of its history – will help us make good decisions in due course.

If you haven’t started reading yet, there’s still time: at the moment it looks like the question of whether this is the right time for the next revision of our book of discipline will come to Yearly Meeting in May 2018.

U is for Use

In Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, the idea of use of very important: he says that for most of the ways in which we use the word “meaning”, “the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (Philosophical Investigations section 43). How are we to understand this claim? His examples, both explicit and embedded in his method, suggest that when we are looking at a speciic word or phrase and asking ourselves “what does this mean?” we need to turn, not to a dictionary or a definition provided by a single person, but to the ways in which fluent speakers of the language actually use the term. This might include ourselves, and Wittgenstein sometimes invites us to think about the ways in which we ourselves would use a term. Because natural language is complex and multilayered, these patterns of use usually turn out to be complex and multilayered, and a single word can have a variety of uses – and, hence, meanings.

(For example, think about the word ‘mouse’. What are the ways in which you use this word? “I saw a mouse in the kitchen.” “Do you remember that red rollerball mouse that came with our first computr?” Sometimes it won’t be instantly clear whether we’re talking about a rodent or a digital input device, but it will almost always become clear if we take into account the whole context of what is being said. This points us back to the importance of context, discussed in a previous post.)

“Meaning is use” is, in a way, very clear, and some scholars are opposed to extending or explaining it too much. However, it doesn’t, unfortunately, fit in with a very common use of the word “meaning”, which often conjures a picture of something like a halo around a word or something above and behind it which gives force to it. To get over this, I often start non-academic discussions by asking people how they think a word gets its meaning (most actually arrive at a Wittgensteinian view without a lot of effort, talking about learning from others and community agreement – this saves a lot of time if we don’t need to debunk ideas about stating definitions first!). Meaning consists in regular and comunally agreed uses. Mistaken uses are possible, but can become part of the meaning if repeated; a mistaken use can eventually become accepted, at which point it is no longer mistaken (“10 items or less”).

I also extend the analysis of use beyond words and phrases to look at structures within language – lists are my big example, but we could also look at the use of nouns and verbs, or metaphors, in much the same way. The question here is always: how does this community use this structure? The community – the context within which the linguistic structure is being used – is always as important to this analysis as the use itself. Meaning is use, which is always within a context.

T is for Truth

At a recent workshop, someone challenged me for using the word ‘truth’ differently in describing two different positions. I was comparing the two, so although these might sometimes constitute different contexts, they’d come very close together on this occasion – and it’s a fair point. The word ‘truth’ does have a lot of different uses.

The truth. The Truth. My truth. Your truth. Objective truth. Emotional truth. Telling the truth. The Quaker Truth Testimony.

In particular, we can recognise a complex category of things which are true but not true: stories which contain truth without being true stories. In explaining this concept, we’ve got the concept of truth as emotional or mythical truth (in the sense that novels and plays can be described as ‘truthful’ even when they are completely fictional), and also the concept of true as fact, the way the world actually is, which is the opposite of fiction.

My workshop was looking at possible religious understandings of the world. We were considering a possible position which we might call pluralist, in which many different religions exist in the world but none of them are completely right or completely wrong – they all contain some element of truth, of pointing to the way things really are. For want of a better term, let’s say that this is a position in which all religions have some measure of Truth.

I contrasted that with a position which we might call fictionalist, in which many different religions exist in the world and none of them are completely right or completely wrong – they all tell stories which don’t contain facts or what might be regarded as ‘scientific’ truth, but which do contain emotional, psychological, or otherwise mythical truths. Again lacking a better term, this is a position in which all religions have some measure of ‘truth’.

I hope from these outlines that it’s clear both why these positions are closely related – they make a number of very similar claims and might lead people to behave in very similar ways – but also that they are different and that it will be useful to distinguish them. Both positions are concerned with the truth of religion: one claiming that religions do, or can, point to Reality or Truth, and the other claiming that religions contain truth of the kind also found in fiction. In speaking about these things, it’s easy to slip between the two uses of the word truth – especially because the kind of Truth spoken of by the pluralist position isn’t necessarily objective or factual truth, of the kind which might be verified by scientific investigation of some kind. (And if objective truth exists at all without the colouring of the subjective position of the people who generated the knowledge… a debate for another day.)

I also run into this problem when people ask for my opinion of something like the Bible. Is it true? Well, some bits of it might be historically true, but I’ve got doubts about a lot of it. Is it truthful? Well, it contains a lot of stories which are full of emotional truth and recognisable situations. Is it True? God knows.

R is for Reading

Reading is on my mind as I prepare to teach a new group of undergraduates – in only a month! – including writing lecture slides of tips for succeeding at university. One of the things I remember being told when I began to study philosophy was that there was a lot to be gained from reading a text more than once – reading the whole way through to get the shape of the argument, and then again for bits I didn’t get the first time, and perhaps again for details after that. This goes against all my instincts, which are to read things once and then assume that – absent a long gap or a particular new slant – I don’t need to read anything again. That’s good enough for novels (although there are a handful which I have read more than once, or intend to read again one day). It works well enough for some philosophical texts – especially if I took good notes on the first pass, or if it turns out not to be as useful for the current project as I hoped it would be – but the advice to read again is sometimes sound. In particular, denser texts often benefit from two passes – one for shape and one for detail. It can be easy to get distracted by the detail and miss the shape if you don’t read this way.

Have you ever been to a big museum, or somewhere like a Sealife centre, where there are loads of fascinating things to look at but the overall pattern is hidden by the wealth of detail? I have a cousin who, especially in childhood, liked to hurry through such places on a first pass, getting the overall picture, and would then request to be taken back to specific exhibits which had been deemed worthy of further attention. This approach gives you a view which many people never get – I’ve been to the London Aquarium, but I looked at fish; I couldn’t draw you a map of the place, even though I gradually became aware that sometimes I was looking at the same fish again from a different angle.

This advice – read carefully, read twice – is coupled with another co-intuitive piece of advice which makes good sense in some contexts: don’t read too much. It’s tempting to try and read everything you can find on a subject when you’ve been asked to write an essay about it, but this doesn’t actually make good essays. Exactly how much you need to read does vary between topics – are you looking at facts, or opinions, or arguments, or theory, or a mixture? – but in general, something you’ve skim-read and referenced doesn’t add as much to an essay as something which you’ve read and thought about carefully. Going back to the aquarium metaphor, the more carefully you’ve looked at the fish in a particular tank and the longer you’ve spent with them, the more you’ll be able to tell me about them. You need to look at enough other tanks to be able to compare the fish and point out what is special about them, but after a certain point, looking at more tanks of sharks won’t improve your essay on seahorses.

tl;dr: reading is an important skill, and quality can be more important than quantity.

Book review: Paul Among the People, Sarah Ruden

Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time, Sarah Ruden

Paul is, as Sarah Ruden rightly points out, a misunderstood, misinterpreted, and widely disliked author – and one who is generally regarded as, at least, down on women, sex, and fun. Ruden does a good job of arguing that much of this is misunderstanding, brought on chiefly by a complete lack of contact between people who study the Bible in Greek and people who study other Greek texts written at around the same time. Ruden, having started out as a Classicist reading material from the polytheistic Greeks and Romans, is in a good position to bridge this gap by bringing her knowledge of the classical languages and cultures to bear on Paul’s writings.

In fact, in this slim volume that’s most of what she does. It’s often effective, sometimes shocking, and often challenges accepted views of the Greek world as well as common views of Paul. For example, she challenges the view of the Greek world as a “gay idyll”, arguing that reading Plato but not other texts, less philosophical and perhaps closer to reality, has given a misleading picture (p58). On the one hand, I’m a bit sad to see this picture torn down, because a picture of a society in which sexuality is viewed very differently is a useful one in all kinds of ways. On the other hand, my feminism survived the destruction of the myth of a matriarchal past, and these pictures can be useful even when known to be fictional.

In quoting extensively from classical texts and trying to offer a more accurate picture of what Paul was saying, Ruden uses blunt and modern translations which do not shy away from sexually and other explicit language – which is, I’m sure, to the benefit of the translation. It’s easy to see why people might not want to read this in church – but also easy to see an argument that this is because some of them have a mistaken, overly prettified, view of what is acceptable in church. I found her section on Galatians 5, one of the rare cases in which she takes on the King James Version directly, especially interesting. She offers transliterations of the Greek words in cases where no suitable translation is available, and goes to some lengths to point out how far from that worldview we are now. (She attributes much of the change to Paul – and I’m sure he had a big influence, although I can think of some other possible candidates as well.)

One drawback I found in Ruden’s writing style was a tendency to make her point, and offer her evidence – and then move on to the next point, without wrapping up neatly and restating the conclusion. Sometimes this worked well, and at other times I found myself going back to the beginning of a section to read it again and understand properly how this evidence support that point. However, I didn’t find points which weren’t supported by anything at all – and many of the points she makes suggest that readings of Paul should change a long way from those currently accepted in the traditions of Biblical interpretation (mostly ‘ordinary’ or folkloric) which I encounter most often.

I didn’t come away from the book as converted to Paul-following as Ruden obviously is. (I think that would be difficult to achieve anyway.) I still find writing attributed to Paul, and some probably genuinely by Paul, used as ‘clobber passages’ or turning out to be ‘texts of terror’. However, Ruden is doing her bit to change misinterpretations, and filling out Paul’s context with suitable Greek and Roman material is obviously a helpful step in that direction.

N is for Names

When I was a teenager, I changed my name from Emma to Rhiannon. There were lots of other girls my age called Emma, and if you called ‘Emma!’ across the park, or the street, or the playground, I didn’t turn around, because I assumed you meant someone else. This rendered it less than functional as a name, so I chose a new one.

A while later, my mother remarked that people had started asking her whether she had Welsh family. This was a complicated question – and a new one. After a while, we realised that people who had heard my name, and correctly but often tentatively placed it as a Welsh one, asked this sort of question. It’s hard to answer, because answering the question doesn’t answer the question – if someone asks me whether I have Welsh family, and I say yes, or indeed no, or sort of (it’s very much ‘sort of’, as it happens), I have answered the question they asked, but if what they wanted to know was about the origin of my name, I haven’t told them what they wanted to know. Questions like these are based on false assumptions – that your name was given to you by your parents, for example. In our society, this assumption may be reasonable – in the sense that statistics are on that side – but it’s far from always right.

What other assumptions do we make when we name things or people? In my academic work, I am interested in ways in which people name God, and this obviously has a bearing on that; but there are lots of other settings in which it also matters.

One example which I think is interesting for what it might say about naming generally is the giving and use of nicknames online. In my early days on the internet, it was standard for everyone to use a screen name, a nickname often not traceable, or not easily traceable, to your real life identity. This has become much less common with the advent of Facebook, and was never universal (and there are many parts of the internet where it is still standard – Twitter handles, for example, even if your name is given in full elsewhere). Before that, my experience of being given nicknames was mostly the things my classmates called me at school (which I won’t repeat here; suffice it to say that they had all the cruelty and lack of creativity common among children). A screen name, though, you choose, and you can choose different ones for different sites: context is very important indeed. Someone known as buffylvr83 might well also be called techgrrl10 on another website – and on yet another forum, this same individual might be able to login and post as admin.

In the debates about the use of real names online, it’s sometimes said that people should be able to use their paperwork names if they haven’t done anything wrong (usually people who say this haven’t thought about – or don’t care about – people who’ve changed their gender, or are being stalked or bullied, etc.). Besides some assumptions about the realness of the names on your paperwork, i.e. the name it’s easiest to verify, I think there are some assumptions about the use of the same name with different groups which don’t actually stand up to scrutiny. buffylvr83/techgrrl10/admin is a clear example, but of course lots of people use a different name, or variant of their name, at work, or to publish under – and when all these different contexts collide on one social networking site, lots of people find ways in which things turn weird.

Thought for another day: does this make it appropriate to name God differently in different contexts – such as prayer, liturgy, theology, interfaith discussion, and outreach?

C is for Context

Context is a word I use a lot in discussing my academic work; I use it, for example, in the context of the Wittgensteinian slogan “Meaning is use in context”. But what is context?

I think of it as the stuff around something which helps you make sense of it. I might also use words like ‘setting’, ‘surroundings’, or ‘connotations’. The context of an event is the other stuff happening before and around that event: the Second World War needs to be understood in the context of the economic situation in the 1930s, for example. The context of a word is the other language – and maybe other actions or events – which surround it: the word ‘queer’, for example, comes over very differently in the context of someone yelling “you dirty queer” compared with someone talking about “queer theory”. Sometimes the context contains important clues: the context of a picture in an art gallery, for example, might include a notice with the title and the name of the artist, and maybe some other comments, which help you to contextualise that image. In particular, the date of the painting and the identity of the artist might help you to connect it to other, related, paintings, and put it into a broader context of art history.

Contexts, as that last remark reveals, can be narrower or broader. The context of a word in a particular book, on a particular page, in a particular sentence, gets narrower and narrower, and it can be very informative to look at this context in a tightly focussed way. In a poem, for example, we might find that the juxtaposition of two specific words – which alliterate, to give a simple example – might be very important. In other cases, it’s helpful to broaden our search to a much wider view of the context – to put a Biblical passage, for example, in the context of the whole book which contains it, and then into the genre (is it from a gospel? Psalms? A letter?) to which it belongs. We might find it contains allusions to other texts and want to put those into their original contexts, too.

Words, objects, and people move between contexts, too, of course. Have you ever met someone in the street, whom you would know and recognise in a particular meeting or in another city, and completely failed to recognise them? Many people have highly contextual memories – we often link information to other information relating to a specific context, and struggle to retrieve it outside that context. An object in a museum is obviously not in the original context, and it can seem weirdly alien (have you ever seen one of your childhood toys in a museum?). Similarly, when words cross between contexts – if someone uses technical computer terminology in a casual conversation, or Buddhist words in a Quaker setting – they can come over very differently. This experience is heightened if the audience don’t have the speaker’s background with a word: if the Quakers aren’t familiar with the term ‘Sangha’, if the participants in the casual conversion aren’t sure what a Chrome app is, if your friend has spotted her favourite childhood toy in the museum display but you never owned one. In this case, the previous contexts in which the speaker has encountered a word – which may be more or less visible to the audience – can be vital to understanding not just what is meant at the straightforward level but the emotional resonances which it carries for the speaker.