Are some words or phrases irreplaceable in our language, in that it is impossible to express the same sense – or convey the same picture of the world – without using that specific expression? Some Wittgensteinians have argued that it is (n.b. I’m going to talk about the idea and not the references today; broadly speaking, this stuff comes out of the student’s notes published as Wittgenstein’s Lectures on Religious Belief, and is covered in a complex and technical literature in which I regard Cora Diamond as a slightly more readable guiding light).
What kind of thing might be irreplaceable in this way? Some examples might be religious uses of language which create very clear images of the way the world is: for example, if you’re describing a sensation experienced in prayer, you might be able to say, “It felt like God was watching over me”, and thereby capture something about the experience which is not captured by other, similar phrases. The picture created, of a God who is outside you and can watch, perhaps even has eyes, need not be regarded as ‘literal’ or even ‘true’ in order to be the most vivid and accurate representation of the way you felt in that moment. In fact, we know that language in such contexts isn’t taken in the same way that the same phrase would be in another setting; if someone else is said to be watching, the grammatically acceptable conversational responses are different.
One of the reasons that irreplaceability interests me as an idea is that it runs counter to another idea I hear quite frequently, namely, that everything can be ‘said in other words’ with just a bit of effort. Especially in the realm of spiritual experience, it is often argued that people are talking about the same thing but in different ways. This usually has an underlying element of monotheism or at least an assumption of reliable access to a single reality, and a motivation to bring people together and smooth over arguments. Sometimes it even dismisses language, especially if a concept like ‘experience’ is brought in to be primary. Irreplaceability, though, suggests that it’s not always possible to just re-phrase things in another way, and perhaps that ‘translating’ between the language of one religion and another might lose something, perhaps even more than is lost in ordinary translation between one natural language and another.
In fact, this view is so pervasive that I gave up asking Quakers which language they thought was irreplaceable, because when working at the intellectual level they insisted that it was all dispensable. However, I do from time to time – coming at the issue by a roundabout route – hear Quakers confess that there are certain key phrases without which they cannot explain Quakerism to others, for example. One of them is “that of God within” – usually followed by a disclaimer that the word ‘God’ could be replaced by some other noun, such as ‘good’, although as far as I can tell this is almost never done in conversation and the grammar of the phrase is very stable indeed.
For myself, I can pick out a few other phrases or words which I would regard as irreplaceable in my own spiritual vocabulary. I like to use terms which feel ‘plain’ to me in my writing – “God”, even when I’m aware that some readers will carry supernaturalist baggage with that word, and “the Light” as a picture of how God’s presence feels to me. Within the gendered structures of today’s society, the word “Goddess” – complete with a little bit of shock value in some settings – is vital to my understanding of the Divine. The image of the Spirit moving or flowing through a situation, and the idea of the Spirit guiding a community, seem to me to capture something which is part of my experience and not expressed in other phrases.
Are there terms which seem to you to be irreplaceable, to express something which cannot be put in other words?