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Take the word 'God' and how we employ it

Take the word ‘God’, for example. The contemporary debate between atheists and believers is premised on the idea that the word ‘God’ either represents something in the real world, or it does not. Believers argue that it does (and tie themselves in knots trying to verify this claim), while atheists argue that it doesn’t. However, both parties to this debate unwittingly rely on a picture theory of language. On this theory, language represents facts about the world. What is says is either true or false. Never the twain shall meet.
A Wittgensteinian approach to the debate begins by pointing out ‘God’ is a word that has different meanings in the context of different communities. In the context of different linguistic communities, people use ‘God’ in different ways to articulate different facets of experience (consider ‘It’s in God’s hands now’ or ‘When the sun rose, I felt the presence of God’). Another way of thinking about the meaning of ‘God’, therefore, is to see peoples’ use of this term as a move in a social language game – a move that ideally has specific connotations for members of a community. Perhaps the term expresses fidelity to a way of life, as Karen Armstrong argues. Perhaps it expresses wonder in the face of existence. The bottom line is that using a term does not necessarily imply a belief in an entity that corresponds to this term. The meaning of a word hinges on its usefulness in context, not its ideal referent outside of all possible contexts.

Wittgenstein’s teaching has practical value. Why waste time arguing over issues that will never be resolved when the whole thing could be deflated with a simple question: ‘Are we even talking about the same thing?’ If you struggle to overcome the urge to define things too carefully, or find yourself becoming obsessed about the meaning of words and their ‘true’ definition, or if you are convinced, like many philosophers, that the existence of a word logically implies some metaphysical essence, or Platonic form, that corresponds to this word, remember that what gives a word meaning is the conventional social discourse within which it is employed. By attending to the ordinary language contexts that give words their meaning, we can avoid misusing them and trying to make them mean things that they aren’t made to mean. The more that we return words to their home, seeing them in terms of the ordinary language contexts that they work within, the easier it becomes to untie the knots in language and understand what is really being said

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