the game of the name is the name of the game

A name is not the same as that which carries the name. The name of the game is the game of the name. As Shakespeare expresses it in Romeo and Juliet, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet".

Confusion about the names and the things they name leads to much disagreement and hostility. "Zimbabwe" is a name, and so too is "Rhodesia". Thing referred to as "gods" have many names, including "Allah", "Jehovah", "Zeus" and many more. "Slavery" is a name; "unpaid servitude" is another.

The relationships and differences between names and the named has been extensively analysed by deconstructionists and structuralists including de Saussure. But while these analyses have been useful, they do not go far enough, and they create additional confusion that is only marginally less than the confusion they set out to dispel in the first place. Because there is a third element to the game of the name and the named. But before I tell you what it is, some pre-positioning is in order.

Language conceals as much if not more than it reveals, and the truths of language can not be proved without stepping outside of the language into a meta-system, ala Godel's incompleteness theorem. I cannot conclusively prove the truth of the word "lion", for instance, by means of other words because that would be a finite but unbounded journey through a thicket of synonyms and near-synonyms. To prove the truth of the word "lion" I must step outside of language. I could, for example, point to a picture of lion, and say the word "lion", repeatedly if need be. Or I could represent the ontology of "lion" by means of the leonine genome.

The point is I will try in this post to explain the problems of language by means of language. I will try in this post to describe the inadequacy of words by means of words. It's not going to be pretty. It's not going to be elegant. It's not going to be easy to read or understand.

OK, so here we go. We were talking about names and the named, signs, signifiers and the signified. And I said that the dichotomy is actually a trichotomy; the dyad is a triad. It's a dialectic comprising the thing, its qualities (or attributes), and its name.

The following hypothetical conversation between Moses and Zarathustra may help clarify what I mean. It's a conversation in three acts. The subject of the conversation is God, Godhood, Deity. Act 1 is about the thing (signified). Act 2 is about the qualities (signifiers) of the thing. Act 3 is about the name (sign) of the thing.


Moses: "Are your people deists or atheists, believers or unbelievers?"

Zarathustra: "Deists, of course. How about yours?"

Moses: "Deists, naturally."


Zarathustra: "So tell me more about how your people identify deity."

Moses: "OK. Here goes. We worship deity. Deity sets rules for us to live by. Deity is the uncreated creator. Deity created the world and everything in it in seven days. Deity is one. I don't know the word for deity in your language but in English the word for deity is God. Now it's your turn."

Zarathustra: "I don't agree with you or your people. You are right in some respects, wrong in others. We too worship deity and try and live by the rules set by deity. It's true that deity is the uncreated creator, and that deity created the world, but not in seven days. Rather, by means of six divine sparks, or emanations, we call the amesha spenta: Manah, Asha, Kshathra, Armaiti, Haurvatat, and Ameretat. Yes, it's true that my people believe deity is one, but I have an Greek friend who tells me his people believe deity is many. And I have an Indian friend who tells me her people believe deity is many-in-one. Yes, I too do not know the word for deity in your language but in English the word for deity is God. In the Avestan language, it is "Dadvāh"."


Moses: "Deity has many names, and no names. Sometimes, we use the name "Jehovah"."

Zarathustra: "The name of deity is "Ahura Mazda".

One of the points of the three-act conversation above is to show that Moses and Zarathustra believe that on the subject of deity they have some things in common and some differences. In fact both the differences and the commonalities are illusions.

When the respective sets of signifiers (qualities) are not identical, then people using different signs ("Jehovah", "Ahura Mazda") to point to the same things signified ("god", "deity") may end up in disagreement. But it would not be a substantive disagreement. It would be as lightweight, and as trivial a disagreement as that between a French-speaking person and an English-speaking person about whether it is correct to say "noir" or "black" in relation to the absence of light. The truth or otherwise in the statement "Jehovah is a wrathful god" does not preclude or in any way affect the truth or otherwise of the statement "Ahura Mazda is a forgiving god".

When the respective sets of signifiers are not identical, however, then there may be a fundamental difference. But it would still be absurd to have an argument about it. The difference arises from things that are different. Well duh! It would be as absurd as the argument between Jack and Jill when Jack says, "Most bananas are yellow" and Jill replies, "No, some apples are red."

For example, the Amesha Spenta in Zoroastrianism are not part of Judaism. The set of attributes of deity in Judaism is not the same set of attributes of deity in Zoroastrianism. There is no logical reason to go on a crusade because "A" is not "B". It's just plain dumb. It's misunderstanding, not disagreement. It's terminology, not ontology. It's language, not truth.

Words, images and audio copyright © S R Schwarz 2007. All rights reserved.

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