IVP - Strangely Dim - Philosophers Walk the Earth

February 13, 2004

Philosophers Walk the Earth

By David A. Zimmerman

I'm starting to think that I could make anyone a philosopher. Basically, all they have to do is to relentlessly redefine every word they use every time they use it. Unfortunately, everyone would then hate them, because they will have made previously intelligible words unintelligible.

The consequences of these unspoken rules of philosophy are staggering. Consider the book Philosophy in a Time of Terror, in which, according to Christianity Today, Jacques Derrida takes two entire pages to answer the question "September 11 . . . gave us the impression of being a major event. . . . Do you agree?"

It has to be done, though: if philosophers speak plainly, all the philosophers around them will redefine what they say on their behalf, and rip them apart for having spoken so carelessly. You see this played out most aggressively in politics. A journalist demands a statement from a politician, who speaks as thoughtfully and quickly as possible without falling into the obvious traps of "So you're saying . . ." and "But four years ago you said . . ." Elections have hung on the words of such a conversation.

No wonder politicians dislike journalists. Taking communication seriously is a great thing, but taking someone else's communication seriously is seriously impolite. No one likes to be edited, and societies ancient, medieval, modern and postmodern have sought to suppress the editorial spirit. God help us.

And yet Jesus spoke with great conviction about the importance of personal precision: "Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Anything else is from the devil" (Matthew 5:37). Yikes! How much devil talk have I engaged in simply by typing the last 265 words? And how can I hope to communicate when I live in dread of speaking without thinking?

I'll admit it: I don't give thought to every word I say. Overcoming a habit of rambling comes through (1) speaking slower, giving ourselves time to think about what we're saying, or (2) speaking less, giving ourselves less freedom to weigh in on every subject. The book of Proverbs makes a strong case for holding our tongues: "When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but the prudent are restrained in speech" (Proverbs 10:19).

Yet even in our most heartfelt attempts to discipline our speech we have a limited view of the significance in what we say. Friends willing to risk a friendship in order to help us think more clearly and communicate more responsibly are true friends indeed. They look after us, not merely the pleasantries of a superficial acquaintance. We are, after all, called to "live in the truth," and we can't fulfill that calling alone. Our editors are our friends.

We are all subject to the same limited ability to speak with consistency and the same insufficient grasp of all the matters that demand our attention. Once we allow each other to fumble our way into the truth, giving grace for misstatements and fuzzy thinking, we can all safely apologize for wrong comments and commit ourselves once more to making yes mean simply yes, no simply no.

Check out my secret identity at www.ivpress.com.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at February 13, 2004 10:53 AM Bookmark and Share


Truer words could not have been spoken during times of such hyperbole.

Comment by: Dave Micksch at February 13, 2004 12:03 PM

Wow. Ironic. What's the opposite of hyperbole? It seems we don't need a word for understatement because it occurs so infrequently.

Comment by: Dave at February 13, 2004 12:25 PM

Comments are closed for this entry.

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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