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Some Thoughts About Why Terminology is Actually A Good Thing

October 10, 2013

towerWe live in a world with a lot of mental fog and imprecision, a world in which people put a spin on words in order to manipulate others, a world in which psychological concepts are tossed around glibly and inaccurately, a world in which clear dogmas are avoided and nebulous spiritualities are embraced. But above all, it is a world in which a new Tower of Babel has arisen not just separating us into language groups, but dividing us within the very language group that we call our own. When we realize this is happening, we may discover that understanding and using jargon or specialized terminology is not as a bad as some may think.

Reading texts on Christian spirituality and theology, we come across plenty of strange Greek words like nous and noetic, philautia and agape, hypostasis and ousia. Reading texts for professional psychologists, we likewise come across other mystifying terms like schema and metacognition, operational conditioning and classical conditioning, transference and counter-transference. Many times I try to make both ways of looking at the world a bit more accessible using more common expressions like heart and selfishness or thoughts and habits. In general, I think that is a good thing, but I should also admit that in the process something is lost. It’s worth thinking a bit about why psychologists and monks have their own special vocabulary. It’s not to be incomprehensible, but to communicate with clarity.

If I use a more general word, say love, with one intentional meaning, but my partner in conversation hears it with another unintended connotation or adds some particular meaning based on her own experience in using the word, it’s very likely that the meaning of what I say will not be understood. For example, if I refer to “love” and am thinking of Christ’s “love” for humanity to the point of death on the Cross and the person I am talking to associates that word with Romeo’s “love” for Juliet to the point where life is not worth living without her, we are not really communicating.  Philosophers call the ability to communicate with clarity “intersubjectivity,” another technical term ordinary people don’t use daily and that’s not immediately obvious, but it refers to what is shared by more than one conscious mind.

If we want to communicate more than noise, if we want to hear someone else, but also be heard ourselves, there are times that we need to define special terms and make termsdistinctions. We do so for the sake of the other person, for the sake of ourselves, but also for the sake of the importance of the idea we are trying to convey. The first step involves saying what the term is and what the term isn’t. For instance, when I say the word “agape” I am referring to the love of Christ, not love of Romeo. But even this is not quite enough. To understand a term, we need some experience of the term, we need to enter the very world where that word has the most meaning. And here, we need guidance about what to do, what activities are required of us in what type of situation in order to sense and perceive signs of the existence of the term. We need someone to show us what we mean, a bit like that famous scene in the movie about Helen Keller in which she understood what was meant by water as it was pouring forth from the well into her hand.

In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I note, “Byzantine epistemology with its unity between theoria and praxis has been functionally described as ‘rationalism and empiricism,’ the very terms that could be used to characterize the epistemology utilized in cognitive therapy.” In my article in Edification, I further note, “theoria and praxis are interwoven elements of a single reality. For ancient Greeks and Church Fathers alike, tearing speculation of the mind away from the activities of life rends the very fabric of philosophy.” In the end, I think specialized terminology is not so bad, and only seems bad to those who view it in isolation, separated from life and experience.

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