Wittgenstein & Biblical Lexicography

Andrew Keenan continues his investigations…
For the rest of the series, see: Tarnishing the Ideal.

Wittgenstein’s work has a few salient features that may be applied to lexicographical scholarship. His thought ideas cohere well with the “recently birthed” interest in incorporating non-literary/documentary papyri into our lexical entries. But that is only a first step. Wittgenstein’s thought compels us to also seek more robust social, political, cultural, and religious contextual data for lexicographical work. Wittgenstein provides us with a call for synchronic and diachronic analysis to be weaved into a cohesive system. This helps better understand the types of “language games” being played and allowing this data to bear weight in our decisions about lexical meaning, function, and choice.

The first point of philosophical consistency between the direction that Greek lexicography has already taken, and Wittgenstein’s method is the inclusion of non-literary and documentary papyri into our lexical entries. This renaissance of Greek language data is one of the most significant pieces of evidence integrated into our Greek lexical material bar none. One of the many appealing components of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is that it does not hide behind the allure of complex and overly technical terminology (Read 2008, 1). Instead Wittgenstein speaks in terms that are common to people in and out of the intellectual communities he was engaged, which makes sense given his position on language. 

But even more, he makes a point to say that looking at the uses of language of the average person is preferable to using overly specialized terminology used by the elite (PI § 81). It is only by coincidence that it seems that the papyrological evidence which has reinvigorated lexicography was uncovered around the same time that Wittgenstein was asserting his ideas concerning language. In fact, Adolf Deissmann famously argues far earlier than Wittgenstein for the utility of such resources (Deissmann 2004/ Deissmann 2013).

It was to the misfortune of many exegetes and Biblical scholars that Deissmann’s encouragement to investigate these texts didn’t take hold until much later. Even in the guild today the inclusion of inscriptions is few and far between, but there are calls for the very slow proliferation of their inclusion (Aitken 2014). The state of lexicography may be different had the philosophical investigations of Wittgenstein been applied earlier in the history of the field. The lack of linguistic nuance and sophistication may be considered one of the primary factors attributed to this almost stagnant application of tremendously useful data. But simply applying the data that coincidentally is more consistent with Wittgenstein’s approach isn’t enough. Wittgenstein’s impact and philosophy can take us further yet. What is required is more nuanced lexical entries that are informed by contextual data. If one looks back to a time before Louw and Nida, when lexicons were only utilizing glosses to define a word from the source language, we immediately see the problem, which might be the problem at hand still (Aitken 2009).* The problem that exists is that there is no one-to-one correspondence between any two words from any language and therefore methods void of socio-historical and contextual distinctions are toneless and imprecise.

* Aitken says there has been a proliferation of attention to this issue, but obviously more nuance could be brought to the discussion.

For example, one can look at the word ἄρχω which often is simply glossed “to rule” or “to begin.” From an English-speaking perspective there is little that intuitively blends these two domains together, we must be exposed to a great deal of Greco-Roman literature until we realize what points of contact exist between the use of the two glosses presented and how the patterns of intention that exist can be blended together which ought to better inform translation, exegesis and interpretation. For a word used 167 times in the Greek Bible (both OT & NT) we can imagine instances where being able to note a conceptual blend may benefit the reader, especially from a context where these domains are not often brought together under the same lexical domain. Even Louw and Nida, whose aim was to group words according to semantic domains, felt this need to nuance lexicons differently due to linguistic confusion. Even though this was a novel pursuit it still did not take into consideration the idea that greater incorporation of language games or patterns of intention, often motivated by socio-historical factors may improve our understanding of lexemes. The consequence may have been lexicons that grouped words according to “language games” (Taylor 2009 41).*

* Taylor doesn’t say this explicitly about Louw and Nida, but he makes clear how Wittgenstein influences a move away from categorizing according to semantic domains and categories of use. Also see Wittgenstein, PI. § 66-72, where he breaks down the notion of semantic domains as proper oppositions.

The resolution to this methodological issue is not a simple one. Still, there are individual scholars who have made it their priority to address some of the lexical issues that persist in the field from a cognitive perspective. Let us consider three examples from scholarship done where understanding social and cultural components have improved our understanding of particular lexemes.

James Aitken (2009) lays out a compelling treatment of “how far a lexicographer should be aware of the social context of words in framing lexical definitions, and accordingly how far socio-historical information, or ‘context of situation’ as it was termed by Malinowski, should be recorded in biblical lexicons” (Aitken 2009 183). He continues, observing that many have argued that due to the fact that  there is not an overwhelming wealth of knowledge of the socio-historical and cultural context we cannot lean on these sciences, but Aitken wants to push us to investigate these avenues further (Aitken 2009 186).* It is not enough to simply say that because we lack information therefore we should not investigate ways to best explain our data set, and integrate our learning, small or large.

* “It is often stated that our knowledge of Greek is limited to such an extent that it is difficult or even impossible to ascertain much of the social background behind any given word. Whilst this is true, it is an impetus for further consideration of context owing to the value of any such information that might be gleaned for the meaning.”

One of the examples that Aitken uses to demonstrate how socio-historical data can influence our data set, and bring greater clarity and nuance is with the noun αρχισωματοφυλαξ, which is fortunately attested widely in Greek literature (Aitken 2009, 191). The heart of the issue is clear with this lexeme, not in lack of data, but lexicographical treatment:

Muraoka differs slightly in rendering it by “head of security service”, perhaps intending to indicate that the position is not so much that of a body-guard but of a royal court member responsible for overall security. All these lexicons have taken the component forms (αρχι prefix, σωματο, and φυλαξ) and produced a translation that is dependent on all three components, although it is likely that the recent lexicons are ultimately deriving their translations from LSJ (Aitken 2009 191).

From this complex issue, Aitken determines that there are two components that deserve further attention, in which we can derive a more precise understanding of the word. The first is the prefix αρχι since it has a particular function, but then also contextual factors. Upon examining the history of use and other historical components, Aitken then provides his own functioning definition,

A person with an office of status in the Ptolemaic court, initially with some responsibilities for protection of the king but over time becoming honorific. Perhaps a grandiose-sounding version of σωματοφυλαξ (Aitken 2009 193).

Although the difference may be subtle, this definition, which comes closer to an encyclopedic definition and helps the exegete become more precise, also provides information about additional functions of the prefix. In addition, it gives us a sense of how this word works, where in the world of Greek it fits, what language games it might appropriately be found in, and only when this work is done does the investigation of semantic domains and lexical comparison become relevant or even possible.

Another study with a common method in mind was done by William A. Ross, a student of Aitken. He presented a paper at the national Society of Biblical Literature conference in San Antonio, TX 2016 entitled, “The Lexical Value of the Septuagint for the Koine: The Use of ΠΑΡΑΤΑΞΙΣ in Marcus Aurelius” (Ross 2016). In his examination Ross states the intended purpose as follows,

This semantic analysis demonstrates that, beginning in the Hellenistic period, παράταξις is almost exclusively used in reference to military engagement and comes simply to mean battle. Although over time there is a shift in the cultural background knowledge informing the conceptualization of the particular style of military engagement prompted by this lexical item, παράταξις… (Ross 2016)*

*An interesting argument that this paper makes in addition to the one highlighted is how the Septuagint is useful in some cases for unlocking these cultural meanings. It is by the neglect of the Septuagint that we have a lull in information of Greek language.

Again, although a small glimpse into a much larger, compelling paper, like Aitken, Ross has made it a primary interest to investigate cultural components that inform our understanding of the lexeme, but also to “supplement” the current work. Such an approach assumes that supplementation is necessary for lack of nuance. We can also see Ross’ methodology is explicitly driven by cognitive linguistics by simply stating his interest is in conceptualization. His conclusion is that the Septuagint utilizes the word παράταξις in a typically Greek way, but this is only done when put against the cultural backdrop of Greco-Roman military history. In other words, when παράταξις is evaluated based on proper patterns of intention we gather more sophisticated understanding of its meaning, not present in our current lexicographical data.

The final example of a current scholar aiming to incorporate more precise approaches to lexicography is Marieke Dhont, a postdoctoral scholar also working with James Aitken. Her doctoral research centers around the Greek translation of Job, which based on the introduction to her paper, indicates that the cultural background of Job is hotly debated (Dhont 2016, 619). While not directly interested in lexicography, Dhont focuses on the debated cultural background of Job and, particularly the degree to which Job’s Greek translator was Hellenizing or not, via cultural investigation.

In the pursuit of her task she says, “Language, however, does not necessarily define culture; rather, it is an aspect of it. A more nuanced approach to the relationship between language and cultural identity is desirable” (Dhont 2016, 619). In other words Dhont, whether she acknowledges the philosophical implications of this claim, has implicitly identified the need to play the same “language games” because the intent of use within a particular culture is going to shed more light on the lexical nuances and conceptual blends that exist in the lexical domain over against reading something in the same language not playing the same “games.” Wittgenstein himself saw a need for looking at the “natural” as the means for understanding grammar.

If the formation of concepts can be explained by facts of nature, should we not be interested, not in grammar, but rather in nature which is the basis of grammar? – Our interest certainly includes the correspondence between concepts and very general facts of nature.

Wittgenstein, Philosophie der Psychologie, in Philosophical Investigations. 365

He then continues stating that the intent of these types of investigations are not to make purely biological conclusions. Instead this practice of correlating grammar, philosophy, and the observable world is the very basis for a more ontologically driven linguistic methodology. If we follow these two thinkers, we see that Dhont has been consistent with her intellectual forefather. Her conclusions, although not seen as radical from the perspective of this author, are not all together progressive in any way; they do run against the grain of traditional Septuagint scholarship. What makes her evidence more convincing than other treatments is simply the fact that she has engaged, from an ontologically rich method, with the socio-historical concerns and games being played by the translator of Job.

Evaluating the basic arguments of these three scholars is intended to highlight how they bring clarity and push for further precision in the treatment of lexical data. It is due to the influence of Wittgenstein’s concepts of language games that gives these scholars the intellectual currency to make these investigations possible. The aim of this section is to make clear the benefits of socio-historical investigation with Wittgenstein’s conceptualization of language games being applied broadly. The final post in this series aims to answer a more practical question, how do we integrate such a vast amount of data?