Paper read to the Moral Sciences Club at Cambridge in March 1954. Published in Frederick Copleston, S.J., Contemporary Philosophy, 1956, chapter 7.


Frederick Copleston, S.J.

We all know that language can be used for different purposes or have different functions. And in determining the primary function of any proposition or set of consecutive propositions we have, of course, to take into account the general context, including the intentions of the speaker or writer. In a propaganda speech, the function of which, we will suppose, is primarily evocative (I mean, evocative of emotional attitudes or dispositions) many propositions may be included which convey factual information. Indeed, their inclusion may well be necessary for the fulfilment of the general purpose of the speech as a whole. But this would not prevent the general purpose of the speech being that of evoking an emotional response.1

Now, one must admit, I think, that propositions about God can be used to stimulate emotional reactions. It appears that they have been so used in certain types of sermons. It is also clear that they can be used, and not infrequently are used, to evoke what I may call a conduct-response, the emotional response, if there is one, being ideologically subordinated to this purpose. If little Tommy jumps in all the puddles and dirties his shoes and clothes, his devout mother might possibly say: "If you don't stop doing that, God will be angry with you." If she does say this, her primary purpose is not that of conveying a piece of factual information to the child; nor is it that of evoking an emotional reaction; her primary intention is that of inducing the child to alter its mode of behaviour. Similarly, the preacher of an exhortatory sermon, as distinct from an "instruction," is primarily concerned with evoking or confirming attitude-responses and conduct-responses in his hearers rather than with giving them information. No doubt, he will make informative statements in the course of his sermon, but this giving of information will probably be subordinate to the general or primary purpose of the sermon. He wants to awaken, or to confirm, a "change of heart."

Now, it may appear that the problem of the meaning of terms predicated of God can be got rid of if one is prepared to say that statements about God are made simply and solely to evoke emotion- and conduct-responses which, rightly or wrongly, are considered desirable and that they are not intended to assert a state of affairs. For example, if one says that God is wise and loving, one's aim is to induce in oneself or others an attitude of mental tranquillity and resignation. The effect would scarcely, indeed, be produced if the words meant nothing at all; but it is quite sufficient that they should be taken in their natural prima facie sense, as meaning, that is to say, that God is wise and loving in pretty well exactly the same way as a wise and loving human father, though doubtless in a magnified manner. There is then no reason for making a problem out of the meaning of the words. All that is required for them to be capable of producing the desired practical effect is that they should have a meaning which is intelligible in terms of the experience of the hearers; whether it is precisely stated or can be precisely stated, does not matter. If it is said that God repented of having made man, it is quite sufficient to take the statement in its ordinary sense. The logical status of such statements is akin to that of Plato's statements at the end of the Gorgias about judgment after death, supposing that Plato's purpose in making them was not to assert that the judgment described in the myth actually takes place or will take place but simply to induce his readers to have an esteem for the soul and always to practise justice rather than injustice.

But if we say that Peter is white, we presumably imply that Peter exists, or that there is someone called Peter; for if there were not, Peter could not be white. And if we say that God is intelligent, we presumably imply that there is a being which can be called "God." And if "intelligent" in the context means intelligent simply in the human way, we seem to imply that there is a being called "God " and that this being is at most a superman. Yet though one might not be prepared to state dogmatically that there is no such being, I doubt whether anyone would be seriously concerned to argue that there is. It appears, then, at first sight at least, that anyone who wishes to uphold the interpretation of propositions about God which I have mentioned and at the same time to maintain that they have a useful and beneficial function to perform must be prepared to defend the view suggested by Plato in the Republic that it is sometimes a good thing to teach the people what one does not oneself believe. It may be said that this does not necessarily follow; for a man who makes statements about God may not only believe them to be mythical in character but may also say that they are mythical in character. The question then arises whether such statements can have any persuasive and evocative power unless they are believed to be true. I should hesitate to affirm that a statement can have no evocative power unless it is accepted as true at least by the hearers or readers. For if a Communist radio-speaker calls Sir Winston Churchill a Fascist cannibal, not only he but also his hearers may know very well that Sir Winston is not in the habit of eating human flesh; and yet the statement may serve to evoke or confirm an emotion-response, because of the associations of the word "cannibal." But the statement that Sir Winston is a Fascist cannibal does not seem to be merely an injunction to the hearers to dislike Sir Winston; it seems to imply, and would presumably be understood as implying, some factual statements, for example, that Sir Winston is not a Communist, that he is opposed to the policy of the Soviet Union, and so on. If, then, statements about God are interpreted as being purely mythical in character and yet at the same time as useful for a practical purpose, one might ask whether any factual statements are in any sense implied other than statements about emotions and attitudes, and, if so, what they are. In any case even though I hesitate to say that a statement can have no evocative efficacy unless it is believed by the hearers or readers, it seems to me to be clear that most people are interested in propositions about God only to the extent in which they think that they might be true or false, in the sense of asserting a state of affairs which does or does not obtain. And as it seems to be only in the light of a claim to factual truth that a real problem arises about the meaning of the terms predicated of God, I omit further consideration of an interpretation of theological propositions which follows rather than precedes a discussion of the problem, for the simple reason that, though these propositions undoubtedly have an evocative function in certain contexts, they have been put forward as informative propositions. It is obviously true that the Christian must subordinate the amassing of information about God to a practical purpose. What does it profit a man if he know the whole of theology and suffer the loss of his own soul? But this does not alter the fact that theological propositions purport to be informative. And this is why the problem of meaning arises.2

Now, if I propose to discuss the problem of the meaning of terms predicated of God, it might reasonably be demanded that first of all the problem should be clearly and precisely formulated. But this is not so easy as might at first sight appear.

For the mediaeval writers the problem arose subsequently to the affirmation of the existence of God. They found in the Scriptures and in Christian tradition certain terms predicated of God. And they recognized clearly enough that there is a problem in connection with the meaning of these terms? Convinced, for example, that our idea of intelligence is founded on our experience of human intelligence, and convinced that we cannot predicate of God human intelligence as such, they asked in what sense or in what way the word "intelligent" is being used when it is applied to God. Believing already in God, and believing, for instance, that the Scriptures are the word of God (and this is true even of an "empiricist " like Ockham), they assumed that terms predicated of God in the Scriptures must have some meaning. They asked what their meaning is rather than whether they have any meaning; they asked, in modern parlance, what is the logical status of such terms rather than whether they have any logical status at all.

A modern writer, however, would be inclined to treat the problem of the meaning of the terms used to describe God as a problem to be settled before an inquiry into God's existence. He would be inclined, I think, to speak as follows. If you ask whether God exists, you are asking whether it is the case that there is a being, and one only, which is infinite, personal, omniscient, omnipotent ... or whatever the terms are which are used to describe God. Now, before I can help you to ascertain whether this description fits anything or not, I must know what the terms mean. It is not, of course, necessary that I should be given the precise meaning of the terms, but at least I must be given a meaning sufficiently clear to enable me to recognize God, so to speak, that is to say, to distinguish the divine being from other beings."

I have expressed this second approach in a very bald way. But it was not my intention to caricature it by suggesting that it necessarily implies a refusal to recognize God's existence unless God is discoverable in the same way that tigers are discoverable, that is, by going and seeing if there are any animals in the jungle answering to a certain description. For our speaker might say: "I do not demand that God should be a visible thing. If He were, He would not be God; that is to say, He would not correspond to your account of what you mean by God. But before I can undertake to inquire whether there is rational evidence for the existence of a being possessing attributes described in certain terms, I must have some idea at least of the meaning of those terms."

Now, both approaches seem to me natural if they are viewed in their historical contexts. The mediaevals believed before they philosophized. Indeed, all the great mediaeval philosophers, including Ockham, were theologians. And it was natural for them to approach the matter in the way they did. On the other hand, after centuries of theism, when most people have some idea of the meaning of the word "God," it is natural that the question should be asked, "Does God exist?" That is, is there a Being which corresponds to the idea of God? And it is also natural, though it demands a greater degree of sophistication, that some should ask for an explanation of the meaning of the terms used to describe God before they are willing to inquire whether there is a being answering to the description.

For a reason which may become apparent later I do not, however, think that the problem of meaning can well be treated in entire abstraction from the question of existence. On the other hand I do not want simply to presuppose the existence of God. So I put the problem in this form. "if finite things are conceived, whether truly or falsely, as depending existentially on an infinite transcendent Being, what is the meaning of terms like 'personal,' 'intelligent' and so on when they are predicated of this Being?" The comment can be made, of course, that not only am I apparently excepting from analysis the terms "infinite" and "transcendent" but also that the term "being " itself stands in need of analysis. But I have already remarked that it is more difficult than appears at first sight to formulate the problem at issue when one starts from the meaning end. However, you would probably find it unsatisfactory it I spent all my time trying to formulate the question without any attempt at all to discuss the answer. "And so I must claim to be allowed "transcendent" and "infinite." The retort may be made that it is useless to discuss the answer to a question unless the question has first been given a satisfactory formulation. But as the problem of meaning really only arises in the form in which I propose to discuss it in connection with terms predicated of a Being conceived as transcendent and infinite, it is perhaps not so unreasonable to express the question in the way in which I have. If by "God" one meant a Greek anthropomorphic deity, who, as Schelling remarked, was really a part of Nature and not a transcendent being at all, there would not be a problem in connection with the meaning of a term like "intelligent" when predicated of such a being. It is only because one is not talking about Greek or Roman deities that the problem arises.

It is obvious that when we predicate attributes of God we do not invent entirely new symbols; we use terms which already have meanings. And these meanings are primarily determined By our experience. For instance, the term "intelligent," to speak rather loosely and without wishing to prejudge analytic issues, is predicated primarily of a human being and refers to his or her proximate capability of or disposition for thinking, speaking and acting in certain ways. We then extend the field of application and say, if we do say it, that God is intelligent. But the meaning of the term cannot be precisely the same when it is predicated of God as when it is predicated of a human being. At least, if we want to say that it is precisely the same, we are faced, as I have already remarked, with two alternatives. Either we must say that God is simply a glorified human being or we must say that propositions about God are put forward simply as myths or fairy stories which are useful in helping us to lead a life which we consider worth living. As neither of these views commends itself to me, I shall assume that terms which are predicated of God and human beings cannot be used in precisely the same sense when they are predicated of God as that in which they are predicated of finite things. On the other hand, if they are used in a completely different sense when they are predicated of God, they lose all meaning for us in this field of application. If the meaning-content of terms like "personal" and "intelligent" is determined by our experience of human personality and human intelligence, and if they are used in an entirely and completely different sense when predicated of God, they can have no meaning for us when they are used in this second way. For we have not observed God. For the term "intelligent," therefore, in the proposition "God is an intelligent being" we might just as well substitute a symbol like X or Y. And these symbols would express no idea at all. Sheer agnosticism would result. A botanist who discovers a hitherto unknown flower in Africa or Asia can give it a new name; he can even invent a new word to name it. And this word will have meaning, a meaning which can be learned either ostensively or by description. For the flower can be exhibited, or at least it can be described in terms of its unlikeness and likeness to other flowers with which we are acquainted. But we do not and cannot see God. And if all the terms used in descriptive propositions about God were used in entirely different senses from the senses which they bear in the context of human experience, God could not be described; no attribute could be significantly predicated of Him. I conclude, therefore, that the terms which are predicated of both finite things and God must be used analogically when they are predicated of God, if they have any meaning at all. That is to say, a term which is predicated of God and of finite things must, when it is predicated of God, be used in a sense which is neither precisely the same as nor completely different from the sense in which it is predicated of finite things. And this means that it must be used in a sense which is similar and dissimilar at the same time to the sense in which it is used when predicated of finite things.

Now, to say that a term like "personal " or "intelligent" must be used analogically when it is predicated of God is to lay down the condition under which the term can be significant while at the same time gross anthropomorphism is avoided. (By "gross anthropomorphism" I mean the assertion that God is simply a glorified human being. We cannot help thinking of God "in human terms"; but it is one thing to think of God in an inadequate way and at the same time to recognize its inadequacy, and it is another thing to maintain that God is a superman.) But to lay down the condition under which a term can be significant, while saying something about the use of language or about the logical status of such terms, is not the same thing as to give the meaning of the term. If I call my dog "intelligent" and someone asks me what I mean by this statement, it is no adequate answer to reply that I am using the term analogically. For this reply, though it says something about the use of the word, does not give the meaning of the word.

Moreover, this example about the dog can help us to see a peculiar feature of the use of analogy in theological propositions. When I call my dog "intelligent" I can explain the meaning of the word by pointing to the dog and its activities. We can observe human beings and their activities, and we can observe dogs and their activities; and we can point out similarities and dissimilarities. All the terms of the analogy are knowable in experience. But we can scarcely say that this is so in the case of the analogies under discussion. For though we can observe certain phenomena which we may regard as the effects of God's activity and as manifesting it, we cannot observe God. And this renders the problem of meaning in this context all the more acute.

Now, one of the traditional ways of approaching the meaning of terms predicated of God is the so-called "negative way." The use of this way of negation is, indeed, inevitable, for the simple reason that the meaning of terms like "personal" or "intelligent" is primarily determined for us by observation in ourselves or others of activities which cannot be ascribed to God in precisely the same sense. If I say that God is an intelligent Being, and if someone then asks me whether I mean that God is quicker than we are at drawing conclusions from premisses, that He sees the points of arguments more swiftly than human beings do and that He is accustomed to size up situations very quickly and see what should be done in the circumstances, I must answer that I do not quite mean any of these things. I therefore set about eliminating what are called the "imperfections" of human intelligence. But as I proceed in this way I become conscious that I am gradually eliminating the positive meaning which the term has for me. For the positive meaning of the term is determined for me by experience. And my experience is of human and not of divine intelligence. And human intelligence manifests itself in precisely those ways which I afterwards eliminate as imperfections. I return, therefore, to a positive affirmation. God, I say, is intelligent, but He is intelligent in an infinitely higher sense than human beings are. But when I am asked to give a positive account of this higher sense, I very soon find myself back again in the way of negation. It would appear, then, that the theistic philosopher is faced with a dilemma. If he pursues exclusively the negative way, he ends in sheer agnosticism, for he whittles away the positive meaning which a term originally had for him until nothing is left. If, however, he pursues exclusively the affirmative way, he lands in anthropomorphism. But if he attempts to combine the two ways, as indeed he must if he is to avoid both extremes, his mind appears to oscillate between anthropomorphism and agnosticism.

At this point I introduce a distinction which seems to me to be important, the distinction between what I shall call "objective meaning" and "subjective meaning." This distinction might be expressed in other terms of course. But these are the terms which I propose to employ. And I understand them in this way. By "objective meaning" I understand that which is actually referred to by the term in question (that is, the objective reality referred to), and by "subjective" meaning" I understand the meaning-content which the term has or can have for the human mind. The distinction should not be understood as a distinction between the true or real meaning of a term and a purely "subjectivist " interpretation. It is a distinction between that which is objectively referred to or "meant " by a term and my understanding or conception of what is referred to. My conception may be inadequate; but it does not necessarily follow that it is false.

If this distinction is applied, for example, to the proposition "God is intelligent," the "objective meaning " of the term "intelligent" is the divine intelligence or intellect itself. And of this I can certainly give no adequate positive account; for the divine intelligence is God Himself, and I have no direct apprehension of God. The "subjective meaning" of the term is its meaning-content in my own mind. Of necessity this is primarily determined for me by my own experience, that is, by my experience of human intelligence. But, seeing that human intelligence as such cannot be predicated of God, I attempt to purify the "subjective meaning." And it is at this point that the line of reflection which I have outlined above comes in. To avoid anthropomorphism of a gross sort the mind takes the way of negation, departing from its starting-point, namely human intelligence, while to avoid agnosticism it returns to its starting-point. It tries to hold together similarity and dissimilarity at the same time. But this is simply one of the characteristics of our understanding of descriptive statements about God. In our language about God we always move within the sphere of analogy. We have no direct natural apprehension of God, and we can have no natural knowledge of Him save by way of reflection on the things which do fall within our experience. Hence the use of analogy. What I have called the "objective meaning" of the terms predicated of God transcends our experience. Hence it cannot be positively and adequately described. All we can do is to attempt to purify the "subjective meaning." And in doing so we are caught inextricably in that interplay of affirmation and negation of which I have spoken.

At this point I want to try a new tack. Earlier in this paper, after mentioning the mediaeval and what I take to be a not uncommon modern approach to the problem of the meaning of the terms predicated of God, I remarked, with reference to the second approach, that I did not think that the problem of meaning could well be treated in entire abstraction from the question of existence, while on the other hand I said that I did not want simply to presuppose the existence of God. And I now want to explain what I had in mind when I said this.

If I am asked what I mean when I say that my dog is intelligent, I mention certain of the animal's habits and activities. But these habits and activities are at the same time the reasons why I call the dog "intelligent." And this suggests that there is a close connection between asking for the meaning of a factual proposition and asking for the reasons why the proposition is enunciated. Perhaps it comes to the same thing?

Now, suppose that I were to say that God is intelligent simply because, given the idea of an existentially dependent world, I think that there is order or system in the world, which I ascribe to a Creator. This would be my reason for saying that God is intelligent. Would it not also be what I mean when I say that God is intelligent, so far as "subjective meaning" is concerned? For if this is my sole reason for saying that God is intelligent, when I think of God as intelligent I necessarily think of Him as the sort of being capable of creating the world-system or order. And in this case the meaning of the proposition that God is intelligent cannot well be treated in entire abstraction from the reasons why I enunciate the proposition. At the same time it is not necessary that the reasons should be objectively valid in order that the proposition should have this meaning. My reasons for saying that the world depends existentially on a Creator, as also my reasons for saying that there is a world-system or order, might be invalid; but they "would" still govern the subjective meaning of the proposition that God is intelligent. In order to consider the subjective meaning it would not, therefore, be necessary to presuppose dogmatically the existence of God; but at the same time the problem of meaning could not well be treated in entire abstraction from the question of existence.

Now, the reasons for saying that God is intelligent are obviously also the reasons for using one analogy rather than another, for speaking of God according to an analogy based on human intellectual life rather than on an analogy based on the life of, say, a plant. And if the reasons were bad reasons, one would have no objective justification for using the one analogy rather than the other. Further, if the reasons were bad reasons, one would to that extent be without any objective justification for thinking that the term "intelligent," as predicated of God, possessed any "objective meaning." But it would still be true that the reasons governed the "subjective meaning," and that this could not well be analyzed without any reference to the reasons for making the statements in which the term occurred.

And this suggests that it is perhaps preferable to ask why this or that statement about God is made rather than to ask simply what is meant by making the statement in question. For if we ask simply what is meant by some statement about God, we may put the question with some standard or criterion of clarity in our minds which is not applicable in the case. If, for example, an agnostic asks a theologian what is meant by some obscure statement about the Trinity in dogmatic theology, it is unlikely that the theologian will be able to give an answer which is considered by the questioner as being in any way satisfactory; and if the theologian refers to the need for first learning the technical vocabulary and use of terms in dogmatic theology, his remarks are apt to seem like an evasion of the point at issue. But if the theologian is asked why he makes the statement, the questioner should be better prepared to consider sympathetically the answer that the "why" cannot be understood without a previous study of the particular context and realm of discourse.

Furthermore, if one tries substituting the question "Why do you say that?" for the question "What does that statement mean?", it may become easier to see how a descriptive statement about God can satisfy the minimal requirement for a significant descriptive statement, namely that it should not be compatible with every other conceivable descriptive or factual statement.

That this requirement is a necessary condition seems to me to be clear. For I can hardly be said to know what is meant by a factual statement unless I am able to recognize that something at least is not asserted. It is not required that I should know whether the statement is true or not; nor is it necessary that I should actually advert to what is excluded. But unless I am able to recognize that something is excluded I do not know what is asserted. If someone tells me that Jane is a good cook and I think that this statement is compatible with the statement that Jane habitually prepares food which is unfit for human consumption, no one would say that I understand what is meant by calling Jane a good cook. And if the statement that Jane is a good cook really were compatible with every other conceivable statement about Jane's cooking, it could hardly be said to have any definite meaning. Similarly, if someone tells me that Martha loves her child, and if I think that this statement is compatible with the statement that Martha deliberately starves her child in order that she may have more money for spending on the cinema, I simply do not understand what is meant by saying that Martha loves her child. And if the statement really were compatible with all other possible statements about Martha's attitude towards her child, it would have no definite meaning at all.

Now, it has been argued that a statement like "God loves all human beings" excludes no other factual statement, and that on this account it has no positive meaning. The Christian, it is said, will not allow that any other factual statement counts or can count against the truth of the statement that God loves human beings. Whether one mentions war or disease or the sufferings of children, the Christian will still go on saying that God loves human beings. It is not denied, of course, that it belongs to the Christian faith to say this. But the statement is raised whether the statement that God loves human beings can in these circumstances be said to have any definite meaning at all. It may, indeed, have emotive significance. For the word "love" has meaning in other contexts, and this meaning is so familiar that it can stimulate an emotional response even when it is used in a context where it is deprived of definite significance. But though the statement that God loves human beings may possess emotive significance, any factual significance which it may at first sight appear to possess evaporates under the influence of analysis. If the statement that God loves human beings is compatible with all other statements that one can mention and does not exclude even one of them, it no more possesses a definite meaning than the statement that Jane is a good cook or that Martha loves her child would possess a definite meaning, were it compatible with all other possible statements.

The difficulty is clear, I think. But suppose that one asks the Christian theologian why he makes the statement that God loves human beings. He may answer that he says this because he believes that God offers all men through Christ the grace to attain eternal salvation. So interpreted, the statement is incompatible with, and therefore excludes, the statement that God wills the eternal damnation and misery of all human beings. And this account of the matter serves also to show that the statement as made by the theologian is not, as the line of criticism mentioned seems to suggest, an empirical hypothesis arrived at by adding up the joys and sorrows of life and seeing which is the larger total.

In this paper I have, of course, discussed the problem of the meaning of the terms predicated of God in the setting and in the way that the problem presents itself to me. And I have no hesitation in admitting that the precise way in which the problem presents itself to me is determined to a certain extent by "presuppositions," in the sense of convictions already held. But those responsible for according me the honour of an invitation to address this society3 obviously did not expect me to pretend to be other than I am or to hold positions other than those which I do in fact hold. So I hardly think that any apology is needed on the score of implicit "presuppositions." Indeed, is it possible to discuss a particular problem of this nature without making some implicit assumptions? It seems to me that some assumptions at least will necessarily be involved in a person's general position in regard to philosophy and religion, in the light of which the problem will present itself to him or her in a certain light and possess whatever degree of interest he or she may find in it.

Mention of religion suggests one final remark. I can quite well understand that the way in which I have discussed this theme may appear highly uncongenial to some minds on the ground that it seems to have nothing to do with what we call "religion." Surely, it may be said, the whole paper is an illustration of the gulf which yawns between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But though I can understand this feeling, I should like to point out two things, as far as the Christian is concerned. The Christian recognizes in the human nature of Christ the perfect expression in human terms of the incomprehensible Godhead, and he learns from Christ how to think about God. But at the same time it is certainly no part of the Christian religion to say that God in Himself can be adequately comprehended by the human mind. And that He cannot be so comprehended seems to me to be at once a truth vital to religion, in the sense that it prevents us from degrading the idea of God and turning Him into an idol, and a truth which follows necessarily from the fact that our natural knowledge begins with sense-experience. For my own part, I find the thought that the reality, the "objective meaning," far exceeds in richness the reach of our analogical concepts the very reverse of depressing. St. Paul tells us that we see through a glass darkly, and the effect of a little linguistic analysis is to illuminate the truth of this statement.


1 If I say, "I have recently been in Sicily, and I find the tail-end of the English winter highly uncongenial," my primary purpose might be that of awakening sympathy with my distress, but, if so, I use factual statements to attain my end.

2 The conscious and deliberate interpretation of theological propositions as mythical seems, as far as Christianity is concerned, to follow their enunciation as factual statements. Can we seriously imagine that anyone would consciously invent the Christian theology as a myth designed to stimulate certain conduct- and attitude-responses?

3 As stated in the preface, this paper was read to the Moral Sciences Club at Cambridge.