Friday, May 18, 2018

Addendum to the Pinker Post

More to the point:  what he hell does he mean by it?

I teach composition and rhetoric, and one of the things I teach is rhetorical analysis (in one week!  No, we don't cover it deeply).  I usually focus on the phrase "God Bless America," asking my students to consider what it means and what it even is.  Is it a command, an imperative, requiring God to "bless" America (I'll explain the quotes in a minute)?  It is a plea, with the "Please" or "May" implied but unspoken?  And what, I always ask, does "bless" mean?  We use it almost entirely in a religious context.  Christians churches  ask for the blessings of God, or speak of the blessed poor, the blessed meek, the blessed mourners; but what does "bless" mean?  Good things from God?  That's one.  But how are the meek "blessed"?  Or the mourners?

Or is it even perforative language, meant by the expression to create a state of affairs?

Outside the religious context, does the word "bless" have any meaning at all?  "Bless your heart" is a Southern phrase that is meant both as a benediction and as a euphemism.  In the right context it is the most polite way of taking pity on a fool that one can muster; but it can also mean to be a comfort, and it's sometimes hard to be sure which is meant.  But there isn't necessarily a religious connotation in it, especially when its used as the most anodyne of insults.

Which brings me, in far too roundabout a fashion, to this:

Of course, Pinker’s confidence in the righteousness of his own cause may come across as similarly beatific (he’s an atheist who’s confident enough to use the word “blessed” without a hint of irony), but as he repeatedly tells us, the evidence is on his side.

I do wonder what Pinker means.  I don't have the context.  I presume it's in his new book.  I understand the reference to irony, but is it essential?  I understand the idea of a blessing; but I have to say I find "Congratulations!" a lot more straightforward and understandable.  The more I think about "bless" or "blessed" or "blessing," the more I wonder if I know what I should be expecting, or if I've just been told I'm a benighted fool who doesn't even understand the insult.*

*I was reminded last night of the other use of "blessing," that given by an authority figure (a father, The Godfather) to those under that authority.  Which is the real irony of Pinker's use of the word.  Where does the blessing he thinks has been dispensed (he uses the past tense) come from?  The Enlightenment, one presumes?  Huh.  You know, real philosophers are more careful about their language than that.

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