Language as social coordination

Posted on May 11, 2010

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A colleague of mine at Warsaw University is organising an international conference on language that is going to include a number of people that are well known to me, including a number of past key-speakers from various Kazimierz Workshops.

The conference emphasizes the biological nature of language, underscoring its coordinative function. The aim of the conference is to 1) show continuity of natural language with other informational systems in biology; 2) show that language arises from and is crucial for human co-action.

It is quite possible that the talk that John Collier will give will be based upon work on pragmatics that he and I have been doing. At the same time, I hope to use this forum to talk about some of my own ideas on how religious discourse works:

Religious discourse as social coordination of goals

Social co-ordination can be seen to function on two levels: the co-ordination of actions and the co-ordination of goals. The co-ordination of goals is important in so far as all groups must deal with the free rider problem. Pro-social adaption accounts of religion, such as those put forward by Sosis and by D.S. Wilson, propose that this is the function of religion. Religious discourse can be seen to reflect this in an interesting way.

Assuming a naturalist worldview, all religious claims are false and potentially undermined by investigation. To maintain their stability, therefore, they must be protected against investigation. The result is that the popularity of such claims is independent from their truth value and depends, instead, upon their function. This invites a pragmatist attitude to their meaning that would identify it with their social function. None-the-less, to maintain their ability to motivate pro-social behaviour, religious claims must generally be believed to literally and accurately represent the supernatural state of affairs. This creates an unavoidable tension within religious discourse between the explicit and the implicit meaning of such claims.

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