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Who really determines what is meant by “belief”? Who is empowered to decide what should be the “true” meaning of this and other root words in the language of men? No one, of course. No individual, at any rate, no matter how great his genius, can possibly determine and fix anything of the sort. It is already determined in advance. And all elucidation must start with this pre-existent fact. Presumably Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas, knew precisely what they were doing when they started any discussion by querying linguistic usage: What do men mean when they say freedom, soul, life, happiness, love, belief? Evidently these ancestors of Western philosophy did not consider such an approach a mere didactic device. Rather, they held the opinion that without such a link to human speech as actually spoken, thinking would necessarily be ethereal, insubstantial, fantastic.

Nevertheless it would be wrong to imagine that determining what is truly meant by the living language of human beings is an easily mastered task. On the contrary, there is much evidence that it is virtually impossible to exhaust the wealth of meanings in words, especially root words, and to paraphrase them precisely. Perhaps the individual mind is scarcely capable of holding their full richness of meanings in his consciousness. Then again, it seems to be the other side of the coin that an individual ordinarily, when he uses words unself-consciously, usually means more than he ever consciously realizes.

It may be that this sounds at first like a romantic exaggeration. But we can show that it is not. Everyone, for example, thinks he knows precisely what so commonplace a word as “resemblance” means. He will say, perhaps, that resemblance is “agreement in several characteristics, in contradistinction to likeness, which is agreement in all characteristics.” And what objections can be raised to so precise a definition, which is, moreover, borrowed from a well-known philosophical dictionary? Nevertheless the definition is wrong, or at least it is incomplete. An essential element of the meaning is lacking. That, to be sure, will be observed only by one who examines the living usage of language. For a part of living usage is not only what men actually say, but what they do not explicitly say. Another aspect of living usage is that certain words cannot be employed in certain contexts. Thus Thomas Aquinas once made the point that we can meaningfully speak of a man’s resemblance to his father, whereas it is obviously nonsensical and inadmissible to say that a father resembles his son. Herein it becomes apparent that the concept of “resemblance” contains an element of meaning which has been overlooked in the apparently exact definition quoted above (“agreement in several characteristics”)—namely, the element of descent and dependence. But who would claim that this initially hidden aspect of the meaning had been present to his consciousness, explicitly and fully, from the very beginning?

We are therefore embarking on a task that may possibly prove extremely difficult when we attempt to discover the full and undiminished meaning of a root word—the meaning, nota bene, which every mature person has in the back of his mind when he uses the word. Such preliminary considerations are necessary lest we succumb to the lures of excessively precise definitions. For example, we are told that belief simply means “emotional conviction,” or else “practical” certainty about matters which cannot be justified “theoretically.” Or it is said that belief is the subjectively adequate but objectively inadequate acceptance of something as true. When we hear such suspiciously exact definitions, we would do well to receive them with a good deal of wariness and distrust.

Josef Pieper (from Belief and Faith, 1963)

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