The Tower of Babble: A Brief Reflection on Words & Meaning


It is evident that words are not identical with what they mean. People can (1) mean different things with the same word, or (2) mean the same thing with different words, or even (3) use words without meaning anything in particular by them. (1) “Liberal,” for instance, can indicate a left-wing political orientation, moral laxity, a secular political philosophy based on individual property rights, or an optimism in popular ability to create viable alternatives to traditional institutions, etc…. (2) Sometimes people mean the same thing when they say “liberal” and “socialist” (i.e. in respect to governmental allocation of resources) and other times they mean the same thing when the say “liberal” and “conservative” (i.e. in respect to economic policy; this is the explanation of the term “Neo-Liberal”). (3) The above equivocation proves the possibility to use these words without meaning anything in particular by them, and the majority of political discourse is an actual instance of just this. “Gossip” and “idle chatter” mean the same thing as “most political discourse” in this respect: namely, nothing.

Obviously, communication requires a participation by the communicants in a common meaning. Without this participation, we can say the interlocutors are “talking past one another.” The Tower of Babel story portrays the (lógos of the) above as mythos. Thus, we can use the word “babble” to refer to this situation. Once the spoken word—lógos prophorikos, or verbum quod foris sonat—has been sundered from its meaning—lógos endiathetos, or verbum quod intus lucet—metaphysical Nominalism is a natural consequence. This is to say that people soon begin to imagine that the common meaning in which two interlocutors may participate is simply a product of convention and has no reality in itself. In this manner, meaning is supposed to be less-real than the particular things by which it is meant. The only reason we suppose meaninglessness is anything other than nihilism is because we have already fallen into the manner of Nominalistic thinking that we characterised above, and thus assume that the world is made of things instead of meanings. Many people today refer to the condition that we have called “babble” and “Nominalism” above, as “post-modernism.” The fact, however, that we can mean the same thing with different words is evidence of our salvation if we “have ears to hear.” To participate a common meaning is communication and communication is truth, which “shall set you free.”

Thanks to Augustine of Hippo and many others

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