Religious discourse and first person authority

In: Method & Theory in the Study of Religion


Competent speakers are normally authoritative as to the meaning of their words. Increasingly students of religion seem to be discounting this "first person authority", claiming that religious persons are not - as they seem to be - talking about what Hume called "invisible intelligent powers", gods, goddesses, ancestors, angels, and the like. This interpretative stance has understandably drawn criticism. I argue that the force of first person authority is diminished in religious discourse, and that this explains why it is so widely discounted. My argument turns on a broadly externalist account of linguistic meaning. When we view linguistic meaning as somehow "in the head" of the speaker, the interpreter will be set the incoherent task of trying to extract it with a minimum of distortion. But by viewing the meaning of words as emerging from the circumstances, mental and physical, and of their use, we may uncover the basis of first person authority and come to understand why its place in religious discourse has proved elusive.

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