Before this summer I knew nothing of Jacques Ellul. I discovered the late French theologian and social critic almost by accident, when I glanced into his book, The Humiliation of the Word, and heard a voice that, as they say, “spoke to my condition” (La Parole humiliée, 1981; ET Erdmans, 1985).
Jacques Ellul (1912-1994)
It’s no secret that philosophy adores the supreme importance of language. But Ellul takes this principle much more seriously than most philosophers. For him the Word has become the sole provenance of Truth. Which means that Truth must be considered independently of all images and sense data.
“language … permits us to go beyond the reality of mere existence to… something different from the sensually verifiable universe. Language is not bound to reality, but to its capacity to create this different universe, which you may call surreal, meta-real, or metaphysical. For the sake of convenience we will call it the order of truth. The word is the creator, founder, and producer of truth.” (1.2)
Ellul compensates for this wholesale dethronement of images and other sense data from the court of Truth by readily conceding to them the illustrious name ‘Reality.’
By differentiating Truth from Reality – and by relegating so much interesting stuff to ‘Reality,’ Ellul makes it clear he does not aim to dismiss the significance of images and sense data. He is determined only to prevent all such categorically foreign elements from obscuring the search for Truth.
I don’t know if Ellul’s generous concession can appease the most shrill acolytes of science, who – unlike actual scientists – believe scientific method to be the universal solvent of all really tough human problems. But we are probably not equipped for understanding Ellul if we do not thoroughly understand that accuracy is an epistemological value existing on a lower moral level than veracity.
Theologians, too, may find it hard to give up words like ‘image’ and ‘reality’ in honor of Truth – until they remember that this concession is at least in keeping with teachings that have never equated truth-seeking with pursuit of images or of the data of the five senses.
When Ellul differentiates Word from Image, he does not separate language from ‘reality’ – he merely assigns it a certain dominance. In one example, language shows its power over images and sense data by the fact that the race of speakers hold a distinct evolutionary advantage over non-speaking predators (though we are less endowed with speed, strength, endurance, intuition, reflex, etc.). But Ellul does not view evolutionary advantage as a standard of Truth – in fact he views the evolutionary gains of language as only an epiphenomenon of the Word. While he would admit that language is the secret of material mastery, he would insist that its real essence as the Word unlocks higher attainments that utterly transcend all material forms of success.
“What is Truth?” Ellul hears the question being asked, but wisely avoids definitions of Truth in terms of observable or identifiable content. Instead he recommends we discover what belongs to the domain of Truth ourselves, by seeking to understand it as the object of our highest human endeavor.
“Anything concerned with the ultimate destination of a human being belongs to the domain of Truth. And by ‘destination’ in this sense I mean ‘meaning and direction in life’. We can add to this everything that refers to the establishment of a scale of values which allows a person to make significant personal decisions, and everything related to the debate over Justice and Love and their definition.” (1.3)
I’m not sure I have ever underlined a book more often than I did this one. Jacques Ellul makes me want to go back to Kant’s epoch-making arguments for the primacy of Practical Reason (First and Second Critiques) and reopen the whole discussion on behalf of religion that Fichte more or less fumbled, and that Schleiermacher seems only to have made ambiguous to modern minds.