One of the fundamental things that
speakers use language for is to refer: to point to objects or individuals in
the world. Perhaps the most common linguistic devices used to accomplish this
task are deictic pronouns, like 'you' or 'I.' Deictic uses of pronouns
are ones in which the pronoun directly refers to someone or something in the
context of utterance. In the case of 'you,' as in "You look well today," the
deictic pronoun 'you' picks out an addressee, the person to whom the comment is
directed. (Notice that the sentence contains another deictic element, 'today,'
which points to the day during which the sentence is uttered.) If there is not
someone present in the context who can serve as an addressee, the utterance is
intuitively deficient in some way: we can't decide whether the person being
addressed looks well or not if there is no one there for 'you' to point to. In
traditional philosophical and linguistic analyses, such utterances are said to
lack a truth value - they are neither true nor false. If there is no 'you'
present, we can't know whether 'you' is among the individuals who look well
(and therefore, whether the sentence is true or not).
In his paper, Daniel Weiss carefully
examines a thorny question raised by the use of deictic 'you' in a prayer
context. When there is nothing in the world for 'you' to point to, what does it
refer to (or more properly, what does the speaker intend for it to refer to)?
The answer that Weiss provides to this question, drawing on standard linguistic
analyses of deixis, is novel and insightful. In some cases, it throws new
light on old problems in the philosophy of language. However, at some points,
Weiss's analysis departs from the linguistic understanding of deictic pronouns
like 'you' in striking ways. Whether this departure is theologically desirable
is beyond my capacity for comment. However, in this response, I will try to
point out where Weiss's analysis draws on traditional linguistic analysis of
deixis, where he departs from it, and what other properties of the deictic
pronoun 'you' might be relevant to the argument Weiss makes.
Weiss begins his paper by posing
the question squarely: how are we to understand uses of the deictic pronoun
'you' in prayer? In linguistic terms, 'you' simply picks out a unique
addressee, whose identity is known to the speaker (and listener). In common
conversation, using 'you' presupposes that there is a person present who is the
object of the address. However, in prayer, the addressee is not (physically)
present. Furthermore, in standard linguistic analyses of deictic pronouns like
'you,' the intended referent of 'you' varies with the conversational context. 'You'
may pick out a different person each time it is used, depending on who is being
addressed. In contrast, in prayer, the 'you' (presumably) always picks out the
same addressee. It is not contextually variable (and if it is, serious
theological problems would presumably ensue, at least for monotheistic traditions
The prayer uses of 'you' therefore
seem quite different from conversational uses of 'you' - neither of the basic
properties of deictic 'you' described above (contextual variability, grounding
to a contextually co-present addressee) seem to hold for its prayer uses. Weiss
doesn't frame it in quite the following terms, but he might: assuming that
these properties don't hold of the prayer 'you,' why does prayer use 'you' at
all? Why not a novel pronominal form, referring only to God? Or why not avoid
deictic 'you' (the second person, as Weiss stresses) altogether, using only a
name ('God') or a definite description ('the Almighty') to invoke the deity?
It is striking that Hebrew does not
choose either of these options. Perhaps even more striking are the cross-linguistic
facts. Looking at 15 languages and dialects - Spanish, French, Italian,
Portuguese, German, Dutch, Gronings, Zeeuws, Serb-Croatian, Korean, Farsi,
Urdu, Miskitu, and Japanese - it appears that no language uses a novel God-only
referring form or restricts itself to a name or definite description in prayer.
It is worth noting that things could easily have been otherwise - both of the
alternatives above would seem to be perfectly legitimate ways of referring to
God in prayer. What does the use of 'you' in prayer, in so many different languages,
cultures, and traditions, tell us?
Weiss suggests an answer to this
question which implicitly rejects the claim above: he argues that the 'you'
found in prayer is a real deictic pronoun. In fact, its deictic nature
is central to its function in prayer contexts. First, with respect to the
requirement of an addressee who is present, Weiss argues that the prayer 'you'
does pick out an individual to whom the prayer is addressed. However, this
individual is so inherently salient (so "present," in any context) that (as
Weiss puts it) further contextual specification is unnecessary. God is present,
automatically, in any context, for anyone uttering a prayer.
Second, with respect to contextual
variability, Weiss makes a similar argument. Since God is present in any
context, always available as an addressee for prayer, the contextual
variability of 'you' is irrelevant in a prayer context. In an important sense,
context does not vary where God is concerned. God is the only addressee
so present, in any context, that the mere 'you' will suffice. From a linguistic
standpoint, this is an appealing result: 'you' retains its essential properties
in a prayer context. What changes is the nature of the addressee.
Since these two contextual factors
(co-presence and variability) are irrelevant where God is concerned, what
properties of the deictic 'you' remain? Here is where Weiss's argument becomes
really interesting: what remains is the deictic function of 'you' to pick out
an addressee, a second person. As Weiss puts it, the use of 'you' implicitly
puts the person uttering the prayer in a relationship with God. Rather than
identifying an object or individual which is not directly related to the
speaker, as a name or a definite description or perhaps even a God-specific
pronominal form would, 'you' forces the person uttering the prayer to
explicitly encode her relationship to God. In fact, Weiss argues, this latter
fact may serve as a useful discipline for people engaged in prayer. The act of
explicitly encoding it through 'you' may remind them of this relationship. This
is what the use of 'you' in prayer ultimately tells us: that the person
uttering the prayer is in a relationship with God.
Weiss goes on to make an even stronger
claim: he argues that the use of 'you' is in fact the only legitimate
way to refer to God. Since the mere 'you' will suffice to pick out God in any
context, any further specification is not only irrelevant but possibly
blasphemous. This means that using other forms (saying "God is all powerful"
instead of "You are all powerful" in prayer) shifts emphasis away from the
relationship and instead focuses on a reification of the description. This
choice means that the person praying is imposing her conceptions of God, and
letting some of her own bias, perspective, or ego intrude into how she thinks
of (and talks to) God in prayer.
Here Weiss steps away from
traditional linguistic analyses to make a larger theological point. While this
move is interesting and may yield significant theological payoffs, it moves the
prayer 'you' away from its traditional function as a deictic pronoun. Deictic
pronouns (like all other pronouns) are devices which serve first and foremost
to refer to individuals. Secondly, they also serve to explicitly encode some
information regarding the relationship of the speaker to the person or object
being picked out. However, once their primary work in picking out an individual
is done, there is nothing semantically wrong with using another form to pick
out the same person. For example, if you say "You look well today" when
addressing me and believe it to be true, "Mike looks well today" will be
equally true. Similarly, if a speaker believes "You are all-powerful" to be true
when addressing God in prayer, saying "God is all-powerful" will be equally
true. Weiss has some discussion of what it would mean to predicate a property
(like omnipotence) of an individual like God, which seems intended to speak to
these issues, but their full impact eluded me.
One possible way of reconciling
Weiss's arguments with the traditional linguistic analysis of 'you' is to claim
that the difference between conventional and prayer uses of 'you' is in their
primary and secondary functions. In ordinary conversation, the primary function
of a deictic pronoun is semantic: it points to an individual, of which a
sentence then predicates some property. The pragmatic function of encoding the
relationship between the speaker and the individual or object being referred to
is secondary. If Weiss is right, perhaps in prayer the pragmatic function of
'you' is primary, and its semantic function is secondary. Perhaps the
relational function of 'you' is more important than its identificational one in
prayer contexts. In conversation and prayer, then, 'you' might well do the same
jobs, but the relative importance of those jobs may well differ. Weiss has some
discussion of the pragmatics and semantics of mere 'you' which may point in
There is one other aspect of the
pragmatics of deictic 'you' which Weiss does not fully address. Weiss rightly
points out that using 'you' explicitly encodes the relationship between the
speaker and God, a fact which may have practical utility for people in prayer and
may also have larger theological implications regarding the nature of God. As
noted above, these larger implications of the mere 'you' are largely beyond my
capacity for comment. However, there is a very basic fact about 'you' that
Weiss does not comment on: using 'you' implicitly assumes that God can be
addressed. Again, it is worth noting that things could have been
otherwise: God (as an all-powerful, all-knowing being) might well have been
depicted in prayer as not available for direct address. The choice of 'you' in
rabbinical prayer makes this availability explicit.
Since use of 'you' in prayer
indicates that such a relationship is possible, it opens up the
possibility that the nature of this relationship might vary across cultures and
religious communities. Interestingly, this appears to be the case. Languages
often distinguish between formal (distal) and informal (proximal) second
person, such as Spanish (Usted versus tu) or German (Sie
versus du). In such languages, there is a choice between using formal
and informal 'you' when addressing God in prayer. Languages appear to vary in
which of these forms they choose. For instance, German and Spanish choose the
informal du and tu, respectively. French, Farsi, Sebo-Croatian,
and Urdu are similar. However, Dutch and Brazilian Portuguese choose the formal
U and o Senhor, respectively. Korean and Japanese do the same.
What these choices say about prayer in these cultures and how Weiss's mere
'you' analysis would extend to them is an open and interesting question.
Weiss's paper takes a careful look
at what would appear to be a perplexing use of 'you,' and finds underlying
sense in it, as well as some larger theological ramifications. His use of
analytical tools from linguistics is impressiveI would be very interested to
hear how he might extend his analysis to the wider range of reference to God in
prayer and scripture cross-linguistically.