Saturday, February 06, 2010

Metaphysical dualism

The title of this post is a philosophical term, so profound-sounding that when I learned it in high school philosophy class I thought it was incredibly cool. It refers to a theory first popularized by the ancient Greeks, most notably Plato. According to this theory (see here), the world consists of two kinds of things: physical matter, and intellectual ideas or “forms”. To take an example, the chair I'm sitting on consists of an arbitrary collection of carbon and hydrogen atoms, and also approximates the “form” describing what a “chair” is in its ideal nature. These “forms” are considered to be part of reality, and in fact the most important part of reality, despite their lack of physical presence in the world.

As is typical with this kind of philosophical idea, dualism cannot be proven not “right” or “wrong”. At most, it can be considered useful or non-useful depending on how much it helps simplify complicated philosophical problems. In any case, dualism has had an immense influence on succeeding thought. Early Christians, medieval scholastics, and early modern philosophers like Descartes in turn adapted it as a central part of their philosophies. Perhaps the most basic idea distinguishing Christianity from Judaism is dualist: that the material world is inherently corrupt, and should be abandoned in favor of spiritual quests and declarations of faith. Since modern intellectual culture in large part descends from Christianity, even non-Christians today (at least in Western cultures) will find it hard to avoid thinking in dualistic terms.

The goal of this post is to point out one error that results from dualistic thinking. The critical point is that Biblical Hebrew dates to before Plato's time, and thus does not share the assumptions of dualistic thought. In particular, a verb in Biblical Hebrew frequently refers to both a thought and an action. In dualism, thoughts and actions are as different as any two things in the world can be, and it's inappropriate to use the same word for both. But in the Bible's non-dualistic language, thoughts and actions that typically go together share a word, and the meaning is inferred from context. Not realizing this leads to many incorrect translations.

In the following table I have listed several Hebrew verbs. For each, I list what it means as a thought, and as an action. Finally, I give examples of Biblical verses, translated in the usual way, for which I think the other of the two meanings would make much more sense.

VerbThoughtActionMistranslated verses
YDAknowexperience, acknowledgeTree of knowledge of good and evil
Adam knew his wife
ZChRrememberaddress, implementGod remembered his covenant
Please remember and strengthen me [Shimshon]
AMRintendsayDo you [Moshe] speak in order to kill me?
ShMAobeyhearWe will do and we will hear.
DAGworrytake care of, ensure
SMKhbe happycelebrateYou shall celebrate on your holiday (Chazal: "'Celebration' means meat and wine")

I'm guessing there are other such verbs – feel free to suggest in the comments.

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