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Redemption and the Word

Language is redemptive. On the path of language, evolutionary theory needn’t mean nihilism. The acrimony between evolutionists and creationists grew still sharper in the Year of Darwin. But for Víctor Gómez Pin what was interesting about the spat -loudly echoed in the media- was that it was not so much a clash of opposing arguments as a struggle between unstated values and worldviews. Gómez Pin suspects that creationists and proponents of “intelligent design” are uncomfortable with a theory that appears to strip humanity of its special status, and suggests that their fears are misplaced.

We need never doubt that, at least in the United States, the Year of Darwin will be the occasion for renewed acrimony between evolutionary theorists and advocates of creationism-whether in its conventional form or in some more sophisticated guise, such as the claim that the origin and shaping force of nature and life is “intelligent design.”

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As in any controversy in which the practitioners of a rational method of inquiry clash with devotees of an aprioristic creed, the window for compromise is very narrow, and vanishes entirely when the issue is laid before the tribunal of the reason that academia aspires to be. In a university setting it is impracticable —or at least unacceptable— for anyone to gainsay the fact that all living beings are subject to natural selection and share features pointing back to a universal common ancestor.

For a rationalist facing the creationists, the point is perhaps not to take up a position regarding what they have to say, but to consider the question of why they embrace creationist beliefs to begin with. Often, clinging to the theory of some God, disguised to one extent or another as “intelligent design,” is a way of venting the unease that evolutionary theory can arouse when presented so as to deny the radical singularity of humans within the community of species.

However cautious Darwin himself may have been in drawing philosophical inferences from his scientific findings, his theory characteristically suggests that the difference between humans and other species, our “family relations,” is merely quantitative, a matter of degree. The rejection of human singularity sometimes takes the form of a denial that any real difference holds between human language and animal sign-codes. It is accepted that the emergence of life was a qualitative leap in the history of the universe; but there is no willingness to recognize that the emergence of language —the essence or nature of the human— was a qualitative leap of no less import.

To see the fate of humanity, one among many outcomes of evolutionary history, as much the same thing as the fate of other animals may drive you to take shelter in irrationality or, if you acquiesce in that rational view, to lapse into nihilistic prostration. For the only being that knows itself to be a contingent offshoot of evolutionary history, the only being that is aware of its animal status, the finitude of that animality may be felt as a misfortune.

This nihilistic mindset, and the moral world it calls into being, is the outlook of a hero of Dostoevsky’s, who holds that, if there is no God, anything is permissible. Luckily, there is an alternative. While it is hard not to seek refuge in God-or, if one denies that the rise of the human being involved a qualitative leap in evolution, to resist nihilism-everything changes if you trust in the radical singularity of our own nature, if you live the life of language and its laws: if, in fact, you follow in the footsteps not of Dostoevsky’s hero but of the writer Dostoevsky himself.

The achievement of the past masters of language-I’m thinking here of some of the particularly luminous passages in Proust-is explicable only on the assumption that language is not reducible to a tool of subsistence or a mere vehicle of the cognitive examination of nature. Rational inquiry is the highest gift by which nature made us unique, but storytellers and poets aim higher still. Their wager is that language, a fortuitous product of evolution though it may be, can attain to the power of that Word that amazed thinkers from Aristotle to Chomsky and from the Gospel writers to Descartes, a power that, though not removing us from the world, does give us a sense that the irreversibility of the worlds becoming is not the only force that determines the human being.

One needn’t subscribe to any sort of irrationalist dogma to consent to the proposition “In the beginning was the Word.” It is enough to accept that what comes first can only be whatever it is that gives things meaning, that allows us the only insight into the world we humans are capable of. It suffices to acknowledge that, if words are the source of meaning, then, absent words, everything is meaningless.

Novelists and poets propose that language can partly release us from the fetters that bind us in the brute state of nature; that language can rescue us from the humiliation that finitude represents for beings capable of speech; that language harbors a power that is literally redemptive.

Marcel Proust suggested that this power is actualized in each one of us whenever we fully express our unique nature; whenever, acting as word-beings, we do more than merely use words, and make the enrichment of language an end in itself.

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