Review: The Edge of Words

Rowan Williams. The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. xiii + 204pp. £20.00/$34.00 hardcover.

Rowan Williams breaks the silence by asking: “Does the way we talk as human beings tell us anything about God?” It is this question that frames the creative and sometimes sprawling trek through the difficult terrain of human language. The overarching aim of this book, in large part a product of content delivered at the Gifford Lectures of the University of Edinburgh in 2013, is to convince the reader that a better understanding of the way we speak can enlighten how we understand the reality of ourselves, the universe we inhabit and God. In what follows, I will rehearse a few of the most prominent themes, suggest the book’s greatest weakness and provide a final assessment.

One of the most important themes is that human language is stranger than we realize. We inevitably become habituated into taking for granted how peculiar and complex speaking actually is. Williams’ reflections on the manifold ways of speaking, especially his focus on ‘frontier territories’ of our speech like poetry, fiction and our ability to bear false witness, reveal language to be ‘a wilder and odder thing than we usually notice’ (xiii). Freshly seeing the strangeness of language is essential for his entire project.

Another prominent idea is that language is both unfinished and unfinishable. Williams convincingly argues that there is an underdetermined characteristic to language. He suggests that in the struggle to generate truthful speech by faithfully representing our environment, we create a world. In so doing, we inevitably struggle to make our language recognizable and defensible to others. Language is unfinished and unfinishable because it can never arrive at an exhaustive representation of reality – the horizon of our knowing is always receding. There is a continuous recalibration of the triangulation between sign, signmaker and the signified (33). As such, speakers that make truthfulness their aim are always inviting the testing, rejection and revision of their language within a community (60).

A third theme is the notion that the universe inherently carries or symbolizes intelligence. By this, Williams means that our environment gives itself to be known as if it were ‘in some sense pregnant with intelligence’ (146). This idea, that we inhabit a world of intelligible communication, is directly tied to his discussion of natural theology. Williams’ approach to natural theology may be categorized as a species of the Teleological Argument. Rather than focusing on more formal features of the material universe, as with William Paley’s watchmaker analogy or the more recent argument from the fine-tuning of physical constants of the universe, Williams points to the nature of language as a key to understanding the universe and the God who created it. To be sure, Williams is not claiming to offer a proof of God’s existence. Instead, he’s providing an account of language that shows us a world that is compatible with (and renders possible) talk about God. Such an idea has clear implications for the theological enterprise: ‘the theological claim is that such an intelligible unity implies a fundamental informing intelligence’ (120). This theme is among the most stimulating portions of his argument.

This leads me to the most pervasive theme of the text, which is also where I locate its primary weakness. Here I am referring to Williams’ notion of ‘representation’. While there is much to commend about his discussion of ‘representation’, he unfortunately packs more into this concept than it can handle by treating it as a catchall that captures the totality of what we do when we speak.

Though the concept is over-extended, in its most basic sense, ‘representation’ refers to speaking truthfully about an aspect of our environment that transcends mere description. ‘Representation’ is a way of speaking that embodies, translates and makes present or re-forms what is perceived in a variety of ways (23). It is ‘the rebirth of what is ‘given’ in another context of meaning or another medium of showing’ (42). These definitions seem straightforward enough. But Williams defines it differently each time, such that it’s hard to pin down precisely what he means. The lack of clarity is centered in his lack of precision stemming from his inconsistent treatment of a cluster of terms including the distinction between ‘literal’ and metaphorical language; description and representation; and the environment and world.

To be fair, his use of ‘representation’ is intentionally loose. He writes: ‘One advantage of the somewhat extended sense I have given to the word ‘representation’ in these pages is that it allows us to use the term for whatever in our linguistic and symbolic world registers some kind of active presence and transmits something of its effect’ (78). Despite the intentional extension, Williams himself concedes the need to clarify the term as evidenced by the appendix devoted to doing just that. The appendix entitled  ‘On Representation’ does clarify the term, to a degree, but it could have done more. Nevertheless, it is recommended that one begins this book by reading the appendix first.

Ultimately, I would amend Williams’ critique of Walker Percy and apply it to his own project. Williams’ treatment of these issues is often painfully extended ‘and rather tangled, and it is clear that it reflects just the process he is trying to set out – the repeated struggle to chart the territory of what is perceived from one angle after another, with no final statement possible’ (55).

For my final assessment, I refer back to the question Williams poses at outset of text: ‘Does the way we talk as human beings tell us anything about God?’ He convincingly answers this question in the affirmative. But, more could be said. Indeed, according to Williams’ own understanding of how language works, more needs to be said but this is no indication of failure. His presentation of the mechanics of language implicitly promises that his word is neither the first nor final word. In this robust foray into the philosophy of language, Williams tests language and invites the reader to test, reject and then revise his understanding of language and work towards greater precision. It is, in other words, an invitation to respond.






  • Kevin Antlitz received his M.Div. and his Th.M. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston, MA, while also completing coursework at Harvard Divinity School and Boston College. He is currently working on his PhD in Systematic Theology at Durham University. His research explores how modern Anglican theologies of the Eucharist might developed by attention to theodrama. He currently serves as a pastor at an Anglican church in Washington, D.C. Prior to this post, Kevin was a chaplain at Princeton University for five years and taught at Gordon College as an adjunct professor.

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  1. says: Kate Rae Davis

    Thanks for this! Very helpful summary. I love your conclusion, that more needs to be said — especially in light of your note that language is unfinishable. I wonder if there was a certain sense of irony or tragedy for Williams when he sent his words to the publisher as “finished.”

  2. says: Kevin Antlitz

    Hi Kate, Thanks for reading the review and for your kind words. You pose a great question/thought! I suspect there may have been a bit of irony… although it seems more likely that Williams would understand this text as neither a first nor last word but rather an attempt to simply get a word in edge wise in the ongoing conversation about language and God-talk.

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