Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Things of Sense

Poulos' criticism of the phrase 'a sense of' lacks full context for me, so I will have to work with the (few) examples he provides. Furthermore, wandering off as he does into a digression on his dissertation and other thoughts, might give the sense that he is right, but this does not convey objective rightness in and of itself.

"Give us a sense of what's going on out there in that hurricane, Bob." What is the difference between this formulation and the more traditional, "What are the conditions in the hurricane, Bob?" I suppose the former, offending statement is meant to invite the viewers to experience what a hurricane is like rather than quote wind speeds and rainfall rates that might otherwise convey little human meaning. So the question I would want to ask is, "What's wrong with making that experiential, sensate connection?" I don't see a problem with it myself. In fact, this seems to me a good example of a quite positive use for 'a sense of': we literally cannot experience the actual noun--the hurricane--ourselves. But for the sake of more immediate sympathy for those suffering from it, getting a 'sense' of it, having our senses engaged, is actually more of an 'incarnational' way of communicating the weather than the overly abstracted reporting of mere statistics.

The second example (and only other one I can find) is this:
"critics of contemporary life merely beg the question when they call for us to replace, say, our lost community with a new 'sense of community'. "

He may have a point here. I think this is a place where we tend to want to privilege our feelings over the objective experience of a thing. We probably don't have strong senses of real communities except at heightened moments, and ultimately I don't think that we seek out communities merely to get a sense of being a part of one. I don't often have a strong sense of being part of the Catholic Church in its full universality. When Pope John Paul II died, the beauty of the ceremonial for his funeral and the following conclave helped me to experience a stronger sense of communion with the universal Church. Even when I am not actively sensing this, however, the communion is still there. If one gets a sense of communion when there is not (as may be the case with 'cultural Catholics' who support abortion rights), this seems to me to be a good example of the disconnect betweent the objective thing and a sense of it.

Personally, I haven't noticed this explosion of poor usage. From what I imagine to be the common usage, I might actually support it. I am an advocate of a strongly Incarnational way of understanding this world; however, we must be discerning about what it is that we incarnate. Evil can just as easily incarnate itself as good, and so before we crown our own experience as unambiguously pointing to objective reality, we might exercise some restraint and merely admit that our experience is provisional: "I am getting a sense of your irritation about this phrase." Rather than, "You are angry about this phrase." This caution allows for our senses to be corrected by the objective reality.

I understand that there is impatience among conservatives with the lack of conviction that many postmoderns persons show toward the truth, but I think forbidding the use of this phrase will not help people arrive at truth. They will either find another way to express this reserve with regard to the truth, or will simply do what a lot of people do today and just assert their sense of things as true, whether or not this claim has any merit.

But it seems to me that even in the two examples he gives, the import of the phrase is slightly different, and this obviously badly vitiates his claim.

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