Philosophy of Quotations

Michael D. Stark

Student of Philosophy at Denver Seminary

It is a frequent sight to see many social network status updates that entirely contain quotes from other people. I, myself, do this at times and feel it can be beneficial for others to see. More times than not, most quotes I see are centered on religious claims or beliefs. This can be thought-provoking, invoke response, or lead to fantastic dialogue.

However, it is not uncommon to see Christians quoting people of other religions. I am not sure why the person quotes such people. However, from my engagement with Christians in the contemporary times, I have come to the conclusion that it stems from one of either two intentions.

First, and what I believe to be most common, is that the person doing the quoting has little knowledge of the philosophy and worldview of the person he or she is quoting. Let me be clear, I am not trying to say anyone is stupid; however, one may simply not have studied the figure to properly know the context behind the original quote. I have spent a great amount of time studying comparative religions at my time at Denver Seminary. I know many of the beliefs, doctrines and practices behind some of the figures I often see quoted (mainly consisting of Hindu or Buddhist leaders). It is important that we understand the worldview and/or religious beliefs of people we quote. While a quote may indeed look like something that is applicable to Christian theism, it may contain subtle differences that imply profound theological difficulties. One ought to do a quick study of a figure before one quotes them. Not doing so is risking confusion and false doctrine onto the people that read the quote.

Second, and what I believe to be more intentionally dangerous, is the belief that one can take a quote out of context and apply it to one’s worldview regardless of the original intent of the quote itself. Such a thing is prominent in postmodern culture. I often hear the phrase “well, this is what it means to me” in defense of a particular practice or quotation. While one may have subjective feelings or thoughts towards a certain quote or figure such things do not negate any objective value or truth-value of the quote. What I mean here is, despite what you may think a quote means does not necessitate that you are correct in your interpretation. An original authorial intent still is embedded within the quote at hand. Something cannot be willy-nilly taken from one worldview and forced upon another worldview that has contradictory claims. To do this denies objective value and places the meaning on the individual rather than the context. Such things ought not be done.

I have seen many quotes from Hindu leader Gandhi appear online. One quote from Gandhi I have seen on numerous occasions is the following: “All the religions of the world, while they may differ in other respects, unitedly proclaim that nothing lives in this world but Truth.” At first glance, this quote may be applicable to what Christians believe about society and about truth. After all, “Truth” is capitalized, thus it must imply some divine meaning. However, what does Gandhi mean by truth? Do Hindus understand truth in the same fashion as it is by Christians? I would argue that it is not. What is at hand here is an operational definition. An operational definition is definition that varies between two different worldviews or academic language. While the two may share similarities, leading to the confusion, there are differences between what the word means. Thus, I shall do a brief exposition on what Christianity and Hinduism declare with the word “truth.”

Christianity endorses objective truth. God is the source of all knowledge and he imparts that knowledge to humanity as God makes himself known to humanity. Truth is knowable and able to be propositionally conveyed to other people. The value of truth in Christianity lies not inside the propositional content itself, but rather that it corresponds to an objective reality independent of the content (called the correspondent theory of truth in the field of epistemology). Christianity affirms that this objective reality is the personal and omniscient God. Hinduism (in a pantheistic understanding), however, affirms no objective truths. In fact, one of the goals of Hinduism is to transcend oneself and become one with the cosmos. The cosmos is impersonal. However, in order to attain this oneness with the cosmos, one must transcend thought and knowledge. If knowledge is transcended, the truth and falsity have no meaning. The only truth, then is reaching oneness with the cosmos via the transcending of knowledge. Truth may rest in the impersonal Brahman, yet how can truth, which is personal, have its foundation in an impersonal deity such as the one Hinduism posits? It cannot.

Thus, here we see that truth has two very different meanings when it comes to the word “truth.” Gandhi’s original quote, while looking like it promotes a Christian message, actually contains a very problematic distinction that would be hard, if not impossible, to reconcile.

Friends, evaluate and study the person and his or her worldview prior to quoting them. If you quote them for some purpose, make that purpose clear when you publically post the quote. We have an intellectual duty to make sure the things that we promote are truthful and accurate. Take accountability of such action; convey biblical and objective truth.

One thought on “Philosophy of Quotations

  1. Nick says:

    hi michael,
    I see you made this post over a year ago, so this response may well be submitted into an empty void. Regardless, I am sympathetic with your view. There is nothing more dangerous to the credibility of an argument, or the reputation of the person making the argument, than when the words of another person are inappropriately conjured and applied to one’s own work.
    With that being said, I don’t think a person posting random quotes on their social media account deserves the scrutiny one might face while delivering a doctoral dissertation. I say this because there is no argument or context except for the post itself. It’s an expression in and of itself. That individual saw a famous or insightful quote, and for some reason it connected with an emotion inside them. Naturally, humans like to share those experiences with others, so they post it to their account for others to see.
    While, yes, that person (a Christian as you said) probably doesn’t know the intellectual intricacies assigned to “Truth” in Hinduism, they probably also don’t have an intellectual grasp of the Christian “Truth” religious scholars assert. But, even if they did, I would argue it does not matter and there is no contradiction. You see, Truth to Hindus and Truth to Christians, while semantically different, elicits the same spiritual emotion or understanding. When a person of Hindu faith has that “aha” moment, it is intrinsically the same as the Christian who has an “aha” moment. This is what I believe Gandhi meant, as he used the words “all religions.” Among all the differences in religions, there is a unity that each has a sense of “Truth.”
    This is why quotes are often extracted from random works or from people whose world views diverge from ours. Sometimes utterances are made by an individual that resonate especially well with others. They stick, like a catchy tune. While not everyone knows music theory, people know when a certain melody resonates with them.

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