June 16, 2004

Out with Under God

Two comments on the under God business. First, whether or not the phrase is a hapax legomenon doesn't really matter. We don't in general need to appeal to previous usage to know what a phrase means. This is not because we are so clever but because of the way language works. In general, meaning is compositional. That is, the meaning of an expression can be computed from the meanings of its components. If this were not true, we would not be able to produce and understand novel utterances. In philology a hapax legomenon is almost always a word and is a problem because a single usage doesn't generally give us enough information to figure out what it means. Phrases are rarely considered hapax legomena even if they are in fact unique because so long as we know their components and the construction is a familiar one, we can figure out what the phrase means. If none of the meanings that we compute in this way make sense in context, we may infer that we are dealing with an unknown idiom, that is, an instance of non-compositionality. Only then do we have a problem. In the case at hand, there are some ambiguities as to what the intended interpretation of under God is, but they stem from ambiguities of English syntax and semantics; they have nothing to do with it being a hapax legomenon.

Secondly, although there is some question as to what under God means in this context, this is irrelevant to the question of whether this phrase is properly included in a pledge recited by children in public schools. On all of the interpretations that have been offered, this phrase presupposes the existence of a single deity. Whether it means that the country is physically located beneath this deity or has been under this deity's rule or ought to conform to this deity's wishes, the common factor is that there is such a deity. It is offensive to those who are atheists or agnostics or polytheists. Causing children to recite a pledge containing these words therefore violates their freedom of religion and constitutes an improper establishment of religion.

Posted by Bill Poser at June 16, 2004 01:16 PM