Monday, April 14, 2008

[Xanga] The uses of the first person possessive: a note to avert systematic error

I would simply like to note that in the English language - and many other languages, I believe, though English (and perhaps Mandarin, on a good day) is the only language with which I have sufficient fluency - the first-person possessive has three uses: two specific and one vague. Actually, this is misleading. I would rather say that the first-person possessive has two specific uses, and we sometimes mix up the two specific uses and then proceed to use this conflated definition in a vague sense, hoping that the vagueness of our utilization will camoflauge our error.

The first case is that of the individual possessing something: this is the case in which I may accurately say "my hat," or "my chair," or "my computer." In this case, the relationship is one of simple possession: I am in an ownership relationship with the hat, chair, computer. The description of "hat" as "mine" is of unilateral ownership, and it runs vertically from me to the hat. This is, I feel, the common-sense or "folk" use of the word: ask someone to explain what "mine" means, and the description would likely be along the lines of, "owned by me" or "belonging to me."

The second case is that of something possessing an individual: this is the case in which I may accurately call someone "my boss," or a knight might have addressed King Arthur as "my lord," or the pious man addresses God as "My God." This use is less obvious, I feel, as it is a possessive only inasmuch as it is a descriptor of a relationship: when addressing King Arthur as "my liege," the knight is not saying that Arthur is a lord who belongs to him. As far as I can make sense of this descriptor (and, not trained as a linguist or a philosopher of religion, that may not be very far), it is possessive of the relationship between the knight and Arthur. Arthur is the lord of this knight, but that does not mean that Arthur is of this knight. Rather, the lordship relationship is one in which Arthur and the knight both participate, and insofar as this is true, the lorded-over/lord relationship is possessed by the knight, which allows him to address Arthur as "my lord." (I'm not particularly certain about this analysis of the use, but it is incidental to my point.)

The confusion of usage occurs in gray areas as follows: "My country," "my school," "my household." In these cases, there is no immediate understanding as to which of the above two relationships the first-person possessive pronoun refers to. In the case of "my country," does the descriptor imply that the individual owns this country? Perhaps it is contextual to the country - is it a democracy or dictatorship? Or perhaps the individual's political philosophy is relevant: does he, as Hobbes seems to in his Leviathan, view the government as existing contingent on his empowerment of it? But I disagree that this usage stands apart from the first and second cases. Rather, the vagueness in ascribing it to either the first or second type usage is drawn from vagueness in the individual's understanding of his relation to the country. I suppose that I am viewing this third case as subordinate to the first two: it stands on its own not because it is separate from the first two, but because, independent of context, it is both one and the other. Within context, of course, these statements may make perfect sense. If a dictator rules his country with an iron fist, of course his declaration of "this is MY country!" is a first-case usage. And a statesman who views his leadership of the country as mandated and empowered by the will of the people will of course say "this is my country!" with a usage of the second type. A politician uncertain of the source of his power and of his political philosophy will of course use the phrase, "this is my country," in a vague sense, meaning neither the first nor the second case: vagueness creeps into his speech not because the word is being used in a special way, but because it is being used in both ways.

Finally, I would note: I said, in the third paragraph above, that the pious man addressing God as "My God" addresses Him (and properly so) with a possessive of the second case: that of lorded-over/lordship. I feel that the systematic error associated with such uses as "my wife" is to also be zealously avoided in such an address of God. With overtly dominant descriptors of God such as "My Lord," it is not easy to forget His position of lordship over creation and the individual. However, Christianity, in particular, approaches God as a being, and not a title. The Greeks, Mayans, Hindus, and many other religions use "god" as a title for a being with a proper name (from Zeus to Quetzalcoatl to Ishvara); the Christian religion has no such title-relationship. Rather, "God" is our only "god," and thus, I fear, we easily forget that in such a title there is an inherently dominant quality to His character. It is not difficult to fall into a systematic error of addressing God with a possessive of the first case, or even, I propose, to consciously address God with a possessive of the second case but subtly and subconsciously begin to view one's relationship with Him as having qualities of the first-case possessive. We must be ever vigilant that our address of God as "my Lord" does not begin to slide into the third case, where our understanding of the relationship with Him grows vague and poorly-defined.

As a believer, one's view of God, and one's address of Him as "My God," must thus consciously be kept as an possessive descriptor of the second case, and not of the first: as akin to "My Lord," or "my boss," and not in the same usage as "my cup," "my home," or "my genie."

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