Equivocation, Aufhebung and Pesah

Aristotle, like most philosophers, was a lover of univocals, that is, the use of a term with a clear and distinct meaning. In his rebuke and refutation of the sophists, he accused them of using equivocation, as well as a dozen other forms of fallacious argument, such as identifying a false cause or begging the question. Unlike some of the latter fallacies, equivocation is a linguistic rather than a logical fallacy. It arises when a word or a phrase is used in one proposition with one meaning while in another proposition or the conclusion it has a very different meaning.

A common example is the following:

My wife drives me mad (makes me angry).

People who are mad (crazy) should be institutionalized.

I should be institutionalized.

There are other forms of linguistic or verbal fallacies, such as amphiboly where the ambiguity belongs to a whole expression. An example could be asking the question whether there is an elephant in the room. In that case, you do not mean a huge two-or three-ton animal with a long trunk, long ears and tusks that is physically present,

However, when you (as I did) discuss the Meghan and Harry interview with Oprah Winfrey and claim that: ”racism was the elephant in the room,” you are not referring to a huge animal being present, but an enormous issue that haunts the royal family – and Britain more generally – that is, prejudice based on the colour of one’s skin. Hence, the query to Harry from a member of the royal family about how he felt about his child’s skin tone.

Thus, the fallacy is the confusion over the same term or expression when it has a regular or ordinary use and when it has a metaphorical use where the grammatical construction suggests an identical meaning or, alternatively, the grammatical construction is confusing. The fallacy emerges in the use of single words, as in equivocation, or an expression, as in amphiboly, as if they have only one meaning. However, Aristotle offers a very different example of equivocation where the different meanings are related. You can use the term “healthy” in three different ways.

  1. Are you healthy? Healthy here refers to your physical and/or mental state.
  2. You look healthy. Healthy in this case refers to your appearance and may imply that how you look gives no real indication of your state.
  3. Eating an apple a day is healthy. This means that the apple contributes to your maintaining your body in a good state; “healthy” is used in a causal sense rather than as either a sign or to characterize the substance of what your body is like.

In this type of equivocation, the confusion does not arise between one meaning of the term and another, for in one sense they all have a similar meaning. Rather, the term is being used in three different ways. For Aristotle, this type of equivocation is the most deceptive and leads to most logical errors of this type.

However, a very different brand of philosophers argues that such equivocation and ambiguity need not lead to logical confusion but to insights in the way the world and language actually works and history unfolds. Equivocation is not to be dismissed but mastered. Thus, when I once was reprimanded by a Canadian ambassador when he was running peace talks between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis, he rebuked me for being a philosopher who had been taught that equivocation led to fallacious thinking. It was precisely such a conviction that made philosophers bad diplomats. For mediation and negotiations depend very much on the art of equivocation, that is, the use of one term that meant one thing to one party but another thing to the other party. In that way, the two disputants could come to an agreement and walk away believing each had the truth about what the agreement meant.

However, the philosophers to which I now refer do not use equivocation in a sophistic or trick way. The use of the combination of meanings is deliberate. In the modern period, the master of equivocation was arguably Georg Wilhem Friedrich Hegel, a German world historical thinker of the first half of the nineteenth century. He used terms equivocally, not to draw syllogistic conclusions that were logically false, but rather dialectically to allow one to progress to a higher and higher truth through a process captured by the verb, aufheben

Aufheben is a term that adherents of cancel culture would be well to learn. For it connotes not only the act of cancellation or putting away, but to preserve as well. In doing both, the word conveys a third meaning, to advance or raise something up. Hegelian dialectic works by, at one and the same time, canceling one meaning, preserving another and, thereby, raising the term to convey a higher and more comprehensive meaning that emerges out of the process of differentiation, negation and assertion.  We both abolish one meaning, preserve or protect another and, thereby, sublate and transcend the old order.

[Readers who become confused over or are bothered by dialectical reasoning are advised to skip the next three paragraphs and pass over them to get right into the discussion of Pesah Your mental salvation may depend on such a move.]

One example will have to suffice, for this blog is not intended to be about dialectical logic but about Pesah. In the A.F. Miller translation of that great classic, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, in Part B dealing with self-consciousness (Hegel had just completed how consciousness worked, that is, how the mind worked in relationship to objects in the world), he turned his attention to the examination of self-reflection. That is, he switched his focus from a concern with the truth of something other than oneself, the nature of an object in the world, to how that very same truth vanishes when we actually experience it and do not just look on. With consciousness, we are concerned with objective truth, that is, the certainty of what we experience. With self-consciousness, we are concerned with the truth of that experience of certainty. The “I” is both the object being examined and the agent that undertakes the examination. Truth, that soon unravels, is the conviction that both must be the same. We actually discover in the process that the two are absolutely other than one another.

Thus, there is the distinction of objects and subjects. But there is also the unity of the subject with the object as parts of the same world of experience; consciousness becomes at one with itself. It is akin to the difference between sensing the world around us and tripping out on drugs so that all of experience becomes a matter of acute sensibility and there is no longer a difference between the subject that looks on and the experience itself. It is the search for this unity that permeates all of mysticism from Hindu efforts in the search for wonderment to Kabbalistic exercises. This quest to be one with the world is referred to as Desire in which antithesis is set aside; self-identity becomes the unity.

But then there is Life or survival. In that experience, one is not unified and lost in sensibility but finds oneself in existing in and for oneself, that is, through the consumption of the objective world to make it part of oneself. It is on the basis of this dialectic of Desire and Life that self-consciousness, as distinct from consciousness, moves on and develops, that is, in the tension between aspiration for dissolution of the self to become one with the world and the survival self-centred instinct to make the world simply a part of or extension of oneself.

The contention is that Pesah captures precisely this dialectic. First, there is the meaning of the term. Dr. Barry Dov Walfish, who holds a PhD in Medieval Jewish intellectual history, was the Judaica biographer at the University of Toronto Libraries. He wrote a drash for this shabat entitled, “Why ‘Passover’? on the True Meaning of Pesah – פסח” (https://www.thetorah.com/article/why-passover-on-the-true-meaning-of-pesah) In that article, he unraveled the mis-translation of  Pesah – פסח translated as a univocal meaning “to pass over.”

You shall say, It is a Passover-offering to the Lord, because He passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when He struck the Egyptians with a plague, and He saved our houses. And the people bowed and prostrated themselves” (Exod 12:27).

First, the translation in English as “Passover” is standard, but it is an outlier compared to the translations in other Western languages. Walfish traces that English (mis-)interpretation to William Tyndale, the Magdalen College Oxford scholar and leading figure in the Protestant Reformation (1494-1536). It was his version that was adopted in the King James version of the bible. The idea came from another Hebraist who translated פסח as skipping over the opening of the door when the blood of the פסח lamb was put on the door jamb.

However, that consistency in translation is shattered when, in the context of translating פסח in Isaiah 31:5, instead of “pass over” in the King James version, the New Revised Standard Version translates the term as “spare” rather than “pass over”, and the New Jewish Publication Society translates it as “protect” and “rescue.” Walfish argues that the correct meaning of pesah-פסח is “protect” or “spare”. Now the two meanings may be related, but they are not the same. For sparing someone from COVID-19 through quarantining is not the same as providing protection by means of a vaccine. And neither is the same as “passing over”. As Walfish sums it up: “The picture that emerges is one of a God who has unleashed a destructive angel—the biblical equivalent of the rabbinic Angel of Death—in Egypt and God must take an active role in protecting the Israelites from this destructive force.” “Passing over” does not make sense in that context.

Referring to the Septuagint version, the relevant passages are translated as:

  • Exod 12:13 – And the blood shall be for you as a sign on the houses, there where you are, and I will see the blood and I will protect you and there shall not be a plague among you to destroy, whenever I strike in the Land, Egypt.”
  • Exod 12:23 – And the Lord will pass by to strike the Egyptians and he will see the blood upon the lintel and both doorposts and the Lord will pass by the door and he will not let the destroyer to enter your houses to strike.
  • Exod 12:27 – Then you shall say to them: “this pascha is a sacrifice to the Lord who protected the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when he struck the Egyptians, but our houses he preserved.”

God here protects the firstborn of the Israelites by not allowing the destroying angel to enter their homes. Walfish traces the error to an insistence on univocal meanings, as in Rashi, whereas he discerns multiple meanings – celebrate and skip as well as protect and then, in context, suggesting that the correct meaning is “to protect.”

The Three Meanings of the Verb פ-ס-ח

At least two meanings for pasaḥ are attested in the Bible, with another in later literature:

  1. פ-ס-ח in Exod 12 and Isa 31:5, means “to protect,” “have mercy on,” or “save.” The noun Pesah refers to the sacrifice or the holiday of “protection,” when God protected the people from the Destroying Angel.
  2. פ-ס-ח in 1 Kings 18:21, and 18:26 (in the pi‘el) which means “to hop,” “skip,” or possibly “limp” (in a cultic setting).
  3. The later meaning which is “to celebrate Pesaḥ”, as in the הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא of the Haggadah: כָּל דִּצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח, “let anyone who is in need come and celebrate the Pesaḥ”

I suggest another possible answer. Pesah-פסח means all three. It is the equivalent to aufheben that in this context means:

  1. To skip or set aside or pass over and put away – put into quarantine;
  2. To protect and preserve – ensure survival and life = actively offer a vaccine;
  3. To celebrate or raise up so that through the Passover feast we are not simply kept safe nor just given positive protection, but are lifted up to understand more fully the true blessing of freedom.

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