Collins Language

Blogs from the Collins Language team in Glasgow, UK.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

June 8th 2010

Agnostic: our diagnosis

Google recently announced that its online e-book store Google Editions will allow customers to download e-books to a range of devices. Unlike the e-books sold through Amazon and Apple, which are designed for the Kindle and Apple devices respectively, e-books purchased through Google Editions will be readable on any web-enabled device including mobile phones, netbooks, tablets, and desktops.

"It is a different approach to what most readers today have and the vision is to be able to access books in a device agnostic way," said Google spokesperson Gabriel Sticker.

The word agnostic has changed. From its original meaning ('a person who holds that knowledge of a Supreme Being, ultimate cause, etc, is impossible'), it has evolved to mean 'undecided' or 'uncommitted' and also 'unbiased' or 'independent'.

Agnostic comes from the Greek agnostikos meaning 'unknowing, unknown, unknowable'. Professor Thomas Henry Huxley is credited with coining the term in the 1860s to describe his own philosophy to members of the Metaphysical Society. Huxley was an English biologist and disciple of Darwin so it is hardly surprising that he was unwilling to believe in something which was unproven and unprovable.

In matters of the intellect follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration... and do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. (Reflection #142, Aphorisms and Reflections, selected by Henrietta A. Huxley)

The second sense of agnostic, meaning 'independent' or 'uncommitted' has become particularly prevalent in the field of technology, as in the Google example. Our corpus attests many similar collocations: platform-agnostic; product-agnostic; browser-agnostic; network-agnostic; broadband-agnostic; system -agnostic; vendor-agnostic; access agnostic; technology agnostic; agnostic about operating systems; agnostic to technology.

When technology is described as agnostic, it means 'functional across different types of hardware, software, etc'. It has been suggested that marketing departments may be to blame for this, as this corpus example shows:

I now think it's the marketing departments and the sales people who are the worst sinners. They're all trying to glamorize technologies with sexy language. Talk to engineers about a computer, and they call it a "box"; the marketing department will elevate it to a "productivity system." Ask engineers about a program that runs on any operating system and they say, "It doesn't matter what you're running"; ask marketers, and they will say it's a "agnostic application."

There may be some interference with the word 'diagnostic' which sometimes collocates with 'technology' and 'application'. There would appear to be obvious benefits to customers if companies are unfettered by allegiance to specific types of software or hardware. In this meaning, 'agnostic' probably has a positive connotation overall.

The religious sense is still the most common sense, but the identity 'agnostic' may not be declared with pride. People are described as 'an avowed or confirmed agnostic', 'a self-confessed agnostic', and even 'a closet agnostic'. What is precisely understood by religious agnosticism is quite fuzzy. Some people consider it to be a decisive viewpoint; others read indecision into it. The definition in Collins English Dictionary reflects the former but it is also used in the latter way:

Once there, we discover a church that is hidden by a congregation of trees and surrounded by well-tended graves covered in fresh flowers. It is a peaceful place that could sway even the most uncertain agnostic.

Coming back to the second sense of agnostic, meaning 'uncommitted or undecided on an issue', it may even shade into 'ambivalent towards an issue'. People are agnostic towards many issues, it seems, but particular favourites seem to be the Euro, global warming, the death penalty, and films by Peter Greenaway:

I'm agnostic regarding the Greenaway films I've seen. They were beautifully photographed and designed, but it wasn't clear to me what they were about.

Almost no one feels detached about capital punishment. But when people asked me, I referred to myself as a death penalty agnostic. Every time I thought I was prepared to stake out a position, something would drive me back in the other direction.

It will be interesting to see if the second sense will develop further in time.