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Re: [mythsoc] Questions concerning language and Postmodernism

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  • Larry Swain
    ----- Original Message ----- From: WendellWag@aol.com Date: Tue, 5 Aug 2003 11:18:27 EDT To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com Subject: Re: [mythsoc]
    Message 1 of 10 , Aug 5, 2003
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      <BR><BR>----- Original Message -----<BR>From: WendellWag@...<BR>Date: Tue, 5 Aug 2003 11:18:27 EDT<BR>To: mythsoc@yahoogroups.com<BR>Subject: Re: [mythsoc] Questions concerning language and Postmodernism<BR><BR><html><body>


      Everything that Wendell said is true. Looking at it from a slightly different perspective, Postmodernism does in fact have an influence on the Linguistics, protests to the contrary aside. At the same time that the significant shift in ideas was occurring that gave us Postmodernism (The third woe without question!) also brought about significant changes in the way the field of "linguistics" was done. Once upon a time in the not too distant the "linguist" was the philologist who practiced his craft in English departments and learned Old and MIddle English, Greek, Latin, Gothic, Old NOrse, Old Saxon, Old French, etc etc delving further back into the past to reconstruct the original "splits" in Indo-European languages and eventually to Indo-European itself as a language, and of course, the same activity was being carried out in relation to Semitic languages (not so much Eastern or African languages) in an effort to perhaps discover something about an "ur-language." This DIACH
      RONIC approach was largely (though not completely) abandoned in the 60s for a "synchronic" approach, or descriptive approach, that seeks to take a moment in time and simply describe usage AT THAT MOMENT rather than emphasizing (and it is an emphasis, not a jettison of philology) relationships to previous forms of language or following forms of language. This change affected not only English departments where Linguists of this sort often spun off into their own departments, though certainly not universally so, but also the way in which dictionaries were done (when I was a wee lad, "ain't" was not in the dictionary, it is now, for example, not because it is deemed "proper" or "right" English, but because the dictionary wishes to describe current usage. As a side note, my dictionary lists "ain't" as being most common among racial groups, but I think this is incorrect. It seems rather ubiquitous to me, even among the educated.) Anyway, that shift from diachronic to synchroni
      c shares at its heart the same set of new ideas and concerns that Postmodernism had when Foucault first questioned What is An Author? or theologians posited that "God is Dead."

      Larry Swain
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    • David S. Bratman
      These questions about the origin and purpose of language, which Tolkien was interested in, and which Owen Barfield dealt with specifically throughout his
      Message 2 of 10 , Aug 5, 2003
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        These questions about the origin and purpose of language, which Tolkien was
        interested in, and which Owen Barfield dealt with specifically throughout
        his career, are, as Wendell says, outside the boundaries of the field of
        linguistics.

        But Tolkien was not a linguist, he was a philologist. The terms are rough
        but not exact synonyms. Linguistics tends to be interested in the detailed
        study of how language is being used and how it works. Philology, at least
        in Britain, is the term for the historical study of language and languages.
        (See http://www.ling-phil.ox.ac.uk/introduction.html for a discussion of
        the differences.) The history and development of early forms of English,
        and related tongues, was Tolkien's professional field. Tolkien was a
        speculator, not an expert, in the origin and purpose of language, but
        they're questions that coule easily interest a philologist much more than a
        linguist.

        Nor was Barfield a linguist: he was a philosopher of language. His
        interest was in considering those philosophical questions about language
        which are outside the boundaries of the field of linguistics. His primary
        tool, as with all philosophers, was not scientific fact, but logic.

        Barfield was hardly the only philosopher to consider these questions in
        recent times. I don't know if he ever read "The Origin of Consciousness in
        the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" by Julian Jaynes, for instance, but it
        seems to me to be very much in his line of interest.

        - David Bratman
      • Jay Hershberger
        DB: Nor was Barfield a linguist: he was a philosopher of language. His interest was in considering those philosophical questions about language which are
        Message 3 of 10 , Aug 5, 2003
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          DB: Nor was Barfield a linguist: he was a philosopher of language. His
          interest was in considering those philosophical questions about language
          which are outside the boundaries of the field of linguistics. His primary
          tool, as with all philosophers, was not scientific fact, but logic.

          JH: Thank you kindly to everyone for the thoughtful and informative
          responses. Please permit me to ask some of my questions again, for I would
          very much like to get a handle upon what folks are saying about language.

          Are words "ontologically" rooted in the nature of things? Are words human
          symbols that can mean whatever we want them to mean? Did Barfield have an
          opinion about these questions? Is modern literary criticism--especially
          deconstruction--a way to avoid or discount these philosophical questions
          about language?

          It seems to me that since Tolkien was a philologist, might he not have asked
          philosophical questions about the nature of language?

          Looking forward to your responses.

          Cheers,

          Jay Hershberger
          Associate Professor of Music
          Concordia College
          Moorhead, MN
        • David S. Bratman
          Jay, I may have missed earlier messages that made the same recommendations, but if you re interested in Tolkien s approach to the philosophy of the nature of
          Message 4 of 10 , Aug 5, 2003
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            Jay,

            I may have missed earlier messages that made the same recommendations, but
            if you're interested in Tolkien's approach to the philosophy of the nature
            of language, run do not walk in the direction of the nearest copy of
            _Splintered Light_ by Verlyn Flieger, whose second edition was recently
            published. It is the authoritative book on this subject.

            For primary sources, Flieger will point you in the right direction. But
            briefly, Tolkien's clearest statements on these matters are nuggets buried
            in his essay "On Fairy-Stories". For Barfield's views of language, the
            starting point is his book _Poetic Diction_.

            - David Bratman
          • Jay Hershberger
            For primary sources, Flieger will point you in the right direction. But briefly, Tolkien s clearest statements on these matters are nuggets buried in his
            Message 5 of 10 , Aug 5, 2003
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              For primary sources, Flieger will point you in the right direction. But
              briefly, Tolkien's clearest statements on these matters are nuggets buried
              in his essay "On Fairy-Stories". For Barfield's views of language, the
              starting point is his book _Poetic Diction_.

              - David Bratman

              David--

              Many thanks for the suggestions! I will check these volumes out. I confess
              to being like a little kid in a candy shoppe!

              Perhaps the volumes you suggest will seem more like a full course dinner!

              Cheers,

              Jay Hershberger
            • bowring
              ... These are very complex questions to answer. Barfield certainly thinks that language is ontologically rooted in the nature of things, but the real
              Message 6 of 10 , Aug 5, 2003
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                >Are words "ontologically" rooted in the nature of things? Are words human
                >symbols that can mean whatever we want them to mean? Did Barfield have an
                >opinion about these questions? Is modern literary criticism--especially
                >deconstruction--a way to avoid or discount these philosophical questions
                >about language?

                These are very complex questions to answer. Barfield certainly thinks that
                language is "ontologically rooted" in the nature of things, but the real
                question is, "What does Barfield understand by 'the nature of things'"? I
                agree with David Bratman that the place to start is with Poetic Diction.
                Barfield's Saving the Appearances is also very important.

                I would especially point out the "Afterword" of Poetic Diction in which
                Barfield orients the reader to recent thinkers that he found congenial in one
                way or another. There is enough there to keep you busy for a good long while!
                Finally, Barfield's What Coleridge Thought is of fundamental importance.
                Barfield, Coleridge, as well as Lewis and Tolkien, recognize that language
                opens up reality to us, that there are levels of reality and meaning, but that
                language can decay--even to the point of becoming decadent. (Contrast
                Tolkien's portrayal of the moral/spiritual qualities of elvish languages vs.
                the language of the Orcs and you have a good image of the potentialities.)

                You might find helpful, as I do, the first two chapter of John Coulson's
                Newman and the Common Tradition (Oxford University Press,1970). Coulson,
                starting from Coleridge and in contrast to Bentham, articulates the notion of
                "fiduciary language". (Bentham is a useful stand-in for line of thought that
                ultimately yields modern philosophy of language.) Coulson extends this line
                of thought to the role of metaphor and symbol and imagination in thought at
                its deepest levels in his later book, Religon and Imagination (Oxford
                University Press, 1981). While I have certain minor quibbles with Coulson
                here and there, these two books are very rich and will reward their reading
                many times over. They are sadly and unjustly neglected.

                As for modern philosophy of language and literary theory (including its latest
                permutation "cultural studies"), this is a labyrinth that is hard to find you
                way into and even harder to find your way out. Personally, I do not know of a
                reliable guide. Richard Kearney, in his book Modern Movement in European
                Philosophy, gives you a lucid (if you can believe it) introduction to the
                major thinkers, including Derrida. Kearney has a real gift for making things
                clear, but he is overwhelmingly sympathetic to these thinkers and provides
                only description and not evaluation. If you are brave, you might wade into
                Iris Murdoch's Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals or any of several of Stanley
                Rosen's books for astute philosophical criticism of postmodernism--but this is
                all heavy going.

                The bottom line, if you want a place to hang your philosophical hat, is that
                postmodernism (Derrida, Foucault, etc.) is an extremely sophisticated form of
                sophistry (i.e., it has its spiritual ancestry in the Greek Sophists),
                intensified through the lense of Nietzsche.

                And personally, having spent more than a decade mired in this stuff, I'd
                rather read The Hobbit.

                Sorry this was so long (and I tried to keep it short!).
                Best of luck,
                Kevin
              • David S Bratman
                ... _Saving the Appearances_ is a book that will certainly plunge you head-first into the question of what Barfield understands by the nature of things. But
                Message 7 of 10 , Aug 5, 2003
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                  At 09:20 PM 8/5/2003 -0400, bowring wrote:

                  >These are very complex questions to answer. Barfield certainly thinks that
                  >language is "ontologically rooted" in the nature of things, but the real
                  >question is, "What does Barfield understand by 'the nature of things'"? I
                  >agree with David Bratman that the place to start is with Poetic Diction.
                  >Barfield's Saving the Appearances is also very important.

                  _Saving the Appearances_ is a book that will certainly plunge you
                  head-first into the question of what Barfield understands by "the nature of
                  things." But it's not so much directly concerned with language per se.

                  - David Bratman
                • bowring
                  I found the following passage in the Journals of Alexander Schmemann. Reflecting on the passion in some quarters for courses in Great Ideas of the Western
                  Message 8 of 10 , Aug 6, 2003
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                    I found the following passage in the Journals of Alexander Schmemann.
                    Reflecting on the passion in some quarters for courses in "Great Ideas of the
                    Western World" he writes:

                    “It would be useful to teach a course entitled ‘Great Western Errors,’
                    following approximately this plan: Rousseau and ‘Nature,’ with a capital N;
                    The Enlightenment and ‘Reason,’ capital R; Hegel and ‘History,’ capital H;
                    Marx and ‘Revolution,’ capital R; and finally, Freud and ‘Sex,’ capital
                    S—realizing that the main error of each is precisely the capital letter, which
                    transforms these words into an idol, into a tragic pars pro toto.”

                    The list can be extended: Postmodernism and "Language" with a capital L. In
                    other words, the separation of language from its rootedness in both human
                    minds and being--that is, from "participation", in Barfield's terms.

                    Kevin
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