The (de-?)Evolution of Modern Language: Sign, Symbol, and Self

Owen Barfield was a philologist, philosopher, poet, essayist, critic, lecturer, and one of the first members of the Inklings, the literary discussion group of fame through authors Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. To summarize his work in a blog post is an impossible task, but I’ll attempt something of the sort. Of his works, I’ve only read once a book review he wrote on a book about philology and hermeneutics and twice a compilation of essays in a book entitled The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays, which, after my second read of my university library’s copy, I bought from Amazon and determined to read at least once a year until he saturates my dreams and my waking thoughts and actions.

I wish I could at this moment succinctly narrow his life’s work to a one- or two-sentence overarching thesis, but the following three-paragraph primer will have to suffice.

In the aforementioned compilation of essays, Barfield highlights two of the greatest shifts in the history of language: the more recent shift occurred around the middle of the seventeenth century, just after the Thirty Years’ War, which was a positivist and materialist one; the greater, and far more distant, shift occurred “sometime between the death of Alexander the Great and the birth of Saint Augustine,” marking a new self-consciousness in language. Though this latter shift is highlighted later in the book, I shall address it first for greater perspicuity.

The greatest shift, Barfield explains, is a shift in self-consciousness of language. Now let me attempt to describe what he means by this. In several of his early essays, Barfield argues, quite cogently, citing other philologists and examples, that all words that refer to moral, ethereal, spiritual, or psychological concepts have their root in the symbolic, external universe — for example, “wrong” means “crooked,” “right” means “straight,” “express” means “to squeeze out.” The shift around two thousand years ago marks the passing over of the external symbol for the concept to talk about the concept directly. That is, when one says “express” s/he no longer uses this expression symbolically or metaphorically, referring to an object seen to stand for a concept unseen in the self, but as if the latter – the concept within – is an entity in itself:

If one contrasts the meaning of the Greek word for word or reason or discourse (for it could mean all three: I’m referring to the word “logos“), if one contrasts the meaning of that word, as it stood in the time of Plato and Aristotle, with its later meaning; or to put it another way, if one contrasts the meaning of the old word “logos,” with the meanings of the words which we have to use to translate it; and if one then moves the microscope a little nearer, so to speak, so as to determine, if possible, the moment, or at least the single century, of transition from the old to the new, then one is struck immediately by the way in which this word “logos” was being used, in Alexandria, for instance, used by Greeks and used also by Jews, in the first century B.C. One may even be a little more pedantically precise, and remark that that particular word was in especial use in the Stoic philosophy, and that it was in expounding the Stoic philosophy that the concepts objective and subjective first make their appearance in a clearly recognizable form. In other words, it was then that the fundamental duality with which we are now so familiar was first clearly formulated, was first sharply focused, a duality no longer merely between mind on one side and senses on the other (which had been long familiar to the Greeks), but a duality between a self on the one side and its environment on another.

The second shift – in the seventeenth century – marks a further move in rhetoric and language away from its metaphoric and relational roots and toward a mechanistic/mechanomorphic, positivist philosophy of language. To explain what I mean by relational I shall turn briefly to Kant. Kantian rhetorical epistemology includes three concepts: noumenon, phenomenon, and language. The noumenon is the object itself, and the phenomena are the various ways a perceiver comes to experience the noumenon (obect) through his or her senses. The perceiver then uses language to explain this perceived experience of the noumenon through the phenomena as a relationship between the perceiver, the object, and various other perceived objects around it. The mechanistic philosophy of language says that we can take the perceiver out of the equation and talk about the noumena/noumenon directly, not in terms of its relationship to us or even to other objects. Barfield says that this philosophy is wholly incompatible with language, as language is the product of subject/object relations. Barfield says, in “Science and Quality”:

[L]et me revert for a moment to the pre-Scientific Revolution (“Aristotelian”) world-picture. It assumed as a matter of course that mind or intelligence is operative in nature as a whole and not exclusively in the human brain. This assumption was vociferously abandoned. Indeed rather more than abandoned. I believe almost any biology student will tell you that it is absolutely taboo with the scientific establishment, so that it is as much as your academic life is worth even to hint at such a possibility.

Barfield identified, through his philological lens, the struggles of twentieth century modernity as at least partly a product of our attempt to take ourselves out of our understanding of the universe in the seventeenth century, caused in turn by the greatest shift in language two thousand years ago and its effect on our consciousness.

What think you of this idea? Thoughts? Questions? Additions? Is there anything I can clarify? Rebuttals?


Barfield, Owen. The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays. San Rafael, Ca.: Barfield Press, 2005. (1st edition published 1977) [Amazon]

5 Replies to “The (de-?)Evolution of Modern Language: Sign, Symbol, and Self”

  1. I find this a fascinating idea. I am unclear as to whether he thinks the last shift is a bad idea (we shouldn’t try to disconnect ourselves from the world) or if he just points out the difficulty of doing so because of the inherent nature of language. I wonder how mathematics fits into the whole conundrum: it does not speak about the world and it certainly does not include humans in it, but it is certainly a kind of language.

    1. Indeed, it is not just a bad idea – it is an impossible idea. We have attempted to take ourselves out of our conception of the universe, leaving our sense of self quite empty, and having quite negative effects on language in general.

      1. That depends on your definition. I’ll give you two examples.
        Imagine a computer program, for example. It is considered a form of mathematics and it is a language. Would it be possible without humans? Indeed. In an infinite universe, a random fluctuation will produce one sooner or later (in a computer, of course) without the need for people.
        Another way of seeing this is: if the laws of physics are algorithmic in nature (which all evidence points they are) then they are mathematical in nature, unless you use a different definition of mathematics. Given the fact that the laws of physics preceded the appearance of physicists, you have another example of mathematics without people.

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