Focus on Language

The Denver Quarterly (Autumn 1974): 80-89

There is a passage in Thucydides, where in describing the demoralization of the Greek states during the Peloponnesian War, he concentrates for a moment on language. “Proper shame,” he says,

is now termed sheer stupidity; shamelessness, on the other hand, is called manliness: voluptuousness passes for good tone: haughtiness for good education: lawlessness for freedom: honourable dealing is dubbed hypocrisy, and dishonesty, good fortune.

If he had developed this approach a good deal further and elected to treat the whole topic in terms of language, he would have anticipated the method of a book called The Survival of English1 by Ian Robinson. “If we can see changes in the weightings of words,” writes the author in his Introductory Section, “changes in the style of their use, we are seeing changes in the sense we all make…. All that in its turn will be saying things about the lives we lead, for it will define some of the context in which alone we can be ourselves.” And, later on, more generally: “—the state of a language depends on everybody who uses it and is indistinguishable from their state.”

Clearly he intends to spread his net a good deal wider and sink it a good deal deeper than Thucydides; and I think he succeeds in doing so. I also believe it is a thing well worth doing. I have myself endeavoured to point out from time to time that anyone who chooses to be in his own historical period, without being merely of it, will do well to examine what is taken for granted in the current meanings of common words. We must take the trouble to exhume the buried presuppositions of which their meanings largely consist, those presuppositions being so inveterate as to have become subliminal. But I was mainly concerned with the world-view or cosmology we shall find to be implicit in words like “life,” “matter,” “mind,” “human,” “evolution” and so forth. Robinson’s concern is with “values.” It is sociological rather than philosophical. He seeks to use the state of the English language of the 1970’s as a kind of geiger-counter for testing “the way civilization is going.”

He finds it in a pretty bad state. Broadly speaking his method is to take four separate areas, the language of politics, the language of journalism, the language of “love” and literature, and the language of religion; to quote exclusively from contemporary newspapers, periodicals and books; and to criticize the quotations by fastening on particular words and phrases and exhuming the presuppositions they conceal. His main conclusion is that we look like ceasing before long to have a language capable of expressing any distinctively human values. This is because the language of a community depends on other things besides grammar. It depends on what is taken for granted in the ways it is used and in the meanings of the words it consists of. It depends on what the author calls “common-language judgments.” For instance “Murder is right and proper” is a well-formed English sentence; but “the weight of the language” is (up to the present) against it. But, for instance also, abortion (even if it is seen as a necessary evil) “could not in any full human language lose its aura of the horrible and the unnatural.”

The last illustration occurs in the section on the language of love, about two-thirds of which is sub-titled “pornography,” a term under which the author subsumes a good deal of what is called sex “education.” But the object of the book as a whole is to focus on the evaporation of common-language judgments in all the four areas, and thus throughout the life of the community. Just as it becomes impossible to talk about what has hitherto been called love after the term has been reduced to a synonym for “having sex,” so in the language it becomes impossible to talk of human “welfare” or “growth” except as synonyms for increasing material affluence. Above all perhaps in politics. Poetry can sometimes do impossible things with language and, in doing so, can create or restore meanings, which may even become common-language judgements of the future. But politics has been defined as “the art of the possible,” and it is really impossible now for politicians to speak (perhaps even to conceive) of social betterment as meaning anything other than economic prosperity. Robinson sees the state of the common language as corresponding to what is called “style” in literary criticism. Churchill’s style was open to criticism for “surface grandeur,” but what he was defending, and defining, was “the life of political English,” which is now no more.

The longest chapter in the book, entitled “The Vulgarization of The Times” (London), takes the reader on a personally conducted tour through the whole miserable history of the decay of journalism in my time: Northcliffe’s discovery that the real, that is the money-spinning, function of journalism is entertainment, not significant news and responsible comment; Northcliffe’s takeover of The Times; its progressive deterioration through front-page news, the abandonment of serious parliamentary reports, the introduction of pictures, banner-headlines, sprightly cross-headings, to Bernard Levin’s “column” and a good deal of spicy gossip about pop-artists and film stars. He might have added that it was the same Northcliffe during World War I, who first conceived the idea of propaganda (“news” for persuasion, regardless of truth) as a war weapon. Once upon a time “even when the paper was wrong, it was wrong in a way that could be discussed and refuted.” Now The Times is full of contemporary clichés and it no longer has a language to be either wrong or right in. Not of course that it is any worse than other newspapers; only that it is no longer better. The world of journalism and the media is a unity as the common language is a unity and, as in one so in the other, the lower casts out the higher:

Northcliffe’s takeover of The Times was a fine illustration of the unity of English culture. Ultimately Answers competed with The Times. A few years ago radio pirates affected the Third Programme and today the Daily Mirror has had its effect on the New Statesman.

The “quality” Sunday papers have fallen quite as low as the Times; it is only that they had not quite so far to fall.

“The lower casts out the higher.” This is unfortunately true in spite of its being a law of nature as well as of human society that “higher systems organize the lower.” Thus, if you cut off the tip, or growing-point, of a plant, you do not annihilate the patterning and structuring forces which would have produced the flower; you cast them out by preventing them from taking effect. In a similar way the possibilities into which a child grows up vary with his language, and you cannot misuse and bruise that language without damaging his possibilities of growth. Moreover a whole language is all too easily damaged by particular misuses; and this arises precisely from its organic nature, since it is characteristic of a living organism that every part is linked directly, if invisibly, with every other, so that every part is determined and affected by the condition of the whole. “It is the nature of one meaning to exist in its connection with others (which connection is, at widest, what one means by language)”; and this too can be illustrated from each of the four areas. It applies not only to individual words but also, for instance, to individual items in a newspaper. Even when, as often occurs, a report or leading article in The Times is well and responsibly written, any gravity potential in its meaning is annulled by the conspicuously flaunted trumpery in which it is imbedded.

I will digress for a moment here to mention that, although Robinson’s critique of today’s Times was fully in accord with the vague distaste that made me give up reading it a year or two back, on seeing it explicitly formulated, I did wonder if perhaps he was exaggerating. I wondered until, on reaching about this point in my article, I had occasion to buy a copy and almost the first thing I saw on page 2 was a banner headline, three columns wide: B.B.C. PRODUCER SAYS HE ONLY KISSED AND CUDDLED AT JANIE JONES’S PARTY. I believe there is a difference between England and America here. For, if I remember correctly, at all events up to about three years ago this kind of slipslop would at least have been much less prominently displayed in the New York Times or any other “quality” transatlantic journal. The same is true of Paris’s Le Monde, which moreover prints no pictures.

But to return. The author’s view of a language as an integral whole potentially immanent, as it were, in the meanings of its individual words seems to be rather in the air in our time. In a different context it is what we find, if I have understood them correctly, in the linguistics of such thinkers as Wittgenstein, Saussure, Merleau-Ponty and Noam Chomsky; although the latter, if pressed, would apparently reduce the whole thing to the local intricacies of any one physical brain at a time. This is not the place to argue the point. I am more concerned to remark that the symptom in question is itself only part of a much wider contemporary tendency to focus on language, whatever the topic under consideration. Today the word “semantic” crops up in the most surprising way in all sorts of non-philological chatter. It makes one wonder: if the way we use language is the way we live, is it also becoming true that the way we think about life is the way we think about language? I mean of course for the few who do think about either.

Robinson leans rather heavily on a collection of English and American lectures by F. R. Leavis published in the volume Nor Shall My Sword. These are mainly concerned with the famous “Two Cultures” dispute, arguing against C. P. Snow that there is in fact only one culture, and that the real clash is not between what Snow glibly called the Sciences on one side and the Humanities on the other, but between the human and the anti-human wherever they are found. Thus, anyone capable of swallowing as if it were meaningful the sentence: “A computer can write a poem” is not on the human side merely because his academic habit is within the Humanities. Conversely a holistic biologist such as Marjorie Grene, who is very much aware that in life itself, however it may be with language, “higher systems organize the lower,” is on that side.

Possibly the ultimate cleavage is between those who find it natural to think about anything real, whether it be life or language, genetically and their opposite numbers who find it natural to explain it in terms of a causal arrangement and rearrangement of atomic units. In this sense a biologist who attends exclusively to “genes” and their behaviour is not thinking genetically. The point Leavis and Robinson are making is that those who think much about literature and language, and think genetically, have much more in common with any scientist who also thinks genetically than they have with those who think much about language and think atomically. It does look rather as if, in the conflict between two opposite mentalities, language is at the moment the principal no-man’s-land being fought for. For in the so-called “humanities” it is not only the genetically inclined who have been focusing on language. Academic philosophy has been engaged for some time in turning itself into linguistics, and linguistics itself engaged with “phonemes,” “morphemes” and the like and their aggregates, ignoring any “higher system” by which language could have been engendered and organized. On the other hand we have a genetically inclined physicist, such as David Bohm, working out a theory of scientific discovery itself in terms of the development of language.

I suspect that our growing preoccupation with language has to do with the disappearance of fixed principles. If we like to think of ourselves as pieces of flotsam on a river called “life” or “the way civilization is going,” then there were formerly certain landmarks (the Ten Commandments for instance) that did not move with the river. They were visible far off on the solid ground through which it was flowing; and we could measure by them our direction and our speed downstream. In their absence, or if they have become invisible, we can only hope to do that if we can ourselves, at least from time to time, get out of the river and on to the bank. But since our language is inextricably one with our conscious existence as human beings, we can only do that by also getting “outside” our language. I think Wittgenstein perceived this very clearly, while at the same time holding that it was impossible.

I do not myself think it is altogether impossible, and I find The Survival of English especially interesting because it is an attempt to do that very thing. It is only impossible for anyone who is not prepared to approach language genetically, and therefore historically as well as analytically, and Robinson does so approach the English language, though over a very short period.

The book is also interesting from another point of view. The author is a devoted disciple — I surmise a former student — of F. R. Leavis. “The present age of English literature,” he even says, “is the age of Dr. Leavis.” Leavis has been accused of preaching that literary criticism is the remedy for all our ills; but I doubt if that is quite fair. By the word “criticism” he seems to intend something very much wider than belles lettres, something more like sitting back and judging, from outside, the whole scheme of values implicit in a “technologico-Benthamite” age. Nevertheless he has in fact confined himself largely to the field of literature. Robinson’s book is an attempt to apply more generally the principles worked out by Leavis in that one field. It is an example, perhaps the first fruits, of Leavisism in business. I wonder if there are going to be any more.

Perhaps there are. In one of those courageous little journals that circulate among the vaguely knit adherents of what Theodore Roszak called the “Human Potentials” movement I have just seen the review of a Symposium on The Politics of Education, in which it is observed that “the influence of the Cambridge English School (and F. R. Leavis in particular) is strong.” One can only wish them well. What makes one dubious about their possibilities of growth in numbers and influence is a certain lack of positive substance at the core. This is to my mind a dilemma inherent in the whole position of liberal humanism and it is well brought out by The Survival of English in its chapter on the language of religion (“Religious English”). This consists of a trenchant critique, supported by many quotations, of the literary style of nearly all modern translations of the Old and New Testaments, including imprimis the New English Bible. If the case is occasionally overstated, the whole chapter is nevertheless a successfully damning indictment. The reason why style is all-important is that “the way ‘things’ are said affects the ‘things’”; and the method principally adopted is to contrast passages from these modern translations with the corresponding ones in the Authorized Version and the Prayer Book, for example the opening verses of Genesis, the account of the Nativity in St. Luke, the resurrection passage in the Funeral Service. The author has no difficulty in demonstrating the inferiority of the former in sound, rhythm, tone, dignity and every other quality he can think of. But the dilemma begins to show through when he goes on, as he does at several points, to analyze the difference between the two styles. It turns out that what is principally amiss with the modern style is that it betrays such weaknesses as lack of sincerity, the loss of conviction, the absence of God from religion, “a kind of unbelief.” In sum, and near the end of the Chapter: “Any religious language is ipso facto ruined by the failure of the belief which makes it meaningful.”

It begins to look as though the converse of the author’s central doctrine is equally true, and “things” affect the way “things” are said; and the horns of the resulting dilemma are not exactly blunted by the circumstance that he himself, as he is careful to inform us, is not a Christian. The idea that religion can continue to function in some way through literature or poetry, with the express exclusion of belief, is as old as Irving Babbitt or George Santayana, or perhaps as Matthew Arnold. In spite of his “ipso facto” it does not seem to have occurred to Robinson that the stylistic shortcomings of modern versions of the Bible and Prayer Book might be revealing, not so much the personal flabbiness of the translators as the simple fact that this plan will not wash. One way or another the identification and acknowledgment of criteria beyond personality is the lion in the path of any existential or non-credal resistance to the Gadarene doctrine of moral relativity. Perhaps it could also be put this way: just as, in the long run, it is not possible to produce literature unless the literature is “about” something other than literature itself, whether that something is love or truth or good or evil or nature or just some human beings, and unless one is more interested in the something than in literature — so, in the long run, it is not possible to be human unless one is more interested in what being human is “about” than in simply being human.

To say that it is about “values” does not help unless the values themselves are beyond the reach of moral relativity, which is another way of saying beyond personality. Robinson says the values he affirms ought to be “obvious” to us all, but he also says they will not be so “except by the standards of some centre.” Institutions like The Times ought to be “centres of value” and literary criticism should be based on such centres. It is this centre, or centres, he tells us, that he is trying to consider, But they seem to be, to say the least of it, elusive: “I think I see some of the things wrong with criticism but it is part of my observation that as soon as I think I’m getting there the ‘there’ vanishes.” Leavis himself aims beyond personality sometimes by distinguishing between “identity” and “selfhood,” sometimes by affirming the absolute value of what he calls “Life,” sometimes by summoning “collective creativity” to the rescue. Both of them however insist that all these possible criteria are, as Leavis puts it “‘there’ only in the individual. Psychology is individual psychology and is still that in its dealings with individuals in mutual relation.” Robinson, adopting the opening verses of St. John’s Gospel as the epigraph to his introductory chapter, telescopes them as follows: “In the beginning was language… That was the true light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world”; and the dots are significant, not so much because they replace the whole of the intervening reference to the Incarnation as because they also eliminate the two earlier statements that all things were made by the logos, and that it was the “life” within the logos that was the light of man.

It is here, as I see it, and not in its refusal to accept the developed Christian tradition, that the fatal weakness of liberal humanism, as we have it, resides. Whatever solemn words they hit on to make it sound for the moment like something more — “authentic,” “values,” “life,” “identity,” “collective creativity” or what have you — in their total language all these labels merely signify something that has emerged somehow or other from a multiplicity of physical organisms. They are looking for the kind of “taken for granted” belief without which religious language ceases to be “sincere,” and they are doing so in an age when, by almost universal consent, that kind of belief is reserved for the language of science… and, when it comes to the rub, they go along with that consent. Leavis has a way in his lectures of illustrating a point by recalling earlier exchanges between himself and his students. I am tempted to follow his example and refer to an expression that became (I was afterwards told) a kind of watchword or battle-cry among a small group of the students to whom I was lecturing in the United States in 1965. This was “Residue of Unresolved Positivism,” shortened for convenience to “R.U.P.” R.U.P. is secreted whenever anyone rejects the positivist position generally but continues to accept it, or rather takes it for granted, for most particular purposes. Robinson, for instance, has an introductory chapter on the interplay between language and life, in which he affirms a number of decidedly non-positivist propositions. We are told that “things can only exist for the human race as what they mean to it”; that “events, like things, are always the same as their significance”; that “things are what they mean”; that “human nature is not determinable by zoology”; that “we suffer deeply… from the confusion represented by the words ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’”; that “the ‘objective’ view of physics is simply the style of looking which is appropriate to the study”; and so forth. Yet, when any question begins to loom closer of the actual relation to modern science of the kind of thing he and Leavis are saying, he is as cautious as Leavis. Rather more so in fact. However confusing the words “objective” and “subjective” may be, and however subjective may be our current notion of physics, and therefore of physical organisms including our own, he is clearly even more certain at the back of his mind than Leavis that both life and psyche are “there” only in the individual. For Leavis himself does show some signs, in those later lectures, of beginning to suspect that something must be done about science itself as well as about society and its literature, if trans-personal “values” are to be restored; inasmuch as he includes some rather perfunctory references to Whitehead, Collingwood, Polanyi and Polanyi’s disciple Marjorie Grene. This however is the one point where Robinson ventures a little adverse criticism of the Master, finding him “too close for comfort to the edge of the pit in which he so clearly sees Blake” (who also judged that something must be done about science).

The plain truth is that, if we hope to restore trans-personal values by focusing on language and on what it compels us to take for granted, by exhuming and examining the presuppositions buried in today’s words, we shall just have to dig up the metaphysical as well as the sociological ones. It is because these mostly spring from science and scientism — to which the very concepts of quality and of “value” are irrelevant if not inimical — that the existential psychology, on which liberal humanism is based, will fall if it remains unsupported by an existential epistemology. But R.U.P. intervenes at this point because such an epistemology must entail not only the upsetting of much accepted scientific theory but also a radical revision of the limitations imposed by tradition on the very methodology of science. Leavis approves Polanyi’s preoccupation with epistemology and ontology as showing “a lively concern for human creative activity and human responsibility.” It may be so, but that preoccupation has not taken him even to the threshold of a genuinely existential epistemology. His own amounts to little more than a rather different attitude to the data provided by passive sense-perception. He never, as far as I know, admits the possibility of including any other data in the program of research, such as those “higher systems” which engendered the lower, and are there to organize them, both in language and life, unless the lower wilfully casts them out. Yet there is no other road by which the language of science could reapproach the language of humanity.

To put it another way, here is yet another alert mind that questions much, and even much that is taken for granted — but not enough, because it is checked by R.U.P. I have no wish to belittle Polanyi, or for that matter the other philosophers of science on whom Leavis half pins a hope. Indeed it is in the persistence of R.U.P. even in our most original and “creative” minds that I detect the deepest tragedy — and peril — of our time. And it is because I know of no other substantial, knowledgeable and practical twentieth century thinker who was both fully aware of and completely free from it that I have been pointing so tiresomely to Rudolf Steiner almost throughout my writing life and shall presumably continue doing so until I am gathered to my fathers.

The Survival of English is not a great or powerful book. It is for instance marred by a tendency to indulge in chattily humorous asides and avowedly personal reactions, and the plethora of supporting material is not as well marshalled as it might have been. But it is an unusual and, I feel, an important one, because it is exceptionally awake, and therefore awakening. Not to protest when something is done or said in our presence that amounts to an assault on the citadel of humanity is in a manner to acquiesce in it. But in an age when such things are being done and said around us all the time there is a nasty problem here. To protest at every other remark that is made in one’s presence is almost the definition of peevishness; and it may well seem that the only way of avoiding that horror is to relapse into a comfortable cynicism or an habitual directionless irony. We become accustomed, and custom lulls us asleep to what is going on all round us. The author’s technique of coolly examining the “layers of language that we take for granted” and, above all, the changes going on in them, is one way of staying wide awake without becoming peevish. That is why his book strikes me as more important than most other books focusing on language today and why, instead of praising it, I have paid it the higher compliment of discussing its message with all the seriousness in my power.

Owen Barfield



1 Cambridge University Press, 1973 Return.

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