The Nature of Meaning

Seven, 1981, pp. 32-43

It has often been pointed out that, if I say “All cats are quadrupeds,” I have not said very much. It is not inaccurate, so the argument runs, but it is only not inaccurate, because quadrupedality is already implicit in the meaning of the word cat. It purports to be an assertion, but, since by its nature it is not either verifiable or “falsifiable,” it is not really an assertion at all. It has no meaning.

I am inclined, as will appear, to feel that there is much truth in this contention and, for that reason, I wish to consider a different kind of statement altogether. How if I deliberately tell a lie? Suppose I boldly affirm that all cats are bipeds! The proposition must be falsifiable, because it is actually false; and therefore it may be allowed by all at least the possibility of meaning something. Untrue propositions appear to possess one very comfortable advantage. Whatever other vices they may possess, nobody can call them tautologies. And it seems to follow from the tautology argument that this extremely inaccurate statement is nevertheless meaningful precisely because it is an attempt, however ill-advised, to alter or add to the meaning of the word cat. In other words, the rule, if it be a rule, that tautologies are meaningless, involves three corollaries: (1) that propositions are only meaningful when they purport to modify the meaning of one of their terms; (2) that this happens when they are untrue; and (3) that there is some kind of conflict between meaning and accuracy.

I suppose the number of possible untrue statements is infinite. Are all of them meaningful, and, if not, how do we decide which? It would be pleasant to be able to say that untrue statements are meaningful, only when they would also be meaningful, if true. But we have seen that this is not the case, since they would then be tautologies. Must we then concede the virtue of meaning to any mortal thing we say, provided only that it is inaccurate? Suppose, for instance, I say “The dawn is subject to income-tax at 50 pence in the £;” or “Income-tax has rosy fingers.” Perhaps there is a reply along the lines that “income-tax is not the sort of word that can be used in that sort of sentence.” It is an argument that always sounds to me suspiciously like begging the question; and I do not propose to adopt it. Fortunately I am not much interested in laying down rules applicable to all inaccurate statements. What I am interested in, is the effect which some inaccurate statements do in fact have on the meaning of their terms – and on many other things.

I will therefore drop income-tax and begin, instead, with another thumping lie about the dawn. Suppose I say “The dawn has rosy fingers.” Can that picturesque or poetical proposition be said to possess a something which the others lack? There is some very strong evidence that it can and does, and indeed it is just that something, which the one inaccurate statement possesses and the other three do not, that I am concerned with. The nature of the evidence will, I hope, appear as I go along.

I personally think, and I have tried to show why, that the proper name for the something in question is “meaning.” But all that does not matter very much. Above all, I do not want to get involved in a dispute about terms, and if anyone thinks this is an improper use of the word “meaning” and prefers to call it “Murgatroyd” or some other name, that will not cause me any pain. It is the something I am interested in, not the name for it.

Now it is obvious that the special kind of untrue statement I am talking of occurs in many concealed forms. I chose the obvious one of metaphor. But it is not always as overt as that. For instance, in answer to the question “Watchman, will the night soon pass?” the Watchman might reply, without actually mentioning the dawn, but perhaps with a slightly arch intonation in his voice: “Cheer up! I expect that lady with the rosy fingers will be along very soon now!” Or, even more coolly, I may beg the whole question by merely using the epithet “rosy-fingered” and talking, as Homer does, of “rosy-fingered dawn,” as if all the world knew it. The norm, or underlying model, so to speak, is an untrue statement which asserts or implies something other than its own untrue content. But even that untruthful element may be concealed. If I write a poem about a road “winding uphill all the way” or “the wounded surgeon plying the steel that questions the distempered part,” it is only untrue, in the sense that I am not speaking of a geographical road or a historical surgeon. In other words it is a fiction. The important thing is that, in talking about roads and surgeons, I also mean something about invisibles like perseverance and guilt.

In fact the “something” appears whenever, to put it crudely, a man says one thing and means, or also means, another. I do not know a very good word for this mode of assertion or utterance. “Allegory” and “Symbolism” are both rather too specialised. “Parabolic” has been used, but to me it always suggests, not so much “parables” as carbolic and parabola. I toyed with allolaly, but I got wet and gave it up. I propose to call it simply “other-saying.” And, of course, from the symbolic or allegorical sort of poetry to which I have just referred you are led straight on into the whole vast realm of myth and fairy-story and symbolical fiction – all of them instances of “other-saying.” All of them, from a sentence like “Agnes, you’re the guiding-star of my existence” at the one end of the scale to the Pilgrim’s Progress or the Odyssey at the other, have this in common, that – as far as factual content – truth or untruth – is concerned, the primary meaning is felt as subservient to the secondary. The primary meaning may be either reasonably probable, as in the case of Rex Warner’s book The Aerodrome, or wildly improbable, as in the case of the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. That is largely irrelevant. However probable the primary meaning – indeed even if it consisted entirely of historical facts – it would have to be experienced as we experience fictions, in order that the secondary meaning should transpire.

I realise that by dragging in historical facts I expand rather suddenly, and perhaps seems to confuse, the subject. For, having first presented the element of untruth or fiction as necessary, I now seem to suggest that not only words, but fact itself, actions, history may have the quality of other-saying. The point at the moment is, that even if that is so (as I believe it is), still, in order to ‘read’ the other-saying through the facts, we should have to contemplate them as we have first learned to contemplate some fictions. When Keats wrote that “a man’s life is a perpetual allegory and very few eyes can see the meaning of it”, he showed by his choice of the word “allegory” that he felt this to be the case. “Typology” is the name usually given to this way of contemplating history. To begin with, however, it will be safer to stick to fictions.

All this is of course a long way from cats and bipeds; and I suspect a complaint that all this talk of truth and untruth, and what is meant by saying that the dawn has rosy fingers, is a lot of rather solemn fuss about precious little. To say that the dawn is rosy-fingered, it will be objected, is obviously no more than poetic shorthand. What is really meant is, that the dawn is like a hand, or a person, with rosy fingers. I agree that a metaphor displayed is a simile, and that the form of the assertion which underlies all “other-saying” is simile, and that the form of the assertion which underlies all “other-saying” is an assertion that “A is like B.” But if you are going to analyse, you must do it thoroughly. The question is, what does the word “like” mean? If you say “A is like B,” you are really making an assertion which, if displayed in the same way, would run: – “A is the same as B in some respects, and other than B in other respects.” (Whether it is true to say that you “really mean” that; or that I “really mean,” when I say the dawn has rosy fingers, that it is like a person with rosy fingers, is another question. It is generally rather rash to allege that somebody really means something he doesn’t think he means. I am inclined to think that, in this instance, it depends on whether we are thinking only about the object or thinking at the same time about our own thinking.) But I have no wish to linger in this metaphysical region. All I am doing is, to issue a sort of warning, that, if you insist on resolving my untrue but meaningful statement into a humdrum assertion that “A is like B,” you will oblige me to resolve your assertion that “A is like B” into a not so humdrum one, that “A is identical with B in some respects, and other than B in others.” You cannot shuffle off the mystery of predication merely by inserting the word “like” after the copula; nor of course by substituting a quasi-transitive verb, to “resemble,” for both.

I do not think, therefore, that it will do to distinguish sharply between meaning on the one hand and truth on the other – even if we seek to add that meaning is the raw material of truth. I do not think we can say that meaning, in itself, is either true or untrue. All we can safely say is, that that quality which makes some people say: “That is self-evident” or “that is obviously true,” and which makes others say: “That is a tautology,” is precisely the quality which meaning hasn’t got; and that the absence of that quality is a sine qua non of its presence.

And now to get back to those rosy fingers. I am going to ask you to imagine something rather unlikely. I want you to imagine that, as time goes on, everyone starts using the expression “the rosy-fingered one” instead of saying “the dawn.” A time will come, when people will say “rosy-fingered,” without thinking or imagining actual fingers at all – just as, when we have a certain sort of suspicion, we say “I smell a rat,” but no longer usually think of real rats, or what they smell like. A few more centuries, or millennia, and the syllables themselves will perhaps have been eroded, passing through something like “rosy-fingered ‘un” into the single word roffingdon, and by that time no-one but a few scholars will be aware that the word has, or ever had, any connection with rosy fingers at all. Homer’s ρόδoδάκτνλος ήώς will of course be translated “the rosy-fingered roffingdon” and if a contemporary poet writes “I saw the rosy fingers in the East,” it will be carefully explained to the boys and girls in the poetic appreciation class that this is a metaphor, and that the literal meaning of the line is simply that “it was the hour of roffingdon.”

You will have guessed my reason for this flight of fancy. It would be pointless enough if it were not for the fact that so many words, and quite possibly all words, have come into being in just this way. I am not going to give examples. Anyone who cares to nose about for half an hour in an etymological dictionary will at once be overwhelmed with them. I don’t mean out-of-the-way poetic words, I mean quite ordinary words like love, behaviour, multiply, shrewdly, and so on. What I wish to emphasise is that there is one large class of words, of which it appears reasonably certain that they all came into being in this way – and that is words which express, or purport to express, invisibles and impalpable – feelings, states of mind, thoughts, relations, classes, moral qualities and so on.

To instance two extreme cases, the words right and wrong appear to go back to two words meaning respectively “stretched” and so “straight”, and “wringing” or “sour”. And the same thing applies to all our words for mental operations, conceiving, apprehending, understanding, and so on; while the provenance of such words as soul and spirit from words that originally signified “wind” and “breath” can still be felt in the original Greek of the New Testament, where the one word πνεύμα has had to be translated in different ways in different contexts, sometimes as wind, sometimes as breath and sometimes as spirit. Today however the meaning of the word spirit has, or appears to have, nothing to do with ‘wind’ or ‘breath.’ The metaphorical or other-saying element which was present, or seems to us to have been present, in the words πνεύμα or spiritus, has disappeared. Or if it is still there, it is somehow fossilised.

I have supposed, in my imaginary example of roffingdon, a word which began by imputing a sort of entity or inwardness to nature, and which, in the course of time, gradually ceased to do so. But of course the words actually coming under fire in our own day are rather that other class – the names of invisibles – words, in fact, which seem to impute inwardness to man. Words like soul, mind, self, thought and the rest of it. We are told, at least I think we are, that if I say “my mind was troubled on Wednesday,” I am, or ought to be, using the word “mind” in the same way as I use the word “golf,” when I say “my golf was appalling on Wednesday.” It is all right, and not nonsense, just as long as I do not hypostatise and suppose the existence of a ghostly entity called “golf,” simply because there is a word “golf” which can be used as the subject of a sentence. And although there is no danger of my making such a silly mistake over the word golf, there is every danger of my doing it with the word mind or soul; in fact it is just what nearly everyone has been doing for centuries. Nomina numina. You started (they tell the human race) by inventing a useful collective noun, and then you went and spoilt it all by depriving that noun of the very collectiveness which is its raison d’être and fancying, instead, a single spectral entity to be its meaning. And I think, but again am not quite sure, it is further suggested that the persistent tendency of philosophers and of human beings in general to impute to man an inwardness, or inner world of thoughts and feelings and so forth, arises from just this misunderstanding of these rules of language, which has led to their continually being broken.

The difficulty about this theory is, that although it is excellently adapted to explain a possible set of facts, it really bears no recognisable relation to the actual facts. From what has been said one might perhaps have expected these critics to say: “the word soul really means wind or breath, but you are so poetical or so superstitious that you have invented a sort of immaterial ‘breath,’ which you now think you mean, when you use the word soul, but you can’t really mean it because we know it doesn’t exist.” But that is not what they do say. What they do say is: “By the rules of language the word soul is really a class name for a series of physical events, but you are such a slovenly thinker that you have fallen into the habit of using it as though it stood for something which is as real as a physical event and have thus managed to deceive yourself into believing in its existence.” I hope that is fairly accurate. I think some of them also allege all sorts of rather shabby motives for the self-deception, but a theory ought not to be dismissed merely because it is occasionally supported by irrelevant arguments. No. The real trouble is this, that, except in a few rare cases, abstract and collective or class-names have not been invented; they have emerged, by other-saying, from collective names. Often their meaning passes through the three stages, first, concrete, then immaterial substance, and lastly abstract. This is what has happened to the word spirit, when it is used as an abstraction, as for instance when we contrast the spirit with the letter of a law.

If, then, there is indeed a rule of language that every word which is capable of undergoing this development ought to be, or “is really” without our knowing it, already at the terminus; and that this third stage is what the word always “really meant,” then it is a rule which produces some very strange results.

The word disposition, for instance (which is of astrological origin) must always really have meant the probability that a human being will behave in some particular way, even when people thought they were talking about the arrangement of the heavenly bodies; and the Latin word anima can never have really meant anything more palpable than the word golf does today in the phrase “my golf”, even when some Italian steersman, anxious about the breakers ahead, was foolish enough to fancy he was referring to the stuff that filled the sails of his ship. Or is it suggested that the rule only applies to words which have already reached the middle stage? That is, the stage which purports to signify immaterial being. But if so, what is the rule which decides whether they have reached that stage or not? Moreover, whatever the rules are, I do not know what evidence there is said to be, for their existence, or whether it is suggested that they have ever in fact been observed by any community of speakers. Indeed, I doubt if this problem has yet been seriously considered. This whole approach to the problem of language and meaning shows a curiously total detachment from history. And yet I doubt whether it would be readily conceded that the postulated “rules” are like the rules of the games I used to play with grown-ups when I was a very small child – and which they told me (unfairly, I felt) I was making up as I went along.

In plain words I am suggesting that it is rather rash to try and analyse meaning or lay down rules for the proper use of words without first taking a good look at their history. That of course is not the same as saying that the meaning of a word and its derivation are the same thing. Or that ambiguities and disputes can best be resolved by a resort to etymology. If a lawsuit turns on the precise meaning in a will of the word securities, it is not likely to help either party much, to point out that the word is derived from a Latin adjective meaning “free from care.” What I do say is, that if the subject under examination is meaning in general or language in general, then you will get into a mess if you leave out history. After all, much the same thing happened with the science of biology. The early 18th-century biologists put up all sorts of rival theories about the variation of species and disputed them passionately, but it was all pretty amateurish until Darwin and some of his predecessors began to say: “Let us first see how the species gradually developed into what they now are.” When we reflect that, in the case of meaning, language is not only the corpus vile under examination, but also the scalpel and microscope with which we have to do the examining, – I submit that the need for patient observation, humility and caution is at least not less apparent than in the case of biology.

And the first thing we observe, when we look at language historically, is that nearly all words appear to consist of fossilised metaphors, or fossilised “other-saying” of some sort. This is a fact. It is not a brilliant aperçu of my own, nor is it an interesting theory which is disputed or even discussed among etymologists. It is the sort of thing they have for breakfast. And it does seem to me very odd that people who interest themselves in epistemology and the relation between thinking and perceiving never so much as refer to it. At all events, in the course of my own very limited studies I cannot recollect ever coming across such a reference. The one instance I know of of its being so much as mentioned in a philosophical context is C. S. Lewis’s very stimulating paper called “Bluspels and Flalansferes”, which was printed in the book Rehabilitations and to which I am much indebted. There, nevertheless, the fact is. Whatever it ought to be called, whether meaning or murgatroyd or make-believe or emotion (and it seems to me a good reason for choosing to call it “meaning”), it is precisely this, out of which the present-day meanings of practically all our words have somehow grown into what they are.

The second thing, which is a kind of corollary of the first, is, that all words which now stand, or pretend to stand, for ideas and abstractions and for the whole apparatus of human consciousness, once long ago stood for something that could be seen, heard, touched, smelt, or done with the muscles. What are we to make of it? When and how did they start meaning something else – whether that something else is a class-name or is an event in a private realm called individual consciousness? That seems to me to be the first question of all. And I do suggest, with all earnestness, to those whose business lies with the nature of meaning, that they should take a hint from the history of biology, should pause awhile from verbigerating about what is and begin, instead, to ask what happened.

How did it all come about? As in the one case, so in the other, we have a relatively short period over which changes can be observed with some certainty from vestigial records, and presumably a much longer pre-historic period at which we can only guess. As far as the period covered by etymological records is concerned, the first thing we notice about language in general is, that the further back we look, the more this element of “other-saying” increases. Words that will later signify only mental activity, still signify both bodily and mental activity; words that will later denote only natural phenomena, denote natural phenomena and sentient being. The next thing we observe is a sharp divergence in the behaviour of two broad classes of words. Of those which refer to nature, or what we now call nature, we observe that, the further back we go, the more they appear to connote sentience or inwardness. Of those on the other hand which refer to human consciousness, the opposite is the case, and their meaning, if I may put it so, becomes more and more outward. Nature, as expressed in words, has moved in the course of time from inwardness to outwardness; consciousness, as expressed in words, has moved from outwardness to inwardness.

So much for the recorded period. We can now, if we choose, go on to guesses about the pre-historic period. We can ask how these old meanings, out of which, whether we like it or now, our own meanings have developed, arose in the first place. One curious theory was advanced by Max Müller during the nineteenth century. He had observed how the element of “other-saying” in language appeared to increase with every step into the past and, in order to account for the existence of these words, he supposed what he called “a metaphorical period” in human history, a period during which the metaphors were invented wholesale, in much the same way as modern poets invent their metaphors. And the mythologies of the world, those meaning-systems which represent nature as a community of sentient beings, he described as an extension of the metaphor-making activity, calling it a “disease of language.”

There are difficulties about this view, which appear, I think, if we re-examine what is implied in the concept of metaphor. In order that there may be metaphor, there must be an assertion realised as untrue or fictive on the face of it, and a meaning, other than the fiction, which transpires through such assertion. A speaker may of course intend a metaphor and, by his hearers’ mistake, be mistaken literally. But, unless somebody at some stage contrasted a literal meaning with the transpiring one, there will never have been any metaphor at all. If, therefore, there was indeed a “metaphorical period,” there must have been a number of people in existence in the prehistoric world who were already able to distinguish literal from metaphorical meaning. In order to introduce Helios and Zeus as metaphorical expressions for what we now mean by the sun and the sky, they must first have been able to think of Helios and Zeus “literally,” i.e. with no reference to a round tallow thing and a wide blue thing, which nobody had yet noticed particularly enough to require a word for them! This seems unlikely and is certainly not what Max Müller meant. I believe he was really thinking of something more like “animism,” and had in a confused way transposed the literal with the transpiring or emergent meaning, forgetting that, in a metaphor, it is always the literal meaning which is presented as fictitious.

The theory of “animism,” according to which people first noticed a round yellow thing and a wide blue thing and then invented two gods, Helios and Zeus, to account for them, is open to a different objection. Language and thought are so clearly interconnected that it is impossible to believe that people could first think about the sun and the sky “literally” (i.e. with no reference to Helios and Zeus) without possessing words for them. To explain the former inwardness of words like sun and sky in this way, therefore, necessarily involves assuming another pre-historic language, all traces of which have disappeared. This seems otiose.

The theory of a metaphorical period is perhaps most plausible when applied to the other class of words, namely, those which now only express inwardness, but formerly expressed outwardness also. We do, I think, feel that the later meaning of the words πνεύμα or spiritus was at one time transpiring or emergent from their earlier meaning in a way that reminds us very much of metaphor. But we must never forget that they were not really being used as metaphor unless the literal meaning was presented as fictitious, and all the evidence suggests that they had already begun to connote inwardness long before they had ceased to denote outwardness. Here therefore there may have been conscious other-saying, but there was not metaphor.

It is admittedly guesswork, but it has always seemed to me more in accordance with common sense to assume that the changes in the meanings of words which were going on in the prehistoric period were changes of the same nature, and in the same direction, as those which have been going on and are still going on, in the recorded period. What then, does such an assumption involve? It involves, finally, the proposition that meaning is always an inwardness expressed as outwardness, whether that outwardness is a word or words, or some other image. And, secondly, I think the development of language reveals up to date a transition, as it were, from inwardness of nature to inwardness of man. I must pause here, to make it clear that I am not saying: the evolution of language suggests that early man believed that his soul was part of a sort of world-soul: I am saying something quite different; I am saying it suggests that his soul actually was part of a sort of world-soul. I am of course not entitled to insist on your agreeing with me about this, but I am, I think, entitled to insist – if need be, with a touch of asperity – on your agreeing that the two contentions are distinct the one from the other and that I am in fact affirming the second and not the first. I am sorry if I seem to labour this to the point of idiocy, but I have suffered more than once from a really startling inability or refusal to observe this quite simple distinction. You see, the other contention, the one I am not raising, is really our old friend “animism” once again, and I have tried to point out that, whatever other evidence there may be for this theory, it is not borne out by the development of language. In order to have a theory that your soul is part of a world-soul, you must first have acquired a sufficient degree of inwardness, or soul, to form theories with. Of course you can then form that theory among others, and it has in fact been formed before now, but only at much later stages than that which I have at present in view.

I think it also follows that there is only one inwardness and that what has been changing over is not the inwardness itself, but what I may perhaps call the centre of gravity of the inwardness. So that, for us, now, it would be truer to say, if we want to say something of the sort, that the soul of nature is part of our souls; or that nature is a system of collective representations of our own inwardness. You will perhaps say that this is a pretty tall observation. I agree that it is tall; but I am not flinging it out casually. On the contrary I find it so tall that it fills the earth and the sky and is for me the whole meaning of history and, if you like, of time itself.

“Directness,” as Kierkegaard said, “is paganism” A few thousand years ago, in a world alive with fertility cults, corn goddesses, white goddesses, sun-myths, animal sacrifice and other emphatic expressions of man’s direct link with the inwardness of nature, a nation appeared whose major impulse seems to have been to detach, as it were, the inwardness from Nature. Or they were made the instruments of that process. They worshipped one God, whose name was I AM or I AM THAT I AM, and to whom the most acceptable sacrifice was a broken and a contrite heart. It is clear enough from the Book of Job and the 104th Psalm that he was to them the God of Nature as well as of Man, but in no sense, I think, the God in Nature or Himself the inwardness of Nature. They were strictly forbidden to bridge the gulf, which resulted, between their own inwardness and the inwardness of nature by means of imagery; for they were not allowed to make any graven images. In a symbolical world they were pioneers of the quality of literalness. But in the last resort literalness is meaninglessness, and a time came when their own inwardness was afflicted with a sort of sterility and lost itself in a labyrinth of increasingly empty moral and ritual laws – rules of conduct which, as St Paul observed, nobody had any real hope of observing.

It was at this point in history and in this race that the Man was born, of whom Christians believe that His inwardness was that same inwardness, which the Jews had worshipped under the name of I AM. And here a personal word. It happens that I was interested in the history of meaning before I shared that belief and that one of the reasons, perhaps the chief reason, why I do now share it, is the way in which it seems to me to accord with the shape of that history. For this reason I thought it might be interesting if I concluded by pointing out the relation I see between the two. It must not be thought that, in doing so, I claim to demonstrate the very very brief, almost aphoristic, remarks on history and other things, which I am now making, in the way that I do claim to have demonstrated the general principle that meaning is a process and not a hard-and-fast system of reference or attempted reference.

First, then, three observations relating to the words and deeds of Jesus. He said to other men “The Kingdom of God is within you.” His teaching is often spoken of, as if he had only said “There is within you a candidate for admission to the Kingdom of God.” Second, there is about His life itself, as recorded, a marked quality of other-saying, of emergent or transpiring meaning. He loved to teach in parables. What is recorded in one Gospel as a parable of a barren fig tree, appears in another as part of his biography. Others of his actions are presented as being themselves the emergent meaning of prophetic other-saying of the past. And his life as a whole bears such a strong resemblance to elements in the Mystery-cults that some people have even inferred that he never existed historically at all. Thirdly, on one occasion, when he was asked to give the literal meaning of a particular parable, he complied with reluctance. According to all the Synoptic Gospels he spoke on that occasion, and on that occasion only, of the “mystery of the Kingdom” and suggested with startling emphasis a mysterious connection between inability to grasp other-saying and hardness of heart or indeed reprobation.

It does seem to me that our best hope of understanding these things and many others is, to think of him as bearing within him, bringing finally down to earth as it were, the centre of gravity of “inwardness,” as the Bearer of meaning. If, then, his incarnation was, as I believe, the crucial point in this passing of the centre of gravity of inwardness from nature to man, consider what it implies. It implies that the future of meaning lies, with Christ, in the hands of man himself. Meaning was the Son of God and is the Son of Man. Unless you believe that, there does not seem very much point in going on saying that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

We may well ask what has been occurring in the brief period since his coming. In the first place, we have continued very vigorously with the business of depriving nature of inwardness. Just as the Jews reduced their own inwardness to a labyrinth of increasingly empty moral laws, so we have reduced nature’s inwardness to a labyrinth of increasingly empty natural laws. Of course, for some practical purposes, it has proved extremely useful. There is no other way in which we could have got steam-engines, motor-cars, radio and atomic piles. But it does rather look as if, in our own day, the advance-guard of empirical science is in the act of making a further discovery, which also has its parallel. For just as, according to St Paul, the only positive result of all this business of moral and ritual laws was awareness of their very opposite, namely sin, so the net result of all this business of natural laws appears to be turning into awareness of their very opposite, namely chance. We have tried to take nature literally. We have not remembered that all outwardness is inwardness expressed. And this seems to be the result. Literalness is, in the last result, that which is almost by definition meaninglessness masquerading as meaning. It is accuracy and nothing else. It is the nothingness to which Wittgenstein drew attention, when he said that “All propositions of logic mean the same thing, namely nothing.” And because there is only one inwardness, we cannot treat nature or any kind of outwardness, in this way without reducing our own inwardness to zero. To analyse language without regard to its history is to attempt to take it literally. And to take it literally at this level is to reduce it , apparently, to a series of increasingly empty rules which there is no real hope of anyone observing; and to discover, in the process, that most of the words most people use most of the time mean precious little. It is no wonder we were warned that literalness is begotten of hardness of heart and begets hardness of heart in its turn. Hollow men become guilty men, and guilty men grow hollow.

I said it is to “discover” these things. And that is how it at first appears to us. But it follows from the nature of meaning (if I am right) that it is really to bring them about of our own volition. The rules by which all words for invisibles and impalpable really mean only abstractions and relations without substance, are man-made rules. They are really like the rules of a small boy playing with an adult. But words do actually mean in the end what they are used to mean. And if the rules are long enough and widely enough observed, they will become correct, and we shall have succeeded in excluding from meaning all that substance which is the Son of Man. Words will mean what we choose they shall mean. No paper on words is complete without a reference to Humpty Dumpty, and this is where he comes into mine; but not as a comic figure.

I believe that it is time we began to reverse the process. And I am inclined to think that the impulse and ability to do so are closely connected with a grasp of, or better say a feeling for, this principle of other-saying, of which I have been speaking. For to be aware of other-saying is to be aware of our own inwardness, of our own meaning (our own, because it has been so freely entrusted to us) and that, for us today, is the only road by which we can also become aware of the meaning of nature. Conversely, we can only restrain our own meaning from evaporating into literalness by restoring it, through other-saying, to nature, the arch-symbolist. The meaning of nature is today potential only. In the act of becoming aware of it we restore to nature the inwardness of which we have gradually and, I think, unlawfully deprived her. Nature today is, so to speak, hungry for myth or its equivalent, a fact of which some of the poets have had an inkling. She is tired of being experimented with and longs to be known. But man is also hungry for myth, if some of the psychologists are to be believed. What I really wanted to suggest is, that serious consequences are likely to ensue unless, as we say in my profession, in due course some arrangement is come to, which is satisfactory to both parties.

Owen Barfield
Copyright © 1997 — Owen Barfield Literary Estate.       Return to Top.