Two Kinds of Forgetting

The Nassau Review 4.2 (1981): 1-11

Looking at the letter of invitation that brings me here I see that, in addition to naming the overall theme of your studies, “Continuities and Discontinuities in Modern Consciousness”, it asks the specific question: “Are there assumptions within your discipline that cause the work of the past to be ignored?1 Are there factors external to the discipline that have had that effect?” So, taking my discipline to be the nature and significance of language, I think I will begin by recounting a little bit of history, which not only furnishes a concrete example of a major assumption within the discipline, arising from a factor external to it, but also illustrates the startlingly shallow foundations on which such assumptions sometimes prove, on inspection, to be based.

At about the time, in the second half of the 19th Century, when T.H. Huxley was popularising the evolutionary theory of his contemporary Charles Darwin, another contemporary figure, hardly less – or perhaps more – familiar to the educated world at the time than either Huxley or Darwin, though (unlike theirs) his name scarcely rings a bell of any sort in the ears of our own contemporaries, was busy popularising the historical or evolutionary contemplation of language. It was the recent advances in the study of oriental languages, especially Sanskrit, which had given a new turn to that contemplation by virtue of the fresh light it shed on all the Indo-European languages, including of course English; and the man to whom I am alluding is the oriental scholar Max Müller.

There may still be a few persons about who are vaguely aware of Müller’s prolific output of essays and lectures under such titles as Biographies of WordsEssays on Language and LiteratureEssays on Mythology and FolkloreThe Science of Language, but you would need a very fine-toothed comb to find one who had ever heard of his encounter with Darwin and Darwinism. Müller did not question the primary Darwinian thesis, that the human form has evolved, or emerged from animal forms. What he did refuse to accept was the tacit corollary that human consciousness has biologically emerged from animal consciousness, and therefore that human speech has (“must have” was of course the way that Darwinians actually put it) somehow or other emerged from animal cries. As a conscientious student of language and of the development of meaning, he told Darwin that, whatever else his theory of evolution explained, it could not possibly explain the origin of speech. And speech is of course the endowment that most obviously distinguishes the human being from the rest of the living world.

When I say he “told” Darwin, I am speaking literally. For he not only delivered a series of lectures to the Royal Institution in 1873 under the title Mr. Darwin’s Philosophy of Language, but he sent the pamphlet in which they subsequently appeared to Darwin himself and afterwards called on him. “He listened most attentively,” wrote Müller, describing the interview, “he asked questions, but raised no serious objections. Before he shook hands and left me, he said in the kindest way, ‘You are a dangerous man’.” Moreover, after reading another essay of Müller’s two years later Darwin wrote to him: “…though some of your remarks have been rather stinging, they have all been made so gracefully, I declare that I am like the man in the story who boasted that he had been horsewhipped by a Duke.” But that is not all. In an earlier letter to Müller, written after reading the lectures I have referred to, there is a still more revealing admission:

He who is fully convinced, as I am, that man is descended from some lower animal is almost forced to believe, a priori, that articulate language has been developed from inarticulate cries; and he is therefore hardly a fair judge of the arguments opposed to this belief.

The words a priori are italicized, no doubt because they are in Latin, but when we reflect on the momentous consequences for Western thought in almost every department of it and on the depth to which it has penetrated our whole imagination of the past, we may feel that we should have reasons of our own for italicizing them, even if they were in English. I mentioned the shallowness of the foundations underlying some influential assumptions. It is widely assumed that, since the scientific revolution, conformity to reason has been the acid test for determining the soundness of any theory. History will no doubt one day pronounce on how far that assumption was justified, and I am not suggesting that it is wholly unjustified. What can, I think, be said is that, as far as the received theory of the origin of humanity in an emergent biological evolution is concerned, it is not justified. It is clear enough from the above that the light of reason was not Charles Darwin’s guiding star. You can find a further account of the whole encounter in Nirad Chaudhuri’s life of Max Müller published in 1974 under the title Scholar Extraordinary.

Actually it was precisely the issue of reason which determined Müller’s opposition to any application of the Darwinian theory to the origin of language. Incidentally he was well acquainted with – in fact he later translated into English – Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. “No speech without reason: no reason without speech” was the conclusion to which he insisted any faithful student of language is compelled by his own reason. And, however intelligent some animals are, or may become by training, the light of reason itself is not participated by the brute creation.

What Müller had exposed, though it went largely unnoticed at the time, thanks to the fascinating simplicity of Darwin’s theory, was the fallacy, to which I have already alluded, of inferring from biological evolution to a parallel evolution of consciousness. Physical bodies of animals appeared on the earth before physical bodies of men; therefore human consciousness grew out of animal consciousness. What could be more obvious? So long of course as you refrain from examining it. It was this unquestioned assumption which did so much harm to the whole historical study of language. In the early days it entailed that anyone inclined to speculate on the origin of speech was expected, as a matter of course, to devise some new way of solving the spurious problem of how animal cries could have turned into speech. There was a “bow-wow” theory, a “pooh-pooh” theory, and so forth. That sort of thing has largely gone out of fashion; but it is still the incubus of this largely unquestioned assumption which, more than anything else, prevents a genuine insight into the true nature of language, an insight without which all speculation on its origin is of course frivolous. Because it closes – and even when it does not close, it obscures – the only avenue by which such an insight can possibly be reached, namely, the approach from within language itself. Language is, more than anything else, the vehicle of human consciousness; and if you want insight into human consciousness and its evolution, you will get it by studying what is going on, and what has been going on, within human consciousness, not by studying what goes on outside it and drawing all manner of inferences therefrom.

In order however to shed any useful light on the kind of questions I understand you to be deliberating, I am persuaded that we must now leave behind the special domain of language and look back behind Darwin and into this background. And if one diligently enquires how it came about that Darwin’s a priori assumption prevailed so easily over the demands of reason, he comes, rather surprisingly, to another a priori assumption. The drama of an exclusively biological evolution requires a stage for its performance. If you postulate a history of living organisms changing and developing into their present forms by virtue of their responses to a separate environment, you must first postulate such an environment. And you must further assume that it has remained substantially unchanged over an enormous tale of years. There is no doubt (if you wish to verify it, you need go no farther than the article on “Evolution” in the 13th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica) that Darwin’s biology could never have come about without Lyell’s geology. And if you take the trouble to look back at the period when geology first began to wear its modern dress, you find that it too is based on an assumption; in this case an assumption that did not slip in unnoticed, but which was consciously and deliberately adopted. Inasmuch as it is an assumption – or theory, if you prefer – about the past, and past events are not susceptible of experimental verification, it is also an a priori assumption, and was acknowledged by Lyell to be so. I refer, of course, to the doctrine – or perhaps “maxim” is the more accurate term – which was called, until its a priori status was forgotten, “uniformitarianism”: the maxim, namely, that what we today ascertain to be the laws of nature have always existed and have never changed. Call it what you will – assumption, theory or maxim – it is the arbitrary foundation on which our whole familiar world-picture of a solid earth substantially as we have it today – the mountains perhaps a bit higher, the rains a bit more torrential, but substantially as we have it today – having existed for billions of years before we were born – the indispensable foundation on which that whole world-picture reposes.

Here too the assumption carried a momentous corollary. As biology and physiology went on to assume that mind must have evolved in parallel with body and brain, so geology and palaeontology went on to assume that, in the history of the earth, and indeed of the universe as a whole, inanimate preceded animate matter. Right or wrong, I believe it would be difficult to exaggerate the part these two assumptions, taken together, play in the whole structure of modern thought. It is not just the life-sciences. Dig a little way beneath the surface and you find them everywhere, in anthropology, no matter where you look. As C.S. Lewis once put it:

It’s probably the deepest-ingrained habit of mind in the contemporary world. It’s behind the idea that our morality springs from savage taboos, adult sentiment from infantile sexual maladjustment, thought from instinct, mind from matter, organic from inorganic, cosmos from chaos.

He added: “It always seems to me immensely implausible, because it makes the general course of nature so very unlike those parts of it we can observe.” We do, of course, see all round us every day the living turning into the lifeless. What we never see is the lifeless turning into the living.

I have just said “if you dig a little way beneath the surface.” I notice, on referring again to the letter of invitation which constitutes my terms of reference, that the particular aspect of your overall topic which you are focusing on this term is described as “systematic forgetting”. I found that phrase a bit puzzling. What is systematic forgetting? It cannot surely mean forgetting deliberately undertaken (as a “system” is deliberately constructed), because that cannot be done without making yourself remember whatever it is more clearly than ever! I can only interpret it as signifying a forgetting which is the result of a process of conscious thought of some kind; as distinct from that unsystematic forgetting, which I will come to later, and which is the result of prolonged inattention. The former, on the other hand, I take to be the process by which what began by being conscious does not fade right out but gradually becomes sub-conscious. And in this sense I think the presence throughout the Western mind of the two assumptions I have been speaking of, together with the absence of conscious attention to them, may properly be seen as the product of systematic forgetting. The assumptions themselves are almost forgotten; the fact that they are assumptions is entirely forgotten, still more of course the fact that they are a priori assumptions, and all that remains above the mental surface is the deeply-ingrained habit of mind, of which Lewis wrote. They have ceased to be thoughts and become merely the way men think about other things.

I did not include linguistics in the examples I gave of disciplines affected by them, perhaps because a good deal had already been said about language. Now that the Darwinian assumption is ingrained, we no longer hear much of flighty speculations on the origin of human speech. The effects have gone much deeper. Man is a tool-using animal, so runs the argument, sometimes explicit but more often implicit. He began to become man because he began using tools, and language was the most useful tool of all. Thus, if we wish to investigate language really scientifically, we must conceive it as a tool for practical, and ultimately technological, ends. And so on. It has gone so far that there is even a school of thought which holds that a truly objective inquirer into language must omit meaning altogether from his considerations. More recently the computer has been brought in; and, as you know, this analytico-mechanical conception of language has fed back into philosophy – another omission from my list. The total effect has been incalculable. It is probably putting it too strongly, but I must confess that, whenever I personally am favoured with a glimpse into what seems mostly to be going on in the academic world under the names of both linguistics and philosophy, I get the impression of a separate class of mandarins, imperturbably aloof from the ordinary run of men and playing games of skill with a set of intellectual and scientific toys.

And here there is something I find very interesting. Just as it was among those who had studied language from within, notably Max Müller, that the most convincing, however ineffective, opposition to the Darwinian assumption itself arose, so, now that the assumption has become ingrained, it is from within the same discipline that it is being most dangerously undermined. Historical penetration into language and its roots in consciousness, of which Müller, with his combined interest in language and mythology was a conspicuous pioneer, has been carried much farther since his day, with the help of subsequent advances in anthropology and archaeology as well as in philology itself. For some time now a number of thinkers, of whom Ernst Cassirer is probably the best known, have been pointing out that there is really no question of speech having originated in the responses of tool-using organisms to an already established environment, an environment which we should recognize as our own if we could be spirited into it. On the contrary, the world about us – the only world we can perceive and know – came into being along with language, of which it is at least as much the effect as it has ever been the cause. And an important development here has been an increasing realization that we must look for the source of language in myth, in the mythic consciousness, and not, as Müller rather crudely speculated in his observations on metaphor, for the source of myth in language.

What is not yet realized, is the unavoidable conclusion which this discovery entails. And the reason why it is not realized is that it flies in the face of a third ingrained assumption to which I now come. Perhaps in this case it cannot be called an assumption with quite the same justification as the other two. At least it is not, as they are, an a priori assumption, because it is not, as they are, concerned solely with an imagined, but unobservable past. I am referring to that heterogeneity or dichotomy between mind or consciousness on the one hand and body or matter on the other, which is generally called “Cartesian”, because it was first so clearly and positively formulated by René Descartes. Hardly a mere assumption, like Darwinism and Uniformitarianism; rather a discovery that is indeed one valid way of thinking about the world and ourselves, a discovery that has been amply borne out by its subsequent applications, since it is at the root of all technological development. Hardly a bare assumption, since it brought with it a new valuation, almost a new conception of accuracy in cognition, notably of course quantitative accuracy; but a conception which has spread, with beneficial results, from the sphere of natural science into that of the humanities. I have no doubt, for example, that we were largely indebted to it for that new impulse, leading to new discoveries, in philology of which I spoke near the beginning of my lecture.

What is an assumption, an assumption that was made by Descartes himself and has been retained by most Western minds as their overriding reality-principle, is the corollary that it is not only a valid and fruitful way of thinking about the world, but the only cognitive and veridical way of doing so. From this aspect it is indeed not less, but rather more than an assumption. Inasmuch as it is far more deeply ingrained than are even the other two I have mentioned. In fact it is a kind of threshold, which even the most honest and penetrating thinkers will do anything rather than cross. It is in my opinion the reason why the unavoidable conclusion that follows from that discovery of the concurrent development of consciousness and the objects of consciousness is so very very rarely drawn even by the discoverers themselves. I mean the conclusion that that part of reality, which we rather equivocally refer to as “consciousness”, though we have long been in the habit of intending by it the sub-conscious and even the unconscious as well – all that which we experience otherwise than through the senses, or which (to put it succinctly) comes from within and not from without – is not to be thought of as a series of units encapsulated in a series of human organisms, but rather as the inside of the world as a whole. An inside which, like the inside of anything else, is inseparable from the outside, though the distinction between the two remains obvious enough.

Now, if we go back four or five hundred years in history, we find that this way of perceiving and thinking of the natural world was taken for granted, in both the sciences and humanities, as firmly as it opposite is taken for granted today. Moreover we find that it was taken for granted, not as the result of specific ideas or theories first mooted, then accepted and then systematically forgotten, but because it was the way in which men had thought about the world ever since they began to think at all. Why then has it disappeared so completely, or almost completely, from among us?

It is in answer to that question that I suggest it is worthwhile looking more closely at the complementary process of un-systematic forgetting. In dealing with systematic forgetting I ventured to focus attention very specially on three names, Darwin, Lyell and Descartes. I hope I made it clear that I was using them as labels, rather than putting forward their owners as the sole causes of the theoretical notions and assumptions associated with them. Important contributory causes they certainly were. But the French philosophers had been suggesting the animal origin of humanity long before Darwin, and Lord Monboddo and others had brought the doctrine to England. In the same way the Cartesian diremption of a mechanically determined nature from an individual observing mind antedates Descartes, as an unclearly formulated way of thinking. Butterfield made that clear enough in his Origins of Modern Science. Nevertheless the labels are convenient and not altogether misleading.

Systematic forgetting is an aftermath of thinking rather than of failure to think. Custom and education together bring it about that an idea entertained and accepted, perhaps enthusiastically accepted, by one generation becomes in a subsequent one a sub-conscious assumption that forms part of its common sense. Unsystematic forgetting on the other hand is a kind of atrophy from disuse. Ideas and ways of perceiving that were familiar to former generations are forgotten because the attention that was once directed to them has so long been directed elsewhere and away from them. And so, with the same object of focusing on particular examples rather than indulging in vague generalities, it may be useful to have a look at three older ways of thinking, now largely forgotten as a result of the diversion of attention to the ways I have labelled Darwin, Lyell and Descartes.

Before Descartes being was not held to be coterminous with existence. It was almost universal habit to think of birth, life and growth in terms of a potential existence becoming actual. What was still only potential was not unreal simply because it was as yet imperceptible. And by Aristotle’s time this way of thinking had crystallized into a philosophy, a psychology and a science all based on the most intricate conceptions of actus and potentia and the varying relation between them. All this was swept away by the Cartesian dichotomy. Everything that is objective is perceptible to the senses. And so, as time passes, the imperceptible becomes the unreal. How completely it was swept away, so that the denial of potency was regarded as so obvious as to be simply common sense is well illustrated by a principle of interpretation which was laid down as one of a number of legal maxims. I don’t know when it first appeared in the law books, but it is still included as a recognized maxim in contemporary lists; and it is as follows: De non apparentibus et non existentibus eadem est ratio; which I suppose is best translated: “Anything that is invisible is assumed not to exist”. And so, for science as for law, the potential is not to be thought of as real. There is no such thing as potentiality, only the abstract possibilities and probabilities of subjective calculation.

Alongside the elimination by Descartes of actus and potentia as a mode of thought can be placed, I think, the final obliteration by Lyell – or Lyellism or Uniformitarianism – of another mode which was equally integral to educated thought in general at least down to the Renaissance: the conception of man as, both physically and psychically, a microcosm within the macrocosm, from which he takes his origin and with which he remains linked, not only by such material means as gravitation and perception, but also organically and immaterially – from within, in fact, as well as from without – linked more in the manner of an embryo within a womb than in the manner of an insect crawling over the surface of a sphere. Any such conception has been effectively obliterated by a long-term fixation of attention on the Lyell picture of a macrocosm, with no inside to it, in existence for millions of years before not only man himself but any kind of consciousness, any kind of inside, had come to pass.

And Darwinism: is there any older way of thinking and feeling which Darwinism has been especially instrumental in obliterating? The question almost answers itself. The conviction that man not only owes his origin to a Being, or a state of being, higher and greater than himself, but also that he has cut himself adrift from that origin by his own self-will, seems to have been with the human race almost as an integral part of its constitution from the beginnings of civilization. The paradise imago in one form or another – whether as the Saturnia regna of classical mythology, or in various older oriental versions, or in the myths and traditions of primitive races surviving today, or in the form most familiar to us, the Old Testament account of the “Fall” of both man and nature from a primal state of innocence into its present predicament – in one form or another it was surely almost a part of human nature, until it was replaced by that imago of something emerging accidentally out of nothing, which I suppose is the prevailing twentieth century cosmology.

I have distinguished three forgettings, but of course they have overlapped with and supported one another. In the mode of actus and potentia, the potential can become actual, only because it is itself preceded by an actual. If there is no actual perfection anterior to the potential perfection (the “perfectibility of man” they called it in the nineteenth century, out of which our ubiquitous and appallingly vague notion of “progress” arose), then there can be no macrocosm, no greater world at once transcending and generating the little world our self-consciousness has detached from it. You cannot have a fall, without there being a height to have fallen from.

Nor is it only in these general respects that they overlap. The biologist’s inability to deal with form in organism, arises no doubt from his inability or refusal to conceive a blossom as both immaterially and really potential in a seed, but that refusal and that inability derive much of their rigidity from the inveterate background picture of a world of forms having emerged in the first place from formless matter and having developed simply by a series of mechanical interactions. The same could be said of the truly grotesque obsession of some neurologists with the physical brain, as not only the condition but the cause of waking consciousness, and their conviction that in exploring its tissues they are exploring, and will some day “explain” consciousness itself. Indeed the inability to distinguish between a condition and a cause, between causa sine qua non and causa causans, is one of the most conspicuous blind spots which the forgettings have brought about. But I believe, if we had the means of exploring the sub-conscious, we shall find this particular obsession greatly strengthened by a Darwinian overlap. As thus: just as we investigate consciousness in its early stages by examining fossil remains, measuring brain-cavities and so forth, so we investigate present-day consciousness by examining the brain itself.

For some time now there have been increasing signs of the losses as well as the gains beginning to be realized. It is pointed out here and there, for example, that the accurate knowledge we owe to post-Cartesian science is achieved only by excluding all those parts or aspects of reality that are not reducible to abstract quantities. Books appear with such titles as The Perennial Philosophy or The Lost Word. This within the humanities. Elsewhere the consequential deficiencies are beginning to force attention to themselves, whether or not they are also recognized as losses or forgettings. I don’t know that that need matter much. When we look back from our world of accuracy without meaning into that older world of meaning without accuracy, we are not bound either to relinquish our habit of accuracy or to resuscitate the old terminology. Provided that, let us say, the life-sciences come to recognize that De non apparentibus et non existentibus eadem est ratio really won’t do, if form is to be apprehended, and that reality includes an immaterial component, it does not matter whether they come again to speak of actus and potentia or whether they envisage a principle, such as that of “holism,” as a new discovery.

There are these signs then, but they are still very very tentative. Neither the proponents of holism nor the ecologists, with their healthy impulse to integrate man once more into the surrounding world of nature, seem able to take the only way that can lead to a truly intimate knowledge or a truly organic integration. And it is the same with the advanced philosophical physicists. They speak of indistinction between observer and observed, and some of them even go so far as to suggest that we must abandon our obsession with a Cartesian dichotomy. But read a little farther and you will find them still imagining in the Cartesian mode, still reifying anything the self could experience as not-self. The unsystematic forgetting has proved so very total. The systematic has gone so very deep into the sub-conscious. I spoke just now of a kind of threshold which even the most honest and penetrating thinkers will do anything to avoid crossing. De non apparentibus rules the imagination even when it is rejected by the intellect. There are very very few who can accept that the inside of the world as a whole is made of the same stuff as that inside of our organisms and our brains, which we call consciousness. Julian Jaynes’s book The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bi-cameral Mind is a depressing example of the way in which trains of thought leading in that direction are wrecked by assumptions to the contrary left lying on the rails. I recall, in my own discipline, the pleasure I felt in becoming acquainted with Noam Chomsky’s notion of generative grammar. The very word “generative” was like a breath of fresh air with its suggestion of a creative Word. And then you go a little further and you discover that by “generation” he simply means the physical configuration of the brain!

I remember once reading of a simple riddle, or intelligence-test, for children. A traveller in a part of the country he does not know comes to a crossroads, where the signpost has been uprooted and is lying on the ground. How can he use it to find his way? The answer is of course that he knows the place he came from and if he replaces the signpost with the name of that place pointing to it, it will also show him the way forward to where he wants to go. Perhaps it is the task of the humanities to replace the signpost, so that it points correctly to the past, and for the sciences to take the way forward into the future. But I missed any suggestion of such a creative relation between past and future, when the battle of the “two cultures” was joined a few years ago.

Yet besides forgetting there is also remembering. Remembering! We might conclude by pausing on the word itself. The German poet Novalis observed, in an aphorism on the nature of words, that there are two kinds of etymology, the genetic and the pragmatic. The genetic is the kind that can be securely established from documentary evidence, the kind you find in Skeat’s etymological dictionary. Pragmatic etymology, by contrast, may be irresponsible and even flighty, but may nevertheless contain a germ of unprovable truth since we can never be sure what accidental resemblances of sound, what perceived or fancied analogies of meaning, together with those underlying psychological drives that have sometimes been called “folk-etymology”, have played their part in the forming of a word at some period in its history. A good example of pragmatic etymology was afforded by the adventurous spirit who pointed to the relation between the noun “thing” and the verb “to think,” as revealing a truth once realized but long since forgotten, namely, that it was a species of thinking in the first place which brought into being the world of recognisable things. A Max Müller or a Skeat would of course have nothing to do with it. Yet close resemblances in sound are a fact, however they came about, and are not necessarily wholly accidental, because their causes cannot be documented. And so, as Shirley Sugerman has pointed out in her book Sin and Madness, remembering – and certainly the kind of collective remembering that is correlative to unsystematic forgetting – may also be thought of with a hyphen, as “re-membering.”

At all events what I have been trying to suggest to you – no doubt with a good many obscurities and irritating short cuts – may perhaps be summarized as follows. As Heraclitus realized long ago, when systematic thinking had just begun to emerge from unsystematic, there are two kinds of thinking: the divine light of reason, which Darwin preferred to ignore, the koinos logos one in all and waiting to be appropriated by each, and the idia phronesis, which is the same light possessively appropriated and readily distorted by each, “everyone to his own way.” That is why there are two kinds of forgetting. Secondly, that by taking some trouble to remember just what has been forgotten we may come again to distinguish the one kind of thinking from the other. And lastly, that to distinguish one from the other is also to realize that, just as our skin-bound physical frame is a member of the spatial world of bodies and things, so our seemingly isolated little spark of self-consciousness is a member of a greater world of spirit and of spirits, to which that other world owes its existence in the first place.

Owen Barfield

1 This paper was delivered at the tenth anniversary of the Aquinas Faculty Seminar program of the Graduate School of Drew University. Return.