The world against me rages, its fury I disdain;
Though bitter war it wages, its work is all in vain.
My heart from care is free, no trouble troubles me.
Misfortune now is play, and night is bright as day.

--Awake, My Heart, with Gladness (Auf, Auf, Mein Herz, mit Freuden), Paul Gerhardt

Friday, October 15, 2010

Barfield, Owen ; Poetic diction: a study in meaning, preface to the second edition (a) [1951]

Barfield, Owen ; Poetic diction: a study in meaning (1973, 1952 [2nd ed.], 1927)

Preface, 2nd ed. (a)

He says the book "claims to present, not merely a theory of poetic diction, but a theory of poetry: and not merely a theory of poetry, but a theory of knowledge.  It is as such, I see, that it must be judged.  Apparently, the author was determined that the title should at least be unassuming" (14).

The current generation of people, Barfield notes (23 years after the first ed.), is not quite so interested in the "various theories of language, life and literature" that Barfield was concerned to address (rationalizing his own observations in terms of these) when the book was written.  This is because it now regards them as "irrelevant to its own more maturely skeptical philosophy".  It is confidently asserted of Kant, Berkeley, and Locke, for example, that they were not so much wrong, but "asked the wrong questions" (14, 15).  He says that if he were doing the book today, he would criticize Hume and his more recent disciples in the Appendices instead, "not the less so because [now] the fashionable method is to analyse language itself - which is the heart of my matter" (15).

He notes that any readers coming "fresh to the subject" may at this point want to start reading at Chapter One, coming back to the Preface later (you have been forewarned!)  It becomes clear why he says this: he gets into very philosophical territory.  He discusses and dismisses the ideas Dr. I. A. Richards and the Logical Positivists, starting with this:

"Now in a footnote to page 113 in this book it is pointed out that 'logical judgments, by their nature, can only render more explicit some one part of a truth already implicit in their terms'.  And in another, to page 131, that the logician is continually seeking to reduce the meaning of his terms, and that 'he could only evolve a language whose propositions would really obey the laws of thought by eliminating meaning altogether'" (16). 

He goes on to say that "I do not think it too sweeping to say that the doctrines of linguistic analysis, or as it has sometimes been called, Logical Positivism, are no more than an extensive gloss on this principle".  The Logical Positivists basically said that "all propositions except those from which some observation-statement can be deduce are, it is averred, meaningless, either as misuse of language, or as tautologies" (16, 17), (me: therefore eliminating the claimed importance of religious language, for example, which they believed was completely unverifiable)

Barfield then naturally moves on to talking about Locke and Hume, who attributed great importance to observation, or sense-impression, and dismissed any notions of "innate ideas" or innate thoughts.  For Hume, he notes, "man, as knower, is above all a passive recipient of impressions [or ideas, which for Hume are the perceptions].  Such is also the assumption on which the edifice of physical science is erected" (17).

My summary: The whole idea of science has (so far at least, when he is writing this) been based on the idea that we can, through the power of our sense impressions and the careful use of descriptive language, "pin things down" (I say: to capture and use the truth).  In order to do this, they often have to reduce the meaning of the terms they use.  Furthermore, Logical Positivists insist that this is the only kind of real knowledge there is.  

My critique/comments:  It seems to me that since Barfield wrote this much has happened.  Looking at individuals like Karl Popper, Michael Polanyi, and Thomas Kuhn, science is much more nuanced now about how our observations work hand in hand with our ideas, or presuppositions.  In addition, persons like Popper, although embracing some of the Logical Positivists points, distinguished himself from them, and it is much more nuanced views like his that hold influence.  That said, the indented quotation above is fascinating.  I wonder if I am right in saying that if one can really understand Barfield  here, one will get to the heart of his work and concern.  It seems he is speaking to the idea that we often want to pin things down, clearly and distinctly defining them, and then universally applying these definitions to our entire range of experiences and circumstances - and this, he seems to be saying (whatever the feasibility of such a project) comes with a cost, namely the loss of the meaning in our language.  There is much more to be said here, but that will need to wait for later. 

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