Watson and Crick
The history of meaning is for Barfield, a thinker
who chose to call an important collection of his essays The Rediscovery
of Meaning (1977), nothing less than "the inner surface of the history
of thought" (RCA 199). In The Abolition of Man, C.
S. Lewis took note that
In a variety of ways Barfield demonstrated emphatically
that the "seeing through" of the modern episteme destroys meaning.1
You cannot go on "seeing through"
things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see
something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent,
because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through
the garden too? . . . If you see through everything, then everything is
transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To "see
through" all things is the same as not to see.
"The meaning of a process," Barfield explains
in the essay "The Rediscovery of Meaning," "is the inner being which the
process expresses. The denial of any such inner being to the processes
of nature," a denial which is common in modern thought,2
"leads inevitably to the denial of it to man himself. For if physical objects
and physical causes are all that we can know, it follows that man himself
can be known only to the extent that he is a physical object among physical
objects" (RM 12).
When we speak of meaning as the product of
"inner being" we must be careful, however, how "inner" is understood. As
Barfield reminded as early as Poetic Diction (1928). meaning "can
never be conveyed from one person to another; words are not bottles; every
individual must intuit meaning for himself, and the function of the poetic
is to mediate such intuition by suitable suggestion" (PD 133). And
in Speaker's Meaning he reminds us again that
"To us," Jacob Bronowski
observes in The Identity of Man, "what Einstein
did, what Planck did, what
and Crick have done, appears crudely as a discovery; but to them, it
was an elucidation of the language of science which uncovered and sharpened
in its conceptual vocabulary a potential of meaning which others had missed.
Imagination takes advantage of ambiguity, in the language of science as
well as in the language of poetry" (49). Barfield would certainly agree.
For in Speaker's Meaning he makes a very similar case for
the ambiguity, and hence the possible meaning, of language:
Words do not contain meanings as a
cigarette box contains cigarettes; and linguistic analysis points out that
the so-called meaning of a word or sentence is simply the way in which
it is used, or that language means what it is normally used to mean. That
is a healthy reminder. We may perhaps feel that some linguistic philosophers
overestimate the simple-mindedness of the rest of us in these matters;
but their basic approach is helpful. The actual meaning of a word must
be regarded as a kind of habit, the normal habit of contemporary people
when they speak or write; and a good dictionary will contain the best way
possible of recording or describing that habit. The lexical meaning of
a word is a kind of norm. (28-29)
Convinced of the "crucial" truth that "the most
fundamental assumptions of any age are those that are implicit in the meanings
of its common words" (SM 45),3
Barfield argues strongly for forms of scientific and humanistic investigation
that will permit the rediscovery of meaning rather than deny all future
imaginative expansion of thought.
If the analytical rules for the use
of language as a means of communication had been strictly enforced in Newton's
time, the law of gravity could never have been discovered; or, if discovered,
could not have been imparted. . . . Newton's law is very familiar and with
the hindsight of familiarity, it is naturally difficult not to feel that
there must have been many ways of putting it across without altering the
meaning of the word "gravity." Yet progress . . . radical progress involving
change . . . comes about only when we question (and because we question)
our fundamental assumptions. (44-45)
Much of modern critical theory, especially
in the structuralist / post-structuralist
/ deconstructionist mode, has
set out to expose the meaninglessness of discourse. In the development
of this trend, this "paracriticism"
has moved in lock step with modern art itself which, from Dada
through the theatre of the absurd
to postmodernism, has likewise
endeavored to forge radical new forms of preposterousness. Barfield
lost all patience with these trends. In "Imagination and Inspiration" he
insists that "whatever melodious cadences or cunningly emphasized absurdities
the message may be wrapped in, I believe there is a limit to the number
of times a man can profitably inform his neighbor, or be informed by him,
that the inexpressible cannot be expressed" (RM 124).
|See in particular "The Rediscovery of Meaning"
(RM 11-21), "Meaning and Myth" (PD 77-92).
following passage from Barfield's "The Rediscovery of Meaning."
Penetration to the meaning of a thing or process, as distinct from
the ability to describe it precisely, involves a participation by the knower
in the known. The meaning of what I am writing is not the physical pressure
of thumb and forefinger, or the size of the ink lines with which I form
the letters; it is the concepts expressed in the words I am writing. But
the only way of penetrating to these is to participate in them-to bring
them to life in your own mind by thinking them. A Chinese looking at this
page would indeed be limited to describing its outer appearance. We are
mere onlookers at a language we do not understand. But confronted with
a language we have learned to understand, we do not merely observe the
shapes of the letters--in the very act of observing these we "read" their
meanings through them. In the same way, we want to know the meaning of
nature, we must learn to read as well as to observe and describe. (RM
|2"How is it,"
Barfield asks, "that the more able man becomes to manipulate the world
to his advantage, the less he can perceive any meaning in it? . . . in
investigating the phenomena of nature, exclusive emphasis on physical causes
and effects involves a corresponding inattention to their meaning" (RM
|3"In our time,"
Barfield goes on to say, these assumptions "happen to be largely the assumptions
of nineteenth-century positivism. In Newton's time however they were the
assumptions of Aristotelian (that is medieval and pre-medieval) philosophy,
cosmology, and science. In Newton's time a Aristotelian universe was not
simply a set of theories, in which men believed--it was what half of their
words implicitly meant" (SM 44-45).