The First Metaphor

This is a brief exposition of an argument of Owen Barfield concerning the history of language, and its consequences. The argument consists in showing an historical inconsistency in the way we think about language, and the subsequent epistemological impossibility. There are two distinctions about the meanings of words and sentences that are important to the argument. The first is between the literal, which is the common or dictionary meaning, and the figurative, which is what words convey other than the common meaning. For example, the literal meaning of “she’s hot right now” would refer to physical sensation. Perhaps, I touched her body and felt a sensation of heat. The figurative meaning of this sentence would refer to her temper, her emotive state, i.e. she’s angry which, of course, I do not have physical sensation of. Lets ignore for now the third possible meaning that would refer to how qualitatively attractive the girl is ( interestingly, this would seem to be the common meaning in context of the quote, which illustrates something Barfield always throws light on, how metaphors continuously become normal speech).

A second distinction is between inner and outer language. Inner language is language that is exclusively about the mind. It refers to all our cognitive, qualitative experiences. For example, ‘thinking’ would be an ‘inner’ word. ‘Outer’ language refers to the external world. The car ‘crashing’, the forest ‘burning’ etc. ( I think these distinctions hold whether one is a subjective idealist, realist, materialist, etc.)

Now interestingly, Barfield observes, all the words that refer to our ‘inner’ world, if traced etymologically had a material referent, i.e an ‘outer meaning.’ This has led scholars to conclude that these words originally had only a material meaning and later became figurative. That is, the ‘outer’ meaning is taken to be the original, literal meaning. So how did our outer language become inner language? By what process was the transformation from outer to inner? Metaphor. It is assumed that outer language was used metaphorically to denote inner experience. For example, the outer word “wind” was used figuratively to convey, say, the concept of spirit. Hence, “Inner language is thus presumably the end result of the figurative use of outer language eventually taking on a purely literal inner sense.”

Barfield makes a compelling argument against the idea that our outer language became inner through the aforementioned process. I quote Barfield in full here:

Somehow or other our ancestors had acquired a bit of self-knowledge [knowledge of the inner world] without the help of the instrument of speech and then they chose a word with which to clothe that bit of knowledge metaphorically. I am a primitive man, who has just become aware of a sort of immaterial something within me, but I have no word for it. In my experience up to now, it is not even the sort of thing for which there are words. What I have got available is a bunch of strictly literal labels for things like sun, moon, cloud, rock, river, wind, etc. None of these words has any immaterial overtone at all. That is an essential condition; for otherwise they would not be literal (as born literals are assumed to be literal); they would already be vehicles with a tenor. The word for wind, for example, means to me simply what we today call air or oxygen, the physical stuff that keeps on coming into and going out of me. I now take the step of substituting my word for, and with it my thought of, wind for my wordless thought of the sort of something. That is the picture.

What Barfield is saying here is that, if we assume that outer language was only literal and used later to metaphorically describe ‘inner experience’ we’re in the untenable position of having a metaphor without content. We start with the assumption that ‘outer language’ precedes ‘inner language’ since we conclude that words only had an outer meaning before they became inner meanings. Since up until this point, primitive man only had words for outer objects, he is not aware of any distinction between spirit (inner) and wind (outer). In fact, he does not know anything about spirit! Also of note is in this literal world, the physical (literal) meaning of ‘wind’ is utterly unrelated to the immaterial notion of spirit. Yet without any awareness of ‘spirit’ he nevertheless substitutes the word wind for it. Barfield argues that this is incoherent. To have a metaphor you must be aware of a literal meaning and the object to which the figurative meaning refers to. But where does the concept of spirit come from in order that using wind as a metaphor for it makes sense? It cannot be the “wordless thought of a sort of something” since if I say that is spirit, I must already have a concept of what spirit is. Still worse, is the notion of a “wordless thought of a sort of something” which is an untenable postulate.

Therefore, unless, we presuppose some original affinity between the concept wind and the concept spirit, we cannot account for how wind was used metaphorically to denote spirit. That is, only if the word wind when it began possessed both the inner(spirit) and outer (air, oxygen) meaning. So what is the consequence of this? Well, the first is something that many other philosophers have concluded: the human mind is not a passive onlooker at a world out there but an active participant. But most important is Barfield’s conclusion that this relationship between wind and spirit must have been “given in the nature of things,” and not a result of confusion and fancy or a mistaken use of language. That is, to quote Phillip Williams,* the argument shows that “it is impossible to account for representational content without reaching the conclusion that the realms of consciousness and reality share some sort of fundamental unity.” That is, if these words began with both their literal and figurative meaning, it is impossible to conceive of man inventing this relationship when he had not yet had the means to do so.

* Phillip Williams is an online acquaintance that wrote a nice paper on Barfield which he shared with me. I haven’t been able to contact him in a while.

Anyway, the reason I post this short exposition is because (1) I think Barfield’s argument is interesting and (2) because I was reading a recent blog where the issue of Biblical Hermeneutics came up. Specifically, the difficult issue of how to deal with descriptions in the Bible when faced with the findings of archaeology and paleontology. I have no dog in these fights but I always find it interesting that Barfield, despite not being an Orthodox Christian, has several novel arguments that make the issue even more compelling. For example, where it is common to defer to the objectivity of Archaeology and Paleontology on these problems, Barfield makes no bones about delimiting their scope if they conflict with history as told by language. What? How? Wait, what? Yes, Barfield would seriously contend that Language itself is a clue into the history of the world and it’s nature. I will expand on this a bit more later.

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