From Susanne Langer,
Feeling and Form, Scribner’s & Sons, 1953, 236-39.
Langer’s own words
inspired this excerpt’s title. It was “pure coincidence” to her that
Ernst Cassirer and Owen Barfield—fellow “Inkling” to C.S. Lewis, J.R.R.
Tolkien, and Charles Williams—pondered independently “precisely the same
problem of non-discursive symbolism.” This “striking parallel” was,
however, significant enough to merit emphasis. That Lewis and Langer
were intellectually indebted to men who labored in the same vineyards
and harvested the same fruit while unknown to each other is a
tantalizing fact provocative of further questions.
Other scholars have
explored the Cassirer-Barfield parallelism, but Langer was the first to
note it over a half-century ago.
June 25, 2009
Cassirer and Barfield:
Susanne K. Langer
Philosophers have been slow to recognize
the fact that there are any general laws governing imagination, except
insofar as its processes interfere with those of discursive reason.
Hobbes, Bacon, Locke, and Hume noted the systematic tendencies of the
mind to error: the tendencies to associate ideas by mere contiguity in
experience, hypostatize concepts once abstracted and treat them as new
concrete entities, attribute power to inert objects or to mere words,
and several other vagaries that lead away from science to a state of
childish error. But until recently, no one asked why such
fantastic errors should occur with monotonous persistence.
As it often happens in the history of
thought, the problem presented itself suddenly to a number of people in
different fields of scholarship. The outstanding answer to it was given
by Ernst Cassirer, in his great work, Die Philosophie der
symbolischen Formen. The first of Cassirer’s three volumes concerns
language, and uncovers, in that paradigm of symbolic forms, the sources
both of logic and of its chief antagonist, the creative imagination.
For in language we find two intellectual functions which it performs at
all times, by virtue of its very nature: to fix the pre-eminent factors
of experience as entities, by giving them names, and to abstract
concepts of relationship, by talking about the named entities.
The first process is essentially hypostatic; the second, abstractive.
As soon as a name has directed us to a center of interest, there is a
thing or a being (in primitive thinking these alternatives are not
distinguished) about which the rest of the “specious present”
arranges itself. But this arranging is itself reflected in language;
for the second process, assertion, which formulates the Gestalt
of the complex dominated by a named being, is essentially syntactical;
and the form which language thus impresses on experience is discursive.
The beings in the world of primitive man
were, therefore, creations of his symbolizing mind and of the great
instrument, speech, as much as of nature external to him; things,
animals, persons, all had this peculiarly ideal character, because
abstraction was mingled with fabrication. The naming process, started
and guided by emotional excitement, created entities not only for sense
perception but for memory, speculation, and dream. This is the source
of mythic conception, in which symbolic power is still undistinguished from
physical power, and the symbol is fused with what it symbolizes.
The characteristic form, or “logic,” of
mythic thinking is the theme of Cassirer’s second volume. It is a logic
of multiple meanings instead of general concepts, representative figures
instead of classes, reinforcement of ideas (by repetition, variation,
and other means) instead of proof. The book is so extensive that to
collect here even the most relevant quotations would require too much
space; I can only refer the reader to the source.
At the very time when the German
philosopher was writing his second volume, an English professor of
literature was pondering precisely the same problem of non-discursive
symbolism, to which he had been led not by interest in science and the
vagaries of unscientific thought, but by the study of poetry. This
literary scholar, Owen Barfield, published in 1924 a small but highly
significant book entitled Poetic Diction, A Study in Meanings.
It does not seem to have made any profound impression on his generation
of literary critics. Perhaps its transcendence of the accepted
epistemological concepts was too radical to recommend itself without
much more deliberate and thorough reorientation than the author gave his
readers; perhaps, on the exact contrary, none of these readers realized
how radical or how important its implications were. The fact that this
purely literary study reveals the same relationships between language
and conception, conception and imagination, imagination and myth, myth
and poetry, that Cassirer discovered as a result of his reflection on
the logic of science.1
The parallel is so striking that it is
hard to believe in its pure coincidence, yet such it seems to be.
Barfield, like Cassirer, rejects Max Müller’s theory that myth is a
“disease of language,” but praises his distinction between “poetic” and
“radical” metaphor; then goes on to criticize the basic assumption
contained even in the theory of “radical metaphor,” that the carrying
over of a word from one sphere of sense to another, or from sensory
meanings to non-sensory ones, is really “metaphor” at all.
“The full meanings of words,” he says,
“are flashing, iridescent shapes like flames—ever-flickering vestiges of
the slowly-evolving consciousness beneath them. To the Locke-Müller-France
way of thinking,2 on the
contrary, they appear as solid chunks with definite boundaries and
limits, to which other chunks may be added as occasion arises.”
He goes on to question the supposed
occurrence of a “metaphorical period” in human history, when words of
entirely physical meaning were put to metaphorical uses; for, he says,
“these poetic, and apparently
metaphorical values were latent in meaning from the beginning. In other
words, you may imply, if you choose, with Dr. Blair,3
that the earliest words in use were ‘the names of sensible material
objects’ and nothing more—only, in that case, you must suppose
the ‘sensible objects’ themselves to have been something more; you must
suppose that they were not, as they appear at present, isolated, or
detached, from thinking and feeling. Afterwards, in the development of
language and thought, these single meanings split up into contrasted
pairs—the abstract and the concrete, particular and general, objective
and subjective. And the poesy felt by us to reside in ancient language
consists just in this, that, out of our later, analytic, ‘subjective’
consciousness, a consciousness which has been brought about along with,
and partly because of, this splitting up of meaning, we are led back to
experience the original unity.”4
“In the whole development of consciousness
. . . we can trace the operation of two opposing principles, or forces.
Firstly [sic], there is the force by which . . . single meanings
tend to split up into a number of separate and often isolated concepts.
. . . The second principle is one which we find given us, to start with,
as the nature of language itself at its birth. It is the principle of
“ . . . Not an empty ‘root meaning to
shine,’ but the same definite spiritual reality which was beheld on the
one hand in what has since then become pure human thinking; and on the
other hand, in what has since become physical light; . . . not a
metaphor, but a living figure.”6
These passages could almost pass for a
para-phrase of Cassirer’s
Myth, or frag- ments from the Philosophie der
symbolischen Formen. The most striking parallel, however, is the
discussion of mythic imagination, which begins: “Perhaps nothing could
be more damning to the ‘root’ conception of language than the ubiquitous
phenomenon of myth.” Barfield then states briefly the theory of multiple
meanings and fusion of symbol and sense, and concludes:
“Mythology is the ghost of concrete
meaning. Connexions between discriminate pheno-mena, connexions which
are now apprehend-ed as metaphor, were once perceived as immediate
realities. As such the poet strives, by his own efforts, to see them,
and to make others see them, again.”7
Cassirer’s philosophy of symbolic forms developed out of his
earlier work, Substance and Function.
The reference is to the works of John Locke, Max Müller, and
Anatole France, respectively. Poetic Diction, A Study in Meanings,
Hugh Blair, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (I783).
Barfield, op. cit., p. 70. Concerning the subject-object
dichotomy, compare Cassirer, Philosophie der symbolischen Formen,
II, p. 32 on the primeval function of symbolism: “Just because, at this
stage, the ego is not yet conscious and free, flourishing in its own
productions, but is only on the threshold of those mental processes
which shall presently dichotomize ‘Self’ and ‘World,’ the new world of
signs must appear to the mind as something absolutely, ‘objectively’
Ibid., p. 73.
Ibid., p. 75.
Ibid., pp. 78-79.