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Learning from Language

Learning from Language

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    Learning from Language
    Book Description:

    InLearning from Language,Walter H. Beale seeks to bring together the disciplines of linguistics, rhetoric, and literary studies through the concept of symmetry (how words mirror thought, society, and our vision of the world).

    Citing thinkers from antiquity to the present, Beale provides an in-depth study of linguistic theory, development, and practice. He views the historic division between the schools of symmetry and asymmetry (a belief that language developed as a structure independent of human experience), as built into the character of language itself, and as an impediment to literary humanism (the combined study of language, rhetoric, and literature to improve the competence and character of the individual).

    In his analysis, Beale outlines and critiques traditional claims of symmetry, then offers new avenues of approach to the subject. In doing so, he examines how important issues of human culture and consciousness have parallels in processes of language; how linguistic patterns relate to pervasive human problems; how language is an active participant in the expression, performance, and construction of reality; the concepts of designating versus naming; figurative language as a process of reenvisioning reality; and the linking of style to virtue by the ancients.

    Beale concludes that both asymmetrical and symmetrical elements exist in language, each with their own relevance, and that they are complementary, rather than opposing philosophies. The basic intuitions of symmetry that relate language to life are powerful and important to all of English studies. Combined with a love for the workings, sounds, and structures of language, Beale says, an understanding of symmetry can help guide the pursuit of literary humanism.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7360-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. 1 Symmetry, Asymmetry, and Literary Humanism
    (pp. 1-17)

    This book is primarily for teachers and prospective teachers of English, although I believe it will interest scholars in the fields of language, rhetoric, and discourse generally. It is the result of many years of teaching courses in language and linguistics to students of literature and rhetoric, and one of its primary goals is to bring these fields into friendlier conversation with each other. I do not intend to survey every critical and philosophical issue in the extensive interface of these disciplines. This book is for the advanced student of literature, rhetoric, or composition studies, who may be taking that...

  2. 2 Two Famous Asymmetrists
    (pp. 18-36)

    When Plato took up the question of symmetry directly, in his dialogueCratylus,he knew that he was stepping into an ongoing, high-stakes discussion. He knew that it was Heraclitus, the celebrated pre-Socratic philosopher of change, who first proposed an educative relationship between words and the things they named. Heraclitus, the philosopher who famously proclaimed that a person cannot step into the same river twice, was impressed with what he regarded as the relative stability of language. In his view, external features of the world existed in such a rapid state of flux that words about them, because they changed...

  3. 3 Six Claims of Symmetry
    (pp. 37-66)

    A literature student’s frustration and disappointment with English linguistics very often begins with the first chapter of the linguistics textbook, which typically opens with a discussion of the linguistic sign or symbol. The crucial, distinguishing feature of the linguistic symbol as opposed to natural or animal signs, the text reads, is its arbitrariness—its lack of a formal connection to (or resemblance to) the thing it signifies. This is commonly put forward as a first principle of linguistics and a pervasive feature of language itself. There is nothing controversial about it. At the simplest level, there is nothing in the...

  4. 4 Reading the World: Structural Analogy
    (pp. 67-82)

    Beyond our most elemental responses and biological functions, there is no human acting, thinking, understanding, or organizing separate from language. Our talking and writing are not simply called in to represent things; they actually make, perform, and enact them. To use the language of modern discourse theorists, language is constitutive as well as communicative of consciousness and culture. The meaningful connection of language to the world comes not through individual forms or structures, which are for the most part asymmetrical, but through internal processes and features of design. There are few problems of human culture and understanding that do not...

  5. 5 Creating the World: The Performative Principle
    (pp. 83-107)

    While investigating Saint Augustine’s view of language in chapter two, I suggested that Judaism and early Christianity captured intriguing insights about language in the following ideas: that God created the world through speech; that the Word was with God in the beginning; that without the Word “was not anything made that was made” (John, I. 3); and that the sending of the Word into the world constituted an important message (gospel) about the coming of the kingdom of God.

    These ideas have been the subjects of endless theological discussion in Western civilization. What is linguistically interesting about them is their...

  6. 6 Naming and Renaming the World
    (pp. 108-125)

    In John Milton’sParadise Lost,the character Adam describes an astonishing psychic event. Having completed the task of giving names to all the newly created animals, Adam recalls: “I named them as they passed, and understood / Their nature; with such knowledge God endued / My sudden apprehension” (VIII, 349–54). Earlier, in our investigation of Saint Augustine, this passage was introduced to illustrate a persistent view of symmetry: that names of things have a deep and permanent connection to their essential natures. As we have seen repeatedly, this view does not stand up to empirical observation or rational reflection....

  7. 7 Figuring (Out) the World: Tropes and Tropology
    (pp. 126-150)

    It is impossible to talk about ways of thinking and understanding without resorting to tropes—figures of speech, turnings of meaning from one area of experience to another. With the word “area,” I have begun with a trope derived from the area of mapping and geography, where some of the most common tropes that humans use to describe thinking and understanding originate. All of our talking and writing, once we get past the simplest and most formulaic transactions, entail something already known (marked and tagged by words ready at hand) and something struggling to be said, a search for words...

  8. 8 Style and Virtue
    (pp. 151-173)

    The ancient struggle between Plato and the sophists, the rhetoric teachers of his day, was the opening exchange in the centuries-long debate over the symmetry question in language. Plato considered the sophists dangerous for a variety of reasons, but at the philosophical heart of it was the belief, promoted by some sophists, that there existed parallels and af-finities between patterns of language, patterns of thought, and patterns of human society. Plato believed seriously in a competing theory: the good society was supposed to mirror the pattern of the perfect soul, and language had very little to do with it. If...

  9. Conclusion: The Love of Words
    (pp. 174-182)

    Literary humanism is any conscious program of scholarship and teaching that combines the study of language, rhetoric, and literature, working toward greater competence, character, and wisdom in the individual and, hence, toward a better society. The credibility of this enterprise, and the viability of its hopes, are greater if there exist correspondences or analogues between structures of language and those of human knowledge, character, and social aspiration. Herein lies the importance of the symmetry question. An overarching purpose of this book has been to examine ways in which different traditions and different practices of literary humanism are based upon different...