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

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.

In a variety of ways Barfield demonstrated emphatically that the "seeing through" of the modern episteme destroys meaning.1

"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

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)

"To us," Jacob Bronowski observes in The Identity of Man, "what Einstein did, what Planck did, what Watson 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:

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)

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.

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).
1Compare the 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 18)
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 11-12).
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).