Feb 12 2018

Why Science Must Rely on Poetry

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Why Science Must Rely on Poetry

Samuel Matlack’s essay “Quantum Poetics: Why physics can’t get rid of metaphor” in The New Atlantis (Summer/Fall 2017) covers all the right bases (via Vico, Borges, and George Steiner among others) of how science relies on language in order to explain itself.

Yet language (particularly metaphor and idiom) are abstract in the very ways science seeks to be precise. This is why, Matlack, suggests:

It is easier to translate between Chinese and English — both express human experience, the vast majority of which is shared — than it is to translate advanced mathematics into a spoken language, because the world that mathematics expresses is theoretical and for the most part not available to our lived experience.

And that reminded me of something I’d recently read from Hannah Arendt (1906–1975):

These observations on the interconnection of language and thought, which make us suspect that no speechless thought can exist, obviously do not apply to civilizations where the written sign rather than the spoken word is decisive and where, consequently, thinking itself is not soundless speech but mental dealing with images. This is notably true of China…. There “the power of words is supported by the power of the written sign, the image,” and not the other way round, as in the alphabetic languages, where script is thought of as secondary, no more than an agreed-upon set of symbols. For the Chinese, every sign makes visible what we would call a concept or an essence—Confucius is reported to have said that the Chinese sign for “dog” is the perfect image of dog as such, whereas in our understanding “no image could ever be adequate to the concept” of dog in general. “It would never attain that universality of the concept which renders it valid of all” dogs.[1]

And what I had read from Arendt reminded me of something I’d previously read in Vico:

All these observations prove that human nature determined the creation of poetic style before prose style, just as human nature determined the creation of mythical and imaginative universals before rational and philosophical universals, which were the product of discourse in prose. For after the poets had formed poetic speech by combining universal ideas, the nations formed prose speech by contracting these poetic combinations into single words, as if into general categories. Take for example the poetic sentence ‘My blood boils in my heart’, which expresses a natural, eternal, and universal property of humankind. They took the notions of blood, boiling, and heart, and formed them into a single word, or general category: anger, which is called stomachos in Greek, ira in Latin, and collera in Italian. By the same steps, hieroglyphs and heroic emblems were reduced to a few vernacular letters, as general types to which countless different articulate sounds could be assigned. This process required the utmost ingenuity; and the use of such general words and letters rendered people’s minds more agile and more capable of abstraction. This in turn prepared the way for the philosophers, who formulated intelligible general categories. This offers us a small piece of the history of human thought, from which we see the origins of letters could only be traced in the same breath with the origin of languages![2]

But mostly, Matlack’s essay reminded me of ideas found in the works of Owen Barfield (1898–1997), first suggested to me in an essay by his buddy C. S. Lewis (1898–1963):

[Michel] Bréal [(1832–1915)] in his Semantics often spoke in metaphorical, that is consciously, rhetorically, metaphorical language, of language itself. Messrs. Ogden and Richards in The Meaning of Meaning took Bréal to task on the ground that “it is impossible thus to handle a scientific subject in metaphorical terms.” Barfield in his Poetic Diction retorted that Ogden and Richards were, as a matter of fact, just as metaphorical as Bréal. They had forgotten, he complained, that all language has a figurative origin and that the “scientific” terms on which they piqued themselves––words like organism, stimulus, reference—were not miraculously exempt. On the contrary, he maintained, “these authors who professed to eschew figurative expressions were really confining themselves to one very old kind of figure; they were rigid under the spell of those verbal ghosts of the physical sciences which today make up practically the whole meaning-system of so many European minds.”[3]

And let’s examine a little more from Barfield on how, whether in science or social life, we think by means of words:

We think by means of words, and we have to use the same ones for so many different thoughts that as soon as new meanings have entered into one set, they creep into all our theories and begin to mould our whole cosmos; and from the theories they pass into more words, and so into our lives and institutions.[4]

The new meaning becomes a means to distort ends, for: “the creative imagination latent in the word itself.” [5] Barfield goes on to point out that the poet makes the terms; the logician/scientist uses the terms:

Thus, the poet’s relation to terms is that of maker. And it is in this making of terms—whether the results are to be durable or fleeting—that we can divine the very poetic itself.… The use of them is left to the Logician, who, in his endeavor to keep them steady and thus fit them to his laws, is continually seeking to reduce their meaning. I say seeking to do so, because logic is essentially a compromise. He could only evolve a language, whose propositions would really obey the laws of thought by eliminating meaning altogether. But he compromises before this zero-point is reached.[6]

For Barfield science and poetry are not all that different:

It has already been emphasized that the rational principle must be strongly developed in the great poet. Is it necessary to add to this that the scientist, if he as ‘discovered’ anything, must also have discovered it by the right interaction of the rational and poetic principles? Really, there is no distinction between Poetry and Science, as kinds of knowing, at all. There is only a distinction between bad poetry and bad science.[7]



[1] Arendt, The Life of the Mind, (1971) (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1978), Volume I. Thinking 100.

[2] Vico, [The Third] New Science: Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations, trans. David Marsh, (New York, NY: Penguin 1999), II, § 2, v, [¶ 460], p. 189.

[3] Lewis, “Bulspels and Flalansferes,” Rehabilitations and Other Essays (London: Oxford UP, 1939) quoted from The Importance of Language, ed. Max Black (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962) 36.

[4] Barfield, History in English Words, (New York, NY: George H. Doran Co., 1926) 173.

[5] Barfield, Poetic Diction: a Study in Meaning, (1928), Third Edition, (Middleton, CN: Wesleyan UP, 1973) 37.

[6] Barfield, Poetic Diction: a Study in Meaning 135–36.

[7] Barfield, Poetic Diction: a Study in Meaning 145–46.

Nov 10 2017

An Attempt At Meditating on Metaphor

porticos in Bologna, Italia

An Attempt At Meditating on Metaphor

A metaphor is just a particular tool for mythmaking, and as C. S. Lewis points out, there are two ways in which we use metaphor: one for teachers, another for students. When a metaphor starts with a teacher attempting to teach a student, the teacher is free to choose the metaphor because the teacher already knows the meaning behind it. Here, one might say the teacher’s myth is certain. It is either true or false, and can be proven to be one or the other, because the teacher, by definition, knows the meaning of what he teaches and can, therefore, provide the evidence of the meaning behind the myth that would necessarily make it certain. [1]

On the other hand, as Descartes observed, “One cannot so well seize a thing and make it one’s own, when it has been learned from another, [but] as when one has himself discovered it.” In a state when learning has decreased, as when the teacher is unavailable or inaccessible to the student, or when communication overrules conversation, the student, suffering confusion, is left in Lewis’s words, “to the mercy of the metaphor.” She must make her a myth on her own. But the student’s metaphor is never true or false. No matter how true it “feels” it cannot be made certain. For when the student creates an original metaphor, she is bound by her subjective certainty and is not free to choose it the way the teacher did. She thinks and feels, and indeed may know it to be an appropriate metaphor but is probably unable to explain why. [2]

Metaphors are fine; but they need to be labeled says Gregory Bateson:

The conceptual models of cybernetics and the energy theories of psychoanalysis are, after all, only labeled metaphors. The peculiarity of the schizophrenic is not that he uses metaphors, but that he uses unlabeled metaphors. He has special difficulty in handling signals of that class whose members assign Logical Types to other signals.

That is to say, he must live in a universe where the sequences of events are such that his unconventional communicational habits will be in some sense appropriate. The hypothesis which we offer is that sequences of this kind in the external experience of the patient are responsible for the inner conflicts of Logical Typing. For such unresolvable sequences of experiences, we use the term “double bind….”

Among human beings we meet with a strange phenomenon—the unconscious falsification of these signals. This may occur within the self—the subject may conceal from himself his own real hostility under the guise of metaphoric play—or it may occur as an unconscious falsification of the subject’s understanding of the other person’s mode-identifying signals. He may mistake shyness for contempt, and so on. Indeed, most of the errors of self-reference fall under this head…. He may learn to learn.[3]

Compare Wittgenstein’s Investigations: we concurrently play two different games with the same word at the same time:

It can never indicate the common characteristic of two objects that we symbolize them with the same signs but by different methods of symbolizing. For the sign is arbitrary. We could therefore equally well choose two different signs and where then would be what was common in the symbolization.[4]



[1]. C. S. Lewis. “Bluspels and Flalansferes” Rehabilitations and Other Essays, (London: Oxford University Press, 1939). Quoted from Max Black, ed., The Importance of Language, (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1962) 39–40.

[2] René Descartes, Discours de la Methode, § VI. For the differences in “belief” versus “certainty” versus “truth,” see: Isaiah Berlin, Vico and Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas, (New York, NY: Viking, 1976) 108; Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1958), 112–13; Plato, Meno 79C–81A, 85C–86E; John Searle, “Language and social ontology,” Theory and Society, (October 2008): 443–59 at 445.

[3] Gregory Bateson, Don D. Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland, “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia,” (1956) in Theories of Schizophrenia, eds. Arnold H. Buss and Edith H. Buss, (New York, NY: Atherton Press, 1969) 132, 130–31.

[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus, Translated by C. K. Ogden, (1921) 3.322.

Aug 22 2017

Politics and the Language of Soccer/Football

Texas wildflowers

Politics and the Language of Soccer/Football

From “What sets Germany’s ‘liberal’ FDP apart” at Deutsche Welle news on August 11, 2017:

While both German liberals and US libertarians want a smaller state, most FDP members reject the notion they are libertarians because the term is often associated with radically anti-government views. “I don’t bend down to American terminology, it is not historically adequate,” Paque said. “Just like I don’t call football ‘soccer’ just because Americans call it that.”

Compare George Orwell (1903-1950):

Did I understand the political situation in England? Oh, of course, of course. I mentioned the names of various Ministers, and made some contemptuous remarks about the Labour Party. And what about Le Sport? Could I do articles on Le Sport? (Football and Socialism have some mysterious connexion on the Continent.)

Down and Out in Paris and London. 1930. Berkeley Medallion Edition. September 1967. Ch. VIII, p. 37.


Aug 18 2017

Custom or Culture: a Modest Distinction

mortadella in Bologna, Italia

Custom or Culture: a Modest Distinction

I was fortunate enough to have something published this week by Real Clear News, of Chicago, under their subdivision of Real Clear Religion.

My piece responds to Rémi Brague’s essay “From What is Left Over” (First Things, August 2017) and its 67 instances of using the word culture.

I point out the modern substitution of the word culture for what used to be called custom to ask: if it is true that the medium is the message, what has been lost by replacing the word custom with culture? Was anything gained by substituting one word for the other?

Read the whole thing here.

Jul 25 2017

How Much was a Plum Worth in the Middle Ages? Reading Richard Rolle

Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin

How Much was a Plum Worth in the Middle Ages? Reading Richard Rolle

So a while back I was reading The Continuity of English Prose from Alfred to More and his School (1932) by Raymond Wilson Chambers (1874–1942), a friend of Tolkien’s, and came across this intriguing passage concerning someone I’d never hear of before, the medieval mystic Richard Rolle (1290/1300–1349):

Rolle’s date, his style and his popularity give him a supreme place in the history of English prose. In English or in Latin he was, during the latter half of the Fourteenth Century and the whole of the Fifteenth, probably the most widely read in England of all English writers. Investigation of English wills and of documents bearing on the ownership of books seems to show a dozen owners of manuscripts of Rolle for one or two of the Canterbury Tales. Such devotional books were likely to be worn to bits, and not to come down to posterity at all: yet Miss Allen has examined between four and five hundred of them, in Latin or in English, scattered through the libraries of Europe and America. [1]

And later I learned from an article by Margaret Deanesly (1885–1977):

Among English books, those of Richard Rolle seem to have been most frequent—partly because his glossed English psalter was the only biblical book which the laity might use without license.[2]

So in light of the life-long quest to understand the Middle Ages I undertook several years ago, I recently decided to read some Richard Rolle. Hence I found Richard Rolle: Prose and Verse (1988) edited by S. J. Ogilvie-Thomson for the Early English Text Society.

I must say I found very little “mysticism” in Rolle. His religion seems pretty plain, ordinary, and orthodox, even when compared to a non-radical like Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758),[3] but maybe that’s what made Rolle so popular.

Now it’s been a while since I dove into Middle English, and it took some slow adjusting (is his surname pronounced like rôle, or does it rhyme with Raleigh?), but I found a few gems by Rolle such as:

þe fyre of his loue lyght oure hert, and þe swetnesse of his grace be our comfort and our solace in wel and in woo. [4]

[the fire of His love light our hearts, and the sweetness of His grace be our comfort and our solace in well and in woe.]

Elsewhere Rolle writes that “loue is hard as helle.” [5]

But I was especially struck by his strange comparison of apples to castles:

Bot sum men þat loueth nat wisely, like to children þat loueth more an appille þan a castelle. So doth many; þay gvf þe ioy of heuyn for a litel delite of har fleisshe, þat is noght worth a ploumbe. [6]

[But some men that loveth not wisely, like to children that loveth more an apple than a castle. So doth many; they give the joy of heaven for a little delight of her flesh, that is not worth a plum.]

Just how old is the metaphor and phrase “not worth a plum?” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, both “plum” and “worth” are very old words, even within Old English. Google Book’s Ngram viewer finds the phrase extremely rare before 1800, [7] peaking at about 1837 and slowly decreasing since then.

And are (or were) plumbs worth less than apples? Were they worth less because they bruise more easily?

Plums and pennies #books

A post shared by Christopher Landrum (@bookbread2) on



[1] Chambers, R. W. The Continuity of English Prose from Alfred to More and his School. An extract from the introduction to Nicholas Harpsfield’s Life of Thomas More edited by E. V. Hitchcock and R. W. Chambers. EETS: Oxford UP. 1932. 1957. p. ci.

[2] Deanesly, Margaret. “Vernacular Books in England in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries.” Modern Language Review. Vol. 15. No. 4. (October 1920.) 349–58 at 352.

[3] Rolle doesn’t dig too deep into epistemology and ontology as Edwards occasionally does:

BEING. It seems strange sometimes to me, that there should be Being from all Eternity; and I am ready to say, What need was there than anything should be? I should then ask myself, Whether it seems strange that there should be either Something, or Nothing? If so, it is not strange that there BE; for that necessity of there being Something, or Nothing, implies it. (Jonathan Edwards: Basic Writings. Edited by Ola Elizabeth Winslow. NY: Signet Classic. 1966. pp. 45–46)

[4] Rolle, Richard. Richard Rolle: Prose and Verse. Edited by S. J. Ogilvie-Thomson. Oxford UP. EETS. No. 293. 1988. “The Form of Living” 5.

[5] Rolle, “Lyrics” i, 43.

[6] Rolle, “The Form of Living” 22.

[7] Under its entry for “nose” the Oxford English Dictionary quotes from Frances Burney’s (1752–1840) novel Ceclilia, or, Memoirs of an Heiress (1782): “Bad way too,” cried Briggs, “never get on with it, never see beyond your nose; won’t be worth a plum while your head wags!” (V, ix, 67).

Mar 2 2017

I Act to Be Passive: an Introduction to Introspection

Piazza Navona, Roma

I Act to Be Passive: an Introduction to Introspection

Why an introduction to introspection? Why should we inspect ourselves? Because:

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Matthew 07:03 (King James translation)

If you wish to understand others you must intensify your own individualism.

–Oscar Wilde “The Critic as Artist – Part II” (1891)

There’s an old cliche I used to hear often at church, although, it could be applied to most secular settings: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” This cliche is not quite a tautology, not quite Russell’s paradox, but what is the formula behind it and similar phrases? It seems strange but feels true to say:

I love to be loved,
I hate to be hated,
I want to be wanted,
I need to be needed,
I desire to be desired,
I smile to be smiled at.

All of the above seem to say: “I purpose to be purposed.”

In a grammatical sense, I act to be passive–yet I don’t pacify to be active–I don’t pacify to be acted upon–and I don’t pacify to be activated.

But there is another arrhythmia in this logarithm. For it does not make sense to ask:

Do I really:

–play to be played?
–pay to be paid?
–drive to be driven?
–grow to be grown? (Maybe)
–sleep to be slept? or wake to be awakened?
–write to be written?
–read to be read?
–live to be lived?
–eat to be eaten? (Like cattle)
–keep to be kept? (Like The Birdman of Alcatraz?)
–clean to be cleaned?
–search to be searched? (Is that not an introduction to introspection?)
–touch to be touched? or feel to be felt?
–see to be seen? or hear to be heard?
–create to be created? or dream to be dreamed?
–destroy to be destroyed? or take to be taken?
–call to be called?
–judge to be judged? (which is the utter opposite of Matthew 07:01)
–ask to be asked?

Certainly I do not lie to be lied to.

Feb 7 2017

There is No Emoji for the Word “Emoji”

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

There is No Emoji for the Word “Emoji”

Vico writes:

In this study, we shall greatly profit from the antiquity of the Egyptians. For they have preserved two fragments of their history which are no less amazing than the pyramids and which contain two great historical truths. The first is recorded by Herodotus, who says that the Egyptians divided all of the world’s history into three ages: (1) the age of the gods, (2) the age of heroes, and (3) the age of men. The second fragment is reported by Johannes Scheffer in his Pythagorean Philosophy. He says that in these three ages the Egyptians spoke three languages, corresponding to them in number and order: (1) a hieroglyphic language, using sacred characters; (2) a symbolic language, using heroic characters; and (3) an epistolary language, using characters agreed on by the people.

The Third New Science. Penguin: NY. 2000. I, § 1, i, [¶ 52], p. 44. See also I, § 2, xxviii, [¶ 173], p. 86.

Are we not returning to an age of hieroglyphic language?

There is no emoji for the word “emoji.”

There is only the word.

And the word is only a representation of the idea of “emoji,” while emoji are representations of words that are themselves representations of ideas.

An idea represented by a word is once-removed. An emoji is an idea twice-removed.

Apr 4 2016

Interesting Reads Over the Weekend

bookbread athens

  • “If American Jews and Israel Are Drifting Apart, What’s the Reason?” by Elliot Abrams. Mosaic Magazine.


  • “Language Leakage: An Interview with Sarah Thomason: the linguist discusses how technology shapes culture and culture shapes words.” by Ryan Bradley. The Paris Review.


  • “Vanishing Languages, Reincarnated as Music.” by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim.  New York Times.


  • “Nights of Terror, Days of Weird: [Review of Yours in Haste and Adoration: Selected Letters of Terry Southern.” by Will Stephenson. Oxford American.

Oct 12 2010

VIDEO – Which kinds of German works make it into English? (Deutche Welle)

Multimedia – DW-WORLD.DE.

Aug 20 2010

New Zealand Lecturer identifies “new” Chaucer works (Sydney Morning Herald)

New Zealand lecturer identifies new Chaucer works.