Owen Barfield’s Critical Semantics: Diagnosing Modernity in History in English Words

History in English Words

Owen Barfield’s wonderful study of History in English Words (1926; revised 1953) is more than a compilation of vocabulary items from the English lexicon since 500 AD along with their etymologies: It is a study in changes of meaning across millennia although Barfield (1898 - 1997) confines the chronological compass of the last three chapters to the same number of centuries, more or less. In addition to being more than a mere compilation, History in English words is also a critical diagnosis of the peculiarly modern mentality, which the author sees as the outcome of a centuries-long process that he calls internalization. Barfield disdains to report neutrally on that outcome, but on the contrary he chastises it for its reliance on de-vitalized abstractions instead of living conceptions, for its cultural parochialism, and for its radical spiritual impoverishment climaxing in the callousness and brutality of the aggravatedly hellish Twentieth Century. Barfield even uses a modern coinage, alienation, generally associated with Karl Marx, to describe the defects, amounting possibly to an actual affliction, of the modern mentality. History in English Words is a book of criticism. The book takes as the object of its critique the debased language of modernity, which, to Barfield, indicates a debased outlook, a deficient grasp of the world on the one hand and of human nature on the other.

Countries, Borders, Peoples

Duly Noted

Man is a territorial animal. A consequence is mass murder that proves that pacifism, meant as an antidote of aggression, facilitates bloodshed. If land is involved, leaders and peoples tend to lose their rationality and their moral compass of decency.

Most conflicts are about claims to real estate. Current events prove that the past continues as the present. China’s pretensions, backed by 10% of logic and 90 % of might, claiming the islets of others, receive scant attention. Even so, it signals conquest once her means match her appetite. For a starter, Russia took the Crimea, and she is devouring the Ukraine. The unpleasant message: States with Russian ethnics are, regardless of their wishes, the desert Putin’s plate. Thus, the present’s crisis is not a “final”; it is a beginning.

The Feminizing Of Culture, And Male Self-Hatred

Warren Farrell
Warren Farrell

Warren Farrell rose to fame as the author of a feminist book called The Liberated Man.  He went on to give talks to sold-out crowds of mostly women and routinely got standing ovations. According to Farrell, such responses began to trouble him. He suspected that he was unintentionally pandering. So, he started including the male perspective on some gender issues. His audience fell away. Whereas famous American talk show host Phil Donahue had picked him up from the airport in person, Farrell was now persona non grata. Feminists called radio and TV stations to say that if Farrell was interviewed, they would boycott those outlets.

Betty Friedan
Betty Friedan

The story that Farrell tells about the recent history of gender relations begins with Betty Friedan in the 1960s. Friedan was enthusiastic about women entering the work force. However, she had some major caveats about how women ought to go about doing this. Friedan figured that if women wanted access to jobs traditionally done by men, they ought to emphasize that many women are capable of exhibiting characteristics more traditionally associated with men and with doing jobs well. These would include such things as being strong, capable, competent, self-reliant and so on. Friedan was emphatic, according to Farrell, that under no circumstances should women claim to be victims. Victimhood implies weakness, subjugation, inability to look after oneself, and the need to be saved and protected. None of that seemed compatible with being chosen for employment, especially in more traditionally male occupations, nor with the likelihood of gaining respect for a job well done.

A Shock to the Heart and a Sad Message for the Brain

Duly Noted

At the outset, be reminded that what happens elsewhere might be the present of others. However, the event also threatens to become your future. 

Let us cut back in time. In the early seventies, when new in Europe, to illustrate an aspect of the Greek city-state, I used to exploit the case of Kitty Genovese. She has been massacred in a residential area of New York. There were many “hear witnesses” for her slaughter took about half an hour. No one came to help as nobody wished to be involved. At the time, the kid’s –and the writer’s-  conclusion was that “this could not happen here”. The passage of time has brought many changes. One of them is that “it is happening here.” Telling about it elevates the matter to a higher level.

Weirdness, Mainly Sexual, From the Big Picture

Duly Noted

1. The Ukraine complained that a Russian armored column has entered her territory. That came after the “peaceful invasion” of quickly re-painted army trucks. The half-loaded lorries expressed Putin’s “humanitarian” concern. They forced their way into an independent country to carry aid for separatist  “civilians”. Although vary of a confrontation, the Ukrainians engaged the panzers. That netted prisoners. They proved to be, not local free lancers, but the regular Russian paratroopers. Newly soldiers spend their leave driving tanks in the Ukraine.

The Failure Of Liberalism?

Foreign policy as an act of atonement.

Duly Noted

Some of us live through the accident of birth and our ancestors’ sacrifices, in a functioning democracy. Such a system allows one to make choices regarding the persons that are entrusted to execute their will. Through that instrument, we can determine the goals pursued by the resulting government. Alas, the prevailing praxis falls short of the theory’s potential.

A few weeks ago, Hungary’s Prime Minister has presented some ideas at an open university as part of a brainstorming. His stated goal had been to explore the ways by which the future development of the community he is mandated to lead might be secured. As a point of departure Mr. Orbán has used his discovery that the state of liberal democracy has failed. The presentation proceeded from that finding of failure. Thus he concluded that a “work based” order needs to be developed, to avoid the mistakes of others. The concept translates into a policy of tough love. It intends to combine the goals of stability and local conditions to make society successful.

The World's Best Government

Switzerland is not perfect, but as countries go, it is hard to find one that is much better. 

The more people know about Switzerland, the higher regard they tend to have for it. By almost any measure of human accomplishment, and particularly in creating a most successful country governance model, the Swiss are clearly No. 1 in the world.

Switzerland is a small, landlocked nation without much in the way of natural resources. It has managed to stay out of wars for two centuries and developed a long-term multilingual and multireligious democracy without strife. There is a rule of law with competent and unbiased judges and strong protections for private property.

Globalism as Sacrificial Crisis: Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s Mark of the Sacred

Jean-Pierre Dupuy

Gregory Copley has argued in his recent study of Un-Civilization (2014) that the global human arrangement, a creeping improvisation of the last three or four centuries, nowadays has outlived its jerry-rigged semi-functionality so that it totters on the verge of a radical spontaneous reconstruction whose survivors will have experienced it as nothing less than a catastrophe. Eric Cline, in his recent study of The Year Civilization Collapsed (2014), underscores the likelihood of such a calamity as the one Copley predicts. Cline marshals the details of an archeologically attestable prototype of “systems collapse” that occurred around the date 1177 BC when a vast swath of the civilized Eastern Mediterranean literally went up in flames, inaugurating a “dark age” that in some places lasted four hundred years. That it has happened increases the possibility that it might happen. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, like Copley and Cline, is a student of crises, but unlike them he is primarily a religious thinker, one who takes seriously the insights of the man whom he calls the Einstein of Twentieth-Century social science, René Girard. Dupuy’s title, The Mark of the Sacred (2008; English, 2013), recalls the title of Girard’s seminal Violence and the Sacred (1966; English, 1972). In that work, Girard discovered, in myth, ritual, and tragic poetry, the signs of a “sacrificial crisis” ubiquitously and regularly afflicting archaic societies. In the sacrificial crisis, the social group suffers structural breakdown in rampant mimesis or imitation that resolves itself through the violent production of a victim; the victim’s immolation then promotes him to godhead and generates the basic forms of culture.

Cultural Clusters And Development

Duly Noted

Our Normalcy is Abnormal and the Self-Evident is Not Obvious.

Living in an advanced country brings privileges. Since we are used to them, these appear to be self-evident. Think of security and excellent health-care. Add the role of laws to protect the citizen even against the state. Add to the benefits a system that, thanks to those laws, aims to serve its people rather than the office holders. 

Such a system extends to its “shareholders” further privileges. One is that they are, through a free press, enabled to “know all about it”. Informed to the extent of their interests, they are empowered to confirm or to depose public servants.    

An adjunct includes access to an education that enables those able to absorb it to become contributing members of society. This leads to the ability to access a market that offers what is coveted. It is a space where customers –and not a “ministry of consumption”- can choose according to their taste and ability to pay. 

Those fortunate to live in such a system are apt to suffer from a delusion. The resulting assumptions are a dogma, which promotes that illusion into a fact. 

Russia And The West

Unfortunately, tensions between Russia and the West have risen again in the wake of the horrible attack on the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17. On both sides, war rhetoric has been stepped up dramatically. As the contrast between the Russian and Western political goals and world-views seems to be growing ever larger, it is becoming clear that the problems go deeper than day-to-day events, politics, and diplomacy (the things we hear about in the news), but on the contrary follow from the two sides' fundamental misunderstanding of each other. This is a good opportunity to take a closer look at the nature of the Russian nation, the mentality of its people, and its ultimate goals. Fostering understanding between the two cultures is probably the only remaining solution that can defuse the current tension and avoid more dramatic developments, as it seems clear that mere diplomacy is no longer working. 

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