Owen lays the smack down!

Much of Barfield’s writing is spent systematically explaining his thinking, giving lots of examples. He rarely mentions other people’s work and doesn’t have a lot of footnotes and references. It’s mostly meat, with little time spent agreeing or disagreeing with other scholars.

But then, every once in a while, seemingly out of nowhere, he whips out his Kalashnikov and fills somebody full of lead. He first quotes this passage by Max Muller:

Spiritus in Latin meant originally blowing, or wind. But when the principle of life within man or animal had to be named, its outward sign, namely the breath of the mouth, was naturally chosen to express it. Hence in Sanskrit asu, breath and life; in Latin spiritus, breath of life. Again, when it was perceived that there was something else to be named, not the mere animal life, but that which was supported by this animal life, the same word was chosen, in the modern Latin dialects, to express the spiritual as opposed to the mere material or animal element in man. All this is a metaphor. We read in the Veda, ii. 3, 4: ‘Who saw the first-born when he who had no form (lit. bones) bore him that had form? Where was the breath (asuh), the blood (asrik), the self (atma) of the earth? Who went to ask this from any that knew it?” Here breath, blood, self are so many attempts at expression what we should now call ’cause’.

Now if you didn’t know much about linguistics (like myself), you might nod your head when reading this and say, “Um, OK. That makes sense.” Ah, but this is a big deal! Barfield goes nuts:

It would be difficult to conceive anything more perverse than this paragraph; there is, indeed , something painful in the spectacle of so catholic and enthusiastic a scholar as Max Muller seated so firmly on the saddle of etymology, with his face set so earnestly towards the tail of the beast.

He seems to have gone out of his way to seek for impossibly modern and abstract concepts to project into that luckless disbin of pseudo-scientific fantasies – the mind of primitive man. Not only ’cause’, we are to suppose, was within the range of his intellect, but ‘something’, ‘principle of life’, ‘outward sign’, ‘mere animal life’, ‘spiritual as opposed to mere material’, and heaven knows what else.

Perverse; and yet for that very reason useful; for it pushes to a conclusion as logical as it is absurd, a view of mental history, which, still implicit in much that passes muster as anthropology, psychology, etc. – even as ordinary common sense – might easily prejudice an understand of my meaning, if it were ignored without comment.

-Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: Metaphor (Reader p.12)

This is like someone explaining how some bronze-age peasants put together a wagon and describing it like this:

“First, the ancient craftsman would select a building material for their wagon. Wanting to reduce their carbon footprint, they would likely choose wood for their cart instead of a steel or aluminum frame. They generally tried to find strong hard-woods for the spokes of the wheels, which enabled them to reduce the wheel width so as to make the cart more aerodynamic. Finally, the cart was left unpainted so their mode of transportation would properly accessorize their earth-tone inspired wardrobe.”

How silly. Contemporary material science and environmental conservation, physics, and even high-taste and fashion awareness projected onto ancient anthropology.

But is this really that much different than what Muller was doing? Contemporary psychology, modernist philosophical thought given as these ancient people’s clear motivation. Really? And making all kinds of assumptions about how their language developed to boot. What else would make a careful scholar fly off the handle?

How often do we buy silly explanations of things we know little about?