Thoughts, Words, And Things -- By: Henry M. Goodwin

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 006:22 (May 1849)
Article: Thoughts, Words, And Things
Author: Henry M. Goodwin


Thoughts, Words, And Things

Henry M. Goodwin

Human language may be regarded under two opposite aspects, or according to two diverse theories. The first of these, which may be termed the mechanical theory, considers words as nothing more than the materials of thought, out of which the mind constructs its own works in much the same manner as a builder does a house. According to this view, language is something wholly external and artificial, which can be analyzed and put together like any other mechanical product. Words are indeed the signs of thought, but the signification is wholly arbitrary, like that of an algebraic formula. They stand for thought as its representative or substitute, not as its manifestation. There is no interior and vital connection between the two, organizing them into one, but only an outward, mechanical union. There is properly no soul of language, and therefore no life of its own.

The other view is the result of a deeper and more philosophical insight into the nature of language, according to which words are not so much the materials or instruments, as the natural body of thought, and language is not a dead mechanism, but a living organic growth, springing directly out of the life of thought, partaking its vitality and pervaded and organized by its spirit. According to this theory, words are not mere arbitrary signs, representing something beyond them, but the manifestation of a spirit that lives in them. Their power is not conventional and fixed, like the signs of algebra, something which can be measured and weighed by definitions, but is rather a spiritual and inward power, like that which resides in a human countenance. Language in short, like man himself, is a living thing, subject to the laws and conditions of life. It is the synthesis of two elements, which must be considered together, in their vital unity, as the presence of one and the same fact.

It is evident, at a glance, that we have here touched upon what will be deemed no slight or unreal distinction. These two theories of language differ in their essential and radical idea, and like all other radical differences, must produce a corresponding diversity of effects. According to the idea we have of what language is, will be our everyday use and interpretation of language. This idea will not slumber

in theory, but will pervade and affect, more or less, the whole body and life of literature.

What we propose in the present Article, however, is not to vindicate a theory but to use it. Accepting the truth of one of these conceptions, we shall employ its light in exploring some of the interior or vital laws of language.

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