The Language Theory Of C. S. Lewis -- By: Franklin Arthur Pyles

Journal: Trinity Journal
Volume: TRINJ 04:2 (Fall 1983)
Article: The Language Theory Of C. S. Lewis
Author: Franklin Arthur Pyles

The Language Theory Of C. S. Lewis

Franklin Arthur Pyles

Canadian Theological Seminary

The relation between the mind and the meaning of language is one which concerned C. S. Lewis deeply, for he saw it as having deep implications for religion. Can the mind truly grasp the meaning of words? Or is there truly an unbridgeable gap between the mind and “the thing itself,” in this case meaning? If this is so, then it would be true that knowledge of God, the ultimate “thing itself,” is impossible. While rejecting such an answer Lewis found its alternative equally unpalatable. If we would say that there is a complete unity between meaning (the object) and the mind, then any distinction between them would be obliterated.

Lewis sought an alternative which was shaped in part by the idealist tradition, beginning primarily with Coleridge, but expressed most fully in the philosophy of F. H. Bradley.

Following F. H. Bradely, Lewis believed that imagination is one way the mind grasps meaning from the external world; and, along with language, imagination manifests meaning into consciousness. Further, the mind is able to participate in truth itself through imaginagtion. Such truth is concrete, and, says Lewis, is expressed in language.


A. Language is an utterance of the concrete.

In a series of essays Lewis debates a proponent of a critical methodology which Lewis dubs “The Personal Heresy.” These essays clearly show Lewis’s dependence upon the idealism of F. H. Bradley. It is true, Lewis says, that there is a difference between scientific-philosophical language and poetic language, but that difference does not lie in the antithesis between truth and fancy. The difference is between the abstract and the concrete. The concrete in Bradley’s philosophy is that which exists; and on the other hand, says Bradley, “the abstract universal and the abstract particular are what does not exist.”1 Lewis echos this by saying that everything that is real “is a real something, though not necessarily the thing it pretends to be: e.g. what pretends to be a crocodile may be a (real) dream; what pretends at the breakfast table to be a dream may be a (real) lie.”2

Lewis is also drawing upon Bradley’s doctrine of the degrees of reality as well as the theory of the concrete. Things have different degrees of

reality, Bradley taught, and these spread from the fullest reality of the Absolute which is beyond our space-time world to imaginary things which have some reality. But to be real they must be co...

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