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When Words Lose Their Meaning: Constitutions and Reconstitutions of Language, Character, and Community

When Words Lose Their Meaning: Constitutions and Reconstitutions of Language, Character, and Community

by James Boyd White
Through fresh readings of texts ranging from Homer's Iliad, Swift's Tale of a Tub, and Austen's Emma through the United States Constitution and McCulloch v. Maryland, James Boyd White examines the relationship between an individual mind and its language and culture as well as the "textual community" established between writer and audience.


Through fresh readings of texts ranging from Homer's Iliad, Swift's Tale of a Tub, and Austen's Emma through the United States Constitution and McCulloch v. Maryland, James Boyd White examines the relationship between an individual mind and its language and culture as well as the "textual community" established between writer and audience. These striking textual analyses develop a rhetoric—a "way of reading" that can be brought to any text but that, in broader terms, becomes a way of learning that can shape the reader's life.

"In this ambitious and demanding work of literary criticism, James Boyd White seeks to communicate 'a sense of reading in a new and different way.' . . . [White's] marriage of lawyerly acumen and classically trained literary sensibility—equally evident in his earlier work, The Legal Imagination—gives the best parts of When Words Lose Their Meaning a gravity and moral earnestness rare in the pages of contemporary literary criticism."—Roger Kimball, American Scholar

"James Boyd White makes a state-of-the-art attempt to enrich legal theory with the insights of modern literary theory. Of its kind, it is a singular and standout achievement. . . . [White's] selections span the whole range of legal, literary, and political offerings, and his writing evidences a sustained and intimate experience with these texts. Writing with natural elegance, White manages to be insightful and inciteful. Throughout, his timely book is energized by an urgent love of literature and law and their liberating potential. His passion and sincerity are palpable."—Allan C. Hutchinson, Yale Law Journal

"Undeniably a unique and significant work. . . . When Words Lose Their Meaning is a rewarding book by a distinguished legal scholar. It is a showcase for the most interesting sort of inter-disciplinary work: the kind that brings together from traditionally separate fields not so much information as ideas and approaches."—R. B. Kershner, Jr., Georgia Review

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When Words Lose Their Meaning

Constitutions and Reconstitutions of Language, Character, and Community

By James Boyd White

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1984 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-05604-3


A Way of Reading

When Thucydides wishes to express his sense of the internal chaos brought upon the cities of Greece by the civil wars that arose during the time of the Peloponnesian War, he tells us, among other things, that words themselves lost their meaning. The Greek terms for bravery and cowardice and trust and loyalty and manliness and weakness and moderation, the key terms of value in that world, changed their accepted significance and their role in thought and life. What before would have been called something like idiotic recklessness, for example, was now called stouthearted loyalty to friends; what would have been praised as prudent foresight was now condemned as cowardice. Whether or not Thucydides' report is accurate, he speaks of changes that undoubtedly do occur, though usually more slowly, for others have spoken in similar terms about great changes in language and in life. Clarendon and Burke do so, for example, in lamenting the political transformations of their respective times, and so does Proust when, at the end of his life, he finds uprooted every understanding on which he had founded his social expectations and his sense of himself. Such changes in language may, of course, be felt not as deteriorations but as great advances. The Declaration of Independence, for example, claims to create a new world when it declares its new and self-evident truths; and Thoreau, in a different way, also claims to create a new life and a new language when he goes to live by the pond in the woods.

This book is about such changes in the meaning of language and of the world: about the ways in which words come to have their meanings and to hold or to lose them and how they acquire new meanings, both in the individual mind and in the world. This means, as we shall see, that it is also about the ways in which character is formed—and maintained or lost—by a person, a culture, or a community.

One way to see what is so terrible about the world Thucydides describes is to ask what place you would have within it. For the reader Thucydides addresses, who uses these Greek words of value to organize his experience and to claim a meaning for it, the answer is none at all: in this world no one would see what he sees, respond as he responds, speak as he speaks. Even worse than this imagined isolation for such a reader would be the threat, in some sense the certainty, that to live in this world would lead to central changes within the self. One cannot maintain forever one's language and judgment and feelings against the pressures of a world that works in different ways, for one is in some measure the product of that world.

An alteration in language of the kind I mean is not merely a lexical event, and it is not reversible by insistence upon a set of proper definitions. It is a change in the world and the self, in manners and conduct and sentiment. Changes of this kind are complex and reciprocal in nature. The change in language that Thucydides records, for example, is in part caused by events of another kind, which are only partly verbal—those of the civil war; but the changes in language in turn contribute to the course and nature of that war and do much to define its meaning. The process is reciprocal in another sense as well, for at every stage the change is effected, knowingly or not, by the action of individual people, who at once form and are formed by their language and the events of their world. When language changes meaning, the world changes meaning, and we are part of the world.

One response to the world is to make a text about it, a reorganization of its resources of meaning tentatively achieved in a relation, newly constituted, between reader and writer. This is a way of acting in the world and on the world by using the language of the world. Thucydides' History is a response of this kind; so are the other texts we shall examine, and so, indeed, is this book itself. Other activities are also texts in this sense, including the conversations that take place among us, at home or at the office or on the street, whenever we talk about what matters to us. We struggle to make our words work as we wish, to redefine them to meet our needs, and in doing this we remake, in ways however small, our language and our world. The reconstitution of culture in a relation shared between speaker and audience is in fact a universal human activity, engaged in by every speaker in every culture, literate or illiterate, and the texts we shall read in this book can be taken as extraordinarily powerful and instructive examples of this activity. While this book is in some sense about reading, then, it is also about "writing" in the most general sense of the term: about what happens whenever a person uses language to claim a meaning for experience, to act on the world, or to establish relations with another person.

As the title of this chapter suggests, I wish to exemplify what I call a way of reading: a way of engaging the mind with a text, and learning from it, that will affect the way one lives both with other texts, including those of one's own composition, and with other people. The rest of this chapter will present a general account of this way of reading, but I should say now that this can only be an introduction, perhaps something of a guidebook, to what follows; for the way of reading at work here will receive its real definition, and its justification, if any, only in the reader's own experience of this text and of those it speaks about. Perhaps the best way to read this chapter is quickly the first time through and then more deliberately, after one has read one or two of the chapters that follow.

Acting with Words

The first stage in the process exemplified here is to expand our conception of "writing," as I have just suggested, to include all action with language that appears in these texts, including not only what the author says but what he represents others as saying. In reading the Iliad, for example, we shall examine such events as the interchange between Chryses and Agamemnon that begins the poem, in which the old man asks for the return of his daughter and the Achaean leader denies him, and the ensuing conversations among the Achaeans about the meaning of what has just been done; in reading Thucydides' History we shall analyze the speeches in which the cities seek to persuade each other to particular courses of action; in reading Emma we shall focus on the kinds of conversation and community that Emma herself establishes with other actors; and so on.

The kind of "action with words" that we shall examine thus covers an enormous range, including in principle all that goes into the management of social life in language, from relations of great intimacy to those of great publicity, such as those that constitute national politics in Athens, England, or America. This means that the kind of text-making that this book is about is not limited to the elevated forms of poetry and history and philosophy and law but includes what happens whenever any of us acts with words in our own lives to claim a meaning for experience or to establish a relation with another. The very activity of reading in which we shall now engage is itself a kind of action with words, in a sense a kind of writing; for the process is completed only in the organization and expression of our responses to what we have read.

The first step in working out a way of talking about both reading and writing, for me at least, is to recognize that these, like other human activities—such as dancing, quarreling, playing football, telling a story, even sleeping—are not susceptible to complete reduction to descriptive or analytic terms. Each of these activities engages parts of the self that do not function in explicitly verbal ways, and behind all of our attempts to describe or direct them remains an experience that is by its nature inexpressible. No one can fully explain what a person does when he writes a sentence or even when he holds out his hand in a signal to stop. Writing is never merely the transfer of information, whether factual or conceptual, from one mind to another, as much of our talk about it assumes, but is always a way of acting both upon the language, which the writer perpetually reconstitutes in his use of it, and upon the reader. Action of this kind can never be wholly explained, and our talk about these things should reflect that fact.

The basic question we shall ask of the texts we read, and of the particular performances within them, will thus be What kind of action with words is this? This question will be elaborated by being broken down into two others: What kind of relationship does this writer establish with his language? and What kind of relationship does he establish with his audience or reader? To put this in other words: What kind of cultural action is this writing? and What kind of social action is it?

The Writer's Relation with His Language

Whenever a person wishes to speak to another, he must speak a language that has its existence outside himself, in the world he inhabits. If he is to be understood, he must use the language of his audience. This language gives him his terms of social and natural description, his words of value, and his materials for reasoning; it establishes the moves by which he can persuade another, or threaten or placate or inform or tease him, or establish terms of cooperation or intimacy; it defines his starting places and stopping places and the ways he may intelligibly proceed from one to the other. Sometimes, of course, he can use words in new ways—can cast new sentences and make new moves—for the user of the language is also its maker; but for the most part his resources are determined by others. What does it mean that he has held out his hand, palm up, or broken a red feather, or looked down and to his right, or used the word "coward"? Such questions as these have objective answers. The ways we have of claiming, establishing, and modifying meaning are furnished for us by our culture, and we cannot simply remake to suit ourselves the sets of significance that constitute our world.

That the forms and materials of speech are established for a speaker by his culture is something we all know as a matter of ordinary experience. Take, for example, the experience of argument in a simple sort of case. Suppose one person touches another, and the second objects. What can possibly be said by the two people about this event, the one in remonstrance, the other in justification? In what sorts of argument might they engage, making what claims or appeals, accepting what modes of reasoning? Suppose the event takes place in each of the following situations: on a street corner in the black ghetto; at a university faculty meeting; in the vestibule of a church; at a labor union meeting; in a police station, one person being an officer, the other not; in a law school classroom; on a baseball field. One can quickly see how differently the arguments might go and can even imagine participating, more or less expertly, in them. Different questions would be asked of the event in each situation; the story would be told in different terms; and different feelings would be expressed, aroused, and countered. Different meanings would be claimed; different moves would be regarded as unanswerable claims to triumph, on the one hand, or as admissions of defeat, on the other. In each case the conversation would have its own shape and texture, its own kind of life; it would define a set of possibilities for asserting and maintaining meaning, for carrying on a collective life.

The resources that establish the possibilities of expression in a particular world thus constitute a discrete intellectual and social entity, and this can be analyzed and criticized. What world of shared meanings do these resources create, and what limits do they impose? What can be done by one who speaks this language, and what cannot? What stage of civilization does this discourse establish? When we ask such questions, the study of language becomes the study of an aspect of culture, and we become its critics.

The relationship that a speaker has with his language may range from the comfortable to the impossible. Sometimes one's language seems a perfect vehicle for speech and action; it can be used almost automatically to say or to do what one wishes. But at other times a speaker may find that he no longer has a language adequate to his needs and purposes, to his sense of himself and his world; his words lose their meaning. In the Iliad, for example, this happens to Achilles, who struggles with the language and values of his heroic culture, trying and failing to find a way to speak in a satisfactory way about himself and his experience. It happens also to the interlocutors in Plato's Gorgias, who are severely distressed when they are forced to face the contradictions among the platitudes by which they shape their lives. And it happens to Emma, whose language, while seemingly satisfactory to herself, is to the understanding observer utterly impossible; Emma's attempt to create a new world, based on a perverted form of a proper moral discourse, ends in fortunate failure. For each of these speakers, language loses its meaning, and the question is: What can be done about it? Can the speaker make a new language, remake an old one, or find a way to use old terms and understandings toserve new purposes? Can he somehow reconstitute his resources to make them adequate to his needs?

But to put the question that way is to oversimplify, for each speaker is in an important sense the product of the language that he speaks, and who then can he be to remake it? Where can he stand when he tries? In Emma's case, at least, there is the additional complication that the central defect is not in her language at all—not in the resources that her culture makes available to her—but in herself, and the same can in principle be true of anyone. The question, then, is not only how one can reconstitute one's language but how one can learn from it and, in the process, reconstitute one's character and one's life.

These are questions not only for actors within these texts but for the writers of them as well. How, for example, can Homer, composing in an inherited language, created over centuries for the purpose of making a certain kind of heroic verse, find a way to examine and criticize the culture that that language was meant to celebrate? Or consider Plato: if he shows the language of ordinary Greek morality to be impossible, as he does, what language can he speak, and with what claims to meaning?

Thinking about our relationship with our language becomes increasingly difficult as we increasingly recognize its deeply reciprocal character. For while a person acts both with and upon the language that he uses, at once employing and reconstituting its resources, his language at the same time acts upon him. Language is learned only by stages and only for use and by using it; and, as one learns it, one naturally but imperceptibly undergoes changes: changes in attitude and perception and sentiment by which one becomes "acculturated," or "cultured," or perhaps "cultivated." But to learn a language is also to change it, for one constantly makes new gestures and sentences of one's own, new patterns or combinations of meaning. Language is in part a system of invention, an organized way of making new meaning in new circumstances. Some of these inventions are shared with others and become common property; others remain personal, part of the process by which the individual within a culture is differentiated from others who are similarly situated. Culture and the individual self are in this view to be understood not in isolation, as independent systems or structures, but in their reciprocal relations one with the other: the only way they ever exist in the world.


Excerpted from When Words Lose Their Meaning by James Boyd White. Copyright © 1984 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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