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Learning from Language

Symmetry, Asymmetry, and Literary Humanism

Walter H. Beale

Publication Year: 2009

In this book, Walter H. Beale seeks to bring together the disciplines of linguistics, rhetoric, and literary studies through the concept of symmetry (how words mirror thought, society, and our vision of the world). Citing thinkers from antiquity to the present, Beale provides an in-depth study of linguistic theory, development, and practice. He views the historic division between the schools of symmetry and asymmetry (a belief that language developed as a structure independent of human experience), as built into the character of language itself, and as an impediment to literary humanism (the combined study of language, rhetoric, and literature to improve the competence and character of the individual). In his analysis, Beale outlines and critiques traditional claims of symmetry, then offers new avenues of approach to the subject. In doing so, he examines how important issues of human culture and consciousness have parallels in processes of language; how linguistic patterns relate to pervasive human problems; how language is an active participant in the expression, performance, and construction of reality; the concepts of designating versus naming; figurative language as a process of reenvisioning reality; and the linking of style to virtue by the ancients. Beale concludes that both asymmetrical and symmetrical elements exist in language, each with their own relevance, and that they are complementary, rather than opposing philosophies. The basic intuitions of symmetry that relate language to life are powerful and important to all of English studies. Combined with a love for the workings, sounds, and structures of language, Beale says, an understanding of symmetry can help guide the pursuit of literary humanism.

Published by: University of Pittsburgh Press

Series: Pittsburgh Series in Composition, Literacy, and Culture


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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p. vii

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p. ix

I appreciate the excellent advice and direction of my editors at the University of Pittsburgh Press, and also that of the wise and exacting scholarly consultants engaged by them. W. Barnes Tatum, professor of Greek and New Testament at Greensboro College, read portions of the manuscript directly relevant to his expertise, ...

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1. Symmetry, Asymmetry, and Literary Humanism

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pp. 1-17

This book is primarily for teachers and prospective teachers of English, although I believe it will interest scholars in the fields of language, rhetoric, and discourse generally. It is the result of many years of teaching courses in language and linguistics to students of literature and rhetoric, and one of its primary goals ...

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2. Two Famous Asymmetrists

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pp. 18-36

When Plato took up the question of symmetry directly, in his dialogue Cratylus, he knew that he was stepping into an ongoing, high-stakes discussion. He knew that it was Heraclitus, the celebrated pre-Socratic philosopher of change, who first proposed an educative relationship between words and the things they named. ...

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3. Six Claims of Symmetry

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pp. 37-66

A literature student’s frustration and disappointment with English linguistics very often begins with the first chapter of the linguistics textbook, which typically opens with a discussion of the linguistic sign or symbol. The crucial, distinguishing feature of the linguistic symbol as opposed to natural or animal signs, ...

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4. Reading the World: Structural Analogy

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pp. 67-82

Beyond our most elemental responses and biological functions, there is no human acting, thinking, understanding, or organizing separate from language. Our talking and writing are not simply called in to represent things; they actually make, perform, and enact them. To use the language of modern discourse ...

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5. Creating the World: The Performative Principle

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pp. 83-107

While investigating Saint Augustine’s view of language in chapter two, I suggested that Judaism and early Christianity captured intriguing insights about language in the following ideas: that God created the world through speech; that the Word was with God in the beginning; that without the Word “was not ...

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6. Naming and Renaming the World

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pp. 108-125

In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the character Adam describes an astonishing psychic event. Having completed the task of giving names to all the newly created animals, Adam recalls: “I named them as they passed, and understood / Their nature; with such knowledge God endued / My sudden apprehension” (VIII, 349–54). ...

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7. Figuring (Out) the World: Tropes and Tropology

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pp. 126-150

It is impossible to talk about ways of thinking and understanding without resorting to tropes—figures of speech, turnings of meaning from one area of experience to another. With the word “area,” I have begun with a trope derived from the area of mapping and geography, where some of the most common tropes that humans ...

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8. Style and Virtue

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pp. 151-173

The ancient struggle between Plato and the sophists, the rhetoric teachers of his day, was the opening exchange in the centuries-long debate over the symmetry question in language. Plato considered the sophists dangerous for a variety of reasons, but at the philosophical heart of it was the belief, promoted by some sophists, ...

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Conclusion: The Love of Words

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pp. 174-182

Literary humanism is any conscious program of scholarship and teaching that combines the study of language, rhetoric, and literature, working toward greater competence, character, and wisdom in the individual and, hence, toward a better society. The credibility of this enterprise, and the viability of its hopes, are greater if ...

Works Cited

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pp. 183-190


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pp. 191-196

E-ISBN-13: 9780822973607
E-ISBN-10: 082297360X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780822960386
Print-ISBN-10: 0822960389

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2009

Series Title: Pittsburgh Series in Composition, Literacy, and Culture
Series Editor Byline: David Bartholomae and Jean Ferguson Carr, Editors See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 794702155
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Learning from Language

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • English language -- Rhetoric.
  • Symmetry in literature.
  • Language and languages -- Philosophy.
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