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The Power and Mystery of the Spoken Word

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Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy was born in Berlin, Germany in July 1888. He received doctorates in law and philosophy from the University of Heidelberg. In 1917 he served as an officer in the German army and fought in the trenches of The Great War. Upon Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933, Rosenstock-Huessy immigrated to America, taking a position at Harvard, then later at Dartmouth College where he taught social philosophy until he retired in 1957. He died in 1973.

This being an internet blog post, you’re probably not planning on sitting here all day, so I’ll cut to the chase. The rest of the post will be a couple of quotes from Rosenstock-Huessy to set his flavor on your palette, hopefully whetting your appetite for more. I’ll wrap it up with some thoughts about Rosenstock-Huessy by James B. Jordan.

This first quote is from his book, Magna Carta Latina: The Privilege of Singing, Articulating, and Reading a Language and of Keeping It Alive, which he co-wrote with Ford Lewis Battles, who translated and indexed Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. You can tell by the subtitle that this is not your average Latin grammar. The following quote is also a distillation of the second chapter of his book Speech and Reality.

Articulated Speech: When you yell “iiiiiiiih” and your chum yells back “iiiiiiiih,” you are two little animals making inarticulate noise. When you, however, say to him: “Now listen, Johnnie,” and he says, “I listen, Billy,” you are two people speaking to each other in articulated speech. What is the difference between the two cases? In articulated speech, the process of listening is clearly defined between another person and yourself. You summon him to act as a listener. The roles are distributed between you two, because one in the same act first is suggested as an order on your side; then, the same act is acknowledged as a voluntary reaction on his side. You and he enter in this specific relation. In answering you, “I listen,” he partly identifies himself with you since he admits that he knows exactly what you mean. Furthermore he preserves his personality by adding “I.” Speech is both identity with, and distinction between, people. It is like weaving a pattern out of several fibres. For his “I listen” is not the same sound as your “listen.” It has passed through his conscience and consciousness and he had to reshape it before he passed it back to you. Now the sentence “I listen” carried back to you something quite different from the noise “iiiiiiiih.” It was now a declaration of cooperation, of acknowledgement of his having heard you. A sentence is a personal relation between answerable people. Articulated speech is communication between responsible people.

Can you taste that? That’s the flavor of insight. But when he does his philosophy, when he passes this insight along, there is not an ivory tower in sight. His prose is dense, but soft, moist, and easily chewed. Kinda like a good pound cake.

This next quote is taken from Out of Revolution, an 800 page history of European civilization. Rosenstock-Huessy said that the thesis for this 20-year work was discovered while he was in the trenches during a battle in World War I. His historiography claims to be anti-Cartesian and anti-Comte, by which statements he intends to set his method apart from the mainstream presuppositions of how to do history. But even in history, or perhaps especially in his history, Rosenstock-Huessy’s emphasis on the sociology of articulate speech is unmistakable.

Every human being is endowed with the wonderful gift of speech. He can express his own secret better than anybody else. We rarely reveal our true selves in the market place of life. Words often seem to be made to hide our thoughts. But the more we try to avoid emphasis, or even truth, in our speech, the more the few moments stand out in which language has the full weight of self expression. A bride speaking her decisive “Yes” or “No” before the altar uses speech in its old sense of revelation, because her answer establishes a new identity between two separate offsprings of the race and may found a new race, a new nation. We are so dull we rarely realize how much history lies hidden in marriage, and how the one word spoken by the bride makes all the difference between cattle-raising and a nation’s good breeding.

His insight seems to be patently obvious once you’ve read it, but without him saying it, you never would’ve come up with it. In one sense he has a “firm grasp of the obvious,” which is often said in manner meant to be deprecating. But when your argument is one that is prima facie to any intelligent reader, I think the only adequate description of him would be “genius.”

In Biblical Horizons’ Open Book Newsletter 25, James B. Jordan concludes his brief introduction of Rosenstock-Huessy thusly:

…I recommend that anyone seriously interested in laboring in the intellectual arena become familiar with Rosenstock-Huessy’s insights. Now for a few observations.

1. Rosenstock-Huessy is always a surprise. One never knows what he will write or say on a topic, but it will always be something “different.” He tries to come at old things in new ways, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.

2. Rosenstock-Huessy is rather a maverick as a Christian. He scoffs at the notion that the universe is millions of years old. He claims to hold fiercely to Nicene orthodoxy, and views the Bible as God’s inspired Word. He has contempt for liberal Christianity and for literary criticism of the Bible. He affirms that the four gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, in that order. Yet he also thinks that the books of Moses were put together in the days of David. Also, he often speaks and writes as if the Church were going to wither away in the next millennium, but he remained an active church-goer all his life. (In fact, the coming age of international techo-tribalism will be a golden time for the local church, for the local church is the purest form of the tribe.)

3. Rosenstock-Huessy’s followers and advocates are, it seems, mainly composed of people who want some kind of religionless Christianity, or some kind of one-world order that is not grounded in the church. The antithesis between Christ and non-Christ, between “history” and the “world,” which is pretty clear in R-H’s own work (though not as clear as we would like), is not maintained by many of his disciples. In my opinion, the “liberals” who have taken up R-H’s insights are not being faithful to the master. Be warned, though, that if you begin to read the literature surrounding his work, you will sometimes encounter left-wing nonsense.

Any book recommendation made from any person to another is also no less than a bit of economic advice. I am making the economic assertion the sum of the monetary price of a book by Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy added to the temporal price it costs you to read it will never exceed the profit you will acquire through this particular business venture. Many writers are worth your time and money. You will search long and hard before finding one more profitable than Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy.

For further online reading, check out this article by Peter Leithart.

And a list of links at ERH Society.

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