Monday, May 11, 2015

George Steiner vs. the Order of St. Benedict

Filed under: General — Tags: — m759 @ 8:28 PM

See Steiner's phrase "Language Animal" in this journal 
and the corresponding authentic  phrase from a webpage
by a Benedictine monk —

Friday, May 8, 2015

Reflections of a Language Animal*

Filed under: General — Tags: — m759 @ 6:12 PM
The Idea of Europe  George Steiner

Overlook/Duckworth, pp.48, £9.99

* "Language animal" is a phrase apparently
    invented by Steiner in 1969 that he later
    attributed vaguely to the ancient Greeks.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Steiner’s Systems

Filed under: General,Geometry — m759 @ 12:00 PM

Background— George Steiner in this journal
and elsewhere—

"An intensity of outward attention —
interest, curiosity, healthy obsession —
was Steiner’s version of God’s grace."

Lee Siegel in The New York Times
     March 12, 2009

(See also Aesthetics of Matter in this  journal on that date.)

Steiner in 1969  defined man as "a language animal."

Here is Steiner in 1974  on another definition—

IMAGE- George Steiner on Levi-Strauss viewing man as 'a mythopoetic primate'

Related material—

IMAGE- Daniel Gorenstein quotes Freeman Dyson on physics and the monster group

Also related — Kantor in 1981 on "exquisite finite geometries," and The Galois Tesseract.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Steiner on Language

Filed under: General — Tags: — m759 @ 4:00 PM

March 28 review in the Times Literary Supplement  of
George Steiner's new book The Poetry of Thought

"If this new book opens with the concession that
language has neither the performative power of music
nor the elegant precision of mathematics,
it is language, for Steiner, that defines the human.

The survey accordingly begins from the ancient Greek
view of man as the 'language-animal.'" 

A check of this phrase yields, in a 1969 Steiner essay,
"The Language Animal," a Greek form of the phrase—

In short, the least inadequate definition we can arrive at
of the genus homo , the definition that fully distinguishes
him from all neighbouring life-forms, is this:
man is a zoon phonanta , a language-animal.

— p. 10 in Encounter , August 1969 (essay on pp. 7-23)

After introducing "language-animal" as a translation of  "zoon phonanta " in 1969,
Steiner in later writing went on to attribute this phrase to the ancient Greeks.

 "The inception of critical thought, of a philosophic anthropology, 
is contained in the archaic Greek definition of man as a

— George SteinerReal Presences , U. of Chicago Press, 1991, p. 89

"… the 'language-animal' we have been since ancient Greece
so designated us…. "

— George Steiner, Grammars of Creation , Yale U. Press, 2002, p. 265

Despite this, there seems to be no evidence for use of this phrase
by the ancient Greeks.

A Google search today for zoon phonanta  (ζῷον φωνᾶντα)—

There are also no results from searches for the similar phrases
"ζωον φωναντα," "ζωον φωνᾶντα," and "ζῷον φωναντα."

Tuesday, August 20, 2019


Filed under: General — m759 @ 9:51 AM

 "The inception  of critical thought, of a philosophic
anthropology, is contained in the archaic Greek definition
of man as a 'language-animal'…."

— George SteinerReal Presences

A schoolgirl in 1961 —

"Non, rien de rien…"

— Edith Piaf

"I get a kick though it's clear to see,
You obviously don't adore me."

— Cole Porter

Monday, September 4, 2017

Night at the Museum

Filed under: General — Tags: , — m759 @ 2:35 AM

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Cardinal Interplay

Filed under: General — m759 @ 12:28 PM

Exercise — Translate "cardinal interplay."

Related material — Language animal in this journal.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Upshot

Filed under: General — Tags: — m759 @ 9:00 PM

George Steiner's phrase "the language animal" as examined by
Charles Taylor —

Charles Taylor in March 2016 on George Steiner's phrase 'language animal'— 'The upshot of all this is....'

Steiner attributes his "language animal" phrase, in the transliterated
form "zoon phonanta,"  to the ancient Greeks. This attribution
is apparently bogus. See Steiner on Language (March 30, 2012).*

It is highly relevant that Taylor is a Catholic and Steiner is a secular Jew.

* More generally — See Steiner + LanguageAnimal in this journal.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Kick

Filed under: General,Geometry — m759 @ 9:00 AM

George Steiner, Real Presences , first published in 1989—

The inception of critical thought, of a philosophic anthropology,
is contained in the archaic Greek definition of man as a

Richard Powers, The Gold Bug Variations , first published in 1991—

Botkin, whatever her gifts as a conversationist, is almost as old
as the rediscovery of Mendel. The other extreme in age,
Joe Lovering, beat a time-honored path out of pure math
into muddy population statistics. Ressler has seen the guy
potting about in the lab, although exactly what the excitable kid
does is anybody's guess. He looks decidedly gumfooted holding
any equipment more corporeal than a chi-square. Stuart takes
him to the Y for lunch, part of a court-your-resources campaign.
He has the sub, Levering the congealed mac and cheese.
Hardly are they seated when Joe whips out a napkin and begins
sketching proofs. He argues that the genetic code, as an
algorithmic formal system, is subject to Gödel's Incompleteness
Theorem. "That would mean the symbolic language of the code
can't be both consistent and complete. Wouldn't that be a kick
in the head?"

Kid talk, competitive showing off, intellectual fantasy.
But Ressler knows what Joe is driving at. He's toyed with similar
ideas, cast in less abstruse terms. We are the by-product of the
mechanism in there. So it must be more ingenious than us.
Anything complex enough to create consciousness may be too
complex for consciousness to understand. Yet the ultimate paradox
is Lovering, crouched over his table napkin, using proofs to
demonstrate proof's limits. Lovering laughs off recursion and takes
up another tack: the key is to find some formal symmetry folded
in this four-base chaos
. Stuart distrusts this approach even more.
He picks up the tab for their two untouched lunches, thanking
Lovering politely for the insight.

Edith Piaf—

Non, rien de rien

See last midnight's post and Theme and Variations.

"The key is to find some formal symmetry…."

IMAGE- Valéry on ornament in 'Method of Leonardo,' with Valéry's serpent-and-key emblem

Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Kick

Filed under: General — Tags: — m759 @ 11:30 AM

"The inception of critical thought, of a philosophic anthropology, is contained in the archaic Greek definition of man as a 'language-animal'…."

— George Steiner, Real Presences , U. of Chicago Press, 1991, p. 89 (See also Steiner on Language.)

"To some, Inception  is a film about the creative process, specifically filmmaking, with Cobb as the director, Saito the producer, Ariadne the screenwriter, Eames the actor, and so on.  To others the entire movie is a dream in that the film supports Carl Jungs' dream analysis; with all of the supporting characters acting as classical archetypes to Cobb's multiple personalities (which would also justify the lack of development in the supporting characters).  The fact that Inception , in the few months since its initial release, has already given rise to so much discussion and critical thought is much more revelatory than whether or not Cobb is still dreaming."

— Russell Espinosa at FilmFracture.com, Jan. 1, 2011

See also Piaf's "Rien de Rien in a Log24 post from Jan. 19, 2012.

Sunday, September 22, 2002

Sunday September 22, 2002

Filed under: General,Geometry — Tags: , , , — m759 @ 8:02 PM

Force Field of Dreams

Metaphysics and chess in today’s New York Times Magazine:

  • From “Must-See Metaphysics,” by Emily Nussbaum:

    Joss Whedon, creator of a new TV series —

    “I’m a very hard-line, angry atheist” and
    “I want to invade people’s dreams.”

  • From “Check This,” by Wm. Ferguson:

    Garry Kasparov on chess —

    “When the computer sees forced lines,
    it plays like God.”

Putting these quotations together, one is tempted to imagine God having a little game of chess with Whedon, along the lines suggested by C. S. Lewis:

As Lewis tells it the time had come for his “Adversary [as he was wont to speak of the God he had so earnestly sought to avoid] to make His final moves.” (C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, Harcourt, Brace, and World, Inc., 1955, p. 216) Lewis called them “moves” because his life seemed like a chess match in which his pieces were spread all over the board in the most disadvantageous positions. The board was set for a checkmate….

For those who would like to imagine such a game (God vs. Whedon), the following may be helpful.

George Steiner has observed that

The common bond between chess, music, and mathematics may, finally, be the absence of language.

This quotation is apparently from

Fields of Force:
Fischer and Spassky at Reykjavik
. by George Steiner, Viking hardcover, June 1974.

George Steiner as quoted in a review of his book Grammars of Creation:

“I put forward the intuition, provisional and qualified, that the ‘language-animal’ we have been since ancient Greece so designated us, is undergoing mutation.”

The phrase “language-animal” is telling.  A Google search reveals that it is by no means a common phrase, and that Steiner may have taken it from Heidegger.  From another review, by Roger Kimball:

In ”Grammars of Creation,” for example, he tells us that ”the classical and Judaic ideal of man as ‘language animal,’ as uniquely defined by the dignity of speech . . . came to an end in the antilanguage of the death camps.”

This use of the Holocaust not only gives the appearance of establishing one’s credentials as a person of great moral gravity; it also stymies criticism. Who wants to risk the charge of insensitivity by objecting that the Holocaust had nothing to do with the ”ideal of man as ‘language animal’ ”?

Steiner has about as clear an idea of the difference between “classical” and “Judaic” ideals of man as did Michael Dukakis. (See my notes of September 9, 2002.)

Clearly what music, mathematics, and chess have in common is that they are activities based on pure form, not on language. Steiner is correct to that extent. The Greeks had, of course, an extremely strong sense of form, and, indeed, the foremost philosopher of the West, Plato, based his teachings on the notion of Forms. Jews, on the other hand, have based their culture mainly on stories… that is, on language rather than on form. The phrase “language-animal” sounds much more Jewish than Greek. Steiner is himself rather adept at the manipulation of language (and of people by means of language), but, while admiring form-based disciplines, is not particularly adept at them.

I would argue that developing a strong sense of form — of the sort required to, as Lewis would have it, play chess with God — does not require any “mutation,” but merely learning two very powerful non-Jewish approaches to thought and life: the Forms of Plato and the “archetypes” of Jung as exemplified by the 64 hexagrams of the 3,000-year-old Chinese classic, the I Ching.

For a picture of how these 64 Forms, or Hexagrams, might function as a chessboard,

click here.

Other relevant links:

“As you read, watch for patterns. Pay special attention to imagery that is geometric…”


from Shakhmatnaia goriachka

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