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Ovi Symposium; Eighty-Sixth Meeting
by The Ovi Symposium
2017-11-16 12:00:23
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Ovi Symposium:

“A Philosophical Conversation on the Nature of Art within Modernity
and the Envisioning of a New Humanism”

Between Professors Emanuel Paparella, Ernesto Paolozzi, Michael Newman and Azly Rahman
Eighty-sixth Meeting: 15 November 2017



Symposium's regular participants

papDr. Emanuel Paparella has a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism with a dissertation on Giambattista Vico from Yale University. He currently teaches philosophy at Barry University and Broward College in Florida, USA. One of his books is titled Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of G. Vico, Mellen Press. His latest e-book Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers was printed in Ovi magazine in June 2013.


enDr.Ernesto Paolozzi teaches history of contemporary philosophy at the University Suor Orsola Benincasa of Naples. A Croce scholar and an expert on historicism, he has written widely and published several books, especially on aesthetics and liberalism vis a vis science. His book Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom was printed as an e-book in Ovi magazine in June 2013.

newmanProf. Michael Newman received his Master’s of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from Eastern Michigan University.  He discovered his love for teaching English as a Second Language while living abroad. He moved to South Florida and began his journey for a tenure track position at Broward College where he has recently earned a tenured position teaching English for Academic Purposes.  Another great passion of his is that of philosophical writing and discussion.  

azlyDr. Azly Rahman holds a doctorate in International Education Development from Columbia University, and multiple Masters Degrees in the fields of International Affairs, Peace Studies, Communication, and Education. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing. He has edited and authored seven books. He resides in the US where he teaches courses in Education, Philosophy, Cultural and American Studies, and Political Science. His interest in research and writing lies in the cultural interplay between Cybernetics, Hegemony, and Existentialism.


Indirect Participants within the Great Imaginary Conversation across the ages: Patsternak, Vygotsky, Wittgenstein, Vico, Frye, Blake, Dante, Aristotle, Cassirer, Hamilton, Mills, Keats, Stowe, Virgil.


Subtheme of session 86: An Ongoing Exploration of the Nexus between Philosophy, Language and Literature.

Table of Content of session 86:

Presentation 1:  “Exploring the Interface of Thought, Language, Myth and Literature” by Emanuel L. Paparella.


Coordinator’s Preamble to the 86th Meeting (November 2017)




Exploring the Interface of Thought, Language,
Myth and Literature

A presentation by Emanuel L. Paparella

In this presentation of November 2017, we at the Ovi Symposium continue the exploration of the nexus between thought/language, philosophy/literature.

In 1958 an Italian translation of a novel written in the Soviet Union and suppressed there appeared in the West winning its author instant fame and recognition, and the Nobel Prize for literature besides. The novel’s title is Dr. Zhivago and its author Boris Pasternak. Subsequently it appeared as a superb film in the mid sixties. This is well know to most people. In both novel and movie which is quite faithful to the book’s narration, one senses the nexus between myth and literature; it is that nexus that made the novel famous and netted the Nobel prize for Literature to its author.


What is less know is that around the same time there appeared in the West the work of a philosopher-linguist-psychologist whose work had also been suppressed in the former Soviet Union some twenty years before but was destined to have a strong influence in the philosophy of mind and language. The summation of that work appeared in 1934 as a book titled Thought and Language, published only after the author’s death and first translated into English in 1962.

The book examines in considerable depth the nexus between thought and language. That man is Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1896-1934) who arrived independently at the same seminal Vichian insight found in The New Science (1725) that while it is true that man makes language, it is equally true that language makes man, that the poetic and imaginative precede rational thought in human development, and that in fact thought is not merely expressed in words, but it comes into existence through them. Like Vico before him, Vygotsky arrived at these insights by simply observing children at play and how they develop linguistically. He considered the poetic in the development of language (the era of Homer) preceding the rational (the era of Plato), just as it happens with children. What attracted attention to his work, however, was not so much its Vichian roots, with which Vygotsky might or might not have been familiar, but its affinities with the later work of the language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.


Vygotsky believed that since the times of Augustine there had never been a systematic study of the nexus between thought and language. Most linguists had uncritically accepted Augustine’s traditional understanding that speech is the outer expression of an inner process we call thought. This view holds that while language and thought are logically distinct, they remain contingently related; which is to say that we use vocalization as a convenient means for expressing the ideas that occur in our minds. Like Vico and Wittegenstein before him, Vygotsky found this explanation conceptually flawed. He argued that thought is originally non-verbal and language is non-intellectual. The separate curves of thought and language development only meet at the age of around two when thought becomes verbal and speech becomes rational. Then Vygotsky goes on to argue that cognitive skills and patterns of thinking are the products of the particular culture within which the individual grows up. Language plays a crucial role in determining how the child will think. This is so because modes of thought are transmitted to the child by means of words.

Let’s explore this further. As Vygotsky states, “the structure of speech is not simply the mirror image of the structure of thought. It cannot therefore be placed on thought like clothes off a rack. Speech does not merely serve as the expression of developed thought. Thought is restructured as it is transformed into speech. It is not expressed but completed in the word. Therefore, precisely because of the contrasting directions of the movement, the development of the internal and external aspects of speech form a true unity.”


The picture that Vygotsky is painting here is that of language combining with conscious activity to form a unity. There is no casual relation to be explained between the thought had and the word formed; rather, meaningful expressions are a result of conscious processes operating upon a linguistic medium. The two are conceptually dependent, and idea that is vigorously argued for in Wittegnstein’s famous “private language argument” and given similar expression by Vygotsky’s account of language acquisition in childhood.

As a dependent individual, a child cannot live an isolated existence. He lives a common life characterized by interpersonal relationships. He learns by exposure to social stimuli which are later internalized. If he doesn’t learn how to speak a language in the first few years of his life, chances are he/she will never speak. As Vygotsky puts it: “Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later on the individual level; first, between people (inter-psychological), and then inside the child (intra-psychological).

The philosophical hypothesis here is that of linguistic determination, which is to say that the conceptual scheme one possesses directly affects the way one thinks about and perceives the world. Whereas in English there is only one word for snow, the Inuit language has several words for it. Which means that since the Inuit make many finer distinctions about snow than english speakers, they literally see snow differently. They are able to see subtle differences in snow that others do not. Vygotsky thus concludes that in growing up within a particular linguistically structured relationship, the child begins to perceive the world not only through its eyes but also through it speech. He further asserts that it is not just seeing but acting itself that becomes informed by words. Paradoxically, and contrary to what Aristotle and Augustine thought, imagination and language seem to be primary and necessary for thought. Indeed, John’s revealed insight that “in the beginning was the Word,” and everything created was created via that Word may eventually be recognized by science too.


Northrop Frye, author of The Educated Imagination             Blake or The Great Code

Enter Northrop Frye (1912-1991). He was a Canadian literary theorist who, in the 20th century, practically established literary criticism as an academic discipline. Even today, some thirty years after his death, in the era of logical analysis and extreme rationalism, his work remains very influential. Indeed, for any new theory of literary criticism to have any validity, it has to come to term with Frye’s monumental work. He is in fact such an intellectual giant that those who dare attack his scholarship and erudition usually come across as intellectual Lilliputians, even when they manage to publish their spurious attacks in academic journals and reside in the ethereal halls of academia. Frye will undoubtedly continue to be influential throughout the 21st century.

 Let us survey some well known biographical data on Fry, and then offer a few reflections on the importance of his work for our modern concerns which is as relevant as that of Vygotsky. Frye gained international fame with his first book, Fearful Symmetry (1947), which led to the reinterpretation of the poetry of William Blake. His lasting reputation rests principally on the theory of literary criticism that he developed some ten years later in Anatomy of Criticism (1957), one of the most important works of literary theory published in the twentieth century. The Yale University critic Harold Bloom commented at the time of its publication that Anatomy established Frye as "the foremost living student of Western literature."  Frye's contributions to cultural and social criticism spanned a long academic career during which he earned widespread recognition and received many well deserved honors.

Frye was himself influenced, as he himself frankly acknowledged, by another intellectual giant of the 18th century: Giambattista Vico (1668-1744). It was indeed Vico who in his The New Science, first posited a view of language as fundamentally figurative, and introduced into Enlightenment discourse the notion of the role of the imagination in creating meaning. For Vico, poetic discourse is prior to philosophical discourse; philosophy is in fact derivative of poetry.  Frye, in acknowledging the debt he owed to Vico in developing his literary theory, describes him sympathetically as "the first modern thinker to understand that all major verbal structures have descended historically from poetic and mythological ones" (Words with Power xii). Thus, Frye launched the pursuit which was to occupy the rest of his career—that of establishing criticism as a "coherent field of study which trains the imagination quite as systematically and efficiently as the sciences train the reason".


God creating the universe by W. Blake                                               Aristotle

As A. C. Hamilton outlines in Northrop Frye: Anatomy of his Criticism, Frye's assumption of coherence for literary criticism carries important implications.  Firstly and most fundamentally, it presupposes that literary criticism is a discipline in its own right, independent of literature. Claiming with John Stuart Mill that "the artist . . . is not heard but overheard," Frye insists that the axiom of criticism must be, not that the poet does not know what he is talking about, but that he cannot talk about what he knows. To defend the right of criticism to exist at all, therefore, is to assume that criticism is a structure of thought and knowledge existing in its own right, with some measure of independence from the art it deals with” (Anatomy 5).

In seeking integrity for criticism, Frye rejects what he termed the deterministic fallacy. He defines this as the movement of "a scholar with a special interest in geography or economics [to] express . . . that interest by the rhetorical device of putting his favorite study into a causal relationship with whatever interests him less" (Anatomy 6). By attaching criticism to an external framework rather than locating the framework for criticism within literature, this kind of critic essentially "substitute[s] a critical attitude for criticism." For Frye critical integrity means that "the axioms and postulates of criticism . . . have to grow out of the art it deals with" (Anatomy 6).

Taking his cue from Aristotle, Frye's methodology in defining a conceptual framework begins inductively, "follow[ing] the natural order and begin[ning] with the primary facts" (Anatomy 15). The primary facts, in this case, are the works of literature themselves. And what did Frye's inductive survey of these "facts" reveal? Significantly, they revealed "a general tendency on the part of great classics to revert to [primitive formulas]" (Anatomy 17). This revelation prompted his next move, or rather, “'inductive leap': I suggest that it is time for criticism to leap to a new ground from which it can discover what the organizing or containing forms of its conceptual framework are. Criticism seems to be badly in need of a coordinating principle, a central hypothesis which, like the theory of evolution in biology, will see the phenomena it deals with as parts of a whole” (Anatomy 16).

Arguing that "criticism cannot be a systematic [and thus scientific] study unless there is a quality in literature which enables it to be so, Frye puts forward the hypothesis that "just as there is an order of nature behind the natural sciences, so literature is not a piled aggregate of 'works,' but an order of words" (Anatomy 17). This order of words constitutes criticism's conceptual framework, its coordinating principle. The recurring primitive formulas Frye noticed in his survey of the "greatest classics" provide literature with an order of words, a "skeleton" which allows the reader "to respond imaginatively to any literary work by seeing it in the larger perspective provided by its literary and social contexts" (Hamilton 20). Frye identifies these formulas as the "conventional myths and metaphors" which he calls "archetypes" (Spiritus Mundi 118). The archetypes of literature exist, Frye argues, as an order of words, providing criticism with a conceptual framework and a body of knowledge derived not from an ideological system but rooted in the imagination itself. Thus, rather than interpreting literary works from some ideological 'position' — what Frye calls the "superimposed critical attitude" (Anatomy 7) — criticism finds integrity within the literary field itself. This is indeed a uniquely Vichian position: before rationality arrives on the scene, there is poetry.

Once asked whether his critical theory was romantic, Frye responded, "Oh, it's entirely Romantic, yes".  It is Romantic not because of Vico who has misguidedly been confused for a proto-romantic, which he is not, but in the same sense that Frye attributed Romanticism to Blake: that is, "in the expanded sense of giving a primary place to imagination and individual feeling".

As artifacts of the imagination, literary works, including "the pre-literary categories of ritual, myth and folk-tale" (Archetypes 1450) form, in Frye's vision, a potentially unified imaginative experience. He reminds us that literature is the "central and most important extension" of mythology: ". . . every human society possesses a mythology which is inherited, transmitted and diversified by literature" (Words with Power xiii). Mythology and literature thus inhabit and function within the same imaginative world, one that is "governed by conventions, by its own modes, symbols, myths and genres". Integrity for criticism requires that it too operates within the sphere of the imagination, and not seek an organizing principle in ideology.

Myth therefore provides structure to literature simply because literature as a whole is "displaced mythology".  For Frye, the story, and not the argument, is at the center of literature and society. The base of society is mythical and narrative and not ideological and dialectical". This idea, which is central in Frye's criticism, was first suggested to him by Vico’s philosophy as well as by Cassirer’s theory of Symbolic Forms where Cassirer, like Frye, acknowledged Vico as the first modern philosopher to have fully understood the real significance of myth.

Frye uses the terms 'centripetal' and 'centrifugal' to describe his critical method. Criticism, Frye explains, is essentially centripetal when it moves inwardly, towards the structure of a text; it is centrifugal when it moves outwardly, away from the text and towards society and the outer world. Lyric poetry, for instance, like Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn", is dominantly centripetal, stressing the sound and movement and imagery of the ordered words.

Rhetorical novels, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, are dominantly centrifugal, stressing the thematic connection of the stories and characters to the social order. The "Ode" has centrifugal tendencies, relying for its effects on elements of history and pottery and visual aesthetics. Cabin has centripetal tendencies, relying on syntax and lexical choice to delineate characters and establish mood. But the one veers inward, the other pushes outward. Criticism reflects these movements, centripetally focusing on the aesthetic function of literature, centrifugally on the social function of literature. As Frye put it: “Structural analysis brings rhetoric back to criticism, but we need a new poetics as well . . ." (Archetypes 1447).


Centrifugal Language                             Centripetal Language

For Frye, this "new poetics" is to be found in the principle of the mythological framework, which has come to be known as 'archetypal criticism'. It is through the lens of this framework, which is essentially a centrifugal movement of backing up from the text towards the archetype, that the social function of literary criticism becomes apparent. Essentially, "what criticism can do," according to Frye, "is awaken students to successive levels of awareness of the mythology that lies behind the ideology in which their society indoctrinates them". That is, the study of recurring structural patterns grants students an emancipatory distance from their own society, and gives them a vision of a higher human state that is not accessible directly through their own experience, but ultimately transforms and expands their experience, so that the poetic model becomes a model to live by. In what he terms a "kerygmatic mode," myths become "myths to live by" and metaphors "metaphors to live in," which ". . . not only work for us but constantly expand our horizons, [so that] we may enter the world of [kerygma or transformative power] and pass on to others what we have found to be true for ourselves" (Double Vision 18).

Because of its important social function, Frye felt that literary criticism was an essential part of a liberal education, and worked tirelessly to communicate his ideas to a wider audience. "For many years now," he wrote in 1987, "I have been addressing myself primarily, not to other critics, but to students and a non-specialist public, realizing that whatever new directions can come to my discipline will come from their needs and their intense if unfocused vision" (Auguries 7). It is therefore fitting that his last book, published posthumously, should be one that he describes as being "something of a shorter and more accessible version of the longer books, The Great Code and Words with Power," which he asks his readers to read sympathetically, not "as proceeding from a judgment seat of final conviction, but from a rest stop on a pilgrimage, however near the pilgrimage may now be to its close" (Double Vision Preface).


Dante the Pilgrim of his Divine Comedy

This reminds us of another Pilgrim on a pilgrimage: Dante and his Virgilian guide. For Frye, it was Blake who first awakened Frye to the “mythological frame of our Western culture,” notes Nella Cotrupi in her keynote address in honor of Frye (titled Process and Possibility: Northrop Frye’s Spiritual Vision). That vision contains the recognition that the Bible is a mythological framework, a cosmos or body of stories, and that societies live within a mythology. Such a mythology in turn informs all of Western Literature. Thus Blake’s claim that the Old and the New Testaments are the Great Code of Art became the central doctrine of Frye’s criticism; a doctrine finds its fullest expression in Frye’s The Great Code where he investigates the Biblical structure and typology and how they are revealed by the Bible’s narrative and imagery then transmitted to the conventions and genres of Western literature.

Dante, Virgil, Vico, Vygotsky, Pasternak, Blake, Frye: seven great visionaries and intellectual giants who, in transmitting their imaginative poetic vision in an intellectual milieu of dry logic and sterile rationalism, have immeasurably expanded our cultural humanistic horizons. We can see so far on the horizon because we stand on their shoulders. We are likely not to see their likes again any time soon. Nonetheless, let’s hope and pray for their return. 




Intro - P. 1 - P. 2 

2nd Meeting - 3rd Meeting - 4th Meeting - 5th Meeting - 6th Meeting - 7th Meeting - 8th Meeting -

9th Meeting - 10th Meting - 11th Meeting - 12th Meeting - 13th Meeting - 14th Meeting - 15th Meeting -

16th Meeting - 17th Meeting - 18th Meeting - 19th Meeting - 20th Meeting - 21st Meeting -

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70th Meeting -71st Meeting - 72nd Meeting - 73rd Meeting - 74th Meeting - 75th Meeting -

76th Meeting -77th Meeting - 78th Meeting - 79th Meeting - 80th Meeting - 81st Meeting -

82nd Meeting -83rd Meeting - 84th Meeting - 85th Meeting - 86th Meeting -


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Emanuel Paparella2017-11-15 13:06:46

A footnote: readers who wish to read the essay on Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago I wrote in Ovi some ten years ago may click on the link above.

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