Life: A Study in Words
Table Of Contents
- About the author
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- Preface (or, an Apology to the Reader)
- 1 Origin of the lexicon: The Proto-Indo-European primordium
- 1.1 The primigenial Greek mythos
- 1.2 The germinal Greek “psyche”
- 1.3 Breathing-in the words of the past
- 2 Life: Substance and essence
- 2.1 The substance of life: The emergent Greek logos
- 2.2 From substance to essence… in words
- 3 Words: The expression of our being
- 3.1 What is a “word”?
- 3.2 What is “language”?
- 3.3 Language “outside” and “inside”
- 3.3.1 The “outside” picture
- 3.3.2 The “inside” picture
- 4 Essence of life: Speaking of space and time
- 4.1 Space
- 4.2 Time
- 4.2.1 Time: In a word
- 4.2.2 Time: A heated concept
- 4.2.3 Fire: A gift from the gods, or the bane of our temporal existence?
- 4.3 Our language of space and time: Imaginative portrayal of existence
- 4.4 The time of the Great Raven
- 5 What is life?: Hunting the Jabberwock
- 6 Life’s linguistic labyrinth: Ariadne’s thread
- References Cited
Bibliographic Information published by the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek
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ISSN 1663-6007 • ISBN 978-3-0343-3101-2 (Print)
E-ISBN 978-3-0343-3098-5 (E-PDF) • E-ISBN 978-3-0343-3099-2 (EPUB)
E-ISBN 978-3-0343-3100-5 (MOBI) • DOI 10.3726/b11610
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About the author
Rick Welch is emeritus dean of Arts and Sciences and professor of Biological Sciences, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, USA. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His academic research interests lie at the interface between the biological and physical sciences, as well as the history of science. He lives in Cambridge, UK.
About the book
Life: A Study in Words
What is life? is a query that never dies… Most modern-day approaches to this enduring question attempt to define what life is, from the standpoint of science, philosophy, religion, medicine, etc. In this book, the conception of life in Western culture is explored through a host of words that has come down to us from antiquity. The author presents a flowing linguistic view of life from the distant past. The etymologic heritage is traced to ancient Greek – to the philosophical foundation of Western thinking. The author pursues a path into prehistory, looking at the development of words from roots in the Indo-European language family, which includes the classical languages of Greek and Latin, as well as English and many other Eurasian languages – ultimately, in the common ancestral Proto-Indo-European (PIE) tongue. In so doing, one finds a shared lexical genealogy underlying the linguistic source of the Western notions of life. The diversity of word-forms that are associative of life in today’s vernacular grew out of a seemingly labyrinthine – though, in reality, a highly integrative – state of comprehension of the affiliation between the mortal human being and the natural environment in the prehistoric PIE civilization. In the logos of ancient Greek thought, emanating from the ancestral mythos of the PIE and early Mediterranean peoples, the ideas of “life” and “nature” were fused into a unified vision of existence – as can be seen in the prehistoric origin of the verb be itself. This book concentrates on more than sheer words; it is also on how we – the living, sentient beings that we are – speak of our very being in space and time in the world around us. The birthright of a conjoined sentience of life and nature has branched-out through the ages of Western thinking. The legacy today is a fossilized linguistic Tree of Life, engendering a plurality of words for “life”; wherein, each of us must create our own meaning of “life.”
This eBook can be cited
This edition of the eBook can be cited. To enable this we have marked the start and end of a page. In cases where a word straddles a page break, the marker is placed inside the word at exactly the same position as in the physical book. This means that occasionally a word might be bifurcated by this marker.
I wish to extend my sincere appreciation to Peter Lang International Academic Publisher, for their interest in my monograph for the series on “Nature, Science, and the Arts.” I am especially grateful to Angelica Scholze and Renata Catambas, editors at Peter Lang, for their initial support of this project and for helpful advice in the preparation. It is with much gratitude that I thank Dr. Ulrike Döring, senior editor at Peter Lang, who has guided my book through the publication process with great care, skill, and patience. I should also like to thank the kind and helpful staffs at the Cambridge University Library and the Whipple Library (Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge), where much of my literature research was conducted.
I am especially grateful to the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, for hosting me as an Affiliated Research Scholar during most of the time when the research work for the book was conducted. Tamara Hug and the academic staff there have been incredibly helpful on so many levels. I am extremely indebted to Prof. Hasok Chang, for his continuing support of my work and for the stimulating atmosphere in his departmental reading and seminar groups. Prof. Chang reviewed the initial proposal for the book project and offered beneficial and encouraging comments.
I should also like to give sincere thanks to Prof. James Clackson (Professor of Comparative Philology) in the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge, for help and guidance in the early stages of the book project. Prof. Clackson generously invited me to attend his course lectures in historical linguistics, and he guided me to much critical literature. In addition, he reviewed the initial proposal for the book project and offered useful comments.
I hold a deep sense of thankfulness for my lifelong friends, Jim Clegg and Douglas Kell. To say we are kindred spirits, trite though it may seem, is so fitting. The intellectual discourse I have enjoyed with these two mates, over the years, has been truly inspirational (a word I use here in the sense in which you will find it later in this book). Many of the thoughts and thought processes – about “life” and “words” – at play in this book have gelled during our times together.
My most heartfelt appreciation goes to my family, for the periods of exclusion and seclusion that the research for, and the writing of, this book have demanded. I could not have done it without their abiding love and backing.
(or, an Apology to the Reader)
What is life? is a query that never dies… The contemplation of “life” evokes a wide range of responses, across both the objective and subjective landscapes of human thought. Today’s science has identified numerous phenomenological features that all living beings display. Throughout history, though, the constantly evolving scope of science has struggled to provide a tangible definition of what life is. Science aside, the conception of life spans many human enterprises, including medicine, philosophy, culture, religion, ethics, politics, and jurisprudence. Personal bias notwithstanding, none of these modes of reasoning can claim singular ownership of life; there is, indeed, considerable overlap across these provinces. Two of the most distinguishing attributes of humankind – what we regard as setting us apart from other “higher” animals – are the awareness of our mortality (the cognitive distinction between life and death) and the capability for speech (the ability to convey thinking in spoken words). Yet, at a visceral level, we all find it difficult to put into one word – or even a few words – just what life actually means. My aim in writing this book is to show that the befuddled state of our present-day verbal representation of life, with its conflation of numerous facets of human belief and multifarious word meanings, is no historical happenstance. In fact, there has never been a unitary defining connotation (or denotation) for “life” in Western thought.
I must begin with an apology to the reader, for my obsession (I prefer the term love) for words. This book is a study (and, I might say, a celebration) of life in words – not one word, but a gamut of words. The starting point is the English language. The semantic heritage, however, is found in ancient Greek – wherein lies the philosophical foundation of Western thinking. I pursue a path into history (and prehistory), looking at the development of words from roots in the Indo-European language family, which includes the classical languages of Greek and Latin, as well as English and many other Eurasian languages – ultimately, in the common ancestral Proto-Indo-European (PIE) tongue. In so doing, one finds a shared lexical genealogy underlying the linguistic source of the Western notions of life. The diversity of word-forms that are associative of life in today’s English vernacular can be traced to a seemingly labyrinthine – though, in reality, a highly integrative – state of comprehension of the affiliation between the mortal human being and the natural environment in the prehistoric PIE civilization. In the logos of ancient Greek thought – emanating from the ancestral mythos of the PIE and early Mediterranean peoples – the ideas of “life” and “nature” were fused into a unified vision of existence. The birthright of a conjoined sentience of life and nature has echoed through the ages. It is evident in a host of lexical vestiges. A striking example is seen in the verbal duo “physics” and “physiology” in today’s scientific terminology. “Physics” denotes the science of the inanimate world and, more specifically, the rational understanding of how that world works. While the term “biology” has come to designate, generally, the science of the animate domain, it is the expression “physiology” that truly represents the scientific study of how life operates. Notably, both words originate from the same ancient Greek stem, physis – meaning “nature.”
This book is intended for a broad academic audience – for those with a general interest in the significance of linguistics in science (especially biology), in the history and philosophy of science, and in the humanities. It is not a specialist treatment. Some background knowledge of Western history and of the history of Western philosophy and science is useful, but not essential. I have cited a variety of introductory references to these topics. It is my wish that the reader will, like me, become enthralled by the capacity of words, in rationalizing the emergence and development of such a deep-seated concept as “life.” In the end, I hope that my intertwined philological approach, based on historical linguistics, will enrich the reader’s perception of what life is… and always has been.
My academic background includes study in both the life sciences and the physical sciences. I have spent much of my professional career as a basic scientist, pursuing research topics at the border between these two spheres. In time, my interests have been drawn to historical issues at the scientific interface. And, the language – the defining words and the verbal syntax that we use – across the living and non-living realms of nature has become my focal point. Working betwixt and between these two areas over the years, I have come to appreciate the well-known historical truth that, despite the sharp demarcation of the sciences in modern times, the fields of biology and physics – and, indeed, all of the sciences – were entwined in days of old. Furthermore, in the classical Greek setting, Western thought emerged from a mix of (what we call today) mythology, philosophy, and science. The crystallization of it all originates, by and large, in the mythical thinking of the PIE ancestral world.
- ISBN (PDF)
- ISBN (ePUB)
- ISBN (MOBI)
- ISBN (Softcover)
- Publication date
- 2020 (July)
- Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 208 pp., 9 fig. col., 3 fig. b/w