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Both doors of Lane 125 were open: students, faculty, and visiting parents filled every seat, leaned in the doorways, sat on the ground, slouched against the walls, drew up folding chairs.

The panelists of the Lyceum’s March 3 “Liberal Arts Friday Forum,” on the limits of language, included Peter Blum, professor of philosophy and culture, Justin Jackson, professor of English, and Laury Ward, professor of classics. Each presented unique and lively 15-minute cases on the limits of language, coaxing out laughs, nods, and “mhmm’s” through puns and self-effacing comments.

Professors Laury Ward, Justin Jackson, and Peter Blum speak at a Lyceum panel discussion last Friday. | Courtesy Hillsdale College

“Is there anything that’s beyond language?” Blum said. “Everything besides language is beyond language. And of course, none of this that I said today, in any way means that there aren’t times when we are or perhaps should be reduced to silence.”

Blum kick-started the conversation with a foray into postmodern philosophy of language, gently poking fun at the unorthodoxy of this system of thought at Hillsdale.

He knit his eyebrows as he laid the foundation for the systemic view of meaning, one that says words do more than point at an object because they can have so many meanings.   

Taking a sip from the water in his signature pink heart-handled mug, Jackson used Blum’s last word, “silence,” to inform his lecture on the two ways we talk about God, through negative (apophatic) and positive (cataphatic) statements.

He focused on language in the Bible before Christ, and how after Christ’s coming, poetry and narrative take us from a place of silence about God to a place of language that ought to take us back to a place of silence.   

“If you think Christ is going to answer all of your theological questions about God, you’ve got to be a little shocked,” Jackson said. But, he concluded, while he might not answer all of our questions, Christ gives us a way of speaking about the divine.

“When God became man, the uncontainable became contained, the un-circumscribable became circumscribed, you have to wonder how that works,” Jackson said. “How does language allow us to approach how this works?” Blum’s, takes that fall on similar ends of the spectrum.

“Ward didn’t crack under pressure under the theological and metaphysically prior ways of thinking about language,” Burns said. “She approached it with poise and commanded the room.”

Senior Rebekah Molloy, an English and German major, said the talk blew her mind: “The limits of language allow us to get a sense of God… you’re struck dumb, no pun intended.”

Senior philosophy major Maddy Johnson said she found the forum’s presentation of a different stance on the adequacy of language refreshing and thought-provoking.

“The moment when she was unpacking the line of Aeneid was spell-binding,” Johnson said. “The language disappeared and it was me and the reality of Aeneas’s language.”

Ward transitioned from the divine to the human. Through charming self-deprecation of the futility of studying dead languages, Ward demonstrated how her work is a kind of excavation.

She asked junior Greek major Emily Barnum to show off her virtus (manly strength) and translate a line of Virgil’s “Aeneid,” where translators are sure they are missing a lot (“Oh Virgil, how you move the soul”). In her treatment of the 12 translations, the one furthest from the literal Latin, the most exuberant, drew the closest to the literal meaning.

“As human beings we are concerned with similar things, the mortal things of other people,” Ward said. “There is a comfort we can get from strangest of strange lands, you know there is humanity in common.”  

She said translation isn’t just a matter of replacing a Latin word with an English one, but articulating the sentiments behind the words that our common human experience expresses.

The forum impressed sophomore English major Ryan Burns, who said each lecturer could have given their own full-length talk. He appreciated Ward’s linguistic perspective as a classicist, one that differed from Jackson and Blum’s, takes that fall on similar ends of the spectrum.

“Ward didn’t crack under pressure under the theological and metaphysically prior ways of thinking about language,” Burns said. “She approached it with poise and commanded the room.”

Senior Rebekah Molloy, an English and German major, said the talk blew her mind: “The limits of language allow us to get a sense of God… you’re struck dumb, no pun intended.”

Senior philosophy major Maddy Johnson said she found the forum’s presentation of a different stance on the adequacy of language refreshing and thought-provoking.

“The moment when she was unpacking the line of Aeneid was spell-binding,” Johnson said. “The language disappeared and it was me and the reality of Aeneas’s language.”