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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.”