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Message in the Bottle par Walker Percy

Message in the Bottle (original 1975; édition 1984)

par Walker Percy

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426445,698 (4.02)4
In "Message" i"n the" "Bottle," Walker Percy offers insights on such varied yet interconnected subjects as symbolic reasoning, the origins of mankind, Helen Keller, Semioticism, and the incredible Delta Factor. Confronting difficult philosophical questions with a novelist's eye, Percy rewards us again and again with his keen insights into the way that language possesses all of us.… (plus d'informations)
Titre:Message in the Bottle
Auteurs:Walker Percy
Info:Farrar Straus Giroux (1984), Paperback, 345 pages
Collections:Votre bibliothèque

Détails de l'œuvre

The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do With the Other par Walker Percy (1975)

  1. 00
    Quand dire, c'est faire par J. L. Austin (elenchus)
    elenchus: Austin analyses possible speech acts, and discusses how every statement is usually a mix of these. Percy focuses on one type of speech act, the denotative (naming) act, and argues it is perhaps the most important of all. Different styles of argument, but they supplement one another quite well.… (plus d'informations)

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This is a collection of journal articles published between 1954 to 1975, and one previously unpublished essay. The subject of most of the articles is consistent with what the author writes in the preface: “... my recurring interest over the years has been the nature of human communication and, in particular, the consequences of man's unique discovery of the symbol ...”

In the preface, the author also admits that there is a lot of repetition between the various chapters. I would not mind this, if only the author had added a short introduction to each chapter to summarize each chapter, to shown how the chapters are related, and to suggest where the book was headed.

In the first chapter (after a confusing start) Percy includes a passage from Helen Keller's autobiography (The Story of My Life) that seems to express the mysterious process of language acquisition and perhaps the purpose of this book. In Helen's case, the language acquired was sign language because she was blind and deaf, but the process is the same. The passage describes the famous account of Anne Sullivan signing “w-a-t-e-r” in one of Helen's palms while water from a water pump poured over the other. This one illuminating example suggests an interesting problem that the reader might hope that the rest of the book will explore in more detail.

I enjoyed the last two chapters the most. Chapter 14 is a review of two books by philosopher Susanne K. Langer ( Feeling and Form and Philosophy in a New Key). Percy praises Langer very highly, and it seems that she has successfully articulated the ideas that he had been attempting to express in the previous chapters:
“... Mrs. Langer has made clear the generic difference between sign and symbol, between the subject-sign-object triad and the subject-symbol-conception-object tetrad. … A symbol is the vehicle for the conception of an object and as such is a distinctively human product.”
“When I am told as a child that this flower is a lupin, when you name something for me and I confirm it by saying it too - what I know now is not only that the flower is something but that it is something for you and me. Our common existence is validated. It is the foundation of what Marcel calls the metaphysics of 'we are' instead of 'I think'.”

The final chapter is a previously unpublished essay by Percy. He lays out his own theory on how the study of language acquisition ought to be approached – using Charles Saunders Peirce's theory of abduction and his notion of “triads”. Without more knowledge of linguistics, I can't say how valuable an addition this is to that science. But I believe he deserves a lot of credit for making a well-thought out argument for what may be a novel and productive approach to the topic of language acquisition.

There is a bibliography at the end of this book, but not all sources cited in the book are found in it. With all of the references sprinkled throughout the book, that is an annoying shortcoming.

I read this book because I have read several of the author's novels and was curious about his nonfiction. I cannot recommend the book for the author's explanatory skills. Also some parts seem dated (e.g. rebuttal to the behavioral psychology of B. F. Skinner). However if you are curious about the subject of language, specifically language acquisition, and you have a lot of patience, you may find some of the chapters interesting. ( )
1 voter dougb56586 | Feb 19, 2018 |
Didn't end up finishing this! Many of the essays were very enjoyable and weave together linguistics, existentialism, theology, anthropology, and literary criticism. The book as a whole is something of a love letter to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and the author has interesting things to say about the extent to which we can say meaningful things about the world, explain scientific behavior in a world of cultural relativity, and whether "scientific" solutions to problems actually make people happy.

However, some of his arguments feel as dated as the sixties and seventies "science will cure everything" belief that he is critiquing, and near the end he seems overly interested in trying to describe and solve human problems with a "normative" anthropology that will somehow be different from the prescriptive science he decries. I got bored and confused, and decided to return the book to the library. ( )
  raschneid | Mar 31, 2013 |
Through 15 essays, Walker Percy argues that despite healthy academic interest in linguistics and semiotic, a central question of language remains neglected: how people (and of all the sign-using creatures we know, only people) come to understand that in speaking of something, that thing is named. It is what we name it, more or less. (The profound distinction between referring to and naming something is emphasized in Helen Keller's recollection of the water pump.) This naming is symbolism, different than using signs, which other animals do: point at a banana so that a fellow creature brings the banana, for example. In sign, pointing or even using a word for banana merely signals that something should happen. The word does not "mean" banana, and the creature's consciousness of that thing is not shaped by the word, nor does the creature's awareness of the world hinge upon naming things.

Percy contends that naming, i.e. the denotative relation is in fact the defining feature of human language. Yet linguistics and semiotic pretty much ignore symbol in the examination of sign. Percy suspects symbol is behind many other interesting modern phenomena, including a pervasive alienation, the nature of human consciousness, metaphysical realism, Christian myth.

The essays work at this question from various perspectives, building to a tentative theory of language, one getting at the central fact of denotation rather than mere signs. Percy's account adapts Peirce's triadic account of signs, suggesting a tetradic account of symbol is more apt. The scope of argument is broad and Percy is in good command of linguistic literature through the 1960s.


I no longer recall how I learned of Walker Percy, but it was his essays not his fiction, and suspect it was during graduate work. I do remember recognising references in popular culture (Sam Phillips, "Signposts in a Strange Land") -- so, before I matriculated. It's remarkable how many authors Percy refers to who are key influences in my post-graduate thinking, among them: Peirce, Veatch, Barfield. His discussion here raises in my queue various writers read only superficially: Mead, Whorf, Cassirer.

I find in Percy a concern to explode superstition with a sober logic and scientific method, while retaining a sense of wonder and the sacred, similar to Bateson. Percy's explicit Christian perspective ties into Bateson's observation that Catholics wield an advantage over Protestants in perceiving the sacred (as Bateson understands it), though at this point it's not clear to me which creed Percy follows.

The title essay amounts to the best short essay on Christian myth I've read. ( )
1 voter elenchus | Aug 16, 2011 |
When I started reading this book, about six weeks ago, I was really excited. The introductory essay, "The Delta Factor," is written in an engaging style (Percy was primarily a novelist) and draws together provocative questions on modern alienation, the nature of consciousness, the scientific method, the relevance of religion in the technological age, and the fundamental philosophy of language. At its root, he says, a lot of these questions lead back to our complete lack of understanding of the relationship between a word and what that word means, and a Martian coming to Earth to investigate that connection (Percy's metaphor for "non-psychologist" or "novelist") would find no satisfactory answers from philosophy, behaviorist psychology, structural semiotics, or cognitive science. The essay itself is such a wide-ranging, skeptical, incisive feat of language geekery that I felt it was the sort of thing I myself might write, if I were better read in philosophy. The essay awakened my own inquisitive spark.

Unfortunately, the further I read, the more Percy lost me. The book is a collection of essays about the philosophy of language that he wrote over a twenty-year period, so it's bound to be uneven. It also documents his thoughts over a span of years (roughly 1955-1975) during which tremendous changes (not to say "advances") took place in cognitive linguistics, so some of the complaints about the inadequacy of theory that he made in Essay A were no longer valid when he wrote Essay B, not to mention now that another thirty years have passed. Percy was clearly frustrated with the failure of behaviorism to explain language; well, I was frustrated to read his response to behaviorist theories of language now that they have been thoroughly discredited.

Another serious problem with the book - and perhaps Percy's editor is to blame - is that the essays are arranged from most accessible to most technical. The pieces toward the beginning deal with alienation, metaphor, and Percy's way of realizing his Christian belief through his own writing, all interesting topics addressed with curiosity and clarity. Later in the book, though, it's all behaviorist psychology, structural semiotics, and technical philosophy of language. In parts, you have to know the differences between signs and symbols, or between the Vienna school and the Scholastics, to make any sense of it. As a result, I started spending longer and longer times away from the book - hence the six weeks.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is the same kind of nerd that I am; and then, I would only advise them to read the first half.

Original post on "All The Things I've Lost"
3 voter YorickBrown | Mar 20, 2007 |
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Is it possible that a theory of man is nothing more nor less than a theory of the speaking creature? [8]
A theory of man must account for the alienation of man. A theory of organisms in environments [behaviorism] cannot account for it, for in fact organisms in environments are not alienated. [23]
The Scholastics ... used to say that man does not have a direct knowledge of essences as do the angels but  only an indirect knowledge, a knowledge mediated by symbols. John of St. Thomas observed that symbols come to contain within themselves the thing symbolized in alio esse, in another mode of existence. [156]
No one has ever explained how a psychiatrist can be said to be "responding" to a patient when he, the psychiatrist, listens to the patient tell a dream, understands what is said, and a year later writes a paper about it. To describe the psychiatrist's behavior as a response is to use words loosely. [160]
A sign-using organism takes account only of those elements of its environment which are relevant biologically. A chick has been observed to take account of the shadow of a hen and the shadow of a hawk but not, I believe, of the shadow of a swallow. A two-year-old child, however, will not only ask for milk, as a good sign-using animal; he will also point to the swallow and ask what it is. [202]
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In "Message" i"n the" "Bottle," Walker Percy offers insights on such varied yet interconnected subjects as symbolic reasoning, the origins of mankind, Helen Keller, Semioticism, and the incredible Delta Factor. Confronting difficult philosophical questions with a novelist's eye, Percy rewards us again and again with his keen insights into the way that language possesses all of us.

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Bibliothèque historique: Walker Percy

Walker Percy a une bibliothèque historique. Les bibliothèques historiques sont les bibliothèques personnelles de lecteurs connus, qu'ont entrées des utilisateurs de LibraryThing inscrits au groupe Bibliothèques historiques [en anglais].

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