When Words Lose Their Meaning: Constitutions and Reconstitutions of Language, Character, and Community

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University of Chicago Press, 1985 M10 15 - 377 pages
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Through fresh readings of texts ranging from Homer's Iliad, Swift's Tale of a Tub, and Austen's Emma through the United States Constitution and McCulloch v. Maryland, James Boyd White examines the relationship between an individual mind and its language and culture as well as the "textual community" established between writer and audience. These striking textual analyses develop a rhetoric—a "way of reading" that can be brought to any text but that, in broader terms, becomes a way of learning that can shape the reader's life.

"In this ambitious and demanding work of literary criticism, James Boyd White seeks to communicate 'a sense of reading in a new and different way.' . . . [White's] marriage of lawyerly acumen and classically trained literary sensibility—equally evident in his earlier work, The Legal Imagination—gives the best parts of When Words Lose Their Meaning a gravity and moral earnestness rare in the pages of contemporary literary criticism."—Roger Kimball, American Scholar

"James Boyd White makes a state-of-the-art attempt to enrich legal theory with the insights of modern literary theory. Of its kind, it is a singular and standout achievement. . . . [White's] selections span the whole range of legal, literary, and political offerings, and his writing evidences a sustained and intimate experience with these texts. Writing with natural elegance, White manages to be insightful and inciteful. Throughout, his timely book is energized by an urgent love of literature and law and their liberating potential. His passion and sincerity are palpable."—Allan C. Hutchinson, Yale Law Journal

"Undeniably a unique and significant work. . . . When Words Lose Their Meaning is a rewarding book by a distinguished legal scholar. It is a showcase for the most interesting sort of inter-disciplinary work: the kind that brings together from traditionally separate fields not so much information as ideas and approaches."—R. B. Kershner, Jr., Georgia Review

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Contents

Poetry and the World of
24
The Dissolution of Meaning
59
The Reconstitution of Language
93
Making the Reader Make His Language
114
Teaching a Language of Morality
138
Conversation Rational and Playful
163
Making a Public World
192
Constituting a Culture of Argument
231
An Afterword
275
Bibliographies and Notes
286
Index
363
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About the author (1985)

James Boyd White is the Hart Wright Professor of Law, professor of English, and adjunct professor of classical studies at the University of Michigan. His many books include The Legal Imagination, Acts of Hope, and Justice as Translation, all published by the University of Chicago Press.

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