After Babel echoes and enhances George Steiner’s previous writings about the relationships between language, literature, and culture. The reason for this preoccupation—Steiner discusses it directly in the beginning of “Word Against Object”— is the fact that Steiner is trilingual, thinking and communicating with equal facility in German, French, and English. (Another reason, discussed elsewhere but not in After Babel, is Steiner’s need as a Jew for confronting the problems which the Holocaust raises for the continuity of European culture.) The titles of an earlier work, Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (1967), and of a later work, On Difficulty and Other Essays (1978), point to Steiner’s constant interrogation of language’s relation to gnosis, of the “fit” between language and thought, of the possibilities of thought beyond or between the rules of language.
Steiner’s structure of argumentation in After Babel is different from most. Most arguments either begin with complexity and variety and try to explain them by some underlying principle (inductive method) or else derive various ideas from a fundamental axiom (deductive method). Steiner’s method resembles the latter in that a single simple principle or controversy forms the basis of most of his chapters. Nevertheless, he rarely attempts to complicate his thesis or derive lemmas from it. Rather, he can...
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