Conceptions of language modulate through correspondingly implausible, extreme positions as this yo-yoing proceeds. There is a seventeenth-century scientific war on metaphor, manifest in a nominalism that was determined to override the threat it posed to the meaningfulness of words by reforming language to attach words unshakably to things (something clear in Hobbes, and in Thomas Sprat’s account of the Royal Society’s programme; and mocked by Swift, whose natural philosophers in the Grand Academy of Lagado in Gulliver’s Travels carry bundles of objects with them to use instead of words, though this contrasts with the writing machine of another academician).11 That is countered by a Romantic impulse to assert that language is essentially metaphorical. 12 It anticipates later notions of language as a system in which signs relate primarily to each other, with the massive qualification that it reserves a privileged place for creative will, albeit a will so paradoxically conceived and presented as often to seem a function of expression rather than the source of it — at any rate, not a matter of individual will. One totalisation readily takes the place of another, and so language as the expression of spirit readily gives way to total, machine-like conceptions of language, which accordingly surface in linguistics. 13
6. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (1817), ed. George Watson (London: Dent, 1975), ch. 13. See also M.H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic theory and the critical tradition (Oxford: OUP, 1953), pp. 167-77.
7. See, for example,Toril Moi, Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism (Oxford: OUP, 2006), especially chs. 3 and 5, for an account of how idealism affected one writer.
8. This is partly because Coleridge's theory of organic creation and aspects of the novel are drawing upon a debate about vitalism and the life sciences. See, for example, Nicholas Roe, Ed., Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Sciences of Life (Oxford: OUP, 2001), and Marilyn Butler, introduction to Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (Oxford: OUP, 1994), pp. xv-xxi.
9. Andrew Sarris's The American Cinema (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1968) remains one of the clearest instances of this.
10. On structuralism's invocation of a super-Subject see Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: an Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983), pp. 121-2.
11. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651), ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge: CUP, 1996), part 1, ch. 4; Thomas Sprat, The History of the Royal Society (1667) ed. Jackson I. Cope and Harold Whitmore Jones (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959), first part; Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, A Tale of a Tub, The Battle of the Books, etc. (London: OUP, 1919), part 3, ch. 5.
12. See, for example, Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry (1821), rptd. in Duncan Wu, Ed., Romanticism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), especially p. 957, on the language of poets as 'vitally metaphorical'. As the essay as a whole makes clear, for Shelley language and even reality have an ultimately metaphorical character, even if it's only poets, in his extended sense of the term, who are capable of animating and remoulding that metaphoricity. It's because the work of poets thus impinges upon the terms in which entire cultures think, feel and express themselves that Shelley claims that they "are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" (p. 969).
13. See Roy Harris, The Language Machine (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987).