Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s Threefold Process of Pre-Formal, Formal and Informal Period of Speech in the Development of Cultures

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Otto Kroesen:

“What Spengler identifies as original inspiration in rural life, he would only allow for as the pre-formal period of history, in which people are at the receiving end of all kinds of influences, but haven't received yet their marching order in history, the "imperative", which responds to their sense of urgency in the middle of a crisis. This period, called by him "formal speech" constitutes a high time in history, a crisis, a revolution, in which new solutions are found and Rosenstock-Huessy describes the national histories of the European peoples in this way, i.e. as instances in which during a time of crisis a new language begins to be spoken, a new order of law is established, and a new type of man is called into being (to mention some exemplary keywords: for the Germans freedom of conscience, for the French freedom of the press and public opinion, for the English "public spirit" coming to expression in parliamentarism). In his sociological work he approaches the history of the whole human race in the same way. It always means, that old ways of life can only be saved (and translated into new circumstances) by new inspiration. This new inspiration first means a rupture, doing away with old and petrified ways of speech, and introducing new human qualities and historical achievements, but after the new achievements have become articulated enough, the old heritage is called back to life and integrated into the new life form. And it often appears that the older life form can unfold even better, if it is not left to its own inner dynamics, but is both relativized and confirmed by other ones. Cultures just like human beings need other ones to save them from their one-sidedness.

Decisive for Rosenstock-Huessy is the formal speech or the moment of what he calls "revelation" in the middle, in which a new group or community is constituted by the fact, that it receives a new destination and for that reason determination, a new approach to reality, which after its original outburst gradually evolves in all kinds of cultural and technical ramifications. The pre-formal phase of speech refers to the situation of crisis, in which old ways of handling things didn't work anymore, but couldn't be done away with either, because decadent forces were still too powerful, and there was no "solution", no alternative. The formal phase of speech is the phase in which a new love, a new belief makes itself felt, a new language is spoken, relationships are reordered, new "methods" to deal with problems. Revolution is first and evolution follows. After the phase of "formal speech", in which a new imperative is heard, gradually speech can become more informal. Holy words and forceful inspirations become institutionalized and secularized and lowered their voice. Where for instance patriotism was a word for which the French were prepared to die in the time of the high inspiration of the French Revolution, gradually it has become a normal fact of life: every human being born in France receives a French passport.

But the heat of inspiration, the imperative, a new love and belief is in the middle of the whole process! The human soul is affected by a moral and spiritual rupture, arising both from a sense of misery and urgency, both from a break with the past and an involvement in an unarticulated and uncertain future. This break or disruption in the human soul, existentially saying no to the past because of moral indignation and at the at the same time vulnerable to a new future is both the end and the beginning of an era. It is a rupture with the past, but this rupture is also the connection point and the translation point between one period of time and the next period of time. At the moment of the imperative or (in religious terms) "revelation" the human person stands naked and is subject to crisis, without refuge, and in the process becomes revealed to himself as well, since he doesn't know where the new road will lead him, and he is a surprise to himself. Real progress consists in this process - if a crisis can at the same time be a process - of moral and spiritual growth to higher levels of sensibility and sense.”


More information

Rosenstock-Huessy, Eugen - Origin of Speech, Argo Books, Vermont, 1981.