There is a more instrumental thesis that tries to explain the evolution of words and this shifting of sense. It treats them as soulless signs that gain meaning from human empirical experience, and human empirical experience alone.
It insists that, at root, words are just labels for objects, or to put it a little more specifically, they refer to entities that are detected by our senses.
Jeremy Bentham clearly believed this: “In a word, our ideas coming, all of them, from our senses, from what other source can the signs of them – from what other source can our language – come?” Bentham clearly didn’t consider the spiritual, inside of reality to be a valid source.
A more recent formulation of the approach is found in the influential book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By. They argue that words initially come from the physical experience of having a body and living in an embodied environment, which is to say, again, that words spring from our senses.
They could cite many possible examples. Take “right” and “wrong” that come from the Latin rectus, referring to a straight muscle, and the Germanic word wrangh meaning sour or tart, respectively. This thesis would say that the inner, and now ordinary, meaning of “right” and “wrong” relate directly to what our senses tell us about certain physical experiences. And there is clearly something in it. If something is right, we are still quite likely to straighten our muscles and sit up as we take notice. If something is wrong, we may well first detect it as we half think, “that just doesn’t smell right”.
Where these theories differ from Barfield’s is in arguing that words do not discover any reality beyond the human, the empirical, the physical.
Lakoff and Johnson, alongside Bentham, conclude that words fabricate immaterial and felt worlds by making inventive but essentially artificial inferences. They would say that our use of words constructs our inner or mental experience of life, but tells us little or nothing about the inner nature of reality, which it’s assumed is basically material, not spiritual.
In that domain, there is no “inner” to be uncovered.
But Barfield belongs to the school that does not simply except that nature is dead because, in truth, words are “a reminder of the time that mind and nature were not thought of as contrary entities,” nature writer, Richard Mabey, avers. He noticed similar links and continues, words are “allusions to how things came to be, and a confirmation of the unity of life.”
There is a correspondence between our inner lives and the inner life of the cosmos. As Barfield put it: “Consciousness is not a tiny bit of the world stuck onto the rest of it. It is the inside of the whole world.”