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Is Locke the Key?

From Locke to Saussure: Essays on the Study of Language and Intellectual History

by Hans Aarsleff
University of Minnesota Press, 422 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Philology: the generally accepted comprehensive name for the study of the word (Greek, logos), or languages; it designates that branch of knowledge which deals with human speech, and with all that speech discloses as to the nature and history of man.” Here there is the strong presumption that speech itself—not what we say, but how we speak—will teach us about our nature or even our past. I quote the words with which the first great American scholar of language, William Dwight Whitney (1827-1894), began an immense article on philology for the Encyclopedia Brittanica. The article was carried until the 1926 edition, but then philology itself faded away. The Encyclopedia would soon be writing, “Philology: a term now rarely used but once applied to the study of language and literature…. See Linguistics.” It is not just a word, “philology,” that has been dismissed, but a whole way of thinking.

Such reversals occur more regularly in the study of language than in most other research. They reflect, or bring about, changes in ideas about human nature itself. Whitney was a revolutionary, a leader of the so-called neogrammarians. To many of us nowadays the only radical change in linguistic analysis is that begun by Noam Chomsky around 1955. In fact it is one of many. Chomsky wrote his own historical tract, Cartesian Linguistics, to link his approach with a rationalist tradition which, he thought, had long been moribund. He ends by saying that “the discontinuity of development of linguistic theory has been quite harmful to it.”

Yet despite the discontinuities in thought about language—far more numerous than Chomsky tends to imply—there has at a deeper level been a strange continuity. It is the idea that there is a branch of knowledge, rooted in reflection on language, which will “disclose” something fundamental about the “nature and history” of mankind. Whitney’s definition, with which I began, transcends his and every other school. Sometimes the theme declares itself as a fascination with the evolution of specific historical languages. Sometimes it is a priori speculation about the nature of Language as a human practice. Chomsky considers himself a student of the human mind. It is a general truth that students of language in every era try to colonize some or all of the other human sciences.

For an earlier example, John Locke’s 1690 Essay Concerning Human Understanding is often read as a theory of language. Even people who, like myself, do not read it that way, know that Book III (of four books) is called simply On Words. Locke became the model of rationality for prerevolutionary France. His conception of the human mind became paramount. He had written a theory about how the child, and then the adult, gradually constructs a store of ideas from the sensations, thoughts, and experiences that confront it, and from the social interactions that it undergoes. Not surprisingly his French followers came to be called idéologues, of whom the most famous is Condillac (1715-1780). In like manner the Parisian structuralists of a few years ago took the phonetics and the posthumously published Cours de linguistique générale of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) as the model for every kind of human science—from myth to kinship structures, from the symbolism of fashion magazines to the organization of the subconscious.

Hans Aarsleff has called his collection of essays From Locke to Saussure. Given the way in which linguistics tends to capture other aspects of human nature and behavior, he can well claim, as his subtitle tells us, that he writes not only about language but also about the ways in which the human mind and human nature have been conceived in the past. Yet the very pretensions of linguistics turn such a history of ideas into a battleground. Historians of physics often disagree angrily about some old science, but seldom do they suppose that the outcome of their debate bears on today’s army of workers in quantum electrodynamics. When historians of language fall out, as likely as not they separate over what the study of language ought to be. In a field pitted with revolutions great and small, almost any present view can find an illustrious precursor. Aarsleff’s own studies are doubly interesting. He challenges a lot of established history of theorizing about language. He does so on the basis of his own idea of how we ought, nowadays, to think about language. I’ll first describe some of his revisions of history, and then take a look at how he thinks about language itself.

From Locke to Saussure is a sequence of essays written over the past twenty years. In his important new introduction, Aarsleff shows us that there is a cohesion of themes and a chronological development over a couple of centuries that make the essays a plausible substitute for the book that he could have written. In 1960 he completed a doctoral dissertation later published as The Study of Language in England, 1780-1860. The present essays form a more sophisticated successor volume. They include much earlier English material, including work that leads up to Locke. There is a dicussion of Leibniz’s reading of Locke on language, and an important vignette of Leibniz, the world’s greatest all-purpose thinker, doing etymology. The chief topic of these essays, however, concerns a later period. Aarsleff is fascinated by the French eighteenth century connection, a connection that he takes to be vastly more important than the German philology that comprises many an old-fashioned history of linguistics.

Aarsleff is against the following story, which has two connected branches. First, the Sanskrit texts made available in the late eighteenth century became the basis of a great conjecture on the origins of the Indo-European languages and their connections with Sanskrit. The true founder of scientific philology was Franz Bopp (1791-1867). From the time of his first major publication in 1819 there appeared phalanx after phalanx of memorable German philologists. Even though Bopp first wrote about Sanskrit conjugation, his motive was to display the history of human languages and to disclose the conceptual organization of the peoples whose languages come into being at different stages of that history.

The second branch of this story may well be what made the first one possible. It involves the conception that one language cannot appropriate the thought of another, for each language constitutes the mode of life of the people who speak it. Commonly this thought is located in a 1770 prize-winning essay by Herder (1744-1803). Fierce arguments about the origins of language prompted the Berlin Academy to stage the contest. Herder’s essay crytalized one notion beginning to circulate at that time. It has germs of a certain “linguistic relativity” that makes each language peculiar to its own dense net of culture and practice. This idea is said to find fruition in the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), whose literary productions matter, but whose educational reforms were of even greater consequence, because they created an institutional home for philology. For several decades there was no nobler German career than that of philologist.

Aarsleff is iconoclastically inclined to see this flowering of German philology as a retrograde anomaly. Humboldt himself did not stay long in Prussian government service, but that autocratic regime found in philology a safe conservative pastime that would cool the revolutionary fires of language study. It deliberately stifled the great tradition of prerevolutionary French thought, and the French, scarred by Terror and war, themselves denounced their past. But they finally brought it back to life in the 1860s and the new wave culminates in Saussure, who gave his course in linguistics at Geneva around the turn of the century. Where a conventional history might tell of Saussure importing German philology to Paris, he must be seen, says Aarsleff, as part of a revival of French Lockeism.

Aarsleff systematically finds a French origin for anything German that he likes. Did Herder win the 1770 Berlin Academy prize in a competition to explain the origin of human language? Yes, but that problem had been brought to Prussia by Maupertuis, in a form that owed much to Condillac, the great French Lockeist. Bopp is said to have inaugurated the first properly historical conception of language as an evolving entity; yet according to Aarsleff his inspiration was the French founder of paleontology, Cuvier, who by 1790 had been saying that languages contain fossilized remains of dead cultures. Far from Humboldt’s mind being formed by a reading of Herder, Herder had no great influence on him at the time. Humboldt acquired his general approach from his Parisian sojourn at the end of the 1790s. As for the “neogrammarian” Whitney whom I began by quoting, we usually attribute to him the idea that language is a social institution. Not so, says Aarsleff. The French philologist Michel Bréal (1832-1915) worked out all that earlier and better, and is the source of Saussure’s elaboration of that theme.

Evidently Aarsleff as historian of ideas is keenly interested in lines of filiation—who got what from whom. He is not one of those who see great jumps or breaks in human thought. I myself think there is much to be said for such mutations, but I welcome tales of filiation too. We need several genres of inteliectual history. Aarsleff’s information about the French roots of the Berlin prize essay of 1770 is important. It is wise to connect both Humboldt and Saussure to a Lockeist tradition. We really must correct the facile assignment of Locke to the “empiricist” camp and Descartes to the “rationalist” one: indeed the sin of the Lockeist idéologues was not subservience to sensation but placing too great a faith in the powers of reason.

But it is sad that Aarsleff spoils his essays by a certain peevishness. Time and again we are told that other scholars are on the wrong track, have not read the relevant books, and so forth. Had he reworked these essays he might have dropped their sometimes querulous tone. He tends to claim that he has found the core truth when instead he is rounding out a complex story with important filiations that have too long been ignored. Indeed by now, as the essays are reprinted, the impact of French ideas on the rising Prussian intellect is more familiar than Aarsleff allows. Conversely, the hand-in-hand development of German philology and philosophy is vastly more indigenous than Aarsleff admits. Hegel, for example, knew the French Enlightenment well, but that is hardly the source of his doctrine (in 1807) of language as an “outer reality,” as the “existence of Geist” and as something that is not only essentially social but that makes possible certain transformations and alienations within the social order.

Hegel has no place in Aarsleff’s book. Locke is everywhere. We come to realize that Aarsleff’s almost obssessive history is governed not just by a desire to get the facts right, but by a dedication to the Lockeist tradition itself.

Agreeing with Condillac and Saussure that language is the first human and social institution,” he writes in his introduction, “I wish to restore the study of language to its rightful place in human history.” He had to emphasize the social aspect at a time when Chomsky was urging that so much structure is innate and prior to socializing. But Aarsleff is preoccupied by a less recent past. By 1860 philologists had begun to call their discipline a natural science, claiming that languages evolve by laws of their own, autonomous laws like those of biology that have little to do with human agents.

Against this Aarsleff’s hero is Michel Bréal, who (before Whitney) tried to restore the idea of language as a rational social product of self-conscious agents. That takes us back to Locke’s own individualistic view of the human mind. Aarsleff writes:

We are forced to assume that there is a demonstrable connection, a course of coherence, that links Locke, Humboldt and Saussure. Locke’s double conformity thesis is the theme which in one way or another informs all the essays in this collection.

Double conformity” is Locke’s phrase. Locke insists that words do not directly name or conform to things. Instead names signify ideas, in the mind, which may then conform to things or events or facts in the world. Sure enough, one famous bit of Saussure fits this pattern. The French in particular make great play on Saussure’s duality of linguistic signs with their “signifier” and “signified,” where what is signified is not the thing, or what is referred to in the world, but rather an idea which may be shared among people, and whose provenance is part of our social history.

Locke’s Essay began with an attack on innate ideas. We usually read this as an argument against Cartesians, but Aarsleff argues that Locke is opposing “Adamism”: the notion that there is one original language, the true language, the philosophical language, possessed by Adam. Adamism may even claim that by recovering the original language we shall come to the truth of God and the world. Locke insists that language is conventional and Adamism impossible. Indeed, says Aarsleff, he sowed seeds of linguistic relativism.

I found this a bit thin: Hobbes had distinguished the natural and the conventional signs fifty years earlier (not to mention Plato’s Cratylus). I don’t think Hobbes cared about Adamism one way or the other. As for Locke’s linguistic relativism, we seem forced to rely upon sentences of his like, “Because change of customs and opinions bringing with it new combinations of ideas, which it is necessary frequently to think on and talk about, new names, to avoid long descriptions, are annexed to them.” That is, however, a far cry from the relativism of Herder or Humboldt, for whom the whole point is that no long description could appropriate for us an alien idea. The concepts of another culture, art, or religion, they taught, are not combinations of simpler ideas but free-standing notions that make sense only within the social order that gives rise to them.

But if we grant a whiff of relativism in Locke’s Essay, Aarsleff’s antagonism to German philology falls into place. Philology for him is Adamism in a new key, a search for the origin of all our languages, all our cultures. One of Aarsleff’s pet hates is the “Victorian sage” whose exemplar is Carlyle. The hallmark of the sage is, for Aarsleff, not his vast and slightly kinky learning but the hope that by mastering etymologies of words we shall better understand the things that they denote. Perhaps Aarsleff is right to think of the “sage” as the caricature of the philologist. But although the philologist may be as antiquarian as the Adamist, he is not seeking the nature of the things. Instead he will teach us how others (and then ourselves) have conceived of the world.

Aarsleff proudly declares himself against anachronism. To understand a text you must read all the minor writings that surround it. Aarsleff, like many another inquisitive scholar, has read a great many ephemera and woven them elegantly into his reading of major texts. But anachronism is a complex concept. Aarsleff gives every indication that he believes Locke’s double conformity thesis. He seems to believe in Locke’s ideas in the mind, the intermediaries between words and things. Such a belief will direct you to genuine lines of filiation, some of which are Aarsleff’s own discoveries. But suppose that, like myself, you regard the seventeenth and eighteenth-century “ideas” as something of a way-station? Suppose that you think that language is to be described by what we say and do, and that any private or mental use of language depends essentially upon public customs? Suppose that you no longer find any primary place for “ideas in the mind” and imagine that language can be comprehended as social product that forms us and commonly follows laws of which none of us is conscious? Suppositions like these are twentieth-century commonplaces, and very instructive they are too.

Those of us who make such suppositions will trace a tradition different from Aarsleff’s, neither more nor less anachronistic than his. We inevitably see a chain of real filiations that extends through the old German philologists and philosophers. That tradition increases the primacy of public discourse and the autonomy of language. Language is a social institution, yes—but not a social contract. Finally we not only replace the Lockeist way of ideas but make those mental objects, ideas, irrelevant to an understanding of human communication.

These two traditions are not incompatible. Saussure is a case in point. Aarsleff locates him in the nineteenth-century Lockeist revival. He even finds there an antecedent for Saussure’s distinction between langue and parole—between the impersonal structure of language and the speech acts of individuals. Yet consider how recent structuralist thought has venerated Saussure. In nearly all such work “double conformity” was scotched and the mental idea, meaning or concept, was dismissed. Acknowledge only the structure of uttered words and deeds done. Ignore the author: analyze only what is actually said. To honor Saussure as ancestor to this attitude is to take langue as an autonomous social product to which the individual human agent or consciousness is irrelevant. Language is not, on this view, a self-conscious artifact of rational social man. In short, Saussure is not placed in the tradition of the idéologues but in that of philology. French Lockeism and German philology are both traditions that pass through that great Swiss pioneer, Ferdinand de Saussure. Which of the traditions you emphasize will likely depend on your own present attitude to language.

Letters

Locke and Language October 7, 1982

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