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…

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