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634 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY 35:4 OCTOBER 199 7 Jere Paul Surber. Language and German Idealism: Fichte's Linguistic Philosophy. Adantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1996. Pp. x + 19o. Cloth, $55.00. In 1795, as his first contribution to Niethammer's PhilosophischesJournal, Fichte composed an essay "On the Linguistic Capacity and the Origin of Language." Despite the recent revival of interest both in post-Kantian philosophy and in eighteenth-century debates over the origin of language, Fichte's essay has languished in obscurity. It has not been included in recent translations from Fichte's early corpus, and it has been almost entirely overlooked by those who have attempted to recount the history of the emergence of modern linguistics. The reasons for this relative neglect are perhaps not far to seek. As Jere Surber admits at the outset of this study, the essay makes a "disappointing first impression" (4). Though it dates from Fichte's most revolutionary and influential period (the first published version of his Wissenschaftslehreappeared in 1794-95 ) it seems to navigate an all-too-conventional route along the already wellworn pathways of the eighteenth-century debates. But first appearances can be misleading , and Surber's study makes the case that Fichte's neglected essay is a work of both philosophical and historical significance. By the last decade of the eigteenth century, the debates over the origin of language had been underway for some time. (It had already been over twenty years since the Berlin Academy had made this the topic of its prize essay, prompting Herder's wellknown winning entry.) The main line of demarcation in the dispute separated the naturalists from the supernaturalists: while the latter argued for the divine origin of language, the former sought out a natural origin. But the most vehement disputes raged among the naturalists themselves. Some argued that language originated in the imitation of natural sounds, while others looked to the natural propensity to produce vocal expressions of emotions. Both of these two camps (the "bow wow" and the "boo hoo" theories) were opposed by the contractualists, who insisted that genuine language appeared only with emerging agreements to use arbitrary signs to advance common interests. Though Fichte's essay may initially seem to be simply another entry on the naturalist side of this dispute (a speculative narrative about how primitive human beings might have come by language without divine assistance), Surber argues that it in fact constitutes a significant departure in at least three respects. First, despite its resemblance to the naturalists' narratives, Surber shows that Fichte's essay is better seen as an attempt to develop a third approach--an alternative to both naturalism and supernaturalism . On Fichte's "transcendental-genetic" approach (34), the genetic narrative is not intended to recount a "likely story" as to how language "might have emerged." It is rather, in Fichte's words, an attempt to "deduce the necessity of this invention from the nature of human reason" (119). For Fichte this means using the genetic narrative to explore the consequences of the fundamental principles of human subjectivity established in the Wissenschaflslehre. Secondly, Fichte's analysis is original--and indeed in this respect represents an important precedent--by clearly separating two distinct problems associated with the origin of language. On the one hand an account of language must provide a general analysis of signs (what would later be called a semiot- BOOK REVIEWS 635 ics); on the other hand it must account for the structure of specifically linguistic signs (a linguistics). In separating these two issues, Surber claims, Fichte both opens the door for and anticipates the developments of modern linguistics. Finally, Fichte's account of language is perhaps most unusual in the role it assigns to writing. Whereas his contemporaries had treated speech as the primary form of language and had viewed writing as merely a derivative form, Fichte explicitly rejects this view, and insists that written signs must be treated as having a fundamental place in the emergence of audible language. Surber clearly enjoys pointing out the extent to which this feature of Fichte's account disrupts post-structuralist preconceptions both about German Idealism and about the history of philosophical accounts...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 634-635
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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