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

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 7, Number 2, October 1983
pp. 253-257 | 10.1353/phl.1983.0001

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From Locke to Saussure: Essays on the Study of Language and Intellectual History, by Hans Aarsleff; ? & 422 pp. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982, $29.50 cloth, $12.95 paper. Discussed by Francis Sparshott In the articles collected but not collated in this volume, Aarsleff undertakes to revise what he takes to be a uniformly distorted tradition of the history of the philosophy of language. A bewildering array of theses is advanced and vigorously supported. Perhaps the main contention is that the philosophy of language is essentially a product of French thought in die seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and that its history has been systematically distorted by two forces: seventeenth-century English and nineteenth-century German cultural chauvinism, and "nineteenth-century" mystification in reaction against "eighteenth-century" enlightenment (in the latter connection, the nineteendi century appears to end in 1840 but surfaces again later in such manifestations as A. C. Fraseras edition of Locke). AarslefPs easiest target is Noam Chomsky's ignorant projection into the past of polemic, in the name of innate ideas, against the associationism ofB. F. Skinner and empiricist linguistics in general. This led Chomsky to invent a "Cartesian" school of linguistics (though none of his contemporaries thought of Descartes as a significant figure in this area), in which the most significant event is Humboldt's rediscovery of universal grammar, in opposition to a Germamic "origin-of-language" school based on associationist principles and tracing its origins to Locke. Aarsleff traces Chomsky's errors to a total ignorance of Condillac's writings, which were the acknowledged basis of the movements he misunderstands and misrepresents but which have been systematically edited out of the Germanophile propaganda which passes for the history of linguistics. At the root of the trouble is the misrepresentation of Locke as an "empiricist," a crude precursor of Hume for whom the mind is passive in the acquisition of 253 254Philosophy and Literature knowledge, a misrepresentation linked to Sprat's pretense diat die Royal Society of London, of which Locke was the spokesman, was a native outgrowth of Baconian empiricism. In reality, the Royal Society was formed under French influence on French models, and Locke thought of reason as an active power using language (a system of arbitrary signs) in its task of replacing arbitrary "nominal essences" by more useful ones. In attacking innate ideas, Locke was not attacking die power of reason but was rejecting the notion, dien current in religious circles, that one could recover a language originally revealed to Adam in which everything had a name that encapsuled its "real essence." The Leibnizian and Platonic claim that reason has powers that unfold themselves in the form of a priori knowledge under the stimulus of developing experience attacks nothing that Locke would defend. Paul of Leibniz's misunderstanding is due to his supposition mat Locke was a metaphysician instead of the practical epistemologist that is all he claimed to be. Condillac's streamlining of Locke sharpens die emphasis on language and poses two problems: what is the origin and basis of language (how could a being without language develop a language?), and what is the nature oflanguage (what grammatical properties do all languages share?)? Herder's prize essay, for whose originality such strong cladms have been made, was written in die context of a discussion in die Berlin academy, which was founded by Frenchmen, staffed mainly by Frenchmen, aind took its terms of reference from die school of Condillac. Humboldt's interest in linguistics, again, arose from his sojourn in Paris and the debates in progress diere. German philology in the early nineteenth century, dishonestly minimizing its debt to Sir WilliamJones, claimed to be the first true science oflanguage, but is a mere mystification, purporting to treat language as a self-sustaining orgatnism and ignoring its function ats a means of communication among human beings. The true path was rediscovered by Saussure, but his antecedents too were French: he was developing the insights of Bréal, whose contributions Germanophile historians of linguistic science have conspired to conceal. I hope I got some of diat more or less right. Like most people, as Aarsleff complains, I have been content in the past to pick up...