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The evolution of language and society

By Avi Lifschitz

We might have grown skeptical about our cultural legacy, but it is quite natural for us to assume that our own cognitive theories are the latest word when compared with those of our predecessors. Yet in some areas, the questions we are now asking are not too different from those posed some two-three centuries ago, if not earlier.

One of the most topical questions in today’s cognitive science is the precise role of language in the brain and in human perception. Further disciplines, such as anthropology and evolutionary biology, are concerned with the emergence of language: How is it that homo sapiens is the only species possessing such a complex syntactic and sematic tool as human language? What is the relationship between human language and animal communication? Could there be any bridge between them, or are they of categorically different orders, as seems to be suggested by Noam Chomsky’s views?

Such questions stood at the very centre of a fascinating debate in eighteenth-century Europe. From Riga to Glasgow and from Berlin down to Naples, Enlightenment authors asked themselves how language could have evolved among initially animal-like human beings. Some of them suggested some continuities between bestial and human communication, though most thinkers pointed to a strict barrier separating human language from vocal and gestural exchange among animals. In broad lines, this period witnessed a transition from an earlier theory of language, which saw our words as mirroring self-standing ideas, to the modern notion that signs are precisely what enables us to form our ideas in the first place. Such signs had, however, to be artificially crafted by human beings themselves; after all, natural sounds and gestures are also used by animals.

According to various eighteenth-century thinkers, this transition from natural communication to artificial or arbitrary signs was the prerequisite for the creation of complex human interrelations and mutual commitments — in short, the basis for the creation of human society as we know it, with its political structures, economic relations, and artistic endeavours. In this sense, the language debates in eighteenth-century Europe highlighted a crucial problem in Enlightenment thought: how to think of the transition from a natural form of life (frequently conceptualized as a ‘state of nature’) to an artificial or man-made social condition (usually referred to as ‘civil society’). Language was a much more significant topic in Enlightenment thought than hitherto suggested.

Furthermore, the idea that all distinctive forms of human life are based on artificial signs has been regarded as a main tenet of the Counter-Enlightenment, a relativistic and largely conservative movement which Isaiah Berlin contrasted to a universalistic French Enlightenment. By contrast, that awareness of the historicity and linguistic rootedness of life was a mainstream Enlightenment notion.

This last point means that even if the eighteenth-century discussions of language and mind were quite similar to ours, particular nuances and approaches were moulded by contemporary concerns and contexts. The open and malleable character of the eighteenth-century Republic of Letters is found in a wide variety of authors: Leibniz, Wolff, Condillac, Rousseau, Michaelis, and Herder, among others. The language debates demonstrate that German theories of culture and language were not merely a rejection of French ideas. New notions of the genius of language and its role in cognition were constructed through a complex interaction with cross-European currents, especially via the prize contests at the Berlin Academy.

Avi Lifschitz is Lecturer in Early Modern European History at University College London (UCL); in 2012/13 he is Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study (Wissenschaftskolleg) in Berlin. He is the author of Language and Enlightenment: The Berlin Debates of the Eighteenth Century, available in print from Oxford University Press and online from Oxford Scholarship Online, and co-editor of Epicurus in the Enlightenment (2009).

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Image credit: Portrait of Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), German philosopher, circa 1700, by Christoph Bernhard Francke. Herzog-Anton-Ulrich-Museum, Braunschweig. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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