From Adam to Aarsleff

Roy Harris

  • From Locke to Saussure: Essays on the Study of Language and Intellectual History by Hans Aarsleff
    Athlone, 422 pp, £18.00, May 1982, ISBN 0 485 30001 X

The modest title of Hans Aarsleff’s book From Locke to Saussure conceals, among other things, the fact that it goes a long way beyond Saussure. Its implications reach right down to linguistic controversies which continue unabated at the present day. The 14 essays presented in this volume undoubtedly include what must, by any standards, rank among the most stimulating writing on language and European thought to have been published during the past quarter of a century. It is lucid, informative, profound, provocative and well-argued. Throughout it manifests a breadth of reading and depth of erudition of formidable extent. What is more important still is that it must, if Aarsleff is right, radically alter our understanding of the intellectual history of modern linguistics. And that means our grasp of the world of ideas in which we live. Few will disagree with Aarsleff that the history of the study of language is both a legitimate subject in its own right and itself a contribution to our understanding of language. Indeed, the claim is understated. Some readers, among whom I include myself, would want to press a much stronger case for the importance of this particular subject: namely, that, for lack of understanding of its own ancestry, much of what passes for contemporary linguistics is in a state of deep-seated philosophical confusion.

Aarsleff confesses to the ambitious aim of wishing ‘to restore the study of language to its rightful place in intellectual history’. His concern is not the history of linguistics in the narrow sense, about which he has little good to say. One of his complaints is that the standard histories misrepresent the rise of modern linguistics, in particular the role of Saussure. What they offer is valid only if taken as ‘the internal history of an institutionalised professorial craft’. For Aarsleff, quite rightly, the history of linguistics is far more than this. To cut its very long story very short, Aarsleff’s book as a whole develops the following theme. The philosophical prolegomena to 20th-century linguistics has been grossly misunderstood. Worse still, it has been misrepresented through the abuse of such labels as ‘rationalist’ and ‘empiricist’ by later scholars seeking to bolster their own positions. The ground for this distortion was prepared in advance by the 19th century’s lack of sympathy with the ideas of the 18th. ‘Our chief problem with the 18th century,’ says Aarsleff, ‘is still the 19th century.’ Saussure’s intellectual indebtedness is to the tradition which goes back through the idéologues to Condillac in France and Locke in England. It is to that same tradition that Humboldt and Herder rightly belong. The new linguistics inaugurated by Saussure and Bréal (who comes out as a pioneer of greater stature than anyone has hitherto acknowledged) was a conscious reaction against the German-dominated pseudo-science of language foisted upon a gullible academic world by the more extravagant comparative philologists and ‘Victorian sages’ like Max Müller. The éminence grise of the new linguistics was none other than Taine. (This will come as a major surprise to today’s younger generation of theoretical linguists, many of whom have probably never read a word of Taine, or – is it too unkind to suggest? – even heard of him.) But it was probably from Taine that Saussure got the key concept of valeur, the corresponding doctrine of the linguistic sign, and even the famous image of the recto and verso of a sheet of paper. Also appearing in Aarsleff’s cast of historical characters are celebrated figures such as Leibniz and Wordsworth, as well as more obscure ones like Destutt de Tracy and Thomas Sprat, historian of the Royal Society. In each case Aarsleff never fails to say something interesting or to bring out some nuance in the part they played as contributors to the thread of history he is trying to follow through.

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