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.

Probably the most intriguing strand in Aarsleff’s story concerns the role played by Bréal, whom Saussure succeeded at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in 1881. Today Bréal is virtually forgotten, except as the man who coined the word sémantique. And even in semantics, a fair reflection of his current standing is provided by the fact that in 1977, almost a hundred years after Bréal’s baptismal act, the two volumes of Professor Lyons’s catholic survey Semantics contained only three passing references to Bréal in the course of more than eight hundred pages. What explains this almost total lapse into obscurity? Aarsleff does not tell us. There are clearly reasons other than the passage of time. Bréal’s reputation was eclipsed by that of Saussure, even though Meillet in 1915 ranked him with Saussure as joint founder of the French school of linguistics. But one cannot help suspecting that Bréal might have been just as well-known to posterity as Saussure if he had enjoyed Saussure’s good fortune in having devoted pupils and colleagues who were determined that his teaching should survive, and who set themselves the task of constructing the coherent synthesis which their master in his lifetime never attempted.

The fact of the matter is that it is now by no means easy for posterity to piece together Bréal’s theorising: partly because his own views developed over the years, partly because his terminology vacillates (but so – heaven help us – did Saussure’s), partly because, although he is not slow to criticise others for doing so, he is apt to express crucial concepts by means of metaphor or analogy, partly because he himself showed little inclination to follow through the implications of his most important ideas, and partly because he may not always have seen clearly what those implications were. In spite of all that, it remains fairly obvious what Bréal stood for in very general terms, and why it was important in its context. Aarsleff is right to say that Bréal’s sémantique was not just an extra subdivision of linguistics (on a par with phonology, morphology and syntax). Nor was it concerned with merely historical study. It is anachronistic to see him as the founder of ‘diachronic semantics’, although it is true that to a modern reader Bréal often seems to be interested in meaning chiefly inasmuch as it affects ‘etymology’. What is far from clear, however, is that when Bréal uses the term ‘etymological’ he is always using it in the way most present-day writers would: i.e. precisely in order to distinguish diachronic processes from synchronic processes.

To understand the positive side of Bréal’s thinking, it is essential to see it as the counterpart to what Aarsleff calls ‘his never-ceasing critique of the Bopp-Schleicher tradition’. What Bréal objected to most profoundly about that tradition was its attempt to assimilate linguistics to the natural sciences. For Bréal this was flying under false colours. Languages were not ‘natural organisms’. Bréal would doubtless have agree with Whitney that Max Müller was ‘one of the greatest humbugs of the century’, but he might well have qualified that by adding that Schleicher was an even greater one. Nor is it hard to guess who would have been his candidates for the greatest humbugs of 20th-century linguistics either. Bréal’s fundamental tenet was that ‘language has its seat in the intellect.’ Languages are ‘made by the agreement of many intellects, by the consent of many wills’. Aarsleff may be overstating the case when he says that Bréal’s sémantique is in fact a linguistique générale. But if not a linguistique générale, it is at least a prologue to one. The Essai de Sémantique, as I read it, takes the central question of linguistics to be ‘How does the human mind assign meanings to linguistic forms?’ The other question, ‘How do words change their meanings?’, is important only insofar as trying to answer it may help us to see how the first question might be answered.

Aarsleff points adroitly to the Saussurean implications of much of what Bréal says. However, to anyone who reads the relationship between Bréal’s ideas and Saussure’s in roughly the way I do, the big query which must remain is: why did Saussure in the end shirk Bréal’s question? That he had indeed shirked it the editors of the Cours de Linguistique Générale were uncomfortably aware, as their embarrassed footnote on Saussure’s failure to deal in detail with semantics testifies. That failure perhaps supplies as plausible a reason why Saussure never published his programme for linguistics as at least one other reason which has been suggested: that Saussure belatedly realised the logical inconsistency between his theory of synchronic linguistics, on the one hand, and his theory of diachronic linguistics, on the other.

Scattered through Aarsleff’s essays (somewhat repetitiously, but inevitably so and perhaps fortunately) are illuminating comparisons of facts and ideas. For example, the theory of ‘linguistic relativity’, nowadays associated by linguists primarily with the work of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, is shown to go back, not merely to Humboldt’s work on the Kawi language, but beyond Humboldt to Condillac and to Locke. It is this principle which informs Locke’s scepticism about the possibility of translating from one language into another. Thus even where languages appear to supply ready-made translation terms, Locke urges us not to be fooled by the apparent equivalences: ‘the Latin names hora, pes, libra are without difficulty rendered by the English names hour, foot and pound; but there is nothing more evident than that the ideas a Roman annexed to those Latin names were very far different from those which an Englishman expresses by those English ones.’

To avoid any possibility of misunderstanding on questions like this, perhaps it is worth just saying that no one – least of all Aarsleff – is claiming that Whorf cribbed the theory of linguistic relativity straight from Locke. What counted for far more with Whorf were his experiences in the American insurance business. Nor, equally, is anyone claiming that a careful exegesis of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding would discover Whorf’s theory lurking unsuspected behind that quaintly rambling prose. Tracing the history of an idea is not like tracing the history of the Koh-i-nor diamond. A diamond does not need a setting in order to be of value. Whereas an idea needs the setting provided by other ideas in order even to be recognisable, let alone to be seen as plausible. What the Locke-Condillac tradition provided was the setting for linguistic relativity. Linguistic relativity in its Whorfian form represents one extreme to which the view of language embodied in that tradition can, by gradual stages, be taken. And the stages are in this instance documentable. The link runs from Locke’s pronouncements on translation, through Condillac’s affirmation that ‘each language expresses the character of the people who speak it,’ to Michaëlis’s Berlin Academy essay ‘Von dem Einfluss der Meinungen in die Sprache und der Sprache in die Meinungen’. Later signposts along the same route are Humboldt’s assertion that ‘with objects man lives chiefly according to the manner in which language brings them to him,’ the Saussurean ‘un concept est une qualité de la substance phonique,’ and eventually Whorf’s ‘linguistically-determined thought world’. It is not altogether surprising that a tradition which set out with Locke to oppose nomenclaturism should end up by standing nomenclaturism upside down, and that what began as an attack on Biblical Adamicism should conclude with an alternative interpretation of the thesis that ‘in the beginning was the Word.’

On the intellectual links between England, France and Germany Aarsleff’s scholarship is at its most impressive. Condillac emerges as a key figure: ‘His influence is decisive, the issues he raised in the Essai first created the problem of the origin of language in its most powerful and philosophical form.’ It was Herder’s misunderstanding of the argument of Condillac’s Essai, of which he had never – Aarsleff argues – read the first part, which made Herder into one of the intellectual heroes of Romanticism. And it was post-Romantic scholarship which was responsible for perpetuating ‘the truly silly belief that Condillac ... was a mechanistic, materialist philosopher.’

One thing that clearly irritates Aarsleff beyond measure is the propagation of prejudiced and ill-informed views about the past, particular by those who ought to have made it their business to know better. He quotes with approval Koyré’s comment: ‘The mania of the search for “forerunners” has often falsified the history of philosophy beyond remedy.’ He is particularly severe on Chomsky for the latter’s misleading and ignorant interpretation of ‘Cartesian’ linguistics. Chomsky’s antipathy to Locke was based on a simple failure to grasp what Locke’s view of innate ideas actually was: or rather, a failure to find out. That is to say, there is room for doubt in Aarsleff’s mind as to whether Chomsky had in fact ever read Locke’s Essay. For the director of MIT’s witch-hunt against Behaviourism, it was simpler just to write Locke off as a Behaviourist avant la lettre. Aarsleff’s verdict is: ‘I do not see that anything at all useful can be salvaged from Chomsky’s version of the history of linguistics. That version is fundamentally false from beginning to end, because the scholarship is poor, because the texts have not been read ...’

It is a thousand pities that Aarsleff here fluffs the splendid opportunity he himself has created to point out the greatest irony in the whole story: namely, the intellectual mortgage which Chomskyan linguistics ultimately owes to the ideas of the much-despised philosopher of Christ Church. The irony is all the more piquant because it is this same crippling mortgage which has brought Chomskyan linguistics to its present state of near-bankruptcy. What the generativists borrowed initially was Saussure’s distinction between langue and parole. They rebaptised it as ‘linguistic competence’ v. ‘linguistic performance’. But they did not realise that Saussure’s distinction comes straight from the Lockean tradition. It is the distinction between words as ‘signs of ideas’ and words as ‘communication’. Furthermore, by comparing Saussure’s analysis of how language works with Locke’s we can see that certain features which survive as mysterious postulates in Saussure’s account originally had a justification in Locke’s.

For instance, Saussure (and, following him, the generativists) simply assumes that somehow or other speakers of a language have miraculously acquired access to a fixed system of verbal signs: i.e. some unique set of correlations between sound patterns and concepts. But how people manage to do this is a complete mystery. More specifically, it is a mystery nowadays shrouded in lots of metaphysical nonsense about ‘ideal speaker-hearers’ and hypothetically ‘homogeneous’ speech communities. Why? Because accepting this piece of mystification guarantees the disciplinary independence of a certain academic subject called ‘linguistics’. Locke, on the other hand, is guilty of no such charlatanry. He grants that if you postulate the establishment of a system of signs, then you incur an intellectual obligation to explain how your system could come into being. Locke’s answer – satisfactory or unsatisfactory as it may be – is contained in his theory of simple ideas and his theory of generalisation. But at least he gives an answer. Whereas by not giving an answer, and pretending that no answer was needed, the theorists of modern linguistics sought to protect the establishment of their discipline against fundamental criticisms.

To take another example which Aarsleff might with profit have discussed, Saussure never explains why the role he assigns to the hearer in speech communication is a purely passive one. This has been perpetuated in contemporary linguistics in the guise of an assumption that the knowledge required for being a competent hearer is identical with the knowledge required for being a competent speaker: hence the term ‘ideal speaker-hearer’. So whoever is a competent speaker is, by definition, a competent hearer. This mythical symmetry again goes back to Locke. Again in Locke it is grounded in a general theory of the understanding (of which understanding what people say is only one part). But neither Saussure nor any of his present-day successors offers anything comparable to Locke’s general theory of understanding which could validate the symmetry postulated.

Locke anticipated the need for a general science of signs which he called, after the Greek term, semiotike, and Saussure three centuries later called sémiologie. Both Locke and Saussure envisaged the study of words as falling within this more comprehensive investigation. But their motivations were different. For Locke, semiotike is a philosophical necessity, granted that ‘the things the mind contemplates are none of them, besides itself, present to the understanding.’ For Saussure, on the other hand, sémiologie is a kind of academic bonus, a framework within which it will become clear just how distinctive languages are as semiological systems.

Finally, it would have been worth emphasising the difference between Locke’s attack on nomenclaturism and Saussure’s, because that also highlights another facet of what modern linguistic theory owes to the Condillac-Locke tradition. Saussure, like the later Wittgenstein, identified a major source of error as being the notion that words are vocal labels for things antecedently ‘given’. Part One of the Cours de Linguistique Générale opens with a complete rejection of the view that languages are, or can be reduced to, simple nomenclatures. As Aarsleff points out, it can hardly be a coincidence that this attack seems to echo Locke’s rejection of the doctrine of ‘double conformity’ of words to ideas and to things. But the reasons behind the opposition to nomenclaturism are not the same in the two cases. Aarsleff portrays Locke as a kind of Epistemologist General to the founders of the Royal Society. Locke could not accept ‘double conformity’ because it favoured the widely-held 17th-century belief in ‘the Adamic language’ – and the Royal Society stood above all for disentangling the investigation of Nature from the investigation of words. (The Adamic language theory, as expressed by Bibliander in the 16th-century, held that ‘that language is the most perfect whose words explain the nature of things. Such as that language is believed to have been in which Adam imposed names on individual things.’) Saussure, however, had no Royal Society to support. What he was looking for was a way of disentangling the investigation of languages from all other kinds of investigation. A Lockean model provided Saussure with exactly what he needed. Nomenclaturism was not just a handy whipping-boy. If nomenclaturism survived, then the study of languages reduced eventually to a study of relations between words and things (as indeed it ultimately did with Bloomfield and the Behaviourists). For Saussure, nomenclaturism had to be discredited, not in order to justify the whole programme of experimental science, but in order to validate the autonomy of modern linguistics.

In Saussure’s case as in Locke’s, one gains the clearest insight into their views by considering not only what they were attacking but why. The paradox about Saussure’s position is that, having ostentatiously kicked the equivalent of the Adamic doctrine out of the front door, he let it in again by the back door with his distinction between what is ‘absolutely arbitrary’ in language and what is only ‘relatively arbitrary’. But that might be dismissed as what tennis commentators call an ‘unforced error’ in his game. The more basic defect in Saussure’s strategy for linguistics was already pointed out by clear-sighted critics in the 1920s. One cannot hope to divorce the study of languages from the study of what people talk about through language. For example, Ogden and Richards in 1923 criticised Saussure because his theory of signs ‘by neglecting entirely the things for which signs stand was from the beginning cut off from any scientific methods of verification’. The sad thing is that although this criticism was voiced more than fifty years ago, the linguistics of the 1980s has still not realised quite what it means.