Humboldt contra Saussure

On the advice of Andrea Wulf, whose The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World makes for stellar reading, I’ve been pouring over the German polymath’s seminal texts, namely Cosmos, Views of Nature, and Essay on the Geography of Plants. Wulf wonderfully weaves not just a kind of “Greatest Hits” of the once-infamous, since-obscured writer/thinker but delves deeply into his dense works (it helps that they are evocative and poetic to begin with) – including mentioning his theories on language. Besides Simon Winchester, who turned the history of the OED first into a British caper film a la The League of Gentlemen or X-men and then a Gothic murder mystery, I don’t know other bestsellers who openly discuss semiotics for pages and pages. More to the point: I’ve read a great many of those 20th century theories of language in vogue after the second World War, and I can’t recall a single mention of von Humboldt (even from the French, who happily hosted him even while Bonaparte was lobbing cannons at his Austro-Hungarian Empire!).

Something Wulf fails to mention explicitly (though perhaps it is the reason why she couldn’t just fail to drop the subject altogether) is that von Humboldt’s theories of language appear throughout his works; they are sporadic, but consistently sporadic.

Here are some of the heaviest sections from the introduction of Volume II of Cosmos (representing his later work from 1844, but which I randomly read first; cool fact from Wulf: he debated naming the book Gaia, especially ironic considering Wulf and other Humboldt scholars have indicated that the “pre-Darwinian Darwinist” suggested the Gaia theory of a living Earth a full +125 years before it caused a rage amongst environmentalists in the 1970s, where it is still customary to direct attribution):

Exploded errors may survive partially among the uneducated, aided in some instances by an obscure and mystic phraseology: they have also left behind them many expressions by which our nomenclature is more or less disfigured; while a few of happier, though figurative origin, have gradually received more accurate definition, and have been found worthy of preservation in our scientific language.

In a far more interesting way that I am accustomed to reading – and, importantly I think, without using the terms – he is talking about dialects, regionalisms, and slang. He continues:

That which sense grasps but imperfectly offers a free field to creative fancy; the outward impressions change with the changing phases of the mind; and this without destroying the illusion, by which we imagine ourselves to receive from external nature? that with which we have ourselves unconsciously invested her.

This is, to my recollection, a much more dynamic dialectical observation than Ferdinand de Saussure. The Swiss structuralist simply argued (and much later) that there’s no internal logic to a word referring to a thing; signifiers are relational to other signifiers in a linguistic system and not to the external world of contingencies (remember: from de Saussure we get the surrealistic, anarchical interplay of signifier and signifier à la Duchamp). Humboldt, too, is no essentialist, however he sees language not akin to a priori reason or something mechanical that ultimately has no meaningful interplay with the natural world (after all, he writes further on in the introduction, “[t]he impression produced by the grandest scenes of nature does not depend exclusively on height;” here, like Saussure he severs the external world from its cultural overdeterminacy). Rather, the functionality of language ignores (or has amnesia about) just how intimately connected it is to the signified (but not in positivist or predetermined ways). What he is articulating is very delicate and even circuitous and sounds kind of mystical (he even uses the term), but I think he’s trying to say, building on Kant and The Critique of Pure Reason, that human language has a role in natural world: this is a radical idea even today, let alone in 1844.

His clearest articulation of his “organic structure” of language is the conclusion to the introduction:

Words, therefore, are more than signs and forms; and their mysterious and beneficent influence is there most powerfully manifested, where the language has sprung spontaneously from the minds of the people, and on its own native soil.