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.

Can you teach counterintuitive-thinking?

I recently read a portion of Thomas Browne’s famous Religio Medici that had me thinking of Seinfeld. The mid-seventeenth century text contains the following passage:

[…] I feele not in me those sordid, and unchristian desires of my profession, I doe not secretly implore and wish for Plagues, rejoyce at Famines, revolve Ephemerides, and Almanacks, in expectation of malignant Aspects, fatall conjunctions, and Eclipses: I rejoyce not at unwholsome springs, nor unsea- sonable Winters; my prayer goes with the Husbandmans; I desire every thing in its proper season, that neither men nor the times bee out of temper. Let mee be sicke my selfe, if sometimes the malady of my patient bee not a disease unto me, I desire rather to cure his infirmities than my own necessities, where I doe him no good me thinkes it is scarce honest gaine, though I confesse ’tis but the worthy salary of our well-in- tended endeavours: I am not onely ashamed, but heartily sorry, that besides death, there are diseases incureable, yet not for my owne sake, or that they be be- yond my art, but for the generall cause & sake of humanity whose common cause I apprehend as mine own […]

Browne implies what a perfect society looks like: not one in which no one gets sick, but one in which those who get sick also happen to be doctors and people carrying expert knowledge about the exact symptoms they then experience. So doctor’s still pay house visits, only they can also stay in bed because they’re the ones sick.

This is a very deft bit of dialectical or counterintuitive thinking. Generally, utopian discourses are based on purgation and exclusion: sicknesses are banished, suffering takes a holiday, longevity reigns (as though the miseries of life would be solved if everyone simply lived longer; hence utopian fiction’s tendency to devolve into dystopian fiction, and visa versa). But here Browne collapses time and space and the cultural divide between doctor and patient to envision a perfect society: What if only lawyers got divorced? Toothaches plagued only those practicing dentistry? It’s still wishful thinking, but it avoids the obvious utopia of envisioning illness gone altogether, or heartbreak, or the sadness of toothaches. Society is not absurdly error-free, just hilariously efficient.

In a silly way, this is reminiscent on Seinfeld joke about opposites:

Waitress : Tuna on toast, coleslaw, cup of coffee.

George : Yeah. No, no, no, wait a minute, I always have tuna on toast. Nothing’s ever worked out for me with tuna on toast. I want the complete opposite of on toast. Chicken salad, on rye, untoasted … and a cup of tea.

Elaine : Well, there’s no telling what can happen from this.

Jerry : You know chicken salad is not the opposite of tuna, salmon is the opposite of tuna, ‘cos salmon swim against the current, and the tuna swim with it.

George : Good for the tuna.


Buried beneath the joke is the claim that there is no natural opposite; no official opposite (perhaps the “official” opposite reflected in illness/no-illness is what Hegel means by conventional wisdom, or meinung, in Phenomenology of Spirit). The notion of opposite presents the illusion of unity when in fact its construction is equally chaotic and arbitrary and tenuous. The opposite of tuna could be “a nut”, because of the conventions of American spelling; or the opposite of tuna could be a salad made from a rusty hook; or the opposite of tuna salad for lunch would be to skip the midday meal altogether and begin fasting in the hopes that this will alleviate your spiritual malaise (malaise, by the way, goes great on a tuna salad sandwich); on and on and on. The nonlinearity of these plausible opposites illustrate that behind every notion of “opposite” is a perspective, a point of view, a particular vantage point that constructs a supposed unity from the immense difference that we identify as opposition; all the while opposition as such is never a given, even if obvious, its truth is faulty. To my mind, opposition in this way shares an ontology with hypocrisy insofar as, qua themselves, neither concept actually exists (they operate as adjectives, all the while we want them to be nouns).

I am left wondering whether this sense of counterintuitive-thinking, or counter-intuition (I want to write: counterintuity) be taught? It can certainly be modeled, and if it can be modeled, then it can be posed as something important, imitatively valued. If as it seems this is a case where the practice – the thing in the doing of it – is what it is, rather than some produced sum, then emphasizing when writers and artists and thinkers practice their counterintuitive art seems to be important (meanwhile: What’s the relation between counter-intuition and invention?). So often the summative So what? in all the Humanities seems to homogenize across disciplines and dilute into the vagaries of platitudes and solipsistic sloganeering, like: “Find what it is for you,” or: “Discover your path,” (in an absolute butchering of Frost).

Instead, I think allowing students to live will best educational summations of all kinds. Education cannot incorporate lives without allowing for their being lived out, not in a potential sense but in an actual one, and for all students. This is the importance of stressing so-called critical thinking in pedagogical theory: it’s not that this thinking is more comprehensive, it’s that such skillsets encourage the whole life of the student to participate. Critical thinking is un-phone-in-able. In fact, critical thinking practiced habitually is not a even a skill but a social enterprise indistinguishable from “real world” (which so often is mistakenly suggested as the opposite of school).