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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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The rediscovery of ancient literature, and concur-
rently with it, the opening up of new intellectual
horizons in the Renaissance both had effects on lan-
guage study. The subtleties of the Schoolmen were
discarded, the more willingly as they were formulated
in what the humanists considered as barbarous Latin.
Grammar again became ancillary to literature. More-
over, Greek again became necessary equipment for
scholars and gentlemen, and Hebrew was studied ex-
tensively. The Renaissance men refused to take the
medieval authorities on trust; they went back to the

At the same time interest in the popular languages
awakened all over Europe. In his De vulgari eloquentia
(ca. 1300) Dante made an impassioned plea for the
superiority of the mother tongue over the artificial
language of the clerics that was the Latin of the Middle
Ages. As more and more of the popular tongues of
Europe became literary languages, awareness of the
differences among the grammars also naturally in-

However, no really revolutionary advances were
made in linguistics by the humanists and their immedi-
ate followers, but there is a remarkable sanity and
soberness about much that was written. Thus J. J.
Scaliger published in 1599 a remarkably correct ac-
count of the languages of Europe and their relation
to each other. Also knowledge of the Hebrew language
led to a realization that the parts of speech theory of
antiquity might be called in question: Hebrew gram-
marians recognized only three parts of speech, noun,
verb, and particle. In phonetics progress was made by
the Englishman John Wallis, who published Grammat-
ica linguae anglicanae
in 1653. The attention to facts
and common sense rather than to authorities and meta-
physics was bearing fruit.

General Grammar. The chief result of the Renais
sance was not, strictly speaking, to give the moderns
access to the civilization of the ancients. It was, above
all, to make them realize how far the human spirit
might reach. The moderns began to emulate the an-
cients, and then tried to surpass them. In the seven-
teenth century it was clear to most that that goal had
been reached. Not because the moderns were better
men, but because, as Francis Bacon and others put it,
they were standing on the shoulders of their prede-
cessors. Anyhow, an era that produced philosophers
like Galileo, Descartes, and Newton did not have to
feel inferior to any that had come before. The achieve-
ment of these thinkers was their own, and not merely
an explication of the work of the ancients.

The Grammaire générale et raisonnée of the Port-
Royal School in Paris, written by Antoine Arnauld and
Claude Launcelot (1660), is a product of the same
independent spirit. The avowed object of the book is
to set forth what is common to all languages. It was
based on a thorough knowledge of Hebrew, Greek,
Latin, Romance languages, and German. This in itself
was new. Few previous grammarians had had such a
wide empirical base to work from. But even more
remarkable is the thoroughly independent approach to
the subject. The authors set out to explain language
by reference to the constitution of the human mind.
For the first time we meet with grammarians who draw
the proper linguistic consequences of Aristotle's insight
that though the words vary, the thoughts that they
stand for are common to all. The human mind is said
to have three fundamental operations: conceive, judge,
and reason. As reasoning consists in the comparison
of judgments, the first two operations are fundamental.
People “speak in order to express judgments, and the
judgments are made about things that they conceive.”
A judgment is normally expressed by means of a prop-
osition, and a proposition, such as “the earth is round,”
had two fundamental terms, the subject (the earth) and
the attribute (round). Moreover, there is the link or
copula (is) which predicates or “affirms” the attribute
of the subject.

There is little here that Aristotle had not said before.
But Aristotle never developed these ideas in linguistic
terms. Nor had the medieval Schoolmen done so. The
grammatica speculativa of the Modistae consisted es-
sentially in a superficial harmonizing of Priscianus and

The distinction between conceiving and judging is
essential for defining the verb, whose function, accord-
ing to the Port-Royal grammarians, is to affirm. It is
not, as all previous authorities had said, to mark time.
Tense is accidental, not essential to the verb. A lan-
guage need only contain a single verb, namely, the verb
is. All other verbs can be analyzed as containing is,


as a mark of affirmation, and in addition some attribute,
of whatever kind. He runs is as much as to say he is

Thus the Port-Royal grammarians based their lin-
guistic analysis squarely on sentence constituency. All
of their predecessors had tried to progress in the other
direction, by trying to build up the whole of their
syntax on the system of parts of speech. The Port-Royal
grammarians' approach was a new departure, and it
was to influence subsequent grammatical thinking in
many important respects.

Universal Language. Whereas the Port-Royal gram-
marians were concerned with laying bare the common
structure of actually existing languages, other thinkers
of the age went on from analysis to synthesis, attempt-
ing to construct a completely new, artificial language,
designed to serve as an ideal medium of communication
and thinking. Two men deserve mention above all
others: the English bishop John Wilkins, and the Ger-
man philosopher G. W. Leibniz.

Wilkins published in 1668 a large volume entitled
An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical
under the auspices of the Royal Society.
Wilkins' “real character” is a kind of ideographic
script, constructed on completely rational principles,
and hence maximally systematic. (Wilkins explicitly
contrasted it with the Chinese script in this respect.)
He introduced some forty main characters, represent-
ing the main fields of human experience. Each of these
is further subdivided into genera (usually six) and spe-
cies (usually ten). By such a system, forty main signs,
plus six plus ten modifications of them, are capable
of distinguishing 40 × 6 × 10 = 2,400 different con-
cepts. For further refinement, compounding may be
resorted to. The main symbols with their modification
stand for what Wilkins called “principal words,”
covering nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Gram-
matical words or “particles” are represented by smaller
symbols above, below, and between the main charac-
ters. Superficially, a page in Wilkins' script is not unlike
a page of Arabic.

Though Wilkins' chief object was to create a means
of universal written communication, he also invented
a way of reading it. For just as any spoken language
can be reduced to writing, so any written text can be
translated into a spoken one. Wilkins maintained that
his language would be far easier to learn than a natural
language, because of its systematic structure:

Now in the way here proposed, the words necessary for
communication are not three thousand, and those so ordered
by the help of natural method, that they may be more easily
learned and remembered than a thousand words otherwise
disposed of; upon which account they may be reckoned but
as one thousand. And as for such Rules as are natural to
Grammar, they were not charged in the former account,
and therefore are not to be allowed for here. So that by
this it appears, that in point of easiness betwixt this and
the Latin, there is the proportion of one to forty...


The sentence about grammar refers to Wilkins' thesis
that any natural language has two sets of grammatical
rules: those common to all and those peculiar to each.
His own philosophical language is meant to include
only the former kind; the natural, universal rules.

Leibniz read Wilkins' book a few years after its
appearance, and valued it very highly. But Leibniz
wished to go further than Wilkins. His ultimate aim
was to create a language which should not only be
a subsidiary vehicle of communication, but an instru-
ment of thought. Leibniz had already revolutionized
mathematics by his invention of the higher calculus.
His characteristica universalis aimed at introducing a
calculus covering the whole field of human knowledge.
As he said to a correspondent:

... each line [written in this universal language] would be
a demonstration as in Arithmetic or Algebra. Two persons
disputing on a matter... would only have to say, let us
calculate... for in this way all errors would be nothing
but calculating errors, and easy to correct by means of
proofs similar to those... in arithmetic

(to Johann Fried-
rich, Duke of Hanover, ca. February 1679; Sämtliche
Schriften und Briefe,
ed. Preussische Akademie der Wissen-
schaften, First Series, Darmstadt [1927], 2, 156; trans. Alvar

In fact, Leibniz looked upon mathematics as simply
a sample (échantillon) of this all-embracing philo-
sophical language.

But in order to reach this high aim it was necessary
to have absolutely exact definitions of the terms that
were to be used. Wilkins had made a start by defining
quite a respectable portion of the English vocabulary
in terms of his own system. Leibniz made several
attempts to go beyond Wilkins. But he never managed
to bring his work to a conclusion: he realized that the
task was superhuman.

In our own time part of Leibniz' dream has been
realized in the language of symbolic logic. But in this
language the “principal words,” as Wilkins called
them, are not included. Attempts to represent formally
the semantic content of such words have, however,
been made, partly in connection with work on me-
chanical translation, partly as a result of the reorien-
tation of linguistics caused by the introduction of
transformational grammar. Uriel Weinreich, J. Katz,
and J. Fodor deserve special mention in this connec-
tion. But we have still achieved immensely less than
Leibniz' grand design. Wilkins' practical object, on the


other hand, has been pursued with some limited success
by the creators of artificial languages like Esperanto,
Ido, Volapük. None of these, however, even aims at
the thoroughgoing semantic consistency that Wilkins
tried to achieve, and that caught Leibniz' imagination.

The Origin of Language. The view that Plato ex-
pressed in Cratylus to the effect that language had been
originally invented by philosophers, seems to have been
implicit in most ancient thinking. In the Middle Ages
the question of the origin of language was hardly dis-
cussed. The Bible's story of the creation of man, and
of the confusion of men's tongues in Babel was not
put in doubt. In any case the historical perspective
was extremely short. The ancients looked upon Homer
as a representative of the youth of mankind, and Chris-
tians naturally looked upon Hebrew as Adam's lan-
guage and thus the original mother tongue of all.

Neither the Renaissance nor the bold philosophizing
of the seventeenth century brought any changes in
these matters. René Descartes did not discuss the origin
of language, nor did the Port-Royal grammarians. Their
whole argument, however, indicates an implicit as-
sumption, similar to Plato's, that language was invented
by rational men.

In the eighteenth century the time perspective was
gradually lengthened. E. B. de Condillac attempted to
outline the gradual development of language in human
society. But he did not commit himself to any definite
time scale. His more famous friend, J. J. Rousseau,
carried on the discussion in his prize essay on “The
Origin of the Inequality of Men” (1754). Rousseau
stressed the paradox that while language presupposes
society, the creation of human society presupposes the
existence of language. He therefore concluded that to
invent language in a state of nature must have taken
an infinite time.

The question raised by Rousseau was given full-
length treatment by James Burnett, Lord Monboddo,
whose six-volume Origin and Progress of Language was
published 1773-92. Monboddo also looked upon lan-
guage as an invention; there was, accordingly, a time
when man did not speak. Rousseau had tried to imagine
what that hypothetical state of nature was like. Mon-
boddo did better; he could actually show us man in
a state of nature: the ourang-outang, who cannot speak,
but has all the physical characteristics of man, and
therefore should be reckoned as belonging to the
human species.

Monboddo agreed with Rousseau that for a creature
like the ourang-outang to invent language must have
been extremely difficult. The first beginnings must have
been very crude. Again, Monboddo thought he could
produce actual illustrations, and held forth the lan-
guage of the Huron tribe in America, which, he said,
is so “irregular” that no grammar of it can be written.
Against this background it is not surprising that Mon-
boddo could not imagine that a language like Greek,
of whose absolute superiority he was convinced, could
have been created by ordinary or common people. He
felt his views were confirmed when he considered
Chinese, Sanskrit, and the language of the ancient
Egyptians. All those, he believed, must be the creation
of a literate community.

Monboddo admitted that there are barbarian peoples
with a civilized language. But that could be accounted
for by language mixture and corruption, similar to what
happened when Latin developed into the Romance
languages. In fact, Monboddo was inclined to think
that the ancient Egyptian language is the ultimate
origin of all the European languages—including
Hebrew—as well as of Sanskrit, whose similarity with
Greek he was aware of.

The work of Monboddo is a curious mixture of crank-
iness and common sense. But he is far from untypical
of his age. Above all, his idea that the highly inflected
languages, and especially Greek, represented the best
and highest type, continued to be an article of faith
among the Europeans all through their imperialistic
nineteenth century. Sanskrit was admired because it
was, if anything, even more perfect than Greek.

In the nineteenth century linguists turned away from
speculations on the origin of language. That was due
to the development of far more exact methods in com-
parative linguistics, concurrently with the development
of a more empirical attitude. Further, it came to be
realized that no extant language is grammatically
primitive. And last, there was Darwin's theory of evo-
lution, which led to the establishment of an immensely
extended time-scale. Language ceased to be looked
upon as an invention. It was the product of the biolog-
ical evolution of our species.