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Linguistic Society of America

The History of Linguistics and Professor Chomsky

Author(s): Hans Aarsleff
Source: Language, Vol. 46, No. 3 (Sep., 1970), pp. 570-585
Published by: Linguistic Society of America
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Princeton University
This paper argues that Chomsky's version of the history of linguistics is funda-
mentally false. With evidence drawn from recent reviews and some additional
information, it argues that the term 'Cartesian' has no historical justification
in regard to the linguistic theory embodied in the 1660 Port-Royal Grammar.
The paper then examines the history of linguistics from 1660to the Romantics, a
period in which Chomsky finds much scattered evidence for the persistent domi-
nance of the Cartesian tradition. Contrary to Chomsky's opinion, however, Locke
and not Descartes was the dominating force. Du Marsais was strongly anti-Car-
tesian and outspokenly pro-Lockean. The basic and most influential work in 18th
century linguistic theory was Condillac's Essai (1746), which is entirely Lockean;
this work revived linguistic theory at the mid-century, including universal
grammar. There is no conflict between universal grammarand the entirely Locke-
derived theoretical work on the origin of language. Chomsky's version of history
is the product of serious deficiencies in knowledge and research, and is an obstacle
to the creation of a true and significant history of linguistics.
In this paper I propose to examine Chomsky's version of the history of lin-
guistics. It is well known that Chomsky turned to this subject after he had
published his earlier purely linguistic studies. These studies had already indicated
his interest in the history of linguistics, but it was not until the publication of
Aspects (1965:47-59) that he treated the subject at greater length, in a section
on 'Linguistic theory and language learning'. Late in 1966 followed the main
work, Cartesian linguistics, and two years later Language and mind, in which the
first chapter and parts of the third were again devoted to the history of lin-
guistics. Transformational generative grammar was linked to antecedents in the
17th and 18th centuries, both as a matter of intellectual interest and to serve
the purpose of polemics against its own immediate predecessor in linguistics, the
tradition which can be called Bloomfieldian- a tradition which had gone out
of its way to show contempt for the work which Chomsky was now raising to a
position of respect and admiration. I think it is fair to say that this polemic
element is clearly evident in the Chomskyan version of the history of linguistics,
for it is the general tendency of this version to elevate 'Cartesian' approaches
to the study of language, and to depreciate to an equal or greater degree all
empiricist, behaviorist, or associationist procedures in the study of language,
whether rightly or wrongly so labeled. One of the first reviews of Cartesian lin-
guistics (Kampf 1967) concluded by calling attention to this tendency as Chom-
sky's special merit. It observed that literary historians had rarely looked at the
17th century conflict between empiricists and rationalists in terms of current
learning theory. We are told that, since most of the important figures involved,
such as Dryden and Swift, stressed the primacy of experience, 'Locke emerges
the hero, Descartes the villain, from the histories of the conflict. Chomsky forces
us, at last, to reconsider the influence of empiricism on the development of
science and scholarship.' It should be unnecessary to point out why this state-

ment is absurd, in both fact and interpretation. But it is worth noting that
Locke is made out by that reviewer, as by Chomsky, to be a villain, or at least
a sort of nincompoop in matters of language and the philosophy of mind. I shall
return to that problem, since it has a very direct bearing on my belief that
Chomsky's version of the history of linguistics is fundamentally false. I shall
make an assumption, which I think will be readily granted: namely, that Chom-
sky is in fact attempting to give a historical account and is not merely seeking
out concepts, statements, and arguments in an unhistorical fashion. Even if this
were not the case, there can be no doubt that Chomsky's work has in fact been
read and understood as the history of linguistics. It has been assumed that his
history gives an adequate account of the main line of development from the
middle of the 17th century to the early decades of the 19th century. It may be
recalled that the subtitle of Cartesian linguistics is 'A chapter in the history of
rationalist thought'.
Before proceeding, I shall state what I take to be the criteria of adequacy for
such a history, as for any history that falls within the larger territory of the
history of ideas.l In general there are two: adequate scholarship; and the over-all
coherence of the entire history that is presented, without omission or neglect of
material that is relevant, either by the writer's own standards or by those of the
figures he deals with and cites.
The first criterion, that of scholarship, involves a reasonably comprehensive
knowledge of the texts that are used and of the total work of each major figure.
What, for instance, will happen to the argument if Du Marsais turns out to
have been powerfully anti-Cartesian on the very points that Chomsky takes to
be fundamental to Cartesianism? Will not the argument be impaired or per-
haps show signs of collapse? Worse yet, what will happen if Du Marsais turns
out to have been a professed Lockean? In fact, Du Marsais was both strongly
anti-Cartesian and emphatically pro-Lockean. We shall see other examples of
this sort of carelessness, omission, and (unfortunately) plain ignorance. These
are not examples that have only a peripheral effect on the argument; they affect
its very core. There is of course no absolute safeguard against such errors, but in
this case the remedy lies within easy reach, since Du M\arsais' entire work is
compact and easy to survey, thanks also to the very complete index which
accompanies the best and presumably complete edition of his works (1797).
We may note that, when Chomsky (1966:53-4) does refer to D'Alembert's
eulogy of Du Marsais, he uses a passage which is closely preceded by the state-
ment that Du Marsais was anti-Cartesian.2
There is also one generally acknowledged avenue to avoidance of the worst
errors, namely an adequate acquaintance with the best secondary literature and
the best editions. Not only is such acquaintance nearly absent from Chomsky's
excursions into history, but he relies on outright inferior sources. For instance,
1 Elsewhere (Aarsleff 1967:3-11) I have tried to state what I take to be the proper prin-
ciples in the history of the study of language.
2 The matter cited by Chomsky is in d'Alembert [1757] 1797:lxx-lxxii; but he is quoting
from Sahlin 1928, which by his own admission is not a good book. D'Alembert's observa-
tions on Du Marsais' anti-Cartesianism are on pages lxvii-lxix.
572 LANGUAGE, VOLUME 46, NUMBER 3 (1970)

to determine what is commonplace in Locke interpretation, he cites the laughable

notes in Fraser's wretched edition of the Essay (Chomsky 1968:86). This, inci-
dentally, makes Chomsky the latest-and for a long while the first-denigrator
of Locke in the conservative Victorian tradition, in which denigration of Locke
was a matter of doctrine. Fraser's edition is the summa of that attitude.
The second basic criterion of historical research is the over-all coherence of the
entire presentation, without omission or neglect of relevant material. In this
connection, we note that Cartesianism in linguistics is seen by Chomsky to run
straight through the German Romantics down to Wilhelm von Humboldt, as
illustrated by citations from Herder and both the Schlegels. But these citations
occur in works that deal specifically with the origin of language, and in one case
even with 'etymology in general'. Neither of these subjects appears, not even
according to Chomsky, in Cartesian linguistics or in universal grammar, which
in fact by its very presuppositions would seem immune to the time perspective.
Would not a little suspicion have been commendable here, suspicion that the
history is not quite so simple as we are told? Such suspicion might have directed
attention to the problem of the origin of language, as it was viewed in the 18th
century. It is true that the secondary literature, which in any event is not cited,
would not have shown how strongly Herder was influenced by Condillac; but
since the ostensible purpose was to do something new, a highly relevant oppor-
tunity was missed.3
Turning now to the history itself, we may ask, first, whether Cartesian linguis-
tics in the shape of the Port-Royal Grammar of 1660 is in fact Cartesian in the
sense that is claimed. And, second, we may ask whether Chomsky's version of
history is correct, from 1660 through the 18th century into the early nineteenth,
if we grant that there was some sort of linguistic theory embodied in universal
grammar, whether we call it Cartesian or not. I shall deal briefly with the first
question and then at greater length with the second, which I take to be the more
substantial part of the entire problem.
All the reviews and discussions I have seen have something important to say
about this first question, though none deal with the second question. There are
signs, however, that they take that part of the history to be generally correct.
Both Zimmer 1968 and Salmon 1969 point out that there are significant anteced-
ents of the method and principles presented by the Port-Royal Grammar. Thus,
as Mrs. Salmon observes, if the postulated Cartesianism is not one of dependence,
but merely one of parallel, then all the Cartesianism vanishes-and, one might
add, the lustrous prestige of the name. Miel 1969 demonstrates the significance of
Pascal and of Augustinianism, as indicated by his title 'Pascal, Port-Royal, and
Cartesian Linguistics'. This is merely another way of saying that the Port-Royal
Grammar was indeed a Port-Royal product-that is, Jansenist and Augustinian.
In the longer perspective, this is not without importance, for Locke was very
sympathetic to the Jansenists of Port-Royal; he owned their works and read
them. His political philosophy would seem to have received significant impulses
from Pierre Nicole, who with Arnauld was responsible for the Port-Royal Logic,
3 Some of the problems dealt with in this essay are treated more thoroughly in Aarsleff

which is so closely related to the Grammar that it must be called its twin. Apart
from the last point about Locke, this could all quite easily have been learned
from the relevant secondary sources, most of it in fact from Sainte-Beuve's
Port-Royal, now one hundred and ten years old, to which Chomsky makes some
convenient references (e.g. 1966:75, 104, 105). It would also seem potentially
dangerous to ignore the fact that the Port-Royalists had significant disagreements
with Descartes-Arnauld, for instance, over innateness.
But the most substantial discussion is Robin Lakoff's recent review (1969)
of the new edition of the Port-Royal Grammar. She points out (1) that Lancelot's
Nouvelle mWthodepour facilement et en peu de temps comprendrela langue latine
(1644) offers much more explicit similarities to Chomskyan linguistics than does
the Port-Royal Grammar; (2) that the third edition of the Nouvelle mBthode
(1654) is even richer in this respect; (3) that Lancelot credits the improve-
ment of this third edition to his recently gained knowledge of Sanctius' famous
Minerva, seu de causis linguae latinae (1587); and (4) that this work by Sanctius
is indeed the historical source of what is found most admirable in the Port-Royal
Grammar. It may be added that Sanctius appears in turn to be indebted to the
speculative grammars of the Middle Ages, a tradition whose relevance was
pointed out as long ago as 1947 by Gilson (1947:7). Chomsky knew Mrs. Lakoff's
findings before their publication, and he answers her in Language and mind
(15-6) to the effect that Sanctius merely offered 'a device for the interpretation of
texts', but nothing truly like the Cartesianism of the Port-Royal Grammar.
The reason for the difference, we are told, is that they were 'in particular, sepa-
rated by the Cartesian revolution'. Of course, that answer begs the question,
since the very point is whether in fact there was a 'Cartesian revolution' in these
matters. But there is a more serious side to Chomsky's answer regarding Sanctius
and the mere interpretation of literary texts: it entirely disregards the incontest-
able fact that practically all universal grammarians, including Du Marsais,
emphatically and often state their indebtedness to Sanctius, a fact that cannot
escape attention even in the most cursory reading.4 Chomsky cannot avoid
censure by referring to the remark early in Cartesian linguistics (2-3) that these
developments in universal grammar 'have roots in earlier linguistic work'. If
that question were to be left open, then the term Cartesian would obviously
have to be dropped until its appropriateness could be established. This is only
one example of Chomsky's curious procedure in historical research and argument,
a procedure in part made possible by his ignorance of the general intellectual
history of the entire period under discussion.
I wish to make one more observation about this linguistic work prior to 1660.
In her review (170), Mrs. Salmon seeks out earlier uses of the term 'general
grammar', and she finds it in J. H. Alsted's Encyclopaedia (1630). But, as Jellinek
4 Du Marsais refers to the authority of Sanctius in 1797:1.19, 68, 114, 143-4, 145, 152-3;
IV.213; V.33, 36. In some of these contexts he also refers to the masters of Port-Royal; but
when he does so specifically, it is never to the grammarof 1660,but to 'leur scavante M6th-
ode latine' (1.19), to 'la methode de P.R. de l'hellinisme' (V.33), and to 'la m6thode latine
de P. R.' (V.36). This is significant, and it clearly supports and strengthens Mrs. Lakoff's
574 LANGUAGE, VOLUME 46, NUMBER 3 (1970)

points out (1913:94), Alsted was merely incorporating Christoph Helwig's

Libri didactici grammaticaeuniversalis, Latinae, Graecae, Hebraicae, Chaldaicae,
first published posthumously in 1619.5 Helwig worked closely with Wolfgang
Ratke, who also in 1619 published his Allgemeine Sprachlehr.The title page of
this work had a rather elaborate device, crowned by the significant words 'Ratio
vicit, vetustas cessit'; that is, antiquity and old authority and tradition have
lost to the triumph of reason (Ising 1959, end of 'Einleitung'). Bacon, in his
Advancementof learning (1605:II.xvi.4), a passage that is for some reason gener-
ally ignored in this context, says that there are two kinds of grammar, one
'popular'-in the Latin of De azugmentisscientarum (1623:VI.i) he says 'liter-
aria'-and the other 'philosophical, examining the power and nature of words,
as they are the footsteps and prints of reason'. A few pages later he says: 'Knowl-
edge that is delivered as a thread to be spun on, ought to be delivered and inti-
mated, if it were possible, in the same method wherein it was invented.' This
means that the method is a pedagogical problem, a problem in learning theory
and practice, designed to shorten the job of learning. All the great general gram-
mars arose in the context of this problem, including those of Sanctius, Ratke,
Helwig, Comenius, Lancelot, Du Marsais, and Condillac, to mention only a few.
And they were often accompanied by what would appear to be greatly exag-
gerated claims for the efficiency of the method. Sanctius, for instance, claimed
that he could teach Latin in eight months, Greek in twenty days, astronomy in
eight or ten days, philosophy and music in a month or less (Weiss n.d., 610-11).6
The method is, of course, that of reason, as the Ratichian motto reminds us, and
it is often stated explicitly that reason would relieve the burden of memory,
hence the shortening of the time required in learning the material. Du Marsais,
for instance, observed that since the rules are nothing but general observations,
they ought to be founded on reason alone. Once they have been comprehended,
he went on, 'on ne se sert plus, pour ainsi dire, que de la m6moire de la raison,
et cette m6moire n'est jamais l'esclave des paroles' (1797:1.38). It is in this light
6 In an unpublished manuscript in the Niedersachsische Landesbibliothek, Hannover,
MS IV, 469, fol. 73 v, Leibniz says: 'Caeterum Grammaticis ipsis particularibus jungenda
est Grammaticauniversalis, quam primus fortasse molitus est Christophorus Helvicus
professor Giessensis cujus Grammatica universalis, cum specialibus linguarum Latinae,
Graecae, Hebraicae, Chaldaicae prodiit Giessa 1619. 4?. Nostris temporibus vir doctus in
Gallia Grammaticam universalem attentavit, sub titulo: Grammaireraisonnee, quae non
omnino aspernanda videbatur. Adjungi potest Caramuelis Grammatica audax.' This pas-
sage would appear to have been written very late in Leibniz' life, presumably within a few
years of his death. This profoundly interesting and important manuscript has the title
'Epistolaris de historia etymologica dissertatio'. I am preparing an edition of this work;
for a brief description and further references, see Aarsleff 1969b:177. In a note to his 1668
work, Leibniz wrote (1930:279): 'Maxime autem ad Mnemonicam et notarum Doctrinam
pertinet notitia Linguae unde incipit institutio; sive tradatur per usum, sive per praecepta
artis Grammaticae, quam in Linguis usitatis opibus habemus, generalem autem Christoph.
Helvicus dedit, et nuper Gallus autor de la Grammaireraisonnee.' These notes could have
been written as late as 1709. These two late references to the Port-Royal Grammarwould
seem to be the only ones in his entire corpus, a remarkable fact considering that Leibniz
spent the years 1672-76 in Paris, where he frequently saw Antoine Arnauld.
6 For a characteristic example of the great expectations that were placed in the method

and its capacity to shorten the process of learning, see Mersenne 1640.

that we must understand the frequent occurrence of the word 'method' in the
titles already mentioned, as well as in the Linguarum methodus novissima of
Comenius, who in his pansophy developed this doctrine in greater detail than
any other 17th century figure. Bacon's critique of the idols of man must also be
understood as a statement concerning method. But most famous is, of course,
Descartes' 'Discourse on the method of rightly conducting the reason and seeking
truth in the sciences'. Readers who are familiar with Descartes' famous dream
on the night of 10 November 1619 will see more clearly how profoundly his pre-
occupation with method typifies the dominant philosophical and pedagogical
concerns of his time.
The art of speaking and the art of thinking, the grammar and the logic, are
two faces of the same coin. As Gilson said in 1947, summing up the principles
of the masters of grammar in the thirteenth century: the man who knows one
grammar does not know all languages, but he knows all grammars, for there
is only one, that of the intelligence whose operations are identical in all men,
the universal grammar of the human mind (1947:7). Though I am not sure I
understand Chomsky on this point (on which he is never very clear), no universal
grammar postulates anything other than reason as the underlying framework or
abstract apparatus of all grammars. They never postulate a separate linguistic
something, though Chomsky talks vaguely about 'the forms of thought' and
innate ideas. Du Marsais, for instance, rejected innate ideas out of hand. To be a
universal grammarian, it is enough to be a rationalist.
Let me now turn to the second problem, whether Chomsky renders a correct
account of the history of linguistics between 1660 and the romantic period around
1800. His account takes for granted that everything of value in 18th century
linguistic theory is Cartesian. It follows further from Chomsky's treatment of
Locke that nothing derived from him can be either Cartesian or valuable in this
context, and thus also that a Lockean linguistics would be totally incompatible
with a Cartesian linguistics, an idea which we may then reasonably assume would
also have reached the awareness of those who were practicing either one or the
other. The facts, however, are incontestably the very reverse of these conclusions.
Let me begin with the key figure, Condillac, though he is never mentioned by
Chomsky. Even a cursory reading in the vast body of literature on language in
the eighteenth century will show that Condillac is by all odds the most important
figure, both as a theorist and by virtue of his influence. Significantly, Descartes'
name is notably absent from all discussions that specifically deal with language,
though references to the masters of Port-Royal and to Locke occur frequently.
Condillac's first and most influential work was the Essai sur l'origine des con-
noissances humaines, first published in 1746 with the subtitle, 'a work in which
all that concerns the human understanding is reduced to a single principle'.
The English translation of 1756 had the subtitle 'a supplement to Mr. Locke's
Essay on the human understanding'. This description is correct, and no reader
can fail to see Condillac's dependence on Locke, a relationship he often and fully
acknowledges. Curiously, Condillac's Essai and Chomsky's Language and mind
have this in common, that they are both 'linguistic contributions to the study
of mind', which is the subtitle of the latter work.
576 LANGUAGE, VOLUME 46, NUMBER 3 (1970)

Locke's Essay suggested that reflection goes to work as soon as sensation has
given it material to work on. Thereafter the mind may further gain ideas of its
own operations-that is, ideas of reflection. Reflection is a power of thinking,
but Locke did not explain how that power of thinking gains control over the vast
variety of material on which it works. He did, however, suggest that this control
steadily grows; there is, so to speak, a progress of the mind both in the individual
and in mankind at large. This progress is suggested in a variety of ways, but
especially by references to children and to language. In Book II of the Essay, for
instance, we find a number of suggestive observations. Here Locke says he is
apt to think that words may very much direct our thoughts 'towards the originals
of men's IDEAS' (II.xv.4). In another passage he says: 'We may observe that
mankind have fitted their notions and words to the use of common life and not
to the truth and extent of things ... This, by the way, may give us some light
into the different state and growth of languages' (II.xxviii.2). And further: 'When
children have, by repeated sensations, got ideas fixed in their memories, they
begin by degrees to learn the use of signs. And when they have got the skill to
apply the organs of speech to the framing of articulate sounds, they begin to
make USE OF WORDS to signify their IDEAS to others' (II.xi.8). He had also made
it plain that words often play an active role in thinking, especially the words
for the complex ideas of mixed modes. Words are abbreviations of our manifold
experience, and this fact of abbreviation makes it possible for us to handle ex-
perience and knowledge in thought. This concept of abbreviation is, of course,
also fundamental in universal grammar and Condillac. Neither Locke nor Condil-
lac ever assumed that reason and its manifestation in reflection were not innate;
in line with the new science and Newton, they were not interested in the WHY
but in the HOW. As Locke said, 'Man is by nature [i.e. innately] rational', and
'God commands what reason does' (cf. Aarsleff 1969a: 107-10). To Locke, every-
thing that man could ever know, he owed to the light of nature, by which he
meant the two inalienable, powerful, innate, creative faculties of sense-experience
and reason. And to Locke, of course, the use of language and words was creative,
as any reader of the Essay must know. That is also precisely why a doctrine of
the creative origin of language could be framed by using materials offered by
Locke. A recent book on Condillac (Knight 1968) says that to him reason was
'acquired', which, taken as a statement about what Condillac said and meant, is
plain nonsense.
But Locke left Condillac with the job of reducing the workings of the under-
standing to a single principle. To Condillac this single principle was 'la liaison
des id6es', that is, the connection of ideas, which is also innate and beyond ex-
planation.7 It is, so to speak, what gravity is in Newton's physics, which was
the model and impulse for this reduction to a single principle. It is the key to
the progress of the mind; it makes it possible for reflection to increase and gain
increasing control over its materials. This control is gained by the institution of
arbitrary, articulated, verbal signs, each connected with a particular idea.
This all-important act of institution would seem inconceivable without the
7 Elsewhere (Aarsleff 1967:18) I say that 'Condillac wished to demonstrate that reflection
could be derived from sensation.' I am now convinced that that statement is false.

prior occurrence of some natural signs that provide reflection with the suggestion
for the making of arbitrary, verbal signs. Condillac himself raises that objection
([1746] 1947:22b), saying that he will provide the answer when he gives his
account of the origin of language. Thus the key question about the beginnings of
the exercise of the understanding has been converted into a question about the
origin of language. The problem is solved in this fashion. Man shares with the
animals the innate tendency to make certain natural gestures in response to fear,
joy, fright, love, etc. Such gestures constitute a rudimentary mode of expression
and communication in these simple situations, but for Condillac as well as for
Descartes they do not constitute the language that is peculiar to man. Insistence
on the non-creative nature of involuntary gestures is by no means specifically
Cartesian, though this seems to be widely believed. These gestures include in-
voluntary vocal cries, 'cris de nature', which humans will invariably hear each
other make on the occasions that give rise to them. If we imagine two human
beings together, both will make the same noise when frightened, for instance, by
an approaching lion; but if one of them makes that cry on seeing a lion, the other
will react as if he also saw the lion even when in fact he did not. Here the cry has
already functioned as a warning against the initially unnoticed danger. Reflection
will now be quick to realize that the voluntary and deliberate production of the
same sign will have the effect of warning against an approaching lion, even when
the man making the warning is not himself endangered and thus not making the
cry involuntarily. By such natural and chance events, reflection will be guided to
see the possible use of instituted, arbitrary signs-in other words, the origin of
language. Thus it is not correct to say, as is in fact almost universally believed,
that Condillac explains the origin of language by convention or agreement. He
was quite aware of the nugatory quality of that doctrine, and he found ways of
overcoming it by first giving the innate power of reflection suggestions from the
involuntary 'cris de nature'. Hence Rousseau's familiar passage on the dilemma
posed by any attempt to 'explain' the origin of language has no force against
Condillac's argument, and was in fact not levelled against it; when Rousseau
presents his account of the origin of language some pages later, in the second part
of his Discourse on the origin of inequality among men (1755), he entirely follows
The progress of the mind becomes a question of the progress of language. The
history of thought-in the characteristic, 18th century sense-can be pursued
in the origin of language. It must be firmly understood that this study is purely
conjectural, a fact that was made perfectly clear by Condillac, Rousseau. and
Herder. It is fully as conjectural as Locke's state of nature, from which in fact it
undoubtedly received strong impulses. In Inequality ([1755] 1950: 190-1), Rous-
seau says: 'I have here entered upon certain arguments and risked certain con-
jectures ... It is by no means a light undertaking to distinguish properly between
what is original and what is artificial in the actual nature of man, or to form a
true idea of a state which no longer exists, perhaps never did exist, and probably
never will exist; and of which it is, nevertheless, necessary to have true ideas, in
order to form a proper judgment of our present state.' Discussions of the state
of nature and of the origin of language do not pretend to offer historical truths.
578 LANGUAGE, VOLUME 46, NUMBER 3 (1970)

The enterprise is entirely theoretical and designed to illuminate our concept of

the nature of man. The chasm which Chomsky rightly says divides the eight-
eenth and the nineteenth centuries in the matter of linguistics is chiefly a matter
of the latter century's failing to see and fully grasp that theoretical mode. A
typical instance of this failure of understanding is offered by a passage in Renan's
De l'origine du langage (1858:41-2). Referring to Condillac and his contempo-
raries, he says: 'Ils s'attaquerent aux questions theoriques avant de s'etre livr6s
a l'6tude patiente des details positifs ... La philosophie du XVIIe siecle avait une
tendance marquee vers les explications artificielles, en tout ce qui tient aux
origines de l'esprit humain.' The 19th century had lost the 18th century's funda-
mental conviction, its first theory we might say, that of the uniformity of human
nature. It thus also failed to see the fundamental distinction between nature and
art, and it did not grasp the theoretical, conjectural quality of the state of nature,
which it took to be misdirected quasi-history. To the 18th century, however,
this difference existed between the state of nature and the origin of language:
that if language was man-made, then man might hope to gain some firm insight
into the history of man and thought by a study of the things that pertain to
language, e.g. etymology as then understood. Here no doubt lies the ultimate
reason why the concept of progress in the social sciences first arises in the context
of the study of language, in the latter half of the 18th century.
I have found it necessary to give this brief account of the theoretical question
of the origin of language as it was first introduced by Condillac, partly because
the matter is almost without exception grossly misrepresented (the only writer
who has really grasped it is Franco Venturi in his brilliant book La jeunesse de
Diderot, 1939); and partly because it shows Locke's dominant position in linguistic
theory in the 18th century. Condillac's Essai, and specifically its account of the
origin of language as an essential aspect of the philosophy of mind, immediately
had a powerful impact. The first work to take up its problems was Maupertuis'
Reflexions philosophiques sur l'origine des langues et la signification des mots
(1748), soon to be followed by Diderot's letters On the blind (1749) and On the
Deaf-mutes (1751), and by at least twenty individual works in German, French,
and English before Herder's prize essay of 1770. In addition, Diderot's and
D'Alembert's Encyclopedie deliberately, on the suggestion of Condillac's Essai,
gave all matters relating to language a prominent place in that great work.
At this point, according to Chomsky and his sharp rejection of Locke in favor
of Descartes-indeed, by his entire account of the history of linguistics-we
should expect an immediate reaction against universal grammar. Nothing of the
sort happens. It is a fact that Condillac's Essai caused an immediate revival of
universal grammar without the slightest sense of conflict, and the topic was at
once so completely fused with interest in the origin of language that the term
'grammaire g6n6rale' was soon used for both. In his famous article on etymology,
first published in the sixth volume (1756) of the Encyclopedie, Turgot observed
that study of the origin of language is indispensable 'to comprehend at large and
from a proper point of view the general theory of speech and the march of the
human spirit in the formation and progress of language ... This theory is the
source which gives rise to the rules of that grammaire g6n6rale which governs all

languages and to which all nations submit though believing to follow only the
caprice of usage' (1913:505).8 This fusion is not surprising. Both modes in the
study of language made the same basic assumptions regarding reason and the
uniformity of human nature, and both were directed toward the same subject
matter and aim; only their methods of approach were different. When Condillac
in the 1760's wrote a universal grammar for the young Prince of Parma, he
began with two chapters on the origin of language-necessarily, he said, 'since
one must have some knowledge of the origin of language before undertaking to
decompose [analyse] it' ([1775] 1947:435a). Why so? Because 'the history of the
human mind has shown me the order I need to follow in the instruction of the
Prince', and because 'the art of speaking is none other than the art of thinking
and reasoning, which develops as the languages become more perfect' (1947:
This fusion also reached all aspects of the subject matter of universal grammar;
what the latter did atemporally, the study of the origin of language did on the
scale of time, as a theoretical problem in development. One basic problem in
universal grammar is the matter of inversion, which in current terms deals with
deep and surface structure. In the Letter on the deaf-mutes (1751), Diderot took
up the same problem in the light of gestures, opening with the statement that
he thought it would be appropriate to begin with a consideration of the origin of
language ([1751] 1875:349). Similarly, the Port-Royal Grammar had assumed
that some word classes, such as nouns and verbs, were primary in relation to
others. Pronouns, for instance, were mere handy abbreviations or convenient
substitutes for nouns. In the terminology of the Port-Royal Grammar, they had
been 'invented' to fulfill that function. Study of the origin of language converted
this question into that of which parts of speech came first and how the others
were introduced and formed. The same fusion is again evident in the many
articles on linguistic matters in the Encyclopedie, written largely by Du Marsais
and after his death by Beauzee and Douchet. It is an amusing fact that Chomsky,
unaware, reminds us of that fusion by citing Herder as an exponent of linguistic
Cartesianism. To postulate any influence of universal grammar on Herder is
demonstrably false; to detect the overwhelming influence of Condillac is demon-
strably true. In fact, what Chomsky sees here is not even a matter of fusion, but
simply a reflection of Locke's rationalism through Condillac.9
8 In the quoted passage, Turgot speaks of 'the march of the human
spirit in the formation
of speech and progress of language'. In the 18th century literature on the subject, this
phrase becomes standard, almost rhetorical, on that subject. It should be compared with
the passage from d'Alembert, p. lxxii (quoted by Chomsky 1966:54), with its significant
description of Du Marsais.
9Elsewhere (Aarsleff 1970) I give additional material on Herder and his dependence on
Condillac. A common source of error is the assumption that Herder's Uber den Ursprung
der Sprachegives a correct account of Condillac. That assumption is not justified, and it is
no substitute for reading Condillac's Essai. A sign of the degree of this confusion is the
further assumption that Herder disproved Condillac's account of the origin of language.
He did not. Condillac gave an account of the origin of language as speech, while Herder in
the first part of the prize essay asserted that language is the same as 'Besonnenheit' or
'Reflexion' and that it need not be spoken to be language. Herder used the word Sprache
for both language and speech.
580 LANGUAGE, VOLUME 46, NUMBER 3 (1970)

The fusion occurred only because Condillac had revived the theory of language
and thus had also given new life to universal grammar. After its initial publication
in 1660, the Port-Royal Grammar was republished in 1664, 1676, 1679, and 1709,
but then not again till 1754 with the notes of Duclos. At that time the publishers
said that it had long been unobtainable, which is what is always said when an
old book has recently come into demand. The Port-Royal Grammar did not
appear in English until 1753, though there had been translations of Lamy's Art
of speaking in 1676, 1696, and 1708. In his article on 'Encyclop6die' ([1755]
1875:429) in the Encyclopedie, Diderot observed that the philosophy of language
was so recent that there had not been time to make adequate provision for it
when that great work was being planned; it will be recalled that the first volume
appeared in 1751. But, he went on (450), they would do the best they could to
remedy their serious omission, and had been fortunate to engage Du Marsais to
write those articles. At no point is there the slightest suggestion that there was
any conflict between universal grammar and the origin of language.
The neglect of universal grammar, its revival after 1746, and its fusion with
the origin of language are all summed up in the career of DuM\Iarsais. Near the
end of his life, he gained recognition because of his connection with the Encyclo-
pedie, but he was then over seventy. He received the highest praise from Con-
dillac, Diderot, and D'Alembert, but he had spent most of his life in near poverty,
making a meager living by teaching Latin. His work on universal grammar was
ignored; and apart from a few short pieces published during his life, many of his
writings were published only after his death, on the strength of the reputation
he had gained from the Encyclopedie. Of the great seven-volume work on lan-
guage he had in mind, only the volume Des tropes was published during his
lifetime; and, as he bitterly remarked, it was so little understood that a well-
wisher congratulated him on the publication of his work about the tropics. That
was in 1730.
His first work, and an important instance of his linguistic theory, is the Expo-
sition d'unemethode pour apprendre la langue latine (1722). His method was this:
he arranged the Latin phrases according to the 'ordre naturel', and then placed
the corresponding French phrases underneath in interlinear translation. This
procedure obviously involves the related problems of inversion and construction
or syntax, two subjects on which he gave special proof of his brilliance as a
universal grammarian. On his source and authority for this method, he said: 'I
could cite a great many authorities, and among others that of Mr. Locke in his
Thoughts concerningeducation, in order to justify what I say here, that learning
by routine should precede the rules' (1797:1.27). Instruction in formal grammar
should be kept to a minimum until the pupil could, as Locke said, 'read himself
Sanctii Minerva with Scioppius and Perizonius's notes' ([16931 1968:272). Du
Marsais' Exposition was immediately attacked by the Jesuit Journal de Tr6voux;
and the following year, in 1724, Du Marsais published a defense, which cited
Locke at considerable length and included a list of 'a large number of learned
men of the first order' who had advocated the same method. The list went like
this: 'Scaliger, Sanctius, Vossius, Scioppius, M. Fevre
le de Saumur, prre
Lamy, Locke, M. l'abbd de Dangeau, and a large number of others' (1797:1.145).

It might be added, incidentally, that Locke's library contained the grammars of

all the men mentioned in that list, except one that was published after his death.'0
It can be shown that Du Marsais belonged to radical, Lockean groups in
France, and his philosophy shows it. He held basic views of mind, thought, and
the understanding that are entirely incompatible with the version of innateness
which Chomsky takes to be essential to the principles of universal grammar. In
a short piece on the qualities of the good philosopher, published in 1743, he said:
'The philosopher is a human machine like any other man; but it is a machine
which, by its mechanical constitution, reflects on its movements' (1797:VI.25).
In the same piece he observed, about the nature of thought, that 'it is in man a
sense just like sight and hearing, depending like them on an organic constitution'
(VI.28).1"In another piece, 'De la raison', first published in 1770, he observed:
'The only means of instruction we have as individuals are either our own ex-
perience or authority. Experience is either exterior, that is, furnishes us with
ideas of sensible objects; or interior, that is, furnishes us with ideas of
the operations of the mind [entendement]; there is the common source of all
our knowledge; it is impossible to acquire ideas in any other fashion' (1797: VI.9).
Some of the articles Du Marsais wrote for the Encyclopedie are clearly Lockean
and quite incompatible with Descartes: 'Abstraction' (1797:IV.29-41), 'Adjec-
tif' (IV.85-110), 'Education' (V.183-212), and 'Fini' (V.291-94). Very out-
spoken is a section 'Remarques sur l'id6e' (V.319-22), which occurs in the Log-
ique, a work from which Chomsky frequently cites other passages at length. In
the early nineteenth century, Deg6rando observed: 'L'analogie des vues de Du
Marsais avec les th6ories de Locke, est encore plus frappante, et l'on voit qu'il
avait profondement medite. Son excellent article sur l'abstraction est une sorte
d'abreg6 de l'Essai sur l'entendement'(quoted from Krauss 1962:519). More
recently, Ricken has observed (1964:554): 'Es erscheint auf den ersten Blick
paradox, ist aber eine Tatsche, dass Du Marsais sich bei der Begruindungseiner
rationalistischen Wortstellungstheorie auf Locke stuitzte.' No Cartesian could
hold the views which Du Marsais in fact did hold-that is, no Cartesian in
Chomsky's sense. But apparently, universal grammar of the highest order can
be done not only without those Cartesian views, but can be excellently done on a
Lockean basis.
This brings me to my final point, which is perhaps also the most crucial:
Chomsky's view of Locke. It is hard to discuss, since Chomsky on the one hand
has a very strong antipathy to Locke, yet never even gets close to saying any-
thing precise about him; he is never quoted and never reported, though some
notes from the Fraser edition are thrown into the argument. Chomsky thinks,
one suspects, that Locke postulated thinking to be controlled by association
or some sort of behaviorist principle. This of course is an old myth, though the
very position of association of ideas in the Essay is the strongest and most ob-
10 See Harrison & Laslett
1965, nos. 845b, 1114, 1307, 2202, 2543, 2987.
n1 There has been some argument over whether Du Marsais was in fact
the author of
'Le philosophe' (see Dieckmann 1948, Krauss 1962). There is, however, no doubt that he
was felt by many to be the probable author. But it is plentifully evident that Du Marsais'
Lockeanism and anti-Cartesianism do not hang on this problem.
582 LANGUAGE, VOLUME 46, NUMBER 3 (1970)

vious reminder of Locke's rationalism: he calls the association of ideas a 'kind of

madness' precisely because it upsets the normal and natural procedures of ra-
tional and ordered thought. Unfortunately, there is in fact good reason to doubt
that Chomsky has read Locke's Essay, just as we have seen evidence that he has
not read any of the many passages that prove Du MIarsais' Lockeanism. He
observes (1968:70) that Locke's critique of innateness had 'little relevance to
any familiar doctrine of the seventeenth century.'l2 The arguments Locke gave
against it had already been met, we are told, by such people as Lord Herbert of
Cherbury in his De veritate(1625). In Cartesianlinguistics, Chomsky cites Herbert
at length (60-2), but the curious thing is that he cites from the very chapter and
the very passages which Locke discusses in Book I of the Essay (I.iii.15-20, iv.
8-18). This discussion is by far the most extensive of any that Locke offers on
any philosopher named in the Essay. It would certainly have been relevant to
note that fact, and perhaps also, if one disagrees with Locke so strongly, to show
why Locke's critique of Herbert is unacceptable, and why Herbert is correct that
it is one of our innate ideas that there is a deity and that this deity should be
The fact of the matter is that Locke's understanding of innateness is so radical
that it does not touch that of Descartes. According to Locke, unless the child
knows at birth those pretended innate truths and is ready to speak them at once,
they cannot be innate. This would among other things mean that the very words
in which they would have to be spoken must also be innate. In Cartesian lin-
guistics (1966:66-7), Chomsky quotes at length from Descartes' Notes directed
against a certainprogram.Even the passages cited should have alerted him to the
fact that Descartes is not quite saying what Chomsky thinks or wants Descartes
to be saying. But the preceding paragraph leaves less doubt. Here Descartes
says: 'I never wrote or concluded that the mind required innate ideas which were
in some sort different from its faculty of thinking; but when I observed the exist-
ence in me of certain thoughts which proceeded, not from extraneous objects nor
from the determination of my will, but solely from the faculty of thinking which
is within me, then, that I might distinguish the ideas or notions (which are the
forms of thought) from other thoughts ADVENTITIOUS or FACTITIOUS, I termed
them INNATE. In the same sense we say that in some families generosity is innate,
in others certain diseases like gout or gravel, not that on this account the babes
of these families suffer from these diseases in their mother's womb, but because
they are born with a certain disposition or propensity for contracting them'
([1647] 1967:442). Chomsky elsewhere would appear to be saying that he
not accept such mere dispositions, propensities, or operations as the sort of
innateness he postulates and takes to be fundamental to universal and Cartesian
Again arguing against Locke, Chomsky observes in Aspects (1965:34): 'In
12 Elsewhere (Aarsleff 1964:180-2) I argue that Locke's critique of innateness was specifi-
cally directed against certain doctrines which were widely publicized in England in the
1650's. They were of a linguistic nature, being derived from Boehme's doctrine of the lan-
guage of nature. I now have stronger reason to believe my identification is correct. Chomsky
(1966:94) refers to my article.

studying the actual character of learning, linguistic or otherwise, it is of course

necessary to distinguish carefully between these two functions of external data-
the function of initiating or facilitating the operation of innate mechanisms and
the function of determining in part the direction that learning will take.' Failure
to make this distinction, we are told (203), is what vitiates Locke's critique of
innateness. This is curious, for I cannot think of a more beautiful example of the
extended application of this distinction than Locke's derivation of the law of
nature from the play of the innate faculty of reason on pain and pleasure, un-
easiness and happiness, to guide man toward that unalterable law which Locke
also calls the 'divine law' and 'the law of reason'. It is worth recalling the pro-
found sense and aim of Locke's argument against innateness, a sense he makes
emphatically clear at the end of Book I of the Essay. Locke wished to make cer-
tain that all claims to truth must argue on public, not on private and esoteric,
grounds-with good reason. Locke was painfully aware of the potential tyranny
of any doctrine of innateness, a doctrine that would therefore subvert the grand
passion that illuminates all Locke's work, his desire for toleration. Regarding
some men's claim to know innate principles, Locke observes that 'it put their
followers upon a necessity of receiving some doctrines as such ... in which posture
of blind credulity, they might be more easily governed by and made useful to
some sort of men, who had the skill and office to principle and guide them. Nor
is it a small power it gives one man over another to have the authority to be the
dictator of principles and teacher of unquestionable truths, and to make a man
swallow that for an innate principle which may serve to his purpose who teacheth
them' (I.iv.25).
I must conclude with the firm belief that 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, because the arguments have not been
understood, because the secondary literature that might have been helpful has
been left aside or unread, even when referred to. The nearly hysterical reception
that has greeted Cartesian linguistics has already had its consequences. The book
catalogs are bursting with announcements of series that will reprint all that
pertains to 'Cartesian linguistics', and texts are being read as if they were Car-
tesian when in fact they are not. Universal grammar is profoundly important in
the history of linguistics, but Chomsky's account fails to grasp both the nature
and the history of that importance. In the meantime, other equally important
aspects of the study of language in history are being ignored. A good example
is Leibniz. He took the study of words, of dialects, of etymology and meanings
to be worth practically all of the time he spent on the study of language (his
'philosophical language' is not concerned with natural languages and is thus
another subject). In the as yet unpublished 'Epistolaris de historia etymologica
dissertatio', he cites at least two hundred little-known works from the 16th
and 17th centuries (cf. Aarsleff 1969b). These works constitute a very significant
body of work pertaining to the history of the study of language. Yet, with a very
few exceptions, they are totally forgotten and ignored today; they do not appear
in attempts to deal with the history of linguistics, and are not listed in the re-
584 LANGUAGE, VOLUME 46, NUMBER 3 (1970)

print catalogs. Professor Chomsky has significantly set back the history of lin-
guistics. Unless we reject his account, we will for a long while have no genuine
history, but only a succesion of enthusiastic and ignorant variations on false

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--. 1967. The study of language in England, 1780-1860. Princeton.
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menta, 3.173-89.) Wiesbaden.
--. 1970. The tradition of Condillac: the origin of language in the eighteenth century
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linguistics, ed. by Dell Hymes. Bloomington, Indiana. (Forthcoming.)
)D'ALEMBERT,J. LE ROND.1757. Eloge de Du Marsais. In Du Marsais 1797:I.xxxi-xci.
BACON,FRANCIS.1605. Advancement of learning. (In the works of Francis Bacon, ed. by
James Spedding, R. L. Ellis, and D. D. Heath, London, 1857-74 [reprinted, Stutt-
gart-Bad Cannstatt, 1963], vol. 3, pp. 253-491.)
--. 1623. De augmentis scientiarum. (Ibid., vol. 1, pp. 413-840.)
CHOMSKY, NOAM.1965. Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, Mass.
. 1966. Cartesian linguistics. New York.
. 1968. Language and mind. New York.
CONDILLAC, E. DE. 1746. Essai sur l'origine des connoissances humaines. (Oeuvres philo-
sophiques, ed. by Georges le Roy, 1.1-118. Paris, 1947.)
--. 1775. Cours d'etudes pour l'instruction du Prince de Parme: Introduction au cours
d'etudes & Grammaire. (Ibid., 395-513.)
DESCARTES, R. 1647. Notes directed against a certain program. (The philosophical works
of Descartes, tr. by Elizabeth S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross, 1.429-50. Cambridge,
DIDEROT,D. 1749. Lettre sur les aveugles. (Oeuvres complites de Diderot, ed. by J.
Assezat, 1.275-342. Paris, 1875.)
. 1751. Lettre sur les sourds et muets. (Ibid., 343-428.)
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ISING,ERIxA.1959.WolfgangRatkes Schriftenzur DeutschenGrammatik(1612-1630).
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MAUPERTUIS, de. 1748. Reflexions philosophiques sur l'origine des
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RICKEN,ULRICH.1964. Condillac'sliaison des ideesund die clartedes Franzosischen.Die
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[Received 15 December 1969]