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An Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge by…

An Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge

by Etienne Bonnot de Condillac

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432408,106 (4.67)5
Condillac's Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge, first published in French in 1746 and offered here in a new translation, represented in its time a radical departure from the dominant conception of the mind as a reservoir of innately given ideas. Descartes had held that knowledge must rest on ideas; Condillac turned this upside down by arguing that speech and words are the origin of mental life and knowledge. He argued, further, that language has its origin in human interaction and in our natural capacity to react spontaneously and instinctively to the expression of emotions and states of mind in others. The importance of this pointedly anti-Cartesian view, and its relevance to both aesthetics and epistemology, were quickly understood, and Condillac's work influenced many later philosophers including Herder, Rousseau, and Adam Smith. His conception also anticipated Wittgenstein's view of language, its usage, and its relation to mind and thought.… (more)



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I set out to write my master's thesis (mostly) on Condi a year ago now, and the fact that I haven't got tired of him yet says some great. (On the other hand, the fact that my last review still sets forth materially what I want to say kind of concerns me--has my thinking on the guy made so little progress since last summer?!?!)

Anyway. To say something useful. Condillac is a dyed-in-the-wool empiricist and a true-blue linguist, but it's really not enough to call this a "supplement to Mr. Locke's essay" or to say he "brought empiricism to the study of language (one thing about the empiricists that it's surprisingly easy to forget, in a weird way, is that they did not do empirical work!). His byword is not data and his site of interest is not the individual human brain--this is an essay about "imagination" and "sympathy", an originary fable that chalks why we have language in the first place not to brain structure a la Descartes or Chomsky, not liberal utility a la Locke, but simply the fact that we like to create and want to feel good with each other. It's like a highly systematized version of hugz, if each little movement or change in pressure was attached to a signified.

And that's the core of Condillac's idea, and I like the optimistic view of humans it purveys, which is why I put him up to 5 stars from 4.5. It's really only where he starts to get interesting, though; circumventing (if only the subsequent centuries knew it!) the debates about whether linguistic difference is psychological or physiological or cultural: it's the source of all those things! Once we see things through the lens of language, its cognitive implications are almost unlimited, and with the first bright flash of understanding that languages change and grow and develop, that, as Condi or any eighteenth-century philosophe would put it, they are organisms not machines, suddenly the rich rich store of eighteenth-century cultural essentialisms has a home. Why do the Chinese roll like this and the Europeans roll like that? The words they speak. This, then, is not only Bloomsfield v. Chomsky (you'll see of course that Condillac is on, or rather is, the Bloomfieldian side); not only Vygotsky and cultural mediation and play as construction of the world always with the help of a partner; not only freakin' WITTGENSTEIN, because language as collaborative play nails shut the coffin of natural or essential meaning, whether it's derived from the brain a la Rationalists or from God a la the Godly, and that sponsors a whole bunch of investigation into language as a shifting edifice, writ broad; Condillac is all of that but also, per above, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Predux. And full of love. That's word. ( )
1 vote MeditationesMartini | Sep 29, 2011 |
One other member?! Are you aware that Condillac "attempted to salvage and habilitate hierarchical-progressive doctrines of language development, although now with reference not to God’s plan but to observation and theories of practical language use and variation. Condillac’s speculations on the origin of language were influential on the high-Enlightenment idéologues, and seem to impute to the languages of the world a progressive hierarchy—“progressive” meaning both fluid and telic—that attempted to trace the development of language from primitive cries of fear and desire—universally comprehensible signs of feeling", sir? That "the development of language gave humans consciousness of their wants—this reflexivity, 18th-century consciousness of which presages the ‘linguistic turn’ in 20th-century philosophy, was argued to allow both the decomposition and analysis of ideas and their recombination (Hudson 1997: 338), much as alphabetic writing was said to do for speech sounds"? That he "is called by Aarsleff (1982: 103) “the key figure” in 18th-century linguistics, and credited with establishing the relativity and contingency of signification—in the opening of his Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge (1746), “we do not go beyond ourselves; and we never perceive anything but our own thought” (11): in simple and unimpeachably cognitive-linguistic terms, my production does not equal your perception. Locke’s principle of arbitrariness had moved the originary discourse (further) away from theories of divine inspiration and toward the “conjectural histories” (Stewart 1794) of e.g. Condillac himself; it also provided a good answer to the cabalistic delvings that persisted especially in the study of writing. Relativity/contingency moved the descriptive discourse away from rationalist interest in the essence of language and toward the semasiological and taxonomic investigation of real language variation. Together, they justify new lateral schema that put this taxonomic knowledge into new cultural essentialisms", for Chrissakes? Even that he "was an Enlightenment polymath who wrote in many fields", and that he "lacked the understanding of phonological and syntactic processes (as well as perhaps the willingness) to investigate the primeval forms of real-world language" :(?

Well, I mean, clearly you know all that, Mr/s anonymous librarything user who shares this book with me and no other. Librarything can't even decide if you really exist. But I like this Abbe de Condillac, and have plenty of time for his theory that language is just an extension of what happens when somebody sneaks up behind you and you go AAAH!, and it seems like you do too. Namaste. ( )
  MeditationesMartini | Jul 3, 2010 |
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