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Emerson in conversation with Herder I: Scholars and the invention of language

This semester, I’ve been fortunate to be part of a fascinating seminar on the ways in which philosophers (and others) have drawn the boundary between humans and ani­mals. This past week, we read Johann Gottfried von Herder’s Treatise on the Origin of Lan­guage. As the title suggests, it proposes to explain the origin of human language, involving along the way a great deal of reflection on the relation between human and animal language. Specifically, it suggests a human origin of language, against the hypothesis that language had a divine origin. I confess I do not find a great deal of value in the essay if it is viewed solely as an attempt to discern the historical origin of language. That seems to me a straightforwardly scientific question, and from that perspective Herder’s style of argument seems more confused than anything (of course this is an anachronistic assessment). Nevertheless, the essay is so expansive that within it I can find a hundred leads in interesting directions. It is pregnant with suggestions and simply calls for a little midwifery to draw them out.

This post is an attempt to do that. My method for doing that is to place Herder in a conversation with Emerson—specifically, I think that Herder makes a point that sits in an interesting relationship with Emerson’s project, and that what Emerson is doing may be illuminated by looking at Herder. I do not claim that Herder influenced Emerson—I do not know whether or not Emerson read Herder’s treatise, nor do I have any reason to suspect that he did, and moreover I have some reason to suspect that he did not. Perhaps soon I will devote a post to reflecting more on this method of proceeding, but for now I shall simply proceed. Theorizing may follow action. (Page references to Herder are to the Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy Edition of his Philosophical Writings.)

In the passage I want to consider, Herder is concerned to show that language did not arise as a particularly philosophical event, as the result of slow, inefficient reason.

Oh! If the human being is only destined to save himself from everything in such a slow, weak, inadequate manner … Through reason? Through reflection? How slowly this reflects! And how fast, how pressing his needs are! His dangers! (134)

This cuts directly against the philosopher:

Set a philosopher, born and raised in society, who has only trained his head for thinking and his hand for writing, set him suddenly outside all the protection and reciprocal comforts that society affords him for his one-sided services – he is supposed to seek his own means of subsistence in an unfamiliar land, and fight against the animals, and be his own protecting deity in everything. How helpless! (134)

The true origin of language must come from elsewhere:

The first experiences are not cold, slowly reasoned, carefully abstracting experiments like the leisurely, lone philosopher makes when he creeps in pursuit of nature in its hidden course and no longer wants to know that but how it works. This was precisely what concerned nature’s first dweller least. […] Is not his timidity combined with his weakness, and his awareness combined with all the subtlety of his forces of soul, enough by itself to provide him with a comfortable condition, since nature herself acknowledged that it was adequate for this? Since, therefore, we have no need at all of a timid, abstract study-philosopher as the inventor of language, since the primitive natural human being who still feels his soul, like his body, so entirely of a single piece is more to us than any number of language-creating academies, and yet is anything but a scholar … why on earth, then, would we want to take this scholar as a model? (135)

Here I think the connection to Emerson can be made. We see that, for Herder, it is the “primitive natural human being who still feels his soul… entirely of a single piece” who is the inventor of language, and not the philosopher. I want to understand this in a poetic or spiritual way: there is, Herder suggests, a certain primacy to the language that is developed in situations fraught with danger or treasure. This language, wrapped as it is in fear, desire, and delight, comes before the cool, abstract, disinterested language of the natural philosopher (just prior to the quotation above, Herder discusses Linnaeus). Praise the virtues of scientific language as you will: underneath it lies the language of passion, of man in a dangerous but rich environment. The scholar has no part in the origin of language.

I am not confident I know how to describe, succinctly at least, Emerson’s overarching project. But one strand of this project I think can safely be understood as an attempt to characterize the poetic invention of language. Physical things, for Emerson, are signs for spiritual facts, and the poet is someone who sees behind the material to the ideal, who, however briefly, is in contact with the ideal and can speak its language. Here Emerson runs together invention and discovery: it is by creative invention that we discover spiritual truth. The poet is thus someone who invents/discovers language. Thus one node in the constellation of images Emerson uses to attempt to approach a description of the ideal is through and through concerned with the origin of language, poetically understood.

Besides the poet, Emerson’s thought constantly returns to two other crucial figures. One is the rough, uncultivated man who is in close contact with the environment—Emerson here especially adverts to the image of the farmer. This person, in society, is probably the closest thing there is to Herder’s “primitive natural human being”. For Emerson, this character is generally brusque, direct, unconstrained by the general norms of etiquette that require appropriate levels of polite dishonesty.

Lastly, there is the central character of one of Emerson’s most famous pieces, “The American Scholar”. There, Emerson investigates the prospects of scholarship, its aims and the demands it makes on the scholars themselves. Here the scholar is not Herder’s bloodless character, cool and abstract, but someone who seems to possess the virtues of both the poet and the farmer. How does this happen?

What you notice as you read further and further into Emerson is that the figures he describes are never fully distinct. They seem, more than anything, to be aspects of a single, ideal person. Individual, actual people for Emerson are always partial: one of his most vivid images is of the person who is all ear, or all eye, or all hand. Such a person has developed a single organ out of proportion to all the rest, and so is deformed. Actual poets, farmers, and scholars are all deformed in just this way. The radical vision of “The American Scholar” is of a scholar who is equally poet and farmer—thus a scholar who is an inventor of language.

Thus we can see Emerson as responding (in the space of ideas if not in history) to Herder’s argument that the scholar cannot be the inventor of language. Emerson, on one level, more or less grants the point: actual, deformed human beings are not both scholars and inventors of language. But Emerson attempts to show, despite this, the possibility of the scholar who is proportioned, and so is as much farmer and poet as scholar. Emerson shows the prospects of the scholar who is the inventor of language.

Only rarely does the scholar arise who fulfills this vision. And in his more skeptical moods, Emerson himself suspects the ideal is unachievable, except perhaps in spurts and gasps. Nonetheless, the poetic, passionate invention of language remains the (Emersonian) scholar’s task. Emerson has recovered that possibility from Herder’s challenge.