UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Linguistic relativity, interpretive empathy, and the "connection of ideas" : eighteenth-century theories of linguacultural development McCarvill, Martin Francis Emmett


This thesis looks at theories of the emergence of linguistic difference put forward by three philosophers of the (long) eighteenth century—Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715–1780), and Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803). The conventional, and in most regards accurate, assessment of these figures places them in different traditions (respectively rationalist, empiricist, romantic); however, I argue, on the matter of the growth and diversification of natural languages, they operate to a nontrivial extent on common ground, unified by a view of language as 1) creative, using metaphor, analogy, and similar figurative operations to expand its expressive base; 2) social, rooted in the desire for human communion; and 3) relativistic, meaning both that language shapes or constitutes thought and that the precise nature of this effect varies according to the individual characters of different languages. These common ideas emerge, despite the different preoccupations of their authors, as a result of their common need to grapple with the “linguistic turn” effected by the Essay Concerning Human Understanding of John Locke (1632–1704) and the emergence of proto-linguistics as a field in its own right. I then consider the implications of this creative–social–relativistic episteme for the current (twentieth- and twenty-first-century) line of research on linguistic relativity inaugurated by BL Whorf (1897–1941). I will try to illustrate that Whorf is connected to the eighteenth century, and Leibniz, Condillac, and Herder to each other, by several specific shared concepts: 1) that linguistic and cultural variation happens due to the use of words to organize the world in ways that vary across communities (what Condillac calls the “connection of ideas”); 2) that alongside or underneath its relativism, meaning is always to some degree universal and innate, a notion to which each writer considered here brings a different admixture of rationalism, empiricism, and theosophy; and 3) that Herder’s advocacy of a translinguistic, interpretive Einfühlung, or ‘empathy’, dependent on the preservation of both universal and relativistic principles, is crucial to the attainment of an intercultural harmony that respects and does not reduce the differences in linguacultural thought-worlds.

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