The Writing of Spirit: Soul, System, and the Roots of Language Science

The Writing of Spirit: Soul, System, and the Roots of Language Science

The Writing of Spirit: Soul, System, and the Roots of Language Science

The Writing of Spirit: Soul, System, and the Roots of Language Science

Synopsis

Contemporary thought has been profoundly shaped by the turn toward synchronic models of explanation, which analyze phenomena as they appear at a single moment, rather than diachronically as they develop through time. Nowhere, however, has this transformation unfolded more influentially than in the domain of language science, where the terminology of synchrony and diachrony first explicitly emerges.

The Writing of Spirit sets out to demonstrate, through a new history of language science, that we do not know what we think we know about this pivotal juncture in our intellectual past. Twentieth-century linguistic structuralism, it argues, does not replace the historicist approach of the nineteenth century with a more modern, more systematic perspective, as has long been assumed, because the relationship between history and system is structuralism’s point. The real revolution consists not in a turn away from language time, but in a turn toward time’s absolutely minimal conditions, and thus also toward a theory of diachrony, boiled down and distilled.

Pourciau arrives at this surprising and powerful conclusion through an analysis of language scientific theories over the course of two centuries, associated with thinkers from Jacob Grimm to the Russian Futurists and from Richard Wagner to Roman Jakobson, in domains as disparate as historical linguistics, phonology, acoustics, opera theory, philosophy, poetics, and psychology. The result is a novel contribution to one of the most pressing questions of our intellectual moment, namely, the question of what role the study of history should play in the interpretation of the present.

Excerpt

Systems, today, are generally presumed to have dispensed with their souls. Complex organic beings, according to contemporary biologists, do not originate and develop under the influence of an invisible “life force.” World events, according to historians, do not progress toward the realization of goals dictated by Absolute Reason. Individual languages, according to linguists, do not evolve in conformity with the dictates of a shaping spirit or Sprachgeist. the premise of an intending Mind—for centuries considered indispensable to any scientific account of self-perpetuating structures such as bodies and dialects— has finally, over the course of the last few centuries, been expunged from the domain of science, and the story of this expulsion belongs, under the banner of a positivist disenchantment, to the heritage of our contemporary age. the consequences for what counts as knowledge are both radical and, by now, cliché: God dies (to science). the subject follows. the passage of time, which no longer moves bodies or eras or languages in the direction of a purpose fulfilled, loses all claim to intrinsic meaning, and thus also to the domain of enduring truth. “History” as an object of investigation ceases to play any necessary role in the quest for present-tense models of the universe. the sciences of nature and culture diverge, institutionally and methodologically, leaving humanists at least nominally responsible for a whole host of suspiciously soul-like phenomena (the German term, after all, is Geisteswissenschaftler, or “spirit scientist”), which their natural scientific counterparts have agreed to consider epistemically irrelevant.

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