Wilhelm von Humboldt set out on the ambitious project “to compare the languages of the world and the worlds that they permit us to enter into” (James Underhill, Humboldt, Worldview, and Language, 16). To do so, he had to formulate a novel view of language over against the available models of his time. These were two: Language was considered either a vehicle or a mirror.
According to Underhill, “For most philosophers of the Enlightenment (and Humboldt remained in many respects a proponent of the Enlightenment project which sought to discover the nature of man), language was considered to be the creation of human Reason. It may be a necessary outward vehicle, philosophers supposed, for Reason’s more complex operations, but it remained subordinate to Reason.” Others, like Leibniz, considered it “the mirror of the intellect,” so that “language reflects thought” (58)
For Humboldt, these were too static and dead. He instead considered speech “as the formative organ of thought” (58), a notion he borrowed from Hamann and Herder. He developed this insight in two directions, with regard to the “speaking man” and with regard to an adaptation of Kant’s theory of perception.
On the first point, Underhill offers this summary: “Humboldt conceptualised language not as a fi xed, unchanging thing but as a living process. While language endures, it only endures because we live within it. Language is sustained in any semi-permanent form only by the transitory acts of speaking and writing carried out by people everyday (Humboldt 1999: 49). Even when we conceive of a language as something belonging to a community, Humboldt insisted, we should not forget that it remains personal and present. We have no contact with language that does not involve speaking men or words written by them.”
Instead of focusing on language as an object of study, Humboldt emphasized the role of speech, insisting that “writing is always just an incomplete, mummy-like preservation, only needed again in attempting thereby to picture the living utterance.” Thus, language is not a “product” (ergon) but “activity” (energeia). Language involves a mass of details; thought, Humboldt believed, was unified. How does one relate to the other? That was the question for the linguist (60-1).
Regarding perception, Humboldt saw language as a key part of the mind’s effort to organize and assess the world outside. In Underhill’s summary, “Humboldt conceives the work of the mind as an activity, not a passive process of assimilating already- organised details. Language and the mind can both be said to organise experience. Man makes distinctions between things, thrusting his subjective concept outside of himself into the world by virtue of the sonorous word which he shares with others. This objectifies the subjective concept. Over time, this activity of objectifi cation of the subjective experience of thought comes to settle into formed concepts and distinctions which will be passed on to others as language develops. Therefore, the mind’s organising activity can be said to parallel the activity of language as it organises concepts” (66).
This, Underhill argues, derives from Kant, with the difference that Humboldt (like Hamann) put language in the slot where Kant put the Understanding. Humboldt put it this way: “of ideas can be regarded as a purely receptive contemplation of a thing already present. The activity of the senses must combine synthetically with the inner action of the mind, and from this combination the idea is ejected, becomes an object vis-à-vis the subjective power, and, perceived anew as such, returns back to the latter. But language is indispensable for this. For in that the mental striving breaks out through the lips in language, the product of that striving returns back to the speaker’s ear. Thus the idea becomes transformed into real objectivity, without being deprived of subjectivity on that account. Only language can do this; and without this transformation, occurring constantly with the help of language even in silence, into an objectivity that returns to the subject, the act of concept-formation, and with it all true thinking, is impossible” (69). We talk to ourselves when we talk, not just to other people, and this overhearing of ourselves is essential to the formation of concepts. Like Hamannn again, Humboldt sees language as a way to break down the subjective-objective dualism inherent in post-Cartesian philosophy.