The Evolution and Genius of Language

Avi Lifschitz

in Language and Enlightenment

Published in print September 2012 | ISBN: 9780199661664
Published online January 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191751653 | DOI:

Series: Oxford Historical Monographs

The Evolution and Genius of Language

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)


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After an overview of the history of the Berlin Academy since its foundation in 1700, this chapter outlines the main questions concerning language that were debated in Berlin of the 1750s. Foremost among these issues was Rousseau's discussion of the emergence of language, mind, and society in his Discours sur l’inégalité of 1755. Far from being perceived as a modern version of the Epicurean story, Rousseau's Discours served to undermine the naturalistic thesis. It spurred into action a divine party arguing that language could have never evolved exclusively by human means. Meanwhile, another member of the Academy, Prémontval, combined the cognitive aspects of the language debates with the ‘genius of language’ discourse, or the thesis that language reflected and conditioned the cultural outlook of its speakers. His synthesis led to the declaration of the topic of the 1759 contest: the reciprocal influence of language and opinions.

Keywords: Berlin Academy; epicureanism; human evolution; Jean Jacques Rousseau; Moses Mendelssohn; Johan Peter Süßmilch; André Pierre le Guay de Prémontval; Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis; genius of language

Chapter.  13447 words. 

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945)

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