Tackling the Naturalistic Conundrum

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

Tackling the Naturalistic Conundrum

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)


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This chapter traces new impulses in the 1760s such as the first publication of Leibniz's Nouveaux essais, the 1763 contest on certitude in metaphysics, and investigations of animal instincts. At the end of the 1760s, despite some exasperation with the naturalistic thesis, the Academy announced its prize question for 1771. It required an explanation of how initially speechless human beings could have invented language on their own. Though Michaelis submitted an entry, the prize went on this occasion to Johann Gottfried Herder. Herder's prize essay recast the question while trying to save the human origin of language from both its detractors and its inadequate defenders. This engagement with the preceding debate should corroborate the recent reassessment of Herder's significance as a central thinker of the Enlightenment rather than its enemy.

Keywords: origin of language; Johann Gottfried Herder; Johann David Michaelis; Thomas Abbt; instincts; anthropology; animal language; conjectural history; naturalism; Berlin Academy

Chapter.  9919 words. 

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945)

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