What is the role of language in human cognition? Could we attain self-consciousness and construct our civilization without language? Such were the questions at the basis of eighteenth-century debates on the joint evolution of language, mind, and culture. Language and Enlightenment highlights the importance of language in the social theory, epistemology, and aesthetics of the Enlightenment. While focusing on the Berlin Academy under Frederick the Great, Avi Lifschitz situates the Berlin debates within a larger temporal and geographical framework. He argues that awareness of the historicity and linguistic rootedness of all forms of life was a mainstream Enlightenment notion rather than a feature of the so-called 'Counter-Enlightenment'.
Enlightenment authors of different persuasions investigated whether speechless human beings could have developed their language and society on their own. Such inquiries usually pondered the difficult shift from natural signs like cries and gestures to the artificial, articulate words of human language. This transition from nature to artifice was mirrored in other domains of inquiry, such as the origins of social relations, inequality, the arts, and the sciences. By examining a wide variety of authors - Leibniz, Wolff, Condillac, Rousseau, Michaelis, and Herder, among others - Language and Enlightenment emphasises the open and malleable character of the eighteenth-century Republic of Letters. The language debates demonstrate that German theories of culture and language were not merely a rejection of French ideas. New notions of the genius of language and its role in cognition were constructed through a complex interaction with cross-European currents, especially via the prize contests at the Berlin Academy.
Avi Lifschitz is Senior Lecturer in European History at University College London (UCL). He has held research fellowships at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin, the Lichtenberg-Kolleg at the University of Gottingen, and the Clark Library at UCLA. He is editor of Engaging with Rousseau (2016) and co-editor of Epicurus in the Enlightenment (2009).
"Avi Lifschitz's fine study of language and Enlightenment in Berlin explains the central significance accorded to language in contemporary thinking about the origins and nature of human society. In doing so Lifschitz provides a new perspective on Herder's essay on the origins of language...Lifschitz has made an important contribution to our understanding of the Aufklärung. His book will be required reading for anyone who now wishes to study the subject."--History
"This impressive monograph provides a powerful and original contribution to the cultural history of Prussia and sustains its author's claim that 'the Academy became a major center of intellectual regeneration in Germany."--Tim Blanning, English Historical Review
"Lifschitz offers an eye-opening account of an episode in their history of German thought, which, though largely overlooked, clearly holds significant philosophical promise. While a philosophical audience will likely find it longer on historical detail and shorter on argumentative reconstruction than they are perhaps used to, it nonetheless serves to mark out some very promising territory for further investigation, and it is to be hoped that scholars interested in the philosophy of language and its history will take an interest in following up on this lively and provocative discussion."--Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews