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Review of  Humboldt, Worldview and Language

Reviewer: Pierre-Yves Modicom
Book Title: Humboldt, Worldview and Language
Book Author: James W. Underhill
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Philosophy of Language
Issue Number: 25.1821

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The introduction of this book is devoted to contemporary discussions about language diversity in the context of globalization, a debate in which the legacy of the German scholar Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) is regularly mentioned. Even though Humboldt played an important role in the history of linguistics and of the philosophy of language, there is no satisfying introduction to his thought in English. The aim of the book is to provide such an introduction, especially in the perspective of modern debates about anthropological linguistics and the link between language and culture.

Part 1, “Language and world”, is both a historical presentation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and a critical discussion of the positions defended by various protagonists of the debates on language diversity. In Chapter 1 (“The Word is a World”), Underhill criticizes what he considers to be the flawed argumentation of European proponents of language diversity. Most of them, especially the French Africanist Anne Stamm, defend the view that a language is not only the gate to the culture of its speakers, but that culture is somehow identical with language (p. 7, see also Stamm 1999:140). Underhill quickly shows why this “metaphysical” stance is not satisfying and then (Ch. 2: “What Do We Have in Mind When We Talk about Language?”) comes to more general views on the relationship between thought and language. People defending some sort of correlation or determinism, he says, often use the term “worldview” but hardly define it, just as they give few precise definitions about what they call “thought” or “language”. Following this (Ch. 3), Underhill raises the question “What Do We See in the Term Worldview?”. That term is a translation from German, where it has two forms: “Weltansicht” and “Weltanschauung”. Both are often confused, but their meaning is different. “Weltansicht” refers to the way our culture or in this case our language system supposedly shapes our perception of the world. “Weltanschauung” is much more akin to “ideology” or “philosophy”. The “Worldview hypothesis” (in the sense of “Weltansicht”) claims that language plays a role in everyday perception and conceptualization, but that does not mean that it is a sort of mental prison outside which we cannot think.

Underhill next draws the outline of a “philological archaeology” of the “Worldview hypothesis” in the 20th century. The first character discussed (Ch. 4) is Franz Boas, who worked on American Indian languages with the idea that no culture, no language is superior to any other, and defended a relatively weak form of relativism as opposed to the rationalist background of comparative grammar in the 19th century. Boas did not believe in linguistic determinism, but he worked on the irreducible grammatical differences between languages. Yet, he sometimes seemed to suggest that the categorial templates of languages, as exemplified by the parts of speech or by derivational morphology, correspond to instinctive conceptual schemes shared by speakers of that language. This idea was adopted by Sapir, to whom Chapter 5 is devoted. According to Sapir, language provides the tools with which we categorize the outside world. In this sense, there is an influence of language on thought. Yet, Sapir defended a strict usage-based account: the “tyranny of language” is not a tyranny of the grammatical system but a tyranny of social norms. In other words, there is no direct linguistic determination of thought or culture. Finally, Whorf (Ch. 6) radicalised Sapir’s conception of language as a set of patterns through his notion of “habitual thought”: For Whorf, meaning is a set of context- and language-bound clusters. Those clusters are “schemes” in which “subjective experience is systematically objectified” (p. 36). Unlike many scholars, Underhill defends the view that Whorf was not, strictly speaking, a relativist, but established hierarchies between languages according to their degree of correspondence with immediate experience - for instance, the Hopi system was allegedly more akin to universal human frames of thought than “Standard Average European”.

Part 2, “Humboldt, Man and Language”, is centred on Humboldt, who is sometimes considered to have introduced the concept or worldview as “Weltanschauung”, to which Whorf and others later resorted. Yet, as Underhill shows in Chapter 7 (“Worldview - Weltanschauung or Weltansicht”), Humboldt himself hardly used the word “Weltanschauung”, but spoke of Weltansicht, glossed by Underhill as “the capacity which language bestows upon us to form the concepts with which we think and which we need in order to communicate.” In Chapter 8, “Sprache”, Underhill shows that for Humboldt, as for late 18th-century philosophers such as Herder or Hamann, language is the “organ of thought”. Humboldt’s original contribution lies in his idea that language is an activity rather than an object of any kind. Language exists only at the level of performance. This dynamic conception is at the core of Chapter 9, “The Work of the Mind”, which exposes the idea that “meaning arises in discourse from mental work” (p. 63). This dynamic view of things is related to the more general question of “Bildung”, i.e. the education or formation of Humankind. This brings Underhill to the question of the heritage of Enlightenment. More specifically, Humboldt appears to have been strongly influenced by Kant’s theories about the role of individual understanding in perception and conceptualization. Yet for Humboldt, the categories shaping our experience are not really a priori as postulated by Kant, but rather language-bound. Nevertheless, thanks to linguistic creativity and innovation, we can free ourselves from those conceptual schemes. We are influenced by our language, but we are not prisoners of it.

Chapter 10, “Form”, deals with the requisites of comparative linguistics in a Humboldtian fashion. First, the dynamicity and fluidity of language cannot be overestimated. Second, the faculty of language cannot be studied without appropriate knowledge of individual languages. Third, even though one can never fully command a foreign language, the global comprehension of a linguistic system can be achieved by the philologist who has a critical mass of details about that language. The overall idea of Chapter 11 (“Creativity, Culture and Character”) is that individual speakers, especially writers, have the capacity of pushing a language forward. The patterns provided by a language are not prisons. As Underhill puts it: “Individual creativity refines and enriches the language we speak: and that refined and enriched language exerts a creative influence upon our minds” (p. 89). The next question is that of “catching the character” of a given language (Ch. 12). After criticizing “much comparative linguistics of the second half of the twentieth century” as relying upon “absurd and, quite literally, meaningless” premises, (p. 97-98), Underhill underlines the limits of Humboldt’s system, which relies too heavily on the metaphor of “language as an individual”, and could lead one to mistake the works of great writers for the character of their language. Finally, there is also a risk of self-projection from the mother tongue of the analyst onto the language (s)he studies. In Chapter 13 (“A seeing and feeling Worldview”), Underhill claims that the notion of Worldview must be adapted in order to distinguish between “world-perceiving” and “world-conceiving”. This leads him to enumerate the “Four dangers of the comparative approach” (ch. 14): (i) unsatisfying definitions; (ii) confusion between a language and its writers; (iii) projection from the mother language onto the target language; (iv) the absence of critical reflection on the personal motivations of the linguist. The idea that “all comparison reveals or hides an evaluation” (a quote from French anti-structuralist scholar Henri Meschonnic) is finally illustrated by quotes from handbooks of translation, showing that even specialists in cross-linguistic philology use clichés about the various languages they work with.

After a brief summary of the book, Underhill devotes Chapter 15 (“Reformulating the Worldview hypothesis”) to several conceptual distinctions that should serve as a framework for further research in the direction indicated by Humboldt. First, the notion of “World” should not be taken for granted, and linguists should distinguish between the world as it is, the world as we perceive it and the world as we speak about it. Second, “language” itself is a polysemic term, designating “the faculty of human speech”, “a variety of speech or body of words belonging to a linguistic community”, or “diction or style of speech” (p. 129). Third, “thought” should not be taken as a block. Patterns of thought, Underhill claims, enable us to explore our own thought-world and to develop newer patterns, so that thought is in constant evolution and is not imprisoned by the categories provided by language. Finally, Underhill proposes to divide the notion of “Worldview” into a set of concepts, from the most stable, unconscious to the most personal, conscious level: world-perceiving, world-conceiving, “cultural mindset” , personal world, and perspective (p. 135). In the “Final Word”, Underhill expresses the hope that the study of Humboldt’s thought will make it possible to study the variety of languages and cultures from a more accurate, less romantic fashion than has been the case up to now.


First, it must be said that the title and the presentation of the book by the editor are partly misleading. This is not, at least not primarily, an analysis of Humboldt’s theories about language, about his comparative enterprise or about his reflections on language and what we would now call cognition. Underhill’s book is to a large extent a polemic essay directed both at mainstream academic linguistics (formal linguistics, comparative syntax and typology as a whole) and at what Underhill regards to be the unsatisfying alternative provided by allegedly “naïve” ecolinguistics and similar approaches exemplified by David Crystal, Anne Stamm and Claude Hagège (the fact that Stamm is not a linguist but an anthropologist seems to play no role). Much in the spirit of the late, controversial French scholar Henri Meschonnic, Underhill argues that traditional linguistics is narrowly focused on grammar and misunderstands the role of meaning and communicative intentions in language, and that a true understanding of language must be as usage-based and interactional as possible. Structure is regarded as a dead form, an abstraction at odds with the essence of language, which is an interpersonal activity. Due to this, language is strongly culture-bound and is at the same time the instrument for the development of culture, including the conceptualization of the outside world. This is the point where Humboldt becomes relevant for Underhill (and Meschonnic before him): Humboldt, so Underhill claims, has conceptualized this mutual dependency of language, culture and collective cognition in a much more relevant and fine-grained way than all “ecolinguists” and representatives of the Sapir-Whorf-hypothesis, including Whorf himself. In this respect, Humboldt’s role here is strictly instrumental and subordinated to the author’s polemic aim. I must say that I expected something else due to the title and the presentation of the book, which are much more focused on Humboldt’s life and works. Those who do not know of Humboldt or expect a comprehensive introduction to his work should probably turn to another book, e.g. Michael Forster’s recent essays on German philosophy of language at that time (Forster 2010). Besides, this strange editorial choice also undermines the overall impression of coherence of the essay. This is a shame, because in itself, Underhill’s work is perfectly coherent and another title such as “From Humboldt to Whorf” and a more accurate presentation by the editor would have been perfectly sufficient to show it.

Turning to the historical reconstruction of Humboldt’s thought by Underhill, one must say that it is partly flawed by missing explanations on the intellectual context in which he worked. I will not focus upon the very few factual mistakes; much more problematic is the author’s interpretation of Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” (Kant 1974). There is no scholarly consensus about how direct and how decisive Kant’s influence on Humboldt was, but if Underhill believes that it is not possible to understand Humboldt without mentioning Kant, then he should have done so more thoroughly. The summary of the “Critique of Pure Reason” (which is never named as such), delivered on pp. 67-68, does not correspond to the reality of Kantian criticism, but much more to later forms of post-Kantian “Subjective Idealism”, which is also an important source for Humboldt’s thought, but should not be assimilated to Kant’s own work. Further, Underhill never mentions the fact that language does not play any explicit role in the “Critique of Pure Reason”, nor does he pay attention to Kant’s works on culture and historical anthropology, either. This is the most unsatisfying aspect of Underhill’s historical reconstruction: many aspects correctly identified in Humboldt’s theories, such as the role of Bildung or the defense of cultural diversity as an admirable feature of Humankind, can already be found in very similar terms in some of Kant’s texts on the teleology of historical thought (Kant 1977). For Kant, history is made by the actions of individuals, who might pursue egoistic aims but still work in the interest of the species, because they move Humanity forward and make real and effective the potentialities of our species. This historical realization of all virtual competences of Humanity by individuals is what Kant calls Bildung, and the diversity of languages, religions and cultures in the world is the sign of that and at the same time the proof of Humankind’s infinite richness and potentiality. The link between this cultural anthropology and Humboldt’s project is evident, yet it is left unaddressed by Underhill. Another problem, this time directly related to Humboldt, is the idea that Humboldt’s “Sprachbau”, the structure of language, should be understood as a dynamic term, as “the construction of language” and not as “structure” in the present sense (p. 63). Yet, in some essays that he wrote directly in French, Humboldt himself translated “Bau” into “structure” or “framework” (French: ‘charpente’). This suggests that for Humboldt, the dynamic nature of language was compatible with the relevance of static grammatical patterns, a point that Underhill is tacitly denying throughout the whole book.

Let us now turn to what I regard as the true topic of the book, namely the polemic on language and culture. At the first level, linguists might be rebuked by the somewhat aggressive tone of Underhill when he criticizes modern linguistics as a sort of academic formalism ignorant of meaning, life and individuality (especially in Chapters 11 and 12). Apart from Boas, Sapir, Whorf and Lakoff, the reader might get the impression that modern linguistics is the superficial comparison of grammatical structures in languages spoken by people to which linguists pay no attention. In spite of this, linguists interested in cultural anthropology, cognitive metaphor theories and usage-based linguistics might find some interest in Underhill’s original attempt. Furthermore, some interesting comparisons are drawn between linguistics and related fields such as translation theory or stylistics. But the most interesting part of the book is certainly the last chapter, where Underhill proposes some definitions for the concepts at stake. It is of course regrettable that those definitions come up so late and that the author concludes the book with a dismissal of “simple classifications” precisely after proposing a nomenclature of concepts. The definitions proposed by Underhill are interesting and it would have been very stimulating to confront them with clear examples. The only long illustration provided after one of those definitions is Victor Klemperer’s (1957) description of Nazi language as an illustration of “Weltanschauung”, but the fact that the very concept of “Weltanschauung” itself is one of the words studied by Klemperer makes things more complicated, and Underhill finally leaves the reader with the impression that he has not treated this example as convincingly as he could have done. It could have been the role of the author not to leave us with this “simple classification”, but to show us how those concepts could be implemented. Instead of that, Chapter 15 is a sort of register of conceptual tools that we are left free to use or to neglect. Some of those distinctions, for instance the fine-grained hierarchy of “worldview” layers, sound very promising. Unfortunately, this promise is delivered only a few pages before the end of the essay, and is doomed to stay unfulfilled, at least in this book. In this sense, one hopes that Underhill will write a further volume that will confirm the high expectations raised by this very demanding and very critical study.


Forster, Michael N. 2010. “German Philosophy of Language from Schlegel to Hegel and Beyond”. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kant, Immanuel. 1974. Kritik der reinen Vernunft. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp (2 vol.; first edition Königsberg, 1781).

Kant, Immanuel. 1977. Schriften zur Anthropologie, Geschichtsphilosophie, Politik und Pädagogik, 1. Collected by W. Weischedel. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

Klemperer, Victor. 1957. LTI. Notizbuch eines Philologen. Halle/Saale: Niemeyer.

Stamm, Anne. 1999. La Parole est un Monde. Paris: Le Seuil.
Pierre-Yves Modicom holds an M.A. in German linguistics from U. Paris Sorbonne and studied German language and literature and philosophy of science at the Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris. He is currently a PhD candidate in German linguistics at U. Paris Sorbonne.

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