Rousseau on Language the First Social Institution

Draft material from a collaborative project on Rousseau and Language. Further details when the project is published online not very long from now.  The process of drafting and redrafting is very current and very intense, and this is far from final material, it also omits parts which make less sense before the essay is completed. I will just say that I am looking at Derrida’s reaction to Rousseau and my collaborator, who initiated this project is looking at Chomsky’s reaction.

Rousseau picks up on an old idea, that language is a defining feature of humanity, and turns that from an attribute to a pervasive aspect of human existence, not separable from its many aspects, bringing together music, poetry, passions, communication, history, political institutions, physical geography, human physique, and social conditions. His position has precedent, notably the work of Giambattista Vico in New Science. One way of thinking of the Essay on the Origin of Languages would be as a extraordinarily concise and deep summary of the New Science, seen in conjunction with Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws. It’s not a text greatly discussed in succeeding decades, but there is a range of philosophical work going up to Nietzsche via German Idealism, including Humboldt’s theory of language and Kierkegaard, which seem to follow up the Essay. The influence is that of resonance rather than direct reference, in which maybe the more obvious influences and from the longer texts of Rousseau. That would parallel the relation between Rousseau and Vico, overlapping that of Montesquieu and Vico, which is never made clear by Rousseau or Montesquieu and may again be more a matter of an accumulation of resonances and echoes rather than a direct influence.

The story of language in the Essay is in large part on an essay on music, and finishes with a discussion of liberty. It starts with that classic idea of language as the distinguishing feature of humans and then moves onto language as communication and understanding, overcoming the anxieties inherent in the use of gestures.

For Rousseau, language is the first social institution

 Speech distinguishes man from the animals. Language distinguishes nations from each other; one does not know where a man is from until after he has spoken. Usage and need make each learn the language of his country; but what causes this language to be that of his country and not of another? In oder to tell, one has to go back to some reason that pertains to locality, and precedes even morals: speech, being the first social institution, owes its form only to natural causes.

(Rousseau, Essay on the Origin of Languages, Chapter One)

The quotations shows Rousseau deepening the sense that it is the defining attribute of humans.

One complication which Rousseau sees in language is the relation between speeches and gestures.  Gestures are associated by Rousseau with anxiety about communicating in speech

Our gestures signify nothing but our natural uneasiness; it is not about these that I want to speak. Only Europeans gesticulate while speaking. One would think that all the force of their speech was in their arms. They further add to this the force of their lungs, and all this is hardly of any use to them. When a Frenchman has quite strained himself, quite tormented his body to say a lot of words, a Turk removes his pipe from his mouth for a moment, softly speaks two words, and crushes them with one aphorism.

(Essay on the Origin of Languages, Chapter One)

Gestures also appear as decisive means of communication avoiding the diversion of speech. Some of the  examples Rousseau gives are rather disturbing though, Tarquinus Superbus cutting off the heads of poppies to communicate an order for the massacre of leading citizens is a gesture of tyranny. He first gives the related example of Thraysbalus the seventh century BCE tyrant of Miltetus, who according to Herodotus (Histories 5 92f), and in reversed form by Aristotle (Politics 1284a), gave advice to Periander, tyrant on Thebes, on how to administer his state by cutting off the flowers of poppies in a field in front of Periander’s messenger. The story about Tarquinius and the the poppies is from the sixth century BCE, so may well be a Roman legend copying what may well be a Greek legend from a century before. These details are apparently diversion from Rousseau’s purpose in Origin, but the issue is distinguishing imitation from origin is an issue for Rousseau who is concerned with the first and the original event of language and therefore of social institutions. The status of the origin is also at stake in these stories of tyrants using gestures instead of words, suggesting that the first form of language, gesture, is the expression of unlawful force. It is the Tarquinius version of the story (In Livy’s History of Rome, Volume 1, Book 1), which has become better known. It’s most notable appearance in later literature is in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, as discussed by the present author chapter 2 of Kierkegaard on Politics (Palgrave 2014, but should be available from the 22nd November this year), and it has a wider cultural resonance even for those unaware of the ancient stories in the phrase ‘tall poppy syndrome’. So Rousseau’s example is full of resonance in his own time, and has acquired more resonance since.



One thought on “Rousseau on Language the First Social Institution

  1. Pingback: Meaning of Family | Zahal IDF Blog News

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