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Justin E. H. Smith, University of Pari

Thu January 30th 2020, 4:30 - 6:00pm
Building 200, History Lounge (Room 302)

The Harmony of Languages and the Unity of Reason: 18th-Century Reflections on Linguistic Diversity and Human Origins

Abstract: In his 1730 book, A Description of the Northern and Eastern Parts of Europe and Asia, the Swedish traveler and linguist Philipp Johann von Strahlenberg included as an appendix a “Polyglot Table of the Harmony of Languages,” schematically presenting a number of vocabulary words in several of the languages of the Russian Empire, with an eye to lining up and comparing the terms in different languages that share a common root. The invocation of “harmony” is not incidental. Strahlenberg has borrowed his word list from a letter sent years earlier by the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, which he intended as a template for any traveller who might wish to realize his own dream of creating an exhaustive ethnolinguistic map of Eurasia. As Strahlenberg knew, Leibniz’s deepest philosophy was motivated by a vision of the ‘unity within multiplicity’, a vision that also informed his theory of the origins and diversity of languages. Having long before rejected the so-called ‘Adamic’ theory of language as esoteric obscurantism, late in his career Leibniz defended a view according to which different languages are to be grouped within larger families, and while these families cannot be traced back to a single divine source, they nonetheless are all expressive of the same basic and universal power of reason that structures the human mind. In this respect Strahlenberg’s Polyglot Table is a remarkable distillation of an active program of what may be called ‘applied Leibnizianism’, which in turn lay at the foundation of the emerging human science of anthropology in the 18th century, a science that took as its starting point the equality of all cultures, and understood the differences between them as different modulations of the same universal capacities.