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Language and EnlightenmentThe Berlin Debates of the Eighteenth Century$
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Avi Lifschitz

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199661664

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199661664.001.0001

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The Evolution and Genius of Language

The Evolution and Genius of Language

Debates in the Berlin Academy

Chapter:
(p.65) 3 The Evolution and Genius of Language
Source:
Language and Enlightenment
Author(s):

Avi Lifschitz

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199661664.003.0004

After an overview of the history of the Berlin Academy since its foundation in 1700, this chapter outlines the main questions concerning language that were debated in Berlin of the 1750s. Foremost among these issues was Rousseau's discussion of the emergence of language, mind, and society in his Discours sur l’inégalité of 1755. Far from being perceived as a modern version of the Epicurean story, Rousseau's Discours served to undermine the naturalistic thesis. It spurred into action a divine party arguing that language could have never evolved exclusively by human means. Meanwhile, another member of the Academy, Prémontval, combined the cognitive aspects of the language debates with the ‘genius of language’ discourse, or the thesis that language reflected and conditioned the cultural outlook of its speakers. His synthesis led to the declaration of the topic of the 1759 contest: the reciprocal influence of language and opinions.

Keywords:   Berlin Academy, epicureanism, human evolution, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Moses Mendelssohn, Johan Peter Süßmilch, André Pierre le Guay de Prémontval, Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, genius of language

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