Ernst Cassirer on Kant and modern linguistics

In 1945, just a few days before his untimely demise, the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer gave a speech entitled ‘Structuralism in modern linguistics’ in front of the Linguistic Circle of New York (his paper appeared in the journal WORD a few months later). Importantly, Cassirer did not use the label ‘structuralism’ to refer to the mainstream, mechanistic approach inspired by an early (rather outdated) version of behaviorist psychology. Proponents of this approach only focused on the description of the strictly observable (see the work of scholars such as Bernard Bloch or George L. Trager, among others). Instead, Cassirer referred to an alternative position, which we may define as ‘European/Sapirian-oriented’, whose advocates investigated language as an instrument to attain certain goals; as such, they were not content with describing linguistic structures but they also aimed to account for how linguistic structures contribute to communication (see the work of André Martinet or Morris Swadesh, for instance).

This approach to the study of language was based on three tenets. First of all, the analysis of meaning should be based on occurrences of actual language use, rather than etymology or textbook rules. In order to achieve an accurate description of the formal and semantic structures of a language, it was deemed necessary to observe the linguistic behavior of native speakers, which takes place in a specific socio-cultural environment, as language is shaped by use. Second, the function of linguistic units deserves to be brought to the fore, at the same level as the form. Indeed, a description of the formal shape of linguistic elements and their distribution does not count as a full description of a linguistic system: such an account may describe the formal relations among the elements of a system, but it will miss out on the role of these elements within the system and their functional relationship with the other elements. Finally, the different levels of language analysis (phonology, morphology, syntax) are not watertight compartments which should be separated by a dividing line; rather, they are interconnected. In particular, Kenneth L. Pike insisted that grammatical and phonological analysis should be run in parallel since one can benefit from findings in the other.

In other words, this approach consists of a systemic view of language which takes form, function, and meaning all into consideration, giving prominence to the way a language is actually used, also being attentive to the socio-cultural background of a community of speakers. Since the structure is created and shaped by function, a study of structure cannot be pursued regardless of the study of function. In turn, the study of function is made possible by the observation of how language is used. Observing language in actual use is also important in semantic studies, as meaning has always been a thorny issue in linguistic theory; actually, the nature of meaning has always been a matter of debate. However, the study of language in use allows for a consistent treatment of meaning as socially shared. This perspective finds philosophical support in Wittgenstein’s claim that meaning is use, i.e. the semantic properties of a linguistic unit are identical with its use in the language. Indeed, the adoption of an approach to language based on actual usage provides the analyst with a principled framework for addressing matters of meaning adopting an empirical perspective which, though fallible, is more reliable than etymological criteria or received knowledge, both synchronically and diachronically.

The study of language in use is unavoidably bound to take cultural issues into consideration. This is particularly important for the fieldworker, especially when it comes to translating texts into languages spoken in close communities. Observing the actual use of language is the key to understanding the adjustments to be made in order to strike a balance between respecting the purport of the original text and removing the obstacles to comprehension for the target audience. The observation of language in use and the relevance of function along with form also suggest that phonology and grammar are interwoven in a single linguistic system, where semantics also has a role to play. Indeed, all units of language are to some extent related to meaning. Even the phoneme, which does not have a meaning in itself, plays a role in determining the meaning of a larger unit, through its function of distinguishing it from other units which might have occurred in the same position.

With regard to the (perennial?) debate on the belonging of linguistics to the natural or the social sciences, Cassirer argues that this orientation firmly sides with the latter view. While mechanist linguists strive after assimilating linguistics to the natural sciences, European/Sapirian-oriented structuralists are keener on the Humboldtian perspective of language as a human activity (ένέργεια), rather than as a measurable product (έργoν). For them, merely describing sounds in terms of their acoustic and articulatory properties conceals the symbolic nature of language. Instead, adopting a systemic perspective on phonology and grammar on the one hand and on form, function, and meaning on the other reflects the view that language is a coherent whole in which all parts are interdependent upon each other, rather than a set of autonomous facets. Linguistics, as a semiotic science, focuses on the study of language as an instrument to engage with the outer world.

This attitude is consistent with Cassirer’s (1945, p. 114) suggestion that linguistics is a Geisteswissenschaft (i.e., belongs to the humanities), but with the qualification that Geist (literally, ‘spirit’) should not be understood as some metaphysical entity; rather, the term is to be used ‘in a functional sense as a comprehensive name for all those functions which constitute and build up the world of human culture.’ From this perspective, the approach described above is in harmony with Immanuel Kant’s holistic view of human experience (which is also necessary to science). Language is an integrated instrument shaped by use, which takes place in the context of a socio-cultural environment; as such, it is part and parcel of human experience at large. The systemic nature of experience may be seen as underpinning the success of structuralism in several scientific disciplines, as in the case of the recognition of sense-perception as having a definite structure by Gestalt psychologists.

As a final note, it is worth mentioning that present-day so-called ‘usage-based approaches’ to the study of language(s) such as variationist sociolinguisticssystemic functional linguistics, and cognitive linguistics have to some extent inherited or rediscovered this perspective in the last few decades, emphasizing the need to study language in actual usage events, the nature of grammatical constructions as form-function pairings, the interweaving of phonology and grammar, and also the importance of the social and cultural context. Although this is rarely acknowledged, today the structural linguistics of the kind described above may be unfashionable but is far from relegated to the past; indeed, the three functional tenets and the overarching Kantian principle proposed by Cassirer can still be observed in contemporary linguistic theory and practice. If we accept Cassirer’s proposal, Kant’s perspective on human experience represents the basic philosophical background that present-day usage-based linguistics shares with European/Sapirian-oriented structuralism.