March 18-20, 2010.
Scholars have long looked to language for insights into what it means to be human. The anthropologist Franz Boas described language as the “window on the soul.” Although he most likely did not have a spiritual “soul” in mind, the quote suggests a fundamental affinity between linguistic communication and humanness.
From Boas at the beginning to Noam Chomsky near the end, the twentieth century saw fundamental changes in the sciences of communication. While the dream of recovering an Adamic tongue had largely disappeared from twentieth-century approaches to language, new dreams offering versions of unity among languages and forms of communication emerged. The study of communication served as a particularly rich locus for beliefs about similarities and differences across time, space, cultures, and species. From attempts to catalog disappearing languages to the rise of universal grammars; from cybernetics to communicating chimpanzees and honeybees; from the establishment of linguistics as an academic discipline to the creation of ideal languages that were to bridge cultures and socioeconomic classes, the twentieth century yields a remarkably broad range of activities surrounding the study of language.
This workshop aims to examine the range of disciplinary approaches to language (including anthropology/ethnology, linguistics, psychology, sociology, philosophy, and ethology) and the objects of their study. In other words, what were some of these “windows” through which twentieth-century students of language peered? And what was the nature of the “souls” they hoped to glimpse? What did they hope to unveil about the boundaries and conditions of what it means to be human? Where along the continuum of sign and signifier did various approaches focus their gaze? How did the practices of study affect the kinds of knowledge they produced? And finally, what does a historical examination of language tell us about the complex interrelations between twentieth-century human and natural sciences?
This project is a cooperation between Dept. II of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and the Independent Research Group “Historicizing Knowledge about Human Biological Diversity.”
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Sciences of Communication in the 20th Century; March 18-20, 2010. Max Planck Institute for the History of Science
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