The Expressivist Conception of Language and World: Humboldt and the Charge of Linguistic Idealism and Relativism

In Jon Burmeister & Mark Sentesy (eds.), On Language: Analytic, Continental and Historical Contributions. Cambridge Scholars Press. pp. 3-26 (2008)
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Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) is rightly regarded as a thinker who extended the development of the so-called expressivist conception of language and world that Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788) and especially Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) initially articulated. Being immersed as Humboldt was in the intellectual climate of German Romanticism, he aimed not only to provide a systematic foundation for how he believed linguistic research as a science should be conducted, but also to attempt to rectify what he saw as the deficiencies of Kant’s philosophical system. My aim in this paper is to show how an expressivist thinker like Humboldt has the conceptual resources from within his own framework and, perhaps surprisingly, with some help from the 20th century philosopher of language and mind, Donald Davidson, to reject a criticism commonly made against expressivist conceptions of language and world. This is the charge that this sort of expressivism threatens the objectivity of the world by emphasizing the role of language in the constitution and disclosure of the world. Cristina Lafont makes just this charge against Humboldt (and other philosophers in the German expressivist-hermeneutic tradition). Specifically, she argues that expressivist philosophers of language are all ultimately committed to some pernicious form of linguistic idealism and relativism. In this paper, I first present Humboldt’s reflections on language and give some textual evidence for why he is often read – mistakenly in my view – as a linguistic idealist and relativist. Second, I briefly sketch Lafont’s charge of linguistic idealism and relativism against Humboldt. Third and finally, I show how she misunderstands Humboldt’s expressivist conception of language and world by connecting my rebuttal to her criticism with Davidson’s argument that successful communication does not require the sharing of explicit rules or conventions that govern in advance the use and understanding of words.

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Jo-Jo Koo
Duke University


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