Diversity of Language and World Views ― The Linguistic Philosophy of Humanism


Norio Murai
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Philosophy and History of Ideas


Currently, the term humanism, or humanismus in German, is associated with the ideas of humanitarianism and respecting the life and dignity of humankind; however, the true meaning of humanism significantly differs from such ideas. The origins of humanism as a tradition of philosophy can be traced back to the early modern Italian Renaissance concepts of 'umanesimo' and 'studia humanitatis', which refer to all cultural and academic phenomena of human beings. Even today, remnants of such ideas are contained in the discipline known as the humanities. I recently participated in the translation and publication of Linguistic Philosophy of Humanism――The Tradition of Humboldt (co-supervised; Iwanami Shoten, Publishers, 2020), which was originally written by Jürgen Trabant (Traditionen Humboldts, 1990). The subject of this book is German humanism (also known as new humanism), examined based on the premise of its relationships with the original concept of humanism in the Renaissance. In this article, I will introduce the characteristics of humanism, particularly from the perspective of linguistic philosophy by Wilhelm von Humboldt, and will examine its meaning in the humanities.

German humanism and linguistic philosophy

As evident from how humanism has its origins in the Renaissance of Italy, humanism in Europe rediscovers the classical literature of Greece and Roman, which had been forgotten during the Middle Ages. In that respect, humanism is a movement to connect literary and philosophical heritage to a new era. As was the case with Petrarca and Dante, there was a brilliant paradox where retrospectives were revived and the restoration turned to creation. The uniqueness of humanism is found in overcoming historical distances by reading and deciphering classical literature, while also attempting to make new and dramatic progress. The key to this is the phenomenon of language. Assuming that the function of language is to serve as a foundation for deepening our understanding of history through reading literature, the inherent nature of language is also to enable the creation of philosophy and literature.
In 18th-century German humanism, an attempt was made to theoretically consider the function of language against the backdrop of the German classical literary movements of Goethe and Schiller. The representatives of 18th-century German humanism―Hamann, Herder, and Humboldt―do not belong to a particular school or group; still, there are reasons to collectively refer to such thinkers using the label of German humanism. That is because they share certain commonalities; namely, they disagree with the modern rational traditions espoused since Descartes and draw a line separating themselves from the movement of German idealism that began with Kant during the same period. In contrast to Kant's abstract and universal rationalism, German humanism pursues specific human activities and the realities of life, and attempts to grasp the form of human beings with diverse characteristics by using the term 'Humanität (humanity)'. Within each culture, human beings gradually form their own personalities and discern their personal form. This type of self-cultivation is called 'Bildung'. Wilhelm von Humboldt advocated the education for self-cultivation. He led the founding of the University of Berlin and established the concept of a modern university that requires the humanities. As the core of such human understanding, or as the most archetypal phenomenon, Humboldt made the philosophical clarification of language his lifelong work. He gathered a vast amount of knowledge on various languages, including languages which he actually investigated himself (Basque, Malay, etc.) and the language materials brought back from the New World by his younger brother Alexander von Humboldt, who was known as an explorer. Based on this information, he established a unique and unprecedented philosophy of language.

Language as media

Language is inseparable from reason. This is apparent from how ancient Greeks used the word 'logos' to represent both reason and language. As such, human beings are referred to as animals with language (reason). However, the language actually used is not an abstract one like rational logical expressions and mathematical formulas; instead, it exists as individual languages such as Japanese and English. As far as the means of expression and communication are concerned, languages contain far more noise and fluctuations than mathematical formulas. This is because each language is expressed through sound, written characters, etc., and is thus subject to restrictions of sensory abilities such as hearing and sight. In other words, although language expresses rational thoughts, it appears as nothing more than materials such as phonics and letter symbols. In that respect, language spans the different areas of mind and matter, and functions to connect those areas.
As goes without saying, language exerts great power in communication and the transmission of meaning. Even in such cases, the speaker must have acquired a particular language beforehand, rather than creating the language him/herself. As such, even speakers who seem to be acting on their own initiative at first glance are actually passive in that they have been educated in a certain language in advance. When looking at both sides of the phenomenon, even people who use words of their own volition can also be said to be at the mercy of the words which they are using. People are born within a particular linguistic environment and gradually mature as they learn the language. A language which expresses nothing and is not spoken to anyone is nothing more than fiction or contradiction. Words are meant to mean something, and are a public phenomenon in how they convey that meaning to someone. In that respect, language functions most dynamically in a dialogue where "I" speak to "you" about "something" which engenders mutual response. This is what promotes the acquisition of social skills and education (self-cultivation) for personal development through language.
Thus, language exists in the boundaries between various areas―reason and sense, spiritual and material, active and passive, you and I, speaker (author) and listener (reader), and the individual and society. Accordingly, as an intermediate phenomenon, language has the mysterious property of not belonging to either of the two opposing areas, but to both at the same time. Such an intermediate existence is called a medium, which is also a Latin term. The plural form of medium is media. In other words, language is literally a medium that functions in intermediate areas; that is, a classical form of a media.

From a curse to a blessing of the Tower of Babel

Language is a prerequisite for establishing relationships during actual life as individuals. In that sense, it is a living work that establishes these relationships in the intermediate areas of various relationships. This is why Humboldt stated that language is an activity (Energeia), not a finished product (Ergon). As a media, language fundamentally fulfills the role of a bridge between human beings and the world because it functions in the boundaries between different areas. Language has an enormous influence on how human beings view and interact with the world and other people. Just as the media of light is indispensable to visually appreciate an object, the media of language is indispensable when humans live in the world. Therefore, in terms of forming a relationship with the world, language contributes significantly to constructing a viewpoint of the world, that is, a worldview. Each particular language has its own unique worldview.
The concept of language as a worldview is at the core of language philosophy by Humboldt. According to him, when we engage with other people and the world, we do not mechanically accumulate individual empirical facts; instead, there is the interposition of a comprehensive prior understanding―in other words, a certain image (worldview). The phenomenon of language is working at the root of worldview. Language is a factor that influences how the person using said language perceives and accepts the world. Furthermore, each language forms its own unique world through vocabulary and grammar. Therefore, diversity of language is also diversity of worldviews.
Long ago, the issue of language diversity was addressed in the Old Testament through the myth of the Tower of Babel. In this parable, in order to punish human beings for the arrogant act of building a skyscraper that tries to approach heaven, God made mutual understanding among all human beings impossible by dividing the one original human language into multiple languages. As illustrated through this parable, language diversity has long been considered as a curse or punishment due to the barrier it creates to mutual understanding among human beings. However, Humboldt attempts to transform the curse of Babel into a blessing by emphasizing the creative role of language and connecting it with the diversity of worldviews. The differences in various languages and diversity of worldviews also create abundance in our world. In order to express this concept, Humboldt compared language to a prism. When functioning as an optical device, a prism splits a single white light into various colors. Similarly, when functioning as media, language diversifies the way of interacting with the human world and stimulates our imaginations. Furthermore, since Humboldt views language as an activity (Energeia), he does not view languages and worldviews as fixed, rigid finished products or strong ideologies; instead, he states that they flexibly metamorphose and open new perspectives through creativity. Literature, art, and culture as a whole are the direct result of this diverse and active energy. Humanism (which is not limited to a single or abstract form) and the plural form known as humanities are actively involved in such cultural creation and diversification of the world; at the same time, they must provide depth and substance to the world.

Norio Murai

Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University

Areas of Specialization: Philosophy and History of Ideas

Norio Murai was born in Tokyo in 1962. In 1994, he finished the Doctoral Program in the Graduate School of Philosophy, Sophia University. From 2003, he began teaching as a Full-Time Instructor at Meisei University, after which he was appointed as an Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and Professor. He assumed his current position in 2017. He holds a PhD in philosophy from Sophia University.

Focusing on modern German philosophers such as Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Humboldt, he examines the contemporary form of transcendental philosophy such as phenomenology and hermeneutics.
He is also interested in the history of philosophy and ideology as represented by Blumenberg, and the growth of the humanities found in Auerbach and Curtius.
His written works include Nietzsche: The Mystery of Zarathustra (Chuko Shinsho, 2008), Deconstruction and Retrogression: The History of Heidegger and Metaphysics (Chisen Shokan, 2014), Possibilities of Humanities: Language, History, and Forms (Chisen Shokan, 2016) and more.