University of Amsterdam
1. From sensualism to intentionalism. Four examples.
What do Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), Jacques van Ginneken (1877-1945), Ernst Cassirer (1894-1945) and Martinus Langeveld (1905-1989) have in common?
Apart from the fact that they were all men, prominent scholars, and active in the first half of the 20th century, there seem to be few common features at first sight. Wundt was a pioneer German psychologist, Van Ginneken was a well-known Dutch linguist, Cassirer was a famous German neo-Kantian philosopher, and the Dutchman Langeveld was one of the founders of pedagogy as a scientific discipline.
However, they shared one interest: language, and its relation to thought. In Wundt’s most famous work, the ten-volume Völkerpsychologie, two volumes are devoted to language and its psychological foundations. For Van Ginneken, this issue was the central theme of his internationally recognized Principes de linguistique psychologique. Also Cassirer’s three-volume Philosophie der Symbolischen Formen deals with this theme and is regarded as his most original work. Finally, Langeveld started his successful career with his influential thesis Taal en denken (Language and thought), written when he was still a language teacher, which explains why he connects the theme to problems of language education at secondary schools.
What is more, the positions of the four scholars in the contemporary language-and-thought debate are similar. In very general terms, this debate concerned the transition from sensualism to intentionalism.
According to sensualism, mental life mainly consists of representations and associations, all based upon sense data and internal sensations; language exteriorizes mental life, so meanings are mainly equated with successive representations. This view became prominent in the 18th century and, despite criticism (for example by Humboldt), it continued during the whole 19th century. Condillac, Steinthal and Paul are well-known defenders. From the end of the 19th century onwards, this view was gradually abandoned in favor of a more active view of mental life. Meanings of words and sentences were no longer seen as purely representational. As their mental counterparts, more complex volitional acts were assumed. Initially these acts were conceived as purely intra-psychical. Later on, genuine intentional acts were assumed: acts not definable solely in terms of internal occurrences in the speaker’s mind, but also in terms of their purpose, their appeal to the listener, and, moreover, in terms of their being about objects and states-of-affairs. The work of Marty and especially Bühler exemplifies this transition. Bühler’s famous triangular organon-model can be regarded as the pinnacle of this development: linguistic signs are not only symptoms, expressing the speaker’s mental state, but also purposeful signals, appealing to the listener, and symbols, representing external objects and states of affairs (Bühler 1990 : 34).
The four scholars all participated in this general transition, each in his own way. They took steps away from sensualism, and towards a more active and intentionalist view of mental life and linguistic semantics. But the main reason why I focus on these four scholars is that they all exhibit remarkable and similar ideas about special, allegedly “lower-level” types of language and thought; for example the language and thought of small children, of so-called primitive people, or of mentally deficient people. The language and thought of these groups is described in purely sensualistic terms.
This is somewhat surprising: the four scholars all regard non-sensualistic features as essential for human language and thought in general. At the same time there appears to be residual sensualism in their description of these special types of human language: sensualism for dummies.
How did they defend these seemingly paradoxical views?