Laboratoire d’histoire des théories linguistiques, Université Paris-Diderot
I find that what I most care for is beauty of form, whether in substance or, perhaps even more keenly, in spirit. A perfect style, a well-balanced system of philosophy, a perfect bit of music, the beauty of mathematical relations — these are some of the things that, in the sphere of the immaterial, have most deeply stirred me.
(Sapir, letter to Lowie, 29 September 1916, cited in Silverstein 1986: 79)
In several texts, Sapir uses the term form-feeling, or closely related expressions (e.g. relational feeling, form intuition, feeling for form / relations / patterning / classification into forms, to feel a pattern / form etc.), to refer to the grasp of an unconscious linguistic or cultural and behavioral pattern. This grasp is what directs the subject of a given culture and speaker of a given language to act and speak in accordance with the patterns set down in his social and linguistic environment.
The following post is about the possible source of the notion of form-feeling. It is divided into two parts. First, I present the notion of form-feeling and the form-function duality in Sapir’s thought (sections 1 and 2). Next I come to the possible source of the notion, which I argue is to be found in German-speaking aesthetics and the concept of Formgefühl (sections 3, 4 and 5). Lastly, I will say a few words about Sapir’s striving for form and, again, its possible aesthetic origin.
My pathological lack of a feeling for concise form has resulted in a lengthy post. I beg to be forgiven. Many thanks to James McElvenny and Nick Riemer, who reviewed this post and checked the English.
1. The notion of form-feeling
The notion of form-feeling, as far as I know, first occurs in Language (1921), where it is applied to linguistic patterning. For example, we read that “both the phonetic and conceptual structures show the instinctive feeling of language for form” (1921: 56) or that every language has a definite feeling for its inner phonetic system and “also a definite feeling for patterning on the level of grammatical formation” (ibid.: 61).
A later text (“The unconscious patterning of behavior in society”, [1927b] 1951: 550) provides a good illustration of the notion and of the themes intertwined with it:
To most of us who speak English the tangible expression of the plural idea in the noun seems to be a self-evident necessity. Careful observation of English usage, however, leads to the conviction that this self-evident necessity of expression is more of an illusion than a reality. If the plural were to be understood functionally alone, we should find it difficult to explain why we use plural forms with numerals and other words that in themselves imply plurality. “Five man” or “several house” would be just as adequate as “five men” or “several houses.” Clearly, what has happened is that English, like all of the other Indo-European languages, has developed a feeling for the classification of all expressions which have a nominal form into singulars and plurals. So much is this the case that in the early period of the history of our linguistic family even the adjective, which is nominal in form, is unusable except in conjunction with the category of number.
The example brings home the point that a structural feature is, as it were, “exercised” in actual speech in a way that is not of the order of conscious propositional knowledge. Such a feature gives form to experience and may perpetuate itself by the sheer force of the unconscious pattern which imposes itself on the speaker. Their thought being channeled in these formal grooves, speakers may resist the elimination of what, in the eyes of cool reason, would appear to be non-functional or a superfluous luxury. It has been pointed out that this divorce of form from meaning might conflict with the claim that formal patterns are made up of elements identified by their semantic role or function (see Contini-Morava 1986 and the discussion following this paper). However, a form may have a semantic role without thereby being functionally motivated.
In the passage just cited, and in other occurrences, Sapir seems to be engaging in an implicit dialogue with Jespersen (1894, 1924; see e.g. 1924: 207ff for the example of plurality) and, as regards the evolution of pronouns, possibly with Sweet (1892) (but Sweet was influenced by Jespersen too). Against Jespersen, yet not in complete disagreement with him, Sapir apparently claims that languages may not evolve toward the complete elimination of superfluities and toward absolute or near absolute analyticity, for speakers’ unconscious attachment to formal patterns carries with it an inertia which resists this evolution. To capture the fact that formal patterns have a potential which imparts a direction to linguistic change, Sapir famously speaks of a drift of languages. This directedness of linguistic drift might give a teleological (Sapir’s own word) connotation to it, that of a progress toward an idiosyncratic state of formal accomplishment (cf. Darnell 1990: 99).
Note: Drift would be an apt translation of Hermann Paul’s Verschiebung, i.e. a progressive displacement occurring during the history of a language and observable on multiple levels of analysis, that is, phonetic, “etymological” and syntactical (see his Prinzipien). On the other hand, in Language, the chapter about drift centers on examples discussed by Jespersen (1894), and makes an allusion to Jespersen’s claim that languages progress toward more analytic structures. At any rate, the hypothesis that drift was inspired by Wegener’s continental drift, also Verschiebung in German, as proposed in Malkiel (1981), seems rather far-fetched to me. Finally, it may be noted that the first occurrence of drift in a sense which anticipates Language can be found in a context where reference is made to the evolution of literary style, and thus, to aesthetics (according to Malkiel 1981: 537).
To confine ourselves to linguistic forms, other examples of unconscious patterns intuitively apprehended by a speaker are the system of English vocalic alternations (goose-geese, sing-sang-sung; 1921: 60-61), active sentences (1921: 84-5, 111) resulting in the abstracting of a particular SVO structure, possessive pronominal forms and the animate vs inanimate distinction (1921: 156), the expression of case in English interrogative pronouns (1921: 159), the causative forms of a language (1924), which give rise to a non-reflexive and non-conscious grasp of the concept of causation, the “phonetic system” of a language (Sapir 1925), the meaning of French est-ce que and of Athabaskan verbal stems (Sapir  1961: 147).
2. Form, function and formal play
The potency of a pattern is not exclusively determined by the function it might fulfill, as we just saw. Reciprocally, function may counteract a well-established pattern. An example of such a counteraction in the non-linguistic realm is given in “Anthropology and sociology” (1927a). In many Indian tribes, Sapir observes, there is an entrenched social pattern according to which prestigious positions are a matter of inheritable privilege. This pattern may even extend to positions which should require special individual capacities, and thus may be transferred to domains in which it is clearly non-functional. However, some tribes resist this transfer, because “the psychic peculiarity which leads certain men and women (“medicine-men” and “medicine-women”) to become shamans is so individual that shamanism shows nearly everywhere a marked tendency to resist grooving in the social patterns of the tribe.” In the present case, functionality (the exigencies of the craft) supersedes a dominant social pattern (the prevalence of inheritable privilege).
The relative independence of form and function also manifests itself in a process we may call the semantic disinvestment of form. By this term is meant that the “full” content of linguistic forms may not be activated in all of their occurrences, insofar as forms may be simply conventionally applied to ends to which they are not suited. An example from Psychology of Culture ([1928-1937] 2002) may illustrate this point (the square brackets indicate places where the reconstructed “manuscript” has been patched by significant additions from the editors):
Consider, for example, verbs that are not entirely active [in their meaning but are treated as active in the linguistic structure:] in English the subject “I” is logically implied to be the active will in “I sleep” as well as “I run”. [A sentence like] “I am hungry” might, [in terms of its content, be logically] better expressed with “hunger” as the active doer, as in [the German] mich hungert [or even the French] j’ai fain. In some languages, however, such as Sioux, a rigid distinction is made between truly active and static verbs. (…) [It seems, then, that] when we get a pattern of behavior, we follow that [pattern] in spite of [being led, sometimes, into] illogical ideas or a feeling of inadequacy. We become used to it. We are comfortable in a groove of behavior. [Indeed], it seems that no matter what [the] psychological origin may be, or complex of psychological origins, or a particular type of patterned conduct, the pattern itself will linger on by sheer inertia. (…) Patterns of activity are continually getting away from their original psychological incitation.
In other words, the SV pattern is disinvested of its full significance when it gets applied to cases in which S is not an active doer and the verb is static (cf. also Sapir 1921: 14-5). In English, the generalization of this pattern conforms to the general observation that “all languages evince a curious instinct for the development of one or more particular grammatical processes at the expense of others, tending always to lose sight of any explicit functional value that the process may have had in the first instance, delighting, it would seem, in the sheer play of its means of expression” (Sapir 1921: 60). This formal play is in itself, as Sapir adds a few sentences below, nothing but the result of a striving or an impulse which rests on a feeling for patterning active on the grammatical level (see below, section 6).
3. On the source of form-feeling: Croce?
As to the origin of the notion of form-feeling, a clue may be found in “The Grammarian and his language” ( 1951: 156):
Probably most linguists are convinced that the language-learning process, particularly the acquisition of a feeling for the formal set of the language, is very largely unconscious and involves mechanisms that are quite distinct in character from either sensation or reflection. There is doubtless something deeper about our feeling for form than even the majority of art theorists have divined, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that, as psychological analysis becomes more refined, one of the greatest values of linguistic study will be in the unexpected light it may throw on the psychology of intuition, this “intuition” being perhaps nothing more nor less than the “feeling” for relations.
In two words, the source is aesthetic theory. Aesthetics is a continent of itself, and the potential sources are many. Let us first see what Sapir himself has to say about his influence(s).
In the just-quoted passage, “intuition” is equated to “feeling for form.” On the other hand, we have explicit statements by Sapir in Language, in which he acknowledges his debt to Croce’s Aesthetics; further, in one instance, Sapir says he borrows the term “intuition” from Croce (1921: 224), who in fact uses intuition in contrast to “logical knowledge”. All together, this may be conducive to an adventurous syllogism: Sapir owes his notion of intuitive knowledge to Croce, intuitive knowledge = form-feeling, ergo Sapir’s form-feeling is a version of Croce’s intuition, or at least related to it. A similar conclusion is endorsed by Modjeska (1968), who claims that in Croce Sapir “found a confirmation, if not the source of his own thoughts on formal pattern.” Hymes (1969) joins up with Modjeska, while Hall (1969) begs to differ.
That Sapir borrowed intuition from Croce is testified by Sapir himself (1921: 224), as we just saw. Whether he sided with Croce’s own concept of intuition is another matter. Croce’s definitions of intuition, however hazy, show that intuition is for him a faculty essentially dedicated to the apprehension of individual objects. Further, Croce wields his notion of intuition against an intellectualist view of cognition and implicitly against Kant’s concept of intuition; at any rate, his discussion shows he completely misses the Kantian doctrine of forms of intuition and categories, which certainly should detract from its interest for an informed reader.
In the Aesthetic, there is no particular emphasis on the grasp of unconscious patterns; on the contrary: genius, as superlative intuition, is essentially conscious, and in the chapter on language (chap. 18), Croce makes clear that parts of speech, which might be taken here as building blocks of linguistic patterning, are dubious abstractions floating above linguistic intuition. Intuition is also, however, a faculty that is inherently expressive, insofar as its operation is fully realized (intuiting a geographical area is being able to draw it, says Croce); this aspect, at least, is consonant with the dynamic character of the Sapirian unconscious (see Allen 1986).
Given the philosophical context in which Croce introduces his notion of intuition, it is not clear to me what exactly its relevance was for Sapir. We may perhaps say that Sapir found a handy term for designating a form of knowledge that is implicit, non-reflexive and creative.
In the preface to Language, a short eulogy praises Croce for being “one of the very few who have gained an understanding of the fundamental significance of language”, and apparently expanding on what this significance resides in, Sapir goes on to say that Croce “has pointed out its [i.e. language’s: JMF] close relation to the problem of art” and that he is “deeply indebted to him for this insight.”
A glance at what Croce has to say about language, both simplistic and vague, suggests that Sapir, beyond this fundamental insight, could find little of value for his own concerns. This impression is further confirmed by notes that Sapir jotted down on Croce and in which he criticizes him for conceding too much to an individual’s expressive capacity and not enough to formal conventions (Handler 1986). Further, the notion of form-feeling does not figure in the theoretical apparatus of Croce. We can therefore say, in agreement with Handler (1986: 441), that Sapir’s analyses of linguistic patterning owe little to Croce.
4. Form-feeling and Formgefühl: Vischer and Wölfflin
I suggest that form-feeling is in fact a translation of the German Formgefühl, a term commonly used by art theorists of the time. Note also that the quote above (“the majority of art theorists”) points to a notion that is not the prerogative of a single author, and this is indeed the case for the Formgefühl. A few words need to be said about the historical background of this notion.
Formgefühl has various meanings. In the magnum opus of the “ponderous Hegelian” (Croce’s words) Friedrich Theodor Vischer (Ästhetik, 1846-1857), the term is abundantly used without, however, being thematized as such. Its signification is essentially that of aesthetic sensibility, and it is most often used in connection with a people and a period. It may also characterize one of the opposed principles into which Vischer resolves styles, i.e. the painterly and the plastic (Vischer is one of the sources for the analyses of styles into oppositive pairs, cf. for example the Principles of Wölfflin).
The notion of Formgefühl becomes a thematic focus and gains a real audience as such with the advent of an empathy-centred, psychological aesthetics. An important landmark in this tradition, which goes back to the Romantic era, is the work of Robert Vischer, son of Friedrich Vischer (for an introduction to R. Vischer, see Barasch 1998). In a short treatise (his dissertation) entitled On The Optic Feeling of Form (Über das Optische Formgefühl, 1873), Vischer explains that contemplating and forming images always implies an active involvement of the body or a projection of bodily feelings and affects onto the object (a projection he calls Nachfühlung / Einfühlung, ‘concurring-feeling’, as it were, and ‘empathy’). Thus, a rock facing a subject may appear to defy or challenge her, a road which widens awakens a triumphant feeling etc. This is not yet art, but its prelude: the artists’s task resides in imbuing such projected feelings with a more general and spiritual meaning. In sum, the Formgefühl is for Vischer a projection of a feeling into a form.
In his first study, Wölfflin (1886) pursues Vischer’s line of thought, and applies it more specifically to the description of factors which condition the affective effect produced by an architectural style. In Renaissance und Barock (1888), Wölfflin explains that the features which define a style reflect a way of projecting inner feelings and corporeal habits, characteristic of a period, into forms. The tapering of gothic forms, for example, reflects a muscular tension and an effort of the will that one does not find in the serene and vigorous equanimity of Renaissance constructions. Further, the Formgefühl offers a psychological definition of style which cuts across arts and thus unites architecture with painting, sculpture and decorative arts (e.g. clothing). This relative homogeneity of style is manifested in recurrent formal patterns (e.g. the pointed elongated shape of gothic art), of which the Formgefühl is therefore both an intuition and a source (see e.g. Renaissance und Barock, ch. 3; the English translation has somewhat distorted the text, Formgefühl being variously rendered as formal sensibility, formal response and worse, conception of form). Moreover, Wölfflin lays great importance on the idea that artistic forms cannot be determined by cultural-historical factors nor by functionality or technical necessity. And although the notion of Formgefühl is still framed in an empathy-based theory (or Wölfflin’s own version of empathy, the Lebensgefühl), the Formgefühl itself circumscribes a relatively autonomous formal plane. We may find in this formalist perspective a counterpart to Sapir’s view on the potential autonomization of linguistic form.
5. Form-feeling and Formgefühl: Lipps and Dessoir
Perhaps most relevant for our concern are the discussions of Lipps (1897, 1907) and Dessoir (1906), in view of their insistence on the structural features of form, and therefore their possibly greater proximity to Sapir’s understanding of the form-feeling.
In his Aesthetics of Space (Raumästhetik), Lipps draws a parallel between, on one hand this form of unconscious and rule-driven knowledge, intuited by feeling, which we exercise when engaged in “mechanical activities” (such as riding a bicycle) and, on the other hand, the feeling which rules our speech productions, the “language-feeling” or Sprachgefühl (a term of common parlance at the time; cf. Tchougounnikov, to appear). Further, Lipps states that this “language-feeling” is akin to the “form-feeling” which is built from our bodily experience and our acquaintance with the world of physical objects, and which results in the grasp of general geometrical patterns (ibid., ch. 8). These various feelings, though rule-driven, do not rest on an exact memory of past events, since each new case which presents itself is different from the preceding ones; they constitute a sui generis kind of knowledge, unconscious and “amazingly sure”, says Lipps.
In an introduction to his conception of psychological aesthetics, Lipps (1907) explains that the Formgefühl is a feeling assigning a value to the way in which parts are articulated into a whole, i.e. to the structure of a pattern. The rules which govern this part-whole organization fall under two main principles: those related to the identification of global organization (e.g. rhythm), and those related to the hierarchical structure of the whole. For instance, in the Greek temple, because of the regular disposition of columns, the principle of rhythmic organization prevails, while in the Gothic cathedral the hierarchical principle is dominant. The beautiful is defined as a vital affirmation of the Ego (Lebensbejahung), an affirmation which results from a positive empathy, which Lipps attempts to define in not too nebulous terms. Finally, Lipps characterizes art as a formal language (Formensprache), and this formal language he identifies with a play with forms endowed with a functional role (e.g. a capital stylized into a vegetal form).
Close to some positions advocated by Lipps, Dessoir (1906) defines the Formgefühl as that feeling which arises from the structural features of proportion, harmony and rhythm, as well as from the quantitative and intensive aspects of forms. The Formgefühl itself is carefully distinguished from feelings associated with pure sensations and the content of aesthetic objects; it is therefore a feeling which revels in the organization of formal elements. Much of the discussion centers on rhythm and music, and in fact, the term Formgefühl surfaces from time to time, in addition to Dessoir’s text, in discussions about the “new music” (Neue Musik) of, e.g., Schönberg and Webern (see e.g. Webern 1912). Given Sapir’s intense interest for music and the similarity he perceived between music and language (Darnell 1990: 156), these discussions may have been a possible source too.
6. The form-drive
To my ears, Sapir’s allusions to a sort of instinctual “form-craving” of the human mind and to an innate sense of form (e.g. Sapir 1924, 1927a; see Handler 1986: 445) are reminiscent of the Schillerian Formtrieb, a drive to a free expression of personality, to universal concepts and toward insulating a permanent self from ever-changing worldly conditions (Schiller 1795, letters 12 to 16). The wedding of this “form-drive” to the flow of sensations is accomplished through an aesthetic impulse, the “play-drive” (Spieltrieb). In case Schiller’s Formtrieb was not on Sapir’s mind when he wrote Language, Jung’s Psychological Types (Jung 1921), a book and a theory Sapir was very fond of, could serve as a reminder.
As James McElvenny has pointed out to me, G. von der Gabelentz, in a passage of his Sprachwissenschaft ( 19012), speaks of a drive toward the creation of forms (Formungstrieb) which would acccount for the formal lavishness (Formengepränge) of languages, whose profusion goes beyond functional needs. This Formungstrieb accounts for men’s delight in formal play, says Gabelentz, who describes this human urge with Schiller’s word: Spieltrieb, i.e. the play-drive which grounds the aesthetic attitude (Gabelentz  19012: 361-2; no explicit reference to Schiller is made).
In an addition to the second edition of Gabelentz’s text, Gabelentz’s nephew, Albrecht Graf von der Schulenburg refers back to Humboldt (see also McElvenny, to appear). Especially praised are speakers of languages which systematize this formal play by resorting to obligatory flexions, that is, speakers of Indo-European languages; in them, says von der Schulenburg, one finds a specific sense of form (Formensinn, a word also found in texts on art) and an outstanding aesthetic gift (ibid.: 394). While the value judgment might not have been to Gabelentz’s taste, I believe the reference to Humboldt puts us on the right track.
Although the term Formungstrieb, so it seems, is not used by Humboldt (Jürgen Trabant, p. c.), what we do find in Humboldt is the idea of a formative power which is especially active in some phases of language evolution, a power that Humboldt calls Bildungstrieb. Now, the term can be found in two contexts: in texts about language, and in instances where the discussion revolves about biological questions (resp. Humboldt [1830-35] 1907, vol. VII: 95, 168, cf. Eng. trans. 1988, p.88 “constructive urge” and p.150, “formative urge”; Humboldt  1903, vol. I: 328;). The latter contexts point to the biological source of the Bildungstrieb, a concept borrowed from Humboldt’s former teacher at Göttingen, Blumenbach (1781), for whom the Bildungstrieb is a force creating and perpetuating organic forms (Jürgen Trabant, p. c.).
In short, I believe that, by setting Sapir’s aesthetic form-drive in this vitalist-humboldtian-schillerian genealogy, we are not going way beyond the bounds of decent speculation.
By way of conclusion, I would like to point to those elements of the aesthetic form-feeling which may have seemed, to Sapir’s eyes, suggestive of a parallel with the intuition of linguistic patterns. These elements do not relate so much to the notion of empathy as to the unity of style and to the grasp of formal patterns afforded by the aesthetic form-feeling. Lipps’ theory seems to be especially relevant: like the Sapirian form-feeling, Lipps’ aesthetic form-feeling is an unconscious form of knowledge which cannot be reduced to a kind of conceptual knowledge, yet is rule-driven; further it is explicitly compared with that feeling for language which regulates speech production. Given his celebrity, Wölfflin may have come to Sapir’s attention and may have suggested to him a parallel between language and style. Moreover, Wölfflin’s formalist perspective and in the same respect that of Lipps and Dessoir was also potentially congenial to the Sapirian view of “form for form’s sake.” In addition, we may speculate that the problem of stylistic change, of major importance for Wölfflin, could invite to a comparison with the question of linguistic change. Finally, the interplay, in art productions, between functionality, stylization and convention, between emotion-laden and detached formal play may have reinforced the Sapirian view of language as an aesthetic form.
My impression is that there is still work to be done on Sapir’s intellectual background. Some covert references are still waiting to be exposed, and I suspect that his German-language sources might bring us close to the mark in more than one instance.
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How to cite this post
Fortis, Jean-Michel. 2014. Sapir’s form-feeling and its aesthetic background. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. https://hiphilangsci.net/2014/10/15/sapirs-form-feeling-and-its-aesthetic-background