University of Amsterdam
The Dutch Signific movement (ca. 1900–1960) is not widely known, although in the last few decades it has attracted considerable scholarly interest. This has resulted in some valuable publications (see the bibliography). The movement’s minor characters, however, have not been given much attention so far. This article focuses on the contribution to Significs of one of these minor characters, the Dutch linguist Jacques van Ginneken S.J. (1877–1945), who was involved in the movement from 1919 to 1924. During this period, Van Ginneken’s contribution carried some weight, but failed to exert a substantial influence. This was due to his brief and not very intense involvement, and, moreover, to the fact that his ideas about language and communication differed considerably from those of other members of the movement. Given this difference, the following questions will receive special attention, alongside more general issues: Why did Van Ginneken join the movement at all, and why did he continue his membership for some time? A further question is: Why did he eventually leave the movement?
Preliminary information about Significs
Significs was an idealistic movement. Its core activities were language analysis, language criticism and, ultimately, language reform. The aim was: to gather together a group of prominent broad-minded intellectuals of various disciplines, in order to create, through language reform, new types of communication, which would be unaffected by vagueness, ambiguities, hidden prejudices and misleading formulations. Misunderstandings and mutual distrust would thus be avoided, and a better and more peaceful world would be made possible.
Significs arose around 1900. The English philosopher Victoria Lady Welby (1837–1912) developed the initial principles, but the movement itself became a purely Dutch matter. Attempts at internationalization were a failure, at least in the first period of Significs (1900–1926). Core members in this period were the following:
- Frederik van Eeden (1850–1932), author, psychiatrist, social reformer
- Jacob Israël de Haan (1881–1924), author, jurist, zionist
- Luitzen E.J. Brouwer (1881–1966), mathematician, philosopher
- Gerrit Mannoury (1867–1956), mathematician, philosopher, socialist/communist
Van Eeden was the first Dutch Significian. He introduced Welby’s ideas to the Netherlands, after meeting her in England. Mannoury became the most prominent Significian. He chaired the successive Signific organizations founded during the first period of the movement. Moreover, he was the only Significian who introduced a psychological-linguistic theory, to be applied in Signific language and communication research. Mannoury distinguished a hierarchy of language “stair steps” which were thought to correspond to accumulating stages of ontogenetic and phylogenetic development. Each “stair step” actually represents a “language”, in an increasing degree of semantic stability. According to Mannoury, natural languages do not sufficiently recognize the distinctions between these “languages”, which leads to misunderstandings. Language reform should repair this deficiency. Mannoury’s five “languages” are: (1) “ground-language” (e.g. child language, emotional language), (2) “mood language” (e.g. popular language, poetic language), (3) “human traffic language” (e.g. language of trade, written language), (4) “scientific language” (e.g. legal language, technical language), (5) “symbolic language” (e.g. language of mathematics and logic). Other Significians adopted this conceptual framework, although they could not reach agreement about its implications for the Signific programme.
Such a lack of agreement was actually a hallmark of the movement. As soon as general aims and principles were discussed in more detail, opinions turned out to differ widely. In retrospect, we need not be surprised that the Signific movement was much less successful than it hoped to be. Internationalization failed, potential members declined invitations, disappointed members left the movement, financial problems accumulated.
After a break during the years 1926–1936, the movement was reactivated by Mannoury and the psychologist David Vuysje (1900–1969) (son-in-law of Mannoury). This second period of Significs lasted for some decades. International conferences were now its core activity. The movement faded out around 1960, four years after Mannoury’s death.
Preliminary information about Van Ginneken
Van Ginneken was not only an extremely productive linguist, but also an extremely active Jesuit priest. As a linguist, he was intensively involved in the rapid internationalization of the discipline, especially of the new non-historical structuralist approach, which developed during the first few decades of the 20th century. Even more conspicuously, he contributed to the broadening of the discipline by strengthening – and creating! – relations with other areas. This aspect of his work often functions as a guideline to the various periods of Van Ginneken’s career: three periods are distinguished: a psycholinguistic (1903–1913), a sociolinguistic (1913–1926) and a biolinguistic period (1926–1945). These labels must not be interpreted too strictly. For example, Van Ginneken’s article “Het woord” (“The word”) (1936) and his last book Het mysterie der menschelijke taal (The mystery of human language) (1946) were written during the alleged biolinguistic period, but their main characteristics were, respectively, psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic.
Precisely these two publications are Van Ginneken’s only works containing explicit remarks about Significs. Unlike the core members of the movement, Van Ginneken never produced a book or article with Significs as its central theme. The remarks are only brief, but they clearly reveal Van Ginneken’s attitude towards the Signific movement. I present them in my translation:
This [the phenomenon of misunderstanding] is due to the nature of human language. […] And misunderstanding cannot be cured by Significs, nor by any other device. Human beings can only be brought together by mutual intimate knowledge and togetherness. Only a broad understanding and warm love can nullify all misunderstanding. (Van Ginneken 1936: 208)
Modern Significs is wrong if it wants to fix all content words in definitions, ignoring metaphorical language use, and wants to oblige intellectuals to apply only these definitions. Intuition and loving empathy in human conversation will certainly bring us nearer to shared understanding than algebraic formulae. After all, language is much better and deeper than algebra or a signal code. (Van Ginneken 1946: 104).
These two statements, which show a curious mix of down-to-earthness and loftiness, are characteristic of Van Ginneken’s view of Significs, a view he presented from the very beginning of his Signific involvement onwards. He rejects the idea that misunderstandings are caused by language defects and can be cured through language improvement. He regards the possibility of misunderstandings as inherent in human language. Psychological and contextual factors cannot help “colouring” the interpretations of words and other language elements. According to Van Ginneken, misunderstandings are minimized in the case of common psychological and social backgrounds of communicating partners. In the case of different backgrounds, they can be avoided if language users take each other’s backgrounds seriously into account. In the Appendix, Van Ginneken’s views on communication, as discussed in “Het woord”, are presented in more detail.
How did Van Ginneken become involved in Significs?
Before addressing this question, I present a concise chronological overview of Dutch Significs and of Van Ginneken’s life and work as a whole, so that the period of their connectedness can be observed in a broader context. The timetable shows (in grey) Van Ginneken’s relatively brief involvement in Significs, compared to the total history of Significs and to the total career of Van Ginneken. The “grey” episode is the central theme of this article. Publications, events and institutions referred to below can be found in this scheme.
|1877||Jacobus Joannes Antonius van Ginneken was born in Oudenbosch, Netherlands.|
|Van Eeden meets Welby for the first time.||1892|
|1895||Entry into Societas Jesu.|
|Publication Van Eeden “Redekunstige grondslag van Verstandhouding” (“Logical foundations of Understanding”).||1897|
|1902||Student of Dutch language and literature at Leiden University.|
|Publication Welby “What is meaning?”||1903|
|1907||Doctorate cum laude at Leiden University. Thesis: Principes de linguistique psychologique. Essai synthétique (Principles of psychological linguistics. Synthetic essay). Supervisor: C. C. Uhlenbeck.
In this book a short reference to Van Eeden (1897).
|Publication Welby “Significs” (entry in Encyclopedia Britannica), and “Significs and language”.||1911–1912||Publication Het gevoel in taal en woordkunst (Emotion in language and verbal art).
In this book a short reference to Welby’s work.
|1913–1914||Publication Handboek der Nederlandsche Taal (Compendium of the Dutch Language) (2 volumes).
First sociolinguistic work in the Netherlands.
|1914: Van Eeden founds the international “Forte circle”, based on a Significs-oriented programme. Closing down in the same year.||1914 & 1916||J.I. de Haan writes letters to Van Ginneken, with questions and comments on Van Ginneken (1911–1912 and 1913–1914).|
|Doctorate De Haan at Amsterdam University. Thesis: Rechtskundige Significa (Juridical Significs). Supervisor: J.A. van Hamel; opponent: Brouwer; paranimf (ceremonial assistant): Van Eeden.||1916||Member of Koninklijke Nederlandse Academie van Wetenschappen (Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences).|
|Foundation Internationaal Instituut voor Wijsbegeerte (International Institute for Philosophy) (Van Eeden, Brouwer, De Haan, Mannoury and some others).||1917||Member of Koninklijke Nederlandse Academie van Wetenschappen (Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences).
Publication secondary school textbook about language acquisition De roman van een kleuter (The story of a toddler).
|1919||Nomination for professorship at Amsterdam University. Blocked by City Council. Reason: anti-Semitism in chapter “Jewish language” in Van Ginneken (1913–1914).|
|1919||First attendance of a meeting of the Internationaal Instituut voor Wijsbegeerte (International Institute for Philosophy) at Mannoury’s home.|
|Last meeting of the Internationaal Instituut voor Wijsbegeerte. Small-scale continuation: the Signifische Kring (Signific Circle)||1922||Foundation of the Signifische Kring (Signific Circle), consisting of Van Eeden, Brouwer, Mannoury and Van Ginneken.|
|1923||Professorship Nijmegen University.|
|1924||Departure from the Signifische Kring.|
|Closing down of the Signifische Kring.||1926||Publication De erfelijkheid der klankwetten (The heredity of sound laws)|
|Foundation of the journal Synthese by Vuysje.||1936||Publication article “Het woord” (“The word”) in the journal Onze Taaltuin (Our Language Garden) vol. 5|
|Foundation of the Internationale Signifische Studiegroep (ISS) (International Signific Study Group).
Signifische Dialogen (Signific Dialogues) published in Synthese.
|1937||Publication in Synthese of Brouwer, Van Eeden, Van Ginneken, Mannoury – “Signifische Dialogen” (“Signific Dialogues”).|
|Publication of Signifische Dialogen as a separate book.
First International Signific Summer Conference.
|1939||Signifische Dialogen published as a separate book.|
|1945||Van Ginneken dies in Nijmegen.|
|ISS renamed Internationaal Signifisch Genootschap (ISG) (International Signific Society).
2nd International Signific Summer Conference.
|1946||Posthumous publication Het mysterie der menschelijke taal (The mystery of human language).|
|ISG incorporated. Statutory establishment of six sections.||1948|
|10th and last International Signific Summer Conference. Death of Mannoury.||1956|
Van Ginneken’s introduction to the Signific movement
Initially, Van Ginneken was invited to attend Signific meetings as a Roman Catholic theologian, but, of course, his linguistic expertise counted in his favour. In 1919, the International Institute for Philosophy was in need of more members, after the departure of some participants (among them De Haan, who left for Palestine). The Institute also aimed at more religious and social diversity among its members, in line with original plans. Moreover, the Significians wanted to improve their insights in language and communication through a study of language varieties of specific groups, among them Roman Catholics, whose language was thought to represent a relatively stable conceptual system. Mannoury consulted a fellow professor at the University of Amsterdam, a Thomist theologian, who mentioned Van Ginneken as a possible candidate.
When he was invited by the Institute, Van Ginneken already knew about the Signific movement, as appears from several texts. In Van Ginneken (1904–1906), the prior Dutch version of his dissertation Principes de linguistique psychologique (1907), he gives brief – and mildly positive – attention to Van Eeden’s 1897 book about human understanding. In Van Ginneken (1911-1912), he refers to Welby (1903 and 1911) in a “for further reading” list. He became more involved in Significs through exchanges of letters with De Haan in 1914 and 1916. De Haan contacted Van Ginneken for advice about semantic issues which were relevant to his juridical-signific dissertation (De Haan 1916). Unfortunately, Van Ginneken’s answers to De Haan have been lost (cf. Begheyn 2005).
Seemingly, Van Ginneken could have known enough about the Signific movement to realize that he might be an outsider if he joined the group. His abovementioned views about language and communication were not the only exceptional feature. Van Ginneken’s world view was deeply religious and conservative. As far as he adopted an idealistic prospect for the future, this was in line with the Christian belief in ultimate salvation. These ideas strongly deviated from the views of the main members of the Signific movement. All held secular views: Mannoury was a communist, Brouwer loved Eastern spirituality, Van Eeden adopted a mix of idealistic socialism and spirituality. Their common idealistic design of a future human society was strictly egalitarian.
Nevertheless, Van Ginneken accepted the invitation. For this positive reaction, three reasons may have been relevant:
- The strong interdisciplinary character of the Signific movement, which perfectly fitted with Van Ginneken’s industrious pursuit of interdisciplinarity in linguistics.
- The prominent interest of the Significians in the study of language varieties of various social groups. This type of research was Van Ginneken’s main interest at the moment he joined Significs, which was in his sociolinguistic period. His earlier acquaintance with Van Eeden’s, Welby’s and De Haan’s work may also have encouraged ideas of possible good cooperation.
- Van Eeden’s contemporary thoughts about joining the Roman Catholic Church, which were generally known in those days. This situation must have appealed to the passionate apologist Van Ginneken.
As an additional explanation, Van Ginneken’s often-reported vanity may be mentioned. He certainly regarded the invitation of the Significians – all men of reputation – as honourable and enjoyed the possibility of sharing his double expertise – theological and linguistic – with them.
On the 8th of November 1919, Van Ginneken visited Mannoury’s Amsterdam house for his first meeting with the Significians Mannoury, Brouwer and Van Eeden, during the 20th gathering of the International Institute for Philosophy. He discussed “theological Significs” and emphasized common features of scholastic philosophy and the Signific approach of language analysis. With respect to language reform, he immediately expressed reservations about artificial interventions in natural language with the aim of avoiding misunderstandings and advancing mutual agreement.
1919–1924: Van Ginneken’s Signific period
Despite these reservations, Van Ginneken continued his visits to Signific meetings. Eventually, he attended 25 assemblies, those of the Institute as “guest”, and those of its successor, the Signific Circle, as one of its four members, alongside Van Eeden, Brouwer and Mannoury. Many of his Signific activities were related to the foundation of this Circle. The termination of the Institute was necessitated by its too ambitious design, lack of members and financial troubles. Its small-scale continuation as Signific Circle was a result of these problems, but the opportunity was embraced for a foundational renewal of the movement. In this renewal, Van Ginneken’s contribution was considerable. It was, for example, Van Ginneken who emphasized the necessity of a clear statement of the principles of the movement, remarkable given his own deviating view of language reform. Not surprisingly, such a unanimous declaration turned out to be unattainable. Mannoury rescued the project by his proposal to add personal statements to the common declaration. The resulting texts reveal many differences between the four members, not only between Van Ginneken and the other three, although Van Ginneken exhibits the strongest deviations. The table below presents a rough impression of the views of the four scholars, and their relation to the common statement of principles. The numbers 0–3 represent their degree of support for the Signific issues mentioned in the left column.
|All||Brouwer||Van Eeden||Van Ginneken||Mannoury|
|Changing the world||2||3||3||1||2|
Not surprisingly, Van Ginneken strongly supports the Signific project of language analysis, the project that was also most unanimously supported by his fellow Significians. He regards this type of research as an extension of his professional linguistic work. His advice to get more linguists involved in the group was welcomed, but invited linguists soon resigned. Van Ginneken also initiated plans for actual research of language use by means of new methods of data gathering and statistical processing. However, he promised much more than he actually accomplished. For example, he announced that he would make use of his new professorship in Nijmegen to create room for Signific university courses, but nothing more was heard about it.
The other items were negatively evaluated by Van Ginneken. He explicitly claims that, as a philologist, he had to reject criticism of natural languages and artificial attempts to improve them. Nevertheless, he does not entirely exclude the possibility of improvement of mutual understanding, and thereby an increase of “spiritual unity” among language users through Signific language analysis. He also gives a remarkable theological twist to Signific ideals, claiming that this spiritual unity can be furthered through the language of “apostles and prophets”.
These rather artificial moves show Van Ginneken’s willingness to belong to the Significs group, despite his deviating standpoints. This loyalty was largely due to personal relationships with the other Significians, which had developed over several years. But Van Ginneken’s dominant personality was also a relevant factor: he was accustomed to succeed in convincing others of the correctness of his approach, and, somewhat naively, expected this also in the Signific circle. Moreover, there was the evident fact that the other Significians, despite the lofty ideals (that Van Ginneken did not share), did not reach any clarity or agreement about practical ways to realize them. During such impasses, they were eager to resort to relatively concrete projects of language analysis, in which Van Ginneken could play a major role. Under his influence, Mannoury’s conceptual framework of “language stair steps” was modified and made more manageable by connecting it to actual “language acts” (utterances). Van Ginneken enthusiastically joined a plan for a Signific Encyclopaedia, initiated by Mannoury in 1922. Mannoury accepted Van Ginneken’s view that the type of research, necessary for such a project, is actually carried out already in various disciplines, with which Significs would have to cooperate to attain good results. As long as the Signific circle was flourishing, Van Ginneken could regard his input and his cooperation with fellow Significians as fruitful.
Van Ginneken’s farewell to Significs
However, the Signific Circle was soon in decline. Meetings became less frequent, mutual controversies increased, new impulses were failing. Van Eeden suffered from infirmities of old age, Brouwer became more and more disillusioned.
In this situation, the retirement of members is not very surprising. That Van Ginneken was the first to leave the Circle in 1924 was evidently due to:
- His appointment as professor for Dutch Language and Literature, Comparative Indo-Germanic Linguistics and Sanskrit at the new Roman Catholic University of Nijmegen, which necessitated his termination of many ancillary activities.
- His move towards language biology. Two seminal publications about this theme appeared in 1925 and 1926 respectively: “De oorzaken der taalveranderingen” (“The causes of language change”) and “De erfelijkheid der klankwetten” (“The heredity of sound laws”). This area, which failed to make any connection with Significs, must already have strongly interested him towards the end of his Signific period. Language biology was more important to Van Ginneken than any subject studied before (cf. Van der Stroom 2012). It induced narcissistic fantasies about a Law of Van Ginneken alongside Grimm’s Law, and even about a Nobel Prize nomination.
Van Ginneken’s departure from the Signific Circle accelerated the eventual termination of the Circle in 1926. Only Mannoury continued his work as a Significian, in publications, lectures and courses in philosophy of mathematics at the University of Amsterdam. His acquaintance with the psychologist David Vuysje in the 1930s resulted in a restart of Significs in 1936. In this second period, which lasted until the end of the 1950s, the movement was more successful than its predecessor, especially in terms of number of participants, internationalization, and activities such as well-attended conferences and the publication of the journal Synthese. Although the idealism of the first Signific period had not been entirely abandoned, the movement’s focus gradually shifted from “spiritual unity” in general to more specific ideals, partially similar to those of the contemporary Unity of Science movement, aiming at transparency in communication between various disciplines.
Appendix: Van Ginneken’s “circuit de la parole”
In his article “Het word” (“The word”) (1936), Van Ginneken included a figure that represents his view of speaker-hearer interaction. Unlike Saussure’s well-known circuit de la parole, which presents a straight transport of conceptual content from brain to brain through audible 1:1 counterparts of the content, Van Ginneken presents this transport as a “train ride”, interrupted by many “stations”. On the speaker’s side, the “stops” allow for specifications and small modifications of the content during the process of verbalization. On the hearer’s side, the “stops” allow for successive interpretive steps (including corrections of earlier steps), during which the phonological form of the utterance is first established and, subsequently, the intended content is derived from the verbal information and additional contextual cues. Each station is a potential source of misunderstanding.
Although this article was published in Van Ginneken’s post-Signific period, the figure perfectly fits in with the views he presented in conversations with his co-Significians. It also clearly illustrates his doubts about language reform: like all language, the elements of an alleged perfectly disambiguated language, as envisioned by Mannoury, have to pass all stations, which makes them as vulnerable to misinterpretation as natural language elements.
- Interlocutors: spreker: “speaker”; hoorder: “hearer”
- “Train ride”. Begin-station: “Starting station”. bewustzijn & spreekwil: “consciousness & wish to speak”. Eind-station: “terminal station”. de mededeling wordt verstaan: “the communication is understood”.
- Intermediate stations: Speaker’s side, respectively: “choice of words station”, (“censorship station”). Hearer’s side, respectively: “phonetic station”, “phonological station”, “intentional station”, “riddle station”, “classification station”.
Van Ginneken presents an extensive – and not unhumorous – example of the workings of his model. He tells a story about two office mates who had their first meeting only recently. One of them is reading a newspaper and becomes angry about some passages. He utters the sentences (in my English translation):
We need new people who do not stick to the past and are not hindered by their tradition when solving present problems, for present problems are more important than all those old traditions. We should set up a new party.
Trying to understand this message, his interlocutor undergoes an intricate trial-and-error process at all “train stops” at the “hearer” section. Tentative conclusions about the speaker’s message have to be corrected time and again in light of additional information. This is the case even at the “phonological station”. The speaker articulates sloppily, so that, during listening, the hearer sometimes guesses which word he just heard, and has to correct some guesses later. Most corrections concern the message’s content, however. It took a while before the hearer understood that the statements do not refer to situations at the office but to domestic politics. For this conclusion, a glance at the colleague’s desk, where the newspaper was laid out, was helpful. Even after eventually understanding the gist of the message, the listener is in doubt about the political changes the speaker advocates. Is he a communist? Is he a member of the National-Socialist Movement (the then Dutch pro-Hitler party)? Van Ginneken envisions how the listener remembers this conversation at a later moment, when he and his colleague have become friends. Looking back to this exchange, he realizes that only now does he really understand what the interlocutor meant by his political statement.
This passage clearly shows the importance attached by Van Ginneken to the “mutual intimate knowledge and togetherness” in human understanding (quoted above), the neglect of which was his main objection to the Signific approach.
I would like to thank Theo Kuipers and Jan Noordegraaf for their critical reading of the first version of this article and for their valuable comments.
 Van Ginneken’s involvement in Significs was focused on once earlier, in Noordegraaf (1980). My research into this theme took much advantage of this article, as well as of Schmitz (1990), which deals with the first period of Significs in general, with due attention to Van Ginneken. In overviews of Van Ginneken’s life and work, his Signific work is almost totally neglected. Neither do obituaries mention his Signific involvement, except for the “In Memoriam” written by his co-Significian Mannoury (Mannoury 1946).
 In 1924, De Haan was murdered in Jerusalem by Hagana, a paramilitary Orthodox-Jewish organization.
 De Haan’s letters bear witness to his admiration for Van Ginnekens work. He praises Van Ginneken (1911–1912), and Van Ginneken’s sociolinguistic handbook (1913–1914). After the publication of vol. 1 of this book, he asks if vol. 2 is already available in manuscript or proof. Vol. 2 was also favourably received by De Haan, although it contained a chapter about Jewish language that he severely criticized in two articles. During the 1919 controversy about Van Ginneken’s nomination at the then municipal University of Amsterdam, De Haan had already moved to Jerusalem, but he followed the events closely. He rightly predicted that the anti-Semitic spirit of the handbook chapter would cost him votes in the Amsterdam City Council. Cf. Van der Stroom (2012).
 In 1898, Van Eeden founded a farmer’s colony, Walden, based upon idealist-communist economic principles, and inspired by Henry Thoreau’s book Walden (1854). This experiment was a failure and ended in bankruptcy (1907).
 After years of preparation, Van Eeden eventually joined the Roman Catholic Church in 1922. Van Ginneken was one of the clergymen who played a prominent role in this conversion (cf. Fontijn 1996: ch. 26).
 The declarations were included in the publication Signifische Dialogen (Signific Dialogues) (1937 and 1939), which also presents a quasi-verbatim report of discussions between the four Significians. There is no explanation for the great delay of this publication, which was already planned in the early 1920s.
 According to Schmitz (1990: 316–317), the adoption of this project and of Van Ginneken’s interdisciplinary view of it actually heralds the end of the Signific Circle and announces the abandonment of Signific social idealism as well as the more epistemological and terminology-critical redefinition of its aims, which would be realized in the movement’s second period.
 Despite these explanations, there remains some lack of clarity about Van Ginneken’s departure from the Signific Circle. Unfortunately, his termination letter to Mannoury has been lost, and a preserved letter to Van Eeden only complicates the issue. It mentions Mannoury’s communism as a main reason. As argued by Schmitz (1990: 323), this can hardly be taken seriously, given Van Ginneken’s knowledge about Mannoury’s communism from the very beginning, and, moreover, Mannoury’s general philosophical relativism, which implied respectfulness towards any religion (cf. Kirkels 2019).
 Synthese was founded in 1936 by David Vuysje. It remained the most important Signific publishing platform. Synthese still exists as a general journal for epistemology, methodology and philosophy of science.
 See Heijerman (1986) for the second period of Significs and the end of the movement.
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How to cite this post
Elffers, Els. 2020. Significs and Jacques van Ginneken. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. https://hiphilangsci.net/2020/09/14/significs-and-jacques-van-ginneken/
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