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Language, early modern philosophy of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-U037-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 13, 2024, from

Article Summary

Philosophical interest in language during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was strong but largely derivative. Most thinkers shared Leibniz’s view ‘that languages are the best mirror of the human mind, and that a precise analysis of the significations of words would tell us more than anything else about the operations of the understanding’.

The three most important areas of philosophical discussion about language in the modern period were the nature of signification, the origin of human language and the possibility of animal language. Signification was generally viewed as a relation between linguistic signs and ideas. There was no agreement whether signification is entirely conventional or contains a natural element, but the view is that it is entirely natural virtually disappeared. Even those who retained the belief in the possibility of a philosophically perfect language insisted that such a language should be constructed anew, rather than rediscovered as the lost language of Adam. The traditional biblical account of the origin of language was more and more contested but, as more naturalistic theories emerged, the problem of why other animals cannot talk became especially pressing.

Debates about language in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were highly speculative; participants in these debates often relied on simplistic biological theories, inadequate grammars or anecdotal evidence from travellers. What makes these discussions important is less their scientific contribution than their engagement with the philosophical problems concerning the relationship between the human mind and the natural world.

Citing this article:
Szabo, Zoltan Gendler. Language, early modern philosophy of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-U037-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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