Discussing how language shapes thought

Organised by the ERC project SAW (Research Group SPHERE), in the context of the seminar History of Science, History of Text

Venue: Université Paris Diderot , Condorcet Building, room 483A
10 rue Alice Domon et Léonie Duquet 75013 Paris – map

February 11th, 2016 – 9:30 am to 5:30 pm

Presentation
Discussions of how language shapes thought, and in particular scientific thinking, became quite prominent in the 19th century, especially in relation to Wilhelm von Humboldt’s writings, and the debates they generated. The session will examine how views of these kinds related to historical approaches of the sciences, and more specifically ancient mathematical sciences. Were some languages put in relation with specificities attributed to the speakers of these languages? Were they put in relation with specificities of scientific knowledge and practice evidenced among these speakers? And if so, how? Were specificities of this kind, or alleged failures, explained in terms of features of the language in which scientific writings had been composed? These are some of the questions that the session aims to explore.

Speakers
Tuska Benes
, Mathematics after the Linguistic Turn of the Early Nineteenth Century: Three Frameworks
Eva Cancik-Kirschbaum, Encoding language – decoding script: the case of cuneiform
Christine Proust, How thought shapes language: a brief historiographical overview and some examples selected among mathematical cuneiform texts from late Old Babylonian period

Programme  pdf version

Tuska Benes (College of William & Mary, Va, USA)
Mathematics after the Linguistic Turn of the Early Nineteenth Century: Three Frameworks
Abstract –  The early nineteenth century witnessed a linguistic turn of its own, after which European Orientalists increasingly believed language shaped thought.  This paper examines the implications of this linguistic turn for European perceptions of non-western mathematics.  It distinguishes three broad frameworks for imagining how language shaped thought, each with varying results for the perceived autonomy of mathematics.  The tradition of general grammar will be explored first through the debate between Wilhelm von Humboldt and Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat over the intellectual merits of Chinese, a language whose grammar, Humboldt insisted, closely resembled a mathematical equation.  Did the logical features of certain languages better equip their speakers to make scientific discoveries?  The German philosopher and Orientalist Johann Georg Hamann offered a more radical, theological argument for the linguistic determination of thought.  His claim that mathematics itself constituted a language will be examined second.  Did the peculiarities of certain national languages shape how speakers approached mathematics and explain why particular inventions occurred among certain cultural communities?  Thirdly, mapping the origin and genealogical descent of non-western languages within comparative-historical linguistics offered a model for tracking the spread of mathematical ideas. Did the transmission of mathematical knowledge follow the same trajectories as language?

Eva Cancik-Kirschbaum (Freie Universität, Berlin)
Encoding language – decoding script: the case of cuneiform
Abstract – The history of decipherment of the writing systems labelled ‚cuneiform‘ provides an interesting perspective on the role of scholarly presuppositions about language and culture. My contribution will discuss (1) the agency of some 18th/19th century (CE) concepts of correlations between language and script. I will  (2) try to show, to what extent these concepts as well as perhaps the individual linguistic background of the scholars involved shaped the process of code-breaking. (3) Finally, a sophisticated method of encoding from Ancient Mesopotamia shall serve as a starting point towards a view on ‘their’ possible thoughts about language and script.

Christine Proust (ERC Project SAW & SPHERE – CNRS & Université Paris Diderot)
How thought shapes language: a brief historiographical overview and some examples selected among mathematical cuneiform texts from late Old Babylonian period
Abstract – Some historians of Mesopotamia considered that the structure of language commanded the orientation of thought and, based on this, opposed Sumerian and Akkadian mathematical texts. I discuss this assumption through the example of mathematical texts written in Mesopotamia by the end of the Old-Babylonian period (about 17th century BCE).