August Schleicher and Materialism in 19th-Century Linguistics

James McElvenny

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Towards the end of his career, August Schleicher (1821–1868), the great consolidator of Indo-European historical-comparative linguistics in the mid-19th century, famously drew explicit parallels between linguistics and the new evolutionary theory of Darwinism. Based on this, it has become customary in linguistic historiography to refer to Schleicher’s ‘Darwinian’ theory of language, even though it has long been established that Schleicher’s views have other origins that pre-date his contact with Darwinism. For his contemporary critics in Germany, however, Schleicher’s thinking was an example not of Darwinism but of ‘materialism’. This article examines what ‘materialism’ meant in 19th-century Germany – its philosophical as well as its political dimensions – and looks at why Schleicher’s critics applied this label to him. It analyses the relevant aspects of Schleicher’s linguistics and philosophy of science and the criticisms directed against them by H. Steinthal (1823–1899). It then discusses the contemporary movement of scientific materialism and shows how Schleicher’s political views, social background and personal experiences bound him to this movement.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)133-152
JournalHistoriographia Linguistica: International Journal for the History of the Language Sciences
Issue number1-2
Early online date20 Jun 2018
Publication statusPublished - 2018


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