Humboldt’s profound study is one of the classics of linguistic theory, a work of great insight and originality, of deep significance for the study of language and of human psychology and culture. His concept of linguistic form and his ideas concerning linguistic creativity and particularly fascinating and provocative, and of great contemporary interest.
This treatise, in an open and covert pro and con, has ever since determined the course of all subsequent philology and philosophy of language . . . astounding, obscure, and continuously stimulating.
The skeletal form shown in our banner is the “vertebrate archetype” developed by the notorious opponent of Charles Darwin, Richard Owen. Owen, deeply influenced by post-Kantian biologists, believed that all non-invertebrate animals were, to one extent or another, morphological modifications of this basic and highly adaptable form, for which the German’s used the term Bauplän. The same plan would in fact underlie the human form as well. Humans, however, having been called by Language into an upright posture (as suggested by Wilhelm von Humboldt, in his Linguistic Variability and Intellectual Development, of 1836), having awoken and arisen out of a state of animal torpor; would now possess arms emancipated from the earth and a mouth liberated from the snout – the necessary conditions for the possibility of the emergence of gesture and speech.
As a result, Humans are not merely animals that make sounds but living souls animated by Language, creatures which gesture and speak and make meaningful facial expressions. Formalist critics, though wanting to jettison many of the residual philosophical and psychological vestiges still associated with the notion of historical development, would nevertheless retain the notion that Language is a force which functions and adapts according to its own inner logic, which like living creatures must be understood from within, as self-sustaining organisms rather than simply externally constructed machines.
But, honestly, isn’t the study of morphology, first developed by German romantic biology, a program whose most basic assumptions continue to operate in the work of Albert Einstein, who famously insisted, “God does not play dice with the universe.” Natural phenomena are capable of an infinite number of visible forms, yes; but to admit that does not at all imply that the forms occur by mere accident or in any arbitrary fashion. Nature and Mind, each of which reflects the other, have always behaved, even when making monstrous mistakes, in ways which reveal an underlying lawfulness.
At least that is what certain school of line of thought emerging from Göttingen and Berlin taught us to believe about the drive toward Form. Whereas Base Materialism, both painterly and sculptural, and Conceptualism, for the record, will tell us two very different stories.
To consider the morphological development a bit more, you might want to look at this brief selection from Vladamir Propp’s famous Morphology of The Folktale“. This is a more recent continuation of the linguistic project laid out by von Humboldt, Bopp and Jacob Grimm (the famous collector of fairytales). It was Propp’s proposal that just at language had an inner organic structure which manifested itself in the variety of potential utterance, stories themselves could be read as phenotypical manifestations of an underlying genotype.
The word “morphology” means the study of forms. In botany, the term “morphology” means the study of the component parts of a plant, of their relationship to each other and to the whole – in other words, the study of the plant’s structure. But what of the “morphology of the folktale”? Scarcely anyone has thought about the possibility of such a concept. Nevertheless, it is possible to make an examination of the forms of the tale which will be as exact as the morphology of organic formations. If this cannot be affirmed for the genre of the tale as a whole, in its full extent, it can at least be affirmed in any case for the so-called fairy tales, that is, tales in the strictest sense of the word. It is to these tales that this work is devoted. . . .
The less experienced reader may ask: “Doesn’t science occupy itself with abstractions which in essence are not at all necessary? Isn’t it all the same whether the motif is or is not decomposable? Does it really matter how we isolate basic elements, how we classify a tale, and whether we study it according to to motifs of themes?” Involuntarily one feels like raising more concrete, tangible questions, questions close to the average person who simply like tales. But such a requirement is based on a delusion. Let us draw an analogy. Is it possible to speak about the ‘life of a language’ without knowing anything about the parts of speech, i.e., about certain groups of words arranged according to the laws of their changes? A living language is a concrete fact – grammar is its abstract substratum. These substrata lie at the basis of a great many phenomena of life, and it is precisely to this that science turns its attention. Not a single concrete fact can be explained without the study of these abstract bases.
– Vladmir Propp, Morphology of The Folk Tale (1928)
cf: Gilles Deleuze
“The Body, the Meat and the Spirit: Becoming Animal” (1981)