The Arbitrariness of the Linguistic Sign: Variations on an Enlightenment Theme

Journal of the History of Ideas 73 (4):537-557 (2012)
Abstract
From the late seventeenth century to the middle of the eighteenth, an important shift occurred in attitudes to the arbitrariness of the first human words. While authors such as Locke and Pufendorf emphasized linguistic arbitrariness and human liberty, mid-eighteenth-century thinkers highlighted the natural aspects of language and the limited scope of freedom and reason. This change is linked to the contemporary view of the cultural world as a natural artifice, strongly molded by social and environmental factors. The article highlights hitherto neglected similarities between Leibniz’s ideas on language and mid-eighteenth-century theories, by contrast to the usual focus on Locke.
Keywords Enlightenment  Language  Arbitrariness  Epicureanism  Leibniz  Locke  Pufendorf  Condillac  Turgot  Rousseau
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