Predominance of Positivism in European Linguistics since the 1870s

Predominance of Positivism in European Linguistics since the 1870s

Since the 70s of the XIX century the development of European linguistics entered a new stage of its development. By that time the period of global philosophical systems and aspirations for broad generalizations had finally come to an end. In natural and social sciences the predominant doctrine had become positivism first formulated by a French scientist O. Cont in the 20s-30s of the XIX century and lasted till World War I. Positivism abandoned dealing with “eternal questions” of Philosophy and science uncorroborated with factual material. The task of a scientist was reduced to observation, registration and primary generalization of facts, all the rest was recognized as “metaphysics” and banished from science. In a great number of sciences the time of refusal of generalizations had come with an intensive accumulation of facts, experimenting, developing research methods.

The same occurred in Linguistics. In positivism there was no room for unobserved phenomena and uncorroborated with facts conceptions. Broad generalizations peculiar to W. von Humboldt and his contemporaries and still preserved in A. Schleicher, who thought of language as an organism which could grow and decay and whose changes could be analysed using the methods of the natural sciences did not find any echo in the following generations of scholars. Once and for all went into the past the ideas of “the spirit of a people”, the echoes of which were still noticed in A. Schleicher. A characteristic feature is also removal from science the problems of language origin and stagcncss as “metaphysical”. Any classification of languages, besides genealogical, was considered non-scientific.

Deviating from generalizations a new generation of linguists preserved from the past the idea of its science to be historical, as in former times comparative-historical method remained predominant. The comparison of facts of related languages and the reconstruction of protoforms continued to be considered the main task of a linguist, though the restoration of Proto-Indo-European was not any longer a unique task for the new generation as it was for A. Schleicher, and nobody tried to compose texts in it. The scholars restricted themselves with the task of analysing separate historical facts. At the same time the accuracy and clearness of reconstructions increased and comparative-historical method having been formed by its founders only in general features, was brought to a logical completion.

The scholars of the end of the XIX century usually did not restrict themselves only with Linguistics, the complexity of their studies rather increased. It is then that collaboration of language historians with world historians and archaeologists came into being. Psychology continued influencing Linguistics, which was intensively developing at that time. In the second half of the XIX century experimental phonetics was established — a discipline that was closely connected with Linguistics, Acoustics and Physiology, and at the same time had little to do with the basic tendency of historical investigations in Linguistics. But even experimental phonetics was well confined within the framework of positivism: phoneticians restricted themselves with the registration of facts, as time did not come for their theoretical comprehension which was later done in phonology.