“The origins of the human sciences”, by John Goldsmith and Bernard Laks: a serene course

“At the origins of the human sciences. Linguistics, philosophy, logic, psychology. 1840-1940 ”(Battle in The Mind Fields), by John Goldsmith and Bernard Laks, translated from English (United States) by Anne Przewozny-Desriaux and Patricia Rousseau, French edition reviewed by the authors, Folio,“ Essais ” , unpublished, 1,008 p., € 12.30, digital € 12.

Sum devoted to the birth of the human sciences and co-written by two scientists, one French, the other American, The origins of the human sciences contradicts the prejudice which sees in scientific history either a compilation of false routes blithely outdated by current research, or an esoteric dive drowning the ordinary reader in scholarly allusions.

Because neither John Goldsmith, of the University of Chicago, nor Bernard Laks, of the University of Paris-Nanterre – both recognized linguists – have been content to let go of their pedagogue and spicy humor pen in the service of a retrospective crammed with information, biographies, texts and portraits that retrace the century (1840 to 1940) of training in the “sciences of the mind” (linguistics, philosophy, logic and psychology). Throughout hundreds of pages that can be read with pleasure, they defend a thesis, capable of surprising those who believe that the advance (or progress) of knowledge is carried out by leaps, incredible discoveries or breaks due to heroic individuals. .

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Our authors, in fact, oppose the jerky and jerky vision of the past of science that epistemologists like Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996), in his Structure of scientific revolutions (Flammarion, 1962), or Michel Foucault, in his Archeology of knowledge (Gallimard, 1969), ended up imposing. This past reveals more continuity than ruptures. If personalities, always linked to groups, undoubtedly play a role in it, the Faustian aspect of the solitary researcher exhuming the pearl from the dung is often overplayed, reconstructed by those concerned or by disciples anxious to accentuate the angles in order to s ‘ensure a more original genealogy than it actually is. If there is indeed a polarization between schools and trends, this often stems, the book shows, rather from university sociology and the concern of rising generations to impose themselves against their elders, than on theoretical grounds.

The “signified” and the “signifier”

However, there is no question of denying the genius possessed by certain essential players in the human sciences. For example, that of the linguist in Paris and then in Geneva, an early specialist in Sanskrit, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), an obligatory reference in structuralism. The latter, whose work owes much to German linguistics, would have been greatly astonished, Goldsmith and Laks assure us, of the use that the “moderns” were going to make of his work in the decades after 1945. Thus, his General linguistics course (Payot, 1916), a veritable breviary of the structuralists, has been praised for its dichotomies, the most famous of which is not that of the “signified” and the “signifier” but that which widens the gap between language and word. For contemporaries who disdain “Speech acts”, only language and grammar would be the object of linguistics. « Or, claim Goldsmith and Laks, nothing is more foreign to the thought of Saussure, who worked on the contrary to extract the sciences of language from grammatical thought. “ The word, we read in the manuscripts of Saussure, is a « force active », “True origin of the phenomena which are then perceived little by little in the other half of language”.

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“The origins of the human sciences”, by John Goldsmith and Bernard Laks: a serene course

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