Signs, Language, and the Critique of Metaphysics

  • Brian William Head
Part of the Archives Internationales D’Histoire Des Idees/International Archives of the History of Ideas book series (ARCH, volume 112)


A language, for Tracy, is a system of signs whose meanings have been fixed or formalised by the attribution of conventional meaning to each symbol.1 Some languages or sign-systems are more specialised than others (algebraic notation, for example, or the symbols of chemistry), but all share certain characteristics. First, language is created and sustained as a social phenomenon: it is a kind of collective network through which individuals share experiences and perhaps even contribute to the enlargement of knowledge. Secondly, a mastery of language involves a mastery of knowledge, of which the words are signifiers. In Tracy’s view, the ability to manipulate an appropriate language was the avenue to understanding man and nature. The problem was to ensure that the words actually designated precise and observable facts, and that general ideas were squarely based on such facts.


Eighteenth Century Human Species Ordinary Language Conventional Meaning Alphabetical Language 
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  1. 3.
    Tracy, “Memoire sur la faculte de penser”, p. 327. A very similar formulation was repeated in Tracy’s manuscript of 1806, the so-called “Memoire de Berlin”, published by P. Tisserand in Revue philosophique, vol. 116 (1933), p. 172.Google Scholar
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    Elemens, vol. I, p. 294. Cf. V. Cousin, Fragmens philosophiques (Paris, 1826 ), pp. 168–169.Google Scholar
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    Memoires de l’nstitut, tome II, p. 2. The winner was Degerando, who expanded his essay into the four volumes of Des Signes et de I’art de penser, (Paris, 1800). On this work, cf. H.B. Acton, “The Philosophy of language in Revolutionary France”, in Studies in Philos¬ophy, ed. J.N. Findlay (Oxford, 1966 ), pp. 143–167.Google Scholar
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    Memoires de l’nstitut, tome V, p. 60. The winner in 1805 was Maine de Biran: cf. his Memoire sur la decomposition de la pensee, ed. P. Tisserand (Paris, 1952), p. xv.Google Scholar
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    Grammaire, p. 369. J. Simon, Une Academie sous le Directoire, p. 220, wrongly claimed that Tracy did believe in the possibility of a perfect and universal language. Condorcet, on the other hand, had certainly entertained the idea very seriously: see Sketch, pp. 197–199. On the background to the universal language schemes of the 1790s, see L. Couturat and L. Leau, Histoire de la langue universalle (Paris, 1907), and the excellent work of James Knowlson, Universal language schemes in England and France, 1600–1800 (Toronto, 1975), especially chapters 5–8.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Condorcet, Sketch, p. 191; Talleyrand, “Rapport sur l’instruction publique” (Septem¬ber 1791), in C. Hippeau (ed.), L’instruction publique en France pendant la Revolution: discours et rapports… (Paris, 1881), pp. 146ff.Google Scholar
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    J. Kitchin, Un journal ‘philosophique\ pp. 158–177. Aime-Martin reported that during a deist peroration by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre at the Institut, Cabanis denounced the use of the word ‘God’: Essai sur la vie et les ouvrages de B. de Saint-Pierre (Paris, 1818), pp. 244–5. Guillois, in Le Salon de Mme Helvetius, p. 197, defended Cabanis’ reputation. Cabanis’ personal views were clearly deist in 1807, in his Lettre a ( Fauriel) sur les causes premieres, in Oeuvres philosophiques, vol. II, pp. 256–298.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Tracy, Traite de la Volonte (Paris, 2nd ed. 1818), p. 499; and below, note 129.Google Scholar
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    Bonaparte’s functionalist view of the integrative power of traditional religion, is reported in Voix de Napoleon, ed. P.-L. Couchoud (Gen amp; ve, 1949), pp. 42, 49; Entretiens avec Napoleon, ed. L. Pautre (Paris, 1969 ), pp. 23–26; L. de Villefosse and J. Bouissounouse, L’Opposition a Napoleon, pp. 174 - 5.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Chateaubriand, Memoires d’outre-tombe (Geneve, 1946), vol. I, p. 390: Bonaparte exclaimed: “Christianity! Didn’t the ideologues want to make of it a system of astronomy?”.Google Scholar

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© Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Dordrecht 1985

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  • Brian William Head

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