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Auteur: Giorgio GRAFFI

Linguistics vs psychology in the history of linguistics

Abstract/Résumé: The strict relationship between language and mind is a commonplace of Western linguistics since (at least) Aristotle’s "De Interpretatione", and it formed the backbone of many linguistic theories during the following centuries. The present paper will mainly focus on the raise and fall of "psychologism" between the 19th and the 20th centuries, with some final remarks on the contemporary state of affairs. In the 19th century, the development of psychology as an autonomous discipline, which essentially started with Herbart, led scholars such as Steinthal to assume a specific psychological basis for linguistic categories. Psychologism characterized several approaches to syntax, and also the Neo-grammarian paradigm of historical linguistics. The psychologistic approach was furthered by the founder of experimental psychology, namely Wundt, although his system of psychology was radically alternative to Herbart’s one. When psychologism reached its peak (around 1900), its crisis began, for several reasons: first of all, it was maintained by some distinguished scholars (e.g., Delbrück) that historical-comparative linguistics could achieve its results without commitment to any specific system of psychology. Furthermore, some other scholars (e.g., Sechehaye) reproached Wundt for not having reached his goal, namely a psychology that adequately accounts for the specific linguistic phenomena. Finally, more or less in these same years, psychology itself, especially of Wundtian kind, underwent a profound crisis: “introspective” psychology was abandoned and behaviorism replaced it. This state of affairs caused the abandonment of psychologism: at the end of the 1930s, behaviorist linguistics and physicalism appeared to be the newest and fittest scientific perspectives, strengthening each other. Things overturned starting from the 1950s: a strict relationship between language and mind, and consequently between language and psychology (or, more exactly, “cognitive science”) was again argued for. A new struggle, then, started about what “cognitive linguistics” really is: while Chomsky considered language as a psychological entity organized according to principles of its own, and looked for them, scholars such as Langacker or Tomasello maintained that “cognitive linguistics stands out by resisting the imposition of boundaries between language and other psychological phenomena” (Langacker 2008: 8). These latter approaches seem much closer to Wundt’s positions than formal generative grammar. I will not enter into the question of which of the two approaches will in the end prove to be the right one: I simply hope that a historical rethinking of the relationships between linguistics and psychology could be useful to frame these problems more exactly.