The modest title of Hans Aarsleff's book From Locke to Saussure conceals, among other things, the fact that it goes a long way beyond Saussure. Its implications reach right down to linguistic controversies which continue unabated at the present day. The 14 essays presented in this volume undoubtedly include what must, by any standards, rank among the most stimulating writing on language and European thought to have been published during the past quarter of a century. It is lucid, informative, profound, provocative and well-argued. Throughout it manifests a breadth of reading and depth of erudition of formidable extent. What is more important still is that it must, if Aarsleff is right, radically alter our understanding of the intellectual history of modern linguistics. And that means our grasp of the world of ideas in which we live. Few will disagree with Aarsleff that the history of the study of language is both a legitimate subject in its own right and itself a contribution to our understanding of language. Indeed, the claim is understated. Some readers, among whom I include myself, would want to press a much stronger case for the importance of this particular subject: namely, that, for lack of understanding of its own ancestry, much of what passes for contemporary linguistics is in a state of deep-seated philosophical confusion.
LRB 19 August 1982 | PDF Download