Listening to difference: J.G. Herder’s aural theory of cultural diversity in the ‘Treatise on the Origin of Language’ (1772)

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In this article, I develop the concept and practice of ‘listening to difference,’ examining J.G. Herder’s aural theory of cultural diversity as primarily worked out in the ‘Treatise on the Origin of Language’ (1772). I examine the sources Herder critiqued to outline his aural theory of linguistic and cultural difference, which have thus far only been summarily mentioned if at all in scholarship despite the prominence of the ‘Treatise’ in intellectual history and philosophy. These sources comprise the travelogues of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century French scientists, mathematicians, diplomats, and Jesuit missionaries who described the inadequacy of Romanized orthography to accurately transcribe the sounds and pronunciations of the indigenous peoples they encountered throughout the Americas, Thailand, and China. Herder’s critical readings of travelogues showcased the unintended failures and interruptions in European colonial practices of listening. I argue that it was the French travellers’ failure to erase difference, to transform it into identity or, in other words, into a universalist monolingualism, which produced a consciousness of cultural and linguistic difference, even if repressed. The sounds of the spoken indigenous languages exposed the limits of the paradigms of Catholic and European linguistic classification. Instead, the exemplary technologies for preserving difference in scriptural and listening practices were for Herder the Hebrew alphabet and the oral transmission of poetry in ancient and Indigenous cultures. Listening to difference, as I define it, involves an openness to listening to the voices and sounds of the othered by listeners who recognize their distinct situated, embodied positionalities. It offers alternate possibilities to conceive of human diversity as continually in formation and not as a static or progressive hierarchy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)930-947
Number of pages18
JournalHistory of European Ideas
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the Yonsei University Research Grant of 2022. I was invited to present earlier drafts of this paper at a seminar organized by the East Asian Intellectual History Network and Seoul National University's European Studies program in 2020 as well as at a lecture at Ohio State University's Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures in 2021. I am grateful to the audience and commentators at each event and the anonymous referees for their critical engagement and constructive feedback.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Philosophy


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