Society and the reason of language

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Traian Stoianovich


A combination of circumstances occurring in western Europe and the
Balkans and eastern Europe alike during the second half of the eighteenth
century favored the eastward and southeastward diffusion of certain aspects of
Enlightenment thought. If there was a supply of new ideas in western Europe,
however, what facilitated their southeastward diffusion was the existence,
along the maritime fringes of the Ottoman Empire and in the Habsburg
frontiers adjacent to the Ottoman, of a growing demand for appropriate new
ideas. One important event in western Europe was the publication of
Montesquieu’s De l’esprit des lois (1748), which redefined Europe —partly in
terms of geography and climate but even more in terms of law, moderation,
commerce, and the circulation of goods and ideas, so that Europe’s other
became Oriental despotism. Once admired as the “new Romans”, the Ottoman
Empire became an object of criticism. Europe itself came to be understood as
the territories in which a demand for an unimpeded circulation of goods and
ideas existed or could be created. In other words, the extent of Europe could
be said to coincide with territories in which there were elites with Enlightenment goals. At about the same time, in response to the growth of the commerce of
Greeks and Macedo-Vlachs with western Europe and Russia, of the growth of
the commerce of Greeks and Serbs and of the church and educational reforms
of Maria Theresa in the Habsburg Monarchy, of study by Greeks in Italian
medical schools and other faculties and of Serbs in German and Hungarian
higher schools, and of the rise in the Austrian territories of a Serb burgher
class, a growing number of Serbs and Greeks began to identify after 1770 with
some of the Enlightenment goals. By and large, the Greek and Serb exponents
of the new ideas did not seek a rupture with their own past but only with a
past that they did not regard as their own. The acceptance of Enlightenment
ideas thus was generally not an act of “de-Byzantinization”. On the other
hand, under the influence of German pietism, whose center was the University
of Halle but which was also propagated by German merchants who went to the
Leipzig fairs, it could take the form of attachment to such ideas as rational
piety and enlightened virtue.
By the 1780s, there was the beginning among Serb and Greek writers of
what, in another connection, Fernand Braudel has called a “verbal inflation”,
and which I myself associate with what I call the Third Axial Age. Clearly
evident in the work of one of the most admired Serb authors, Dositej
Obradović, that verbal inflation was the result of his quest for “clear, definite,
and constant ideas”. To identify the art of communication, he borrowed a
Russian term, slovesnost, whose purpose he understood as enlightening the
understanding, pleasing the imagination, moving the passions, and influencing
the will, an activity that western Europeans commonly called rhetoric. Among
the words that he borrowed from the western European languages or coined
by analogy were the terms for fashion (moda), capital (kapital), nation (nacija),
and public sphere (opštestvó).
Among Greek and Serb writers alike, there was, by the 1780s, a linguistic
turn, a shift from a discourse of philosophy under which language was subsumed to a discourse of language under which philosophy was subsumed. An
examination of the work of Condillac, Volney, Noah Webster, and Johann
Georg Hamann indicates that a similar turn began somewhat earlier in
western Europe and at about the same time in the United States. One may
associate this turn with certain writers but also with certain areas —with the
Ionian Islands, Epirus, Macedonia, and Thessaly among the Greeks and with
Karlovac (Carlstadt) and other western regions among the Serbs, with areas
distant from centers of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, such as Constantinople and
Sremski Karlovci. The turn further reflected the simultaneous movement from
conceptions of “universality” to conceptions of nationality, both of which differ, however, from conceptions of locality. They were, therefore, also an affirmation by the new elites of their own identification with Europe and the idea of a culture of dialogue.

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