This essay is an examination of how Fichte’s distinctively social conception of reason and self-consciousness lead him to propose a novel theory of the nature and origin of the linguistic capacity.
In order to do so, I contrast some of the main aspects of his 1795 essay «On the linguistic capacity and the origin of language» with earlier treatises on the same subject by Condillac and Herder.
Through this comparison I will isolate two theses found in Herder and Condillac, which respectively concern (I) the suis generics nature of language and reason (which entails their radical discontinuity from animal capacities), and (ii) the requirement of language and reason to be properly developed within social, communicative contexts. Each of the two authors maintains one of these theses to the detriment of the other. Condillac conceives of language as being rooted in involuntary animal cries, and as necessarily requiring socially mediated development in order to become the fully rational capacity to freely employ arbitrary signs. Herder rejects the continuity between animal cries and human language, and takes the linguistic capacity to be an essentially private mode of sign-use identifiable with apperceptive attention. This private language only draws on the basic capacities of reason and does not require any substantive development. Fichte is strongly concerned to preserve the suis generics status of Fichte is strongly concerned to preserve the suis generics status of rational capacities including language, but in line with his social model of self-consciousness, he believes that language too must be developed through the interaction of agents in communicative contexts. I argue that he is committed to both of the above listed theses, and presents an account of the nature of linguistic competence which is grounded in an inchoate but highly suggestive model of joint attention developing in accordance with social drives