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Indology: The Origins of Racism in the Humanities – Part 1

Review of Pascale Rabault-Feuerhahn, Archives of Origins: Sanskrit, Philology, Anthropology in 19th Century Germany. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2013.


Archives of Origins traces the establishment and expansion of Sanskrit studies in Wilhelmine-era Germany. Rich in archival materials, it is a valuable reference work for scholars of nineteenth-century German Indology. In the first part, titled “Sanskrit and Philological Tradition in Germany,” Rabault-Feuerhahn (hereafter R-F) traces the beginnings of Sanskrit studies in Germany, focusing on Friedrich Schlegel, Franz Bopp, A. W. Schlegel, and Schlegel’s student Christian Lassen. In the second, “The Hegemony of Comparativism,” she focuses on Vedic studies in Germany, especially as they engendered a search for characteristically “Indo-European” forms of religiosity, myth, and historical development. Here her primary interlocutors are August Schleicher, Adalbert Kuhn, Friedrich Max Müller, and Rudolf von Roth.

In the third, “The Challenges of Anthropology,” R-F addresses the emergence of a science of race from Indology. Tying the interest in the “Aryan” concept to wider developments in German politics and society (the Franco-Prussian War, Bismarck’s anti-Catholic policies, and the rise of German nationalism), she argues that Indology underwent a dramatic transformation in the 1870s. “Until then, the ‘anthropological’ interest of Indologists had consisted in curiosity towards the routes taken by the development of the human mind. This resulted in an ‘ethnographic’ approach that consisted in gathering all traces of its activity” (173). Now, however, as “Indo-European comparativism […] gradually [became] more clearly invested with a quest for identity,” “its paradigms—the correspondence between kinship of language and kinship of people as well as the notion of an ‘Indo-Germanic’ people—[began] to penetrate new scientific milieus” (173–74).

R-F argues that the primary protagonists in this phase—and, in her view, the real villains of the piece—were not Indologists, but “anthropologists” such as August Pictet, Theodor Pösche, and Karl Penka. In her view, “Once they were adopted by specialists in physical anthropology, the terms coined by Indologists and comparativists underwent important semantic changes” (193). Whereas “philologists [had] designated the speakers of Indian and Iranian languages as ‘Aryans’,” “anthropologists specialised in racial typologies restrained its usage, to apply the term only to a fraction of the ‘Indo-Germanic people’” (193). This “racial use,” moreover, did not have its source in the Indologists’ writings, being “borrowed [instead] from [Arthur de Gobineau’s] Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (1853–1855)” (193–94).

R-F, however, argues that this foray into racism remained a brief and characteristically German aberration. From the 1870s on, French scholars such as “Bréal used the opportunity provided by the transfer of comparative grammar to France to contribute a number of correctives.” In her view, “the transfer of comparative grammar from Germany to France [thus] bore the mark of the refusal of the specific character of German investigations on Indo-European languages” (217). Whereas German scholars had “systematically established” a “link […] between comparative grammar and Indology” (217), “in France, as early as the 1870s Indo-European comparativism was dissociated from any ethnographic or cultural perspective and only envisaged from a linguistic aspect” (220). Following Abel Bergaigne’s death (1888), “Sanskrit and comparative grammar were separated at the Sorbonne,” an event “hailed as ‘the definitive emancipation [of Sanskrit studies] from Indology’ and its ‘bondage’ to comparative grammar” (222). Around the same time, “the situation of Indology in Germany” likewise underwent a rapid transformation (224). Geldner and Pischel joined Bergaigne in “abandoning comparativism.” They argued, “the Veda did not reflect the ‘mind’ of the ‘Indo-European people’ but only that of the ‘Indian people’, which should be acknowledged in its individuality” (229).

The brief conclusion summarizes the results of the inquiry. R-F finds that, as “scholars […] imbued with the nationalistic climate of their time” (263), German Indologists had contributed to racial discourse, but rejects any suggestion of an essential connection between comparative philology and anthropology. In her view, the Indologists’ foray into racism was “a true adventure, in the whole polysemy of this term” (264), explainable as a result of their unfortunate flirtation with “recognition and public legitimacy” (268). But it was only once “the notion of ‘Indo-European’ people […] attracted general attention […] and […] comparatist paradigms [spread] to larger audiences, [that] it [‘Indo-European’] took on a racial dimension that Indologists generally rejected, most of them advocating a culturalist approach to language rather than a biological one” (268). Her conclusion is expectably optimistic. Whereas “there is an anthropological dimension in all forms of philology so long as they contemplate the men and culture that produced the texts they are examining” (270), “in a perspective of mise-en-abyme,” the Indologists’ legacy challenges us to recognize “the powers and legitimate goals of the philological enterprise, as well as their limits” (271).

The Influence of Comparative Anatomy

Archives of Origins is erudite and densely argued. R-F’s knowledge of the primary sources is impressive. As several reviewers (Chang 2015, Ducœur 2010, Gaulin 2010, Haag 2009, Maillet 2010, Mangold 2008, Marchand 2010, McGetchin 2009, Messaoudi 2010, Rocher 2009, and Trautmann-Waller 2010) have noted, her work contributes to our understanding of the complex interactions that shaped German Indology. Her central thesis, however—that the development of comparative philology preceded anthropology—is historically inaccurate.

As Koerner (1989: 55) has shown, comparative anatomy was already well established in the nineteenth century as the comparative study of languages was getting underway. Nineteenth-century comparative linguistics exhibited a “‘parasite’ tendency”  in that it borrowed its principal concepts from the natural sciences, especially “botany […], biology, and […] comparative anatomy.” Koerner (1989: 87) notes: “There is general agreement that 19th-century linguistics, at least until the 1880s, was imbued with naturalist conceptions, both about the nature of language in general and about its mechanism and evolution.” “The technical vocabulary of the period as well as the concepts and methodological principles advocated by the majority of linguists […] were clearly marked by the natural sciences of the late 18th to the mid-19th century, particularly botany, comparative anatomy, geology, and evolution theory. This impact of the ‘Zeitgeist’ of the period can be seen not only in the terminological kit of the 19th-century linguist; compare terms such as ‘analysis’, ‘assimilation’, ‘dissimilation’, ‘stem’, ‘root’, ‘growth’, ‘decay’, even the term ‘linguistics’ itself, which appears to be modeled after ‘physics’, ‘mathematics’, etc., but also in the tendency to conceive of language as an ‘organism’ […] consisting of ‘structure(s)’ (a term figuring in the title of Bopp’s comparative work of 1820 but already used by F. Schlegel in his 1808 book), and in the claim that the development of language follows strict ‘physical’ laws” (ibid.).

Koerner (1995: 51) provides conclusive evidence that, in the early nineteenth century, as “linguists were groping to develop the study of language as a discipline apart from the various traditional subjects under which it had played a subordinate role,” they reached for “botany, chemistry, biology, comparative anatomy, in particular, in the form of paleontology and osteology, and geology”. Franz Bopp, “the acknowledged founder of comparative linguistics” (ibid.), for instance, wrote, “languages must be regarded as organic natural bodies that grow according to specific laws, evolve carrying an inner life principle within themselves, and gradually die out […]. Grammar in the higher, scientific sense should be a history or natural description of the language; [and] in particular, it must trace, in a natural historical manner, the laws according to which its development or decline or rebirth from a previous destruction occurred. Grammar, however, does not have an independent and purely scientific value when it merely sets itself the task of blazing a path to a perfected understanding of the intent of the authors, who have written in the language, or when, for this purpose, it collects and orders all the commonplace and rare forms that can be found […]” (Bopp 1827b: 251–53).

Bopp also contrasted the traditional understanding of grammar with a scientific understanding, writing, “For a scientific treatment and natural description of the German language, there is need not only of a critical illumination of the older dialects, but we must also consider related languages from prehistory although they appear more foreign and use them to clarify the German forms” (ibid., 253). Koerner (1989: 197) remarks: “Bopp, like Grimm and most of their contemporaries, shunned theory and only from time to time made a statement of a general nature. It is clear, however, that these founding fathers of comparative-historical linguistics were concerned with establishing the study of language as an independent discipline and that they were, in doing so, advocating a model for scientific research inspired by the natural sciences, in particular botany and comparative anatomy, especially in the form of osteology and paleontology.”

Bopp was not alone in borrowing the terminology of the natural sciences. As Koerner notes, colleagues such as Georg Friedrich Benecke (1762–1844), Jacob Grimm (1785–1863), and August Schleicher (1821–1868) all called for the study of linguistics to be placed on natural scientific foundations. More important is his observation regarding comparative anatomy’s role: “The work of comparative anatomists like Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752–1840) in Göttingen (e.g., Blumenbach 1805) and, especially, Georges Cuvier (1769–1832) in Paris received particular attention among early 19th-century language scholars. Post-revolutionary France in general not only produced considerable advances in science but attracted the best minds of Europe, particularly Germany, in part also because France at the turn of the century did not exercise the mind control that characterized most of the other states at the time” (1995: 57).

In Koerner’s view, “the locus classicus of an explicit reference to Comparative Anatomy in the history of linguistics” (ibid., 58) is F. Schlegel’s Ueber die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier(1808). In this work, widely considered the foundational text for the modern study of languages, Schlegel noted: “The decisive point, however, that will illuminate everything here is the inner structure of the languages or comparative grammar, which will provide us entirely new insights into the genealogy of languages the way comparative anatomy has cast light on higher natural history” (F. Schlegel 1808: 28). Koerner (1995: 58) argues, “this in fact programmatic statement was not simply a metaphor that presented itself quite independently of the natural sciences.” Rather, it “was the result of Schlegel’s acquaintance with the work of George Cuvier (1769–1832) and whatever the educated classes in Paris knew about his work and the findings of other scientists of the day.” He notes that Schlegel not only drew “important conclusions for the study of language from the ‘creative analogy’ that he perceives between Comparative Anatomy and Comparative Linguistics, namely, that earlier stages of linguistic forms, and of languages, can be reconstructed” (ibid., 59); but also explicitly referred to the creation of “a genuinely historical genealogical tree, a true developmental history of language” (F. Schlegel 1808: 84).

Schlegel’s influence on the history of the comparative study of languages requires no restatement. Reents (2017: 322) considers Schlegel to be “alongside [Friedrich A.] Wolf the founder of a specifically modern philology.” Endres (2017: 220) summarizes Schlegel’s specific contribution to the study of language as follows: “Schlegel thus wishes to construct the relationship of languages on the model of comparative anatomy as a natural kinship and trace it back to a principle—according to the standards of the nineteenth century—of law (in this, he likely had in mind Georges Cuvier’s founding of comparative anatomy whose name, however, he first mentions one and a half decades after publication of the Indier essay, see 15.2, XX). Thereby, Schlegel brings linguistic discourse into proximity with the biological discourse of his time, indeed, he practically ‘biologizes’ it inasmuch as he links the understanding of the history of language—and of the cultural products brought forth with its help—to the understanding of its genealogical relationships of descent. For ‘Schlegel knew quite well: the constitution of historicity in the sphere of grammar took place in accordance with the same model as in the science of living beings’ (Foucault 1971, 342).”

Abreu’s researches (2003), moreover, establish, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that racial—or, as R-F would say anthropological—questions took priority over linguistic ones for Schlegel. In the face of the textual evidence, the thesis that anthropology emerged as an unfortunate side-effect of Schlegel’s linguistic interests can scarcely be maintained. R-F does not cite this work, but already Römer (1985) had noted Schlegel’s assumption of “two primordial peoples” on the basis of language (families) and his “apocalyptic” conception, and argued that with his “glorification of organic languages” he had a “great influence on the ethnography of the nineteenth century with its colonial and racist tendencies” (ibid., 106). R-F cites this work, but—as with all other inconvenient sources—she relegates it to the margins of her book. I will therefore not trace F. Schlegel’s racial interests further. Instead, I turn to his brother A. W. Schlegel, the acknowledged founder of German Indology (Franco 2016), and show that the influence of comparative anatomy was no less on him. If anything, he was an even greater adherent of Soemmering’s and Blumenbach’s racial theories of than F. Schlegel.

The Inheritance from Race

Koerner’s research casts substantial doubt on R-F’s thesis that the concept of a “family” was first developed to describe language families and only later extended to ethnic or racial groups. Indeed, if we remember that the use of “family” to describe language groups is, in the end, only a “creative analogy” (Koerner 1995: 12), her account of the emergence of the notion of racial families (supposedly arising from Friedrich Max Müller’s “transposition” of the terms “Aryan” and “Indo-European” “from the linguistic to the cultural plane, making the ‘Aryan’ family essential, to the point of speaking of a ‘race’”) appears scarcely credible. R-F clarifies that Müller “understood this racial kinship from a strictly intellectual viewpoint, only in terms of ‘spiritual flesh and blood’ (161), but even spiritual flesh and blood is flesh and blood: the metaphor only works (and the restriction is necessary) because the physical domain is primary. R-F asserts that “hardly ten years after the articles by August Schleicher ‘On the Value of Comparing Languages’ (1846) and Adalbert Kuhn ‘On the Most Ancient History of Indo-Germanic Peoples’ (1849), the idea that there was an ancestral people at the origin of the German lineage that could be accessible through comparative grammar, had become one of the discipline’s obvious facts” (184). But the notion of a common ancestral people is a cornerstone of F. Schlegel’s 1808 text; it already occurs in A. W. Schlegel’s 1805 essay “Considérations sur la civilisation en général et sur l’origine et la décadence des religions” (A. W. Schlegel 1846 [1805]), whereas an interest in the topic of migration occurs as early as his Göttingen dissertation (A. W. Schlegel 1788).

Likewise, when R-F asserts that “The methods initiated by Schleicher and Kuhn consisted in using comparative grammar as one would an archaeological instrument, going back through the various stages of language until one could reconstitute the remnants of the age-old ‘Indo- Germanic’ stage. The Swiss Adolphe Pictet, who had been introduced to Sanskrit by A. W. Schlegel, then adopted these methods and called them ‘linguistic palaeontology’” (184), she overlooks a crucial fact. Pictet’s paleontological metaphor only works because the classificatory scheme—grouping languages into families—was originally borrowed from a biological domain. Pictet is, so to speak, only returning to its origin what, by derivation, was alienated from it. Before Pictet, A. W. Schlegel had himself taken a paleontological approach in his “De l’Origine des Hindous” (1834); only his approach was straightforward rather than metaphorical, using physical attributes to identify language families rather than language to infer a people. Citing Blumenbach’s classification of humankind into five races by skull type, Schlegel wrote: “He [Blumenbach] places Hindus in the race that I designated before, which he names Caucasian […]. The denomination could appear arbitrary but that does not matter, given that the classification is accurate. The great naturalist’s decision is wholly confirmed by the results of research into the affiliation among languages, about which I will soon speak” (ibid., 422; my italics).

Contrary to R-F’s thesis, race clearly had priority over language for Schlegel. Four pages later, in the chapter titled “L’Analyse comparée des Langues appliquée à l’Histoire” (“The comparative analysis of language applied to history”), Schlegel finally turned to language. He introduced the topic thus: “We have defined the race of the Hindus: we have seen that, though placed at the end of the line, they belong to that which one is justified in calling the most noble, since it has been illustrated in history more than all the others taken together, by the perfections of the social order; by the useful inventions, and the scientific discoveries; finally, by the intellectual productions which bear the seal of genius, in philosophy, poetry, rhetoric, and the fine arts. We shall now determine the family of peoples of which they form an integral part, letting ourselves be guided in this inquiry by the comparative study of languages. One can say that this study, treated methodically, is an entirely new science; and it is presumably for this reason that it has not yet been accorded by all the world its just value” (ibid., 426–27).

R-F inexplicably overlooks this crucial text. A careful reading, moreover, shows that the topic of language appears quite late. In both the introduction and the conclusion, Schlegel makes it abundantly clear that the purpose of these investigations was anthropological and ethnographic. His reference to the comparative study of languages as “an entirely new science” in the previous quotation suggests an awareness of founding a new field of inquiry. From his explicit comments and from the structure of the essay, there can be no doubt that, rather than philology being the model for anthropology, as R-F claims, Schlegel was looking to the work of his mentor and teacher Blumenbach in forging this new science.

Blumenbach’s influence on Schlegel is well attested. Paulin (2016: 33) refers to the influence of “the ‘German Buffon’, the great comparative anatomist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, with his ‘vital energy’,” on Schlegel, “whose work on fossils and crania Schlegel was later to cite (and whose laudatio he was to write in Latin for the university in Bonn).” If we remember that Blumenbach was lecturing on comparative anatomy as early as 1785 (see Dougherty 2006: 103), a full ten years before Georges Cuvier began working at the Jardin des Plantes, and that Schlegel himself attended Göttingen University from 1786, there can be no doubt that the debt in Indology ran rather fromcomparative anatomy to comparative philology.

In the late 1700s, systems of racial classification, emerging from Linnaen taxonomy, were the only theoretical frameworks capable of enabling the specifically modern approach to language. As Paulin (2016: 474) notes, “It is not by chance that Schlegel in three reconstructing and restoring on the basis of archaeological and scientific evidence the ‘antediluvian origins’ of humankind, or through fragmentary inscriptions finding hints of languages now lost (Etruscan, Pelasgian) that might lead us back to the ‘Ursprache’.” “Hence the need for all those documents, all the study of human striving, the ‘theory of the earth’, the diversity of human types (‘Raçen’ in Schlegel’s and his contemporaries’ terminology: he follows Blumenbach’s division of humanity into five ‘racial types’); not out of any mere antiquarian interest, although Schlegel is not one to despise old humanist scholarship as mere ‘archaeology’” (ibid.). In fact, Paulin is of the view that “the later essay, De l’Origine des Hindous (1834, republished in 1838 and 1842) rehearsed essentially what he had to say on etymology in 1818 or what he was telling his Bonn students about geography, movement, settlement, ‘Raçe’. What was new in 1834 were some words in season for ‘celtomanes’, who happened to be in France, and their ‘chimères celtiques’” (ibid., 487–88).

Likewise, when R-F alleges that, “in his association of the terms ‘paleontology’ and ‘linguistic’, Pictet showed that analysing a language made it possible to go back in time just as much as analysing bones. Seeking to justify this comparison, he established a true analogy between two scientific subjects” (185), she overlooks the fact that Pictet had a predecessor in Schlegel. Pictet did not invent the “palaeontological” metaphor. Before him, A. W. Schlegel (1834: 430) wrote: “If it is true […] that nothing casts greater light on the hidden origin of peoples than the comparison of languages, and this is an evident truth; [then] I dare to affirm that this discovery, reserved for our time, forms an epoch in research into antiquity, and even into the primitive history of the human race. Who could have imagined in advance that one would find on the banks of the Ganges an ancient language, revealing again, by its characteristic traits, a common origin with the idioms spoken on the borders of the Arctic Ocean, in Scandinavia and in Iceland? This discovery can be compared to another of the same importance, made recently in natural history: I speak of the anatomy of animal species, no longer existing, which pertain to another epoch of the terrestrial creation, and that one calls antediluvian, on the supposition that they perished in a violent catastrophe of our globe” (italics added).

When Pictet in 1859 wrote: “It [the study of etymology] is in this respect exactly like paleontology, when, with the aid of fossilized bones, it permits not only the reconstruction of an animal, but makes us aware of its habits, of its manner of motion, of nourishment, etc. For words last as long as bones; and, just as a tooth contains implicitly a part of the history of an animal, an isolated word can put us on the track of the entire series of ideas which were attached to it at the time of its formation. The name, thus, of linguistic paleontology would suit perfectly the science which we have in view; for it takes as its goal to make to live again, in a certain fashion, the facts, the things and the ideas of a world buried in the darkness of the past” (Pictet 1859: 7; Pictet’s italics) he only provided the name of the science; not, however, the idea of the science itself or the terms of comparison that made it possible.

Schlegel’s philology was a “linguistic paleontology” avant la lettre; indeed, he himself explicitly invoked the comparison with paleontological research, albeit the term paleontology is lacking. Thus he wrote: “Through all of time fossilized bones have been found, but without attracting attention; sometimes childish stories have been attached to them; when they have been striking for their colossal size, they have passed in popular opinion for the skeletons of giants. But as soon as the observing eye of the scientific spirit was directed there, the discoveries multiplied, and became sufficient to determine the anatomical characteristics which at the same time bring together and distinguish the lost species from the species most analogous among those which still exist. The art was taught of reconstructing the entire body by means of a few scattered members; of tracing upon the very skeleton the exterior contour of the animal; of making thus portraits of originals which belonged to another age of the world, and of resuscitating, not only for science, but for the imagination, an annihilated creation. Likewise, certain isolated and superficial resemblances have long been noted between languages of which no historical link is known. But this was confined to a fruitless wonderment or, if an attempt was made to explain this phenomenon, false hypotheses were advanced. The knowledge of Sanskrit put an end to this groping. This language, cultivated to the highest point and fixed in a remote antiquity, belonging to a nation of southern Asia, placed outside the scope of our ancient history; this language, I say, offered on the surface such coincidences with all the other already known languages of the same family, as to provoke a deeper examination. One learned to discern disguised analogies from superficial dissimilarities; to discover them especially in those fine portions of the structure of the languages which resemble the branches of the veins and the nerves in the animal body. […] The comparative analysis of languages must also [like ‘everyday grammar’] commence from grammar, and not from vocabulary. But this is a grammar of a superior order; it must become historical, so far as this is possible, in following the inverse order of time; it must distinguish in the changes which have occurred within the same language in diverse epochs the accidental perturbations of the laws of an organic development. The knowledge of these laws, and the analogy of the languages, furnish it the means to return to an epoch anterior to written documents, of divining a more pristine ancient type, and of approaching thus the primitive identity of the languages issuing from a common stem” (A. W. Schlegel 1834: 430–31).

As this passage shows, Schlegel formulated his “comparative study” or “comparative science” or “comparative analysis” of languages (he uses all three terms) independently of Pictet, on strict analogy with paleontology. Not only did he refer to “fossils” before Pictet; he was also the first to formulate the idea of a “historical” science that would enable the reconstruction of the lost ancestral language (and mutatis mutandis its associated culture) from which the remaining members of the “Indo-Germanic” family allegedly derived. Pictet himself acknowledged the debt to the “great authorities” (hautes autorités) in the field, Schlegel and Lassen, noting that his hypothesis (about the location of the homeland of the Aryans) “accorded essentially” with their conjectures, albeit having “the advantage of greater precision” (Pictet 1859: 53; “hautes autorités” occurs on 62).

This is the first part of the review titled ‘Indology: The Origin Of Racism In The Humanities’ earlier uploaded on the authors’ academia page. Please refer to the paper on the academia website for the citations and references.

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