Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Karl Bühler/Buhler/Buehler on the Evolution of Language

As you may have realized, I am very interested in the work of German psychologist Karl Bühler

(1879-1963), who is most famous for his Organon-(Greek for “tool”)-Model of language. In which the linguistic sign is seen as having three key properties:


But except for some minor aspects, Bühler’s work hasn’t had the influence he deserved especially in English-speaking countries, where even among pschologists he isn’t “particularly well known” (Brock 1994). Just look at his wikipedia entry.

In their famous (1963) book “Symbol formation: An organismic developmental approach to language and the expression of thought.” Heinz Werner and Kaplan write that “

we shall draw considerably on the views of Karl Bühler whose Sprachtheorie, we believe, presents the most advanced psychological analysis of the general structure of language. (Werner & Kaplan 1963: 52)
In a footnote they add:

It is regrettable that Bühler's book is neither discussed nor even cited in any of the recent works on language by American psychologists. (Werner & Kaplan 1963: 52)

In his (1994) paper, “Whatever happened to Karl Bühler?” Adrian Brock comes to the conclusion that “This situation has hardly changed today.”

As already noted, this is all the more regrettable given that Bühler was teacher to both ethologist Konrad Lorenz and philosopher Karl Popper, who both influenced modern evolutionary biology, socio-biology, and evolutionary inquiries into the phenomenon of cognition in general (Pléh 1999)

What I am mainly interested in is Bühler’s view on the cognitive grounding of communication, especially his theory of the "origo of the deictic/symbolic field”, and the “coordinate system of subjective orientation (Bühler 1934). Somewhere in the future, I’d like to write my Ph.D about the relationship between Karl Bühler’s theories, Wilhelm Köller’s and Carl F. Graumann’s theories on the perspectivity of language and cognition, studies into he phenomenon of perspective done by cognitive linguistics, developmental and comparative psychology, as well as some other strands of cognitive science.

I hope such an approach would shed light on cognitive basis and evolution of language, cognition and perspective. Of course this is still pretty far off, and at the moment I just enjoy finding out and trying to integrate stuff about language, cognition, the evolution of language, embodiment, etc. Maybe I’ll get some kind of framework of the ground, but who knows, all this still lies a long time in the future. .

So back to Bühler: Does he say anything on the evolution of language? Well, as of yet, I haven’t found much. In his 1934 “Sprachtheorie” (Theory of Language), he writes that the current book tries to answer the question “Who are you?” and that he will write a paper about the question “Where do you come from?” somewhere in the future.

So did he ever write this paper? Well, apparently he didn’t. In a 1984 bibliography of his works, the paper on “The Myth of the Origin of Language” is listed under ‘works that have been announced, but have never been published’ (Kamp 1984: 280f.) But luckily, I still found the following entry in the list of published articles:

“The Origin of Language.” In: Psychological Bulletin 25 (1928): 169/70

(Kamp 1984: 276)

Well it isn’t much, really, but here it is:

"The Origin of Language. KARL BUEHLER, University of Vienna.

Older theories like Darwin's, Spencer's, and Wundt's started from individual psychology. Beginning with the situation of social contact the theory of the origin of language can be systematically developed. In every organized group we observe a mutual steering of the behavior of the individuals. There are many cases where such a mutual steering is possible without the means of significations. That can be done wherever A can understand from what he immediately perceives the behavior of B and vice versa. But suppose that the goal of B lies beyond the horizon of A's perceptions then, as a general rule, signals are necessary. Take this "beyond the horizon " first in a literal and then in a figurative sense and you have a good and satisfactory formula for the origin of language as well in animals as in man. Consider the situation of human car drivers and look at the facts we know, for instance, about the so-called language in ants and bees, the origin of signals is in general always the same."

For Bühler, then, the key property in the evolution of language was displaced communication as a means for complex social navigation, directing the attention of others, and influencing their behavior. This seems pretty much in accordance with a lot of proposals regarding the evolution of language and cognition, for example the “Social Intelligence Hypothesis” (Robin Dunbar), the “Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis” (Richard Byrne & Andrew Whiten), the “Vygotskian Intelligence Hypothesis” (Henrike Moll & Michael Tomasello 2007, and whole bunch of other people from the Max Planck Institure for Evolutionary Anthropology), and a lot of theories that see the development of a Theory of Mind as a crucial factor. Edmund Blair Bolles, who sees speech as a means to direct other people’s attention, and hints at the possibility that the capacity to establish joint attention triplets, including two interlocutors and a shared object of attention may be the key human specialization for language, also seems to think along similar lines.

Bühler doesn’t really offer anything new, and I’m sure that there were people before him that came up with similar ideas, but I still find it interesting to see a lot of theories on the evolution of language and cognition converging on such a smallish set of very basic key issues.


Brock, Adrian (1994) Whatever Happened to Karl Bühler? In: Canadian Psychology.

Bühler, Karl (1928): “The Origin of Language.” In: Psychological Bulletin 25: 169-70

Bühler, Karl (1934): Sprachtheorie. Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache. Jena: Gustav Fischer.

Kamp, Rudolf (1984): Bibliographie der Veröffentlichungen von und über Karl Bühler. In: Achim Eschbach (ed): Bühler-Studien: Band 2. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Moll, Henrike, & Michael Tomasello. 2007. Co-operation and human cognition: The Vygotskian intelligence hypothesis. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 362: 639-648.

Pléh, Csaba (1999): "Ernst Mach and Daniel Dennett: Two Evolutionary
Models of Cognition”, in Peter Fleissner and Kristóf Nyíri (eds.), Philosophy of Culture and the Politics of Electronic Networking, vol. 1: Historical Roots and Present Developments, Innsbruck: Studienverlag /Budapest: Áron Kiadó.

Werner, Heinz, & Bernard Kaplan, 1963 Symbol formation: An organismic developmental approach to language and the expression of thought. NY: John Wiley.


Laughing Man said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laughing Man said...

I agree that Bühler hasn't the international reputation he deserves. Why? Well, he published his philosophy of language between 1931 and 1934 as you know a critical period for Germany and emigrated in 1938. Since then he had lived in the US and published only psychological books - for which he is aknowledged. I don't think his earlier works of language philosophy were translated until ~1963.

As far as I know, the famous diagram in your post was created by Hörmann in 1986.
Probably English linguistics had no need for Bühler since they had 'similar' theories on their own. (Odgen, Richards, Peirce)

Michael Pleyer said...

Thanks for your comment,

I think Bühler's Organon-Model captures some aspects of communication the Ogden/Richards doesn not, especially regarding the pragmatic aspects of language interaction. The same holds true for other important ideas of Bühler, like the Origo- and the deictic field.
The diagram I posted can be found on page 35 in the 1990 translation of Karl Bühlers "Sprachtheorie."
According to Brock, Bühler isn't very well known int he domain of psychology either. Important books like "Die Krise der Psychologie" still aren't translated. So even in psychology most of his work isn't acknowledged the way it deserves.

JoseAngel said...

Yes, Bühler's conception of the way language functions by creating a virtual environment of its own is well worth the attention of cognitivists. Certainly there were not many linguists at the time worried by such issues. Good luck with your thesis if you decide to carry it along these lines.

jmillar said...

I find Buhler's Organon Model as THE stepping stone between Saussure and Jakobson. It provides extremely valuable insights to students of communication theory and basic linguistics. In fact, Jakobson's model could be viewed as a 'refined and enriched' version of Buhler's, but students find Buhler's model neater, cleaner, purer, as well as more intuitive and easier to grasp.

Rafe said...

Good to see you are working on Buhler. You might like to contact John Wettersten who has done a lot of work on the history of psychology including the misfortunes of Buhler. Mail me on rchamp AT bigpond DOT net DOT au if you want his address.

steve long said...

You say Buhler didn't really offer anything new. I'd suggest that is a mistake. My understanding is that Buhler's "deixis" as the source of all linguistic reference -- including syntax ("grammar" for Buhler) -- opened up the idea that syntax itself is just another kind of naming -- using different linguistic forms to make reference -- but making reference nonetheless. This is in direct opposition to Chomsky's notion of syntax independent of meaning. If you want to know why Buhler is not understood particularly among American linguists, take that as the starting point. There can be no "context-independent" propositions in Buhler -- expression either refers to an object or "state of affairs" or it refers to another symbol. This is really a functionalist vision of language and hard to understand by a discipline immersed in structuralism -- structuralism that makes all origins very mysterious, because it does not tell us why language is shaped like it is -- thus we have theories about the innateness and uniqueness of syntax.