Constructing worlds with words; Science and international language in the early twentieth century
01 / 2009 - 06 / 2014
Fabian s research project focuses on a specific moment in the development of scientific internationalism: the attempts to create a universal scientific language in the early twentieth century. From about 1900 onwards, several prominent European scientists set themselves to the task of ridding communication of the dead weight of national cultures as the German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald called it by creating a new language that would directly reflect the logic of reason. This new language was meant to be for science in order to support the traffic of knowledge through publications and at conferences. But it was also to be of science in that it was supposed to be the expression of both the rationality of science and its supranational character. These attempts are especially remarkable as they happened in a period when language was one of the most important vehicles of nationalism. During the period between 1880 and 1914 language had become the principal identifier of national communities, both in the hands of nationalist agitators and in the work of government statisticians. On the one hand, the advocates of universal language broke this association of language with nation, since their aims lay at a global level. On the other hand, they copied from the nationalist movements the use of linguistic means for defining and promoting community in this case international community. To expose the mechanism of this specific case of scientific internationalism, it is the aim of this research project to explore these paradoxes by investigating how scientific language schemes were and were not related to 1) dominant strands of nationalism, 2) other 19th and early 20th century internationalist movements, and 3) 19th and early 20th century developments within the scientific community. In this it draws on the constructivist approaches to the study of nations, as developed by Eric Hobsbawm and others, and it will pay particular attention to the various local roots (in Germany, France, and elsewhere) of the internationalist initiatives. Other research aims are to examine the reception of universal language proposals within the scientific community and their fate during and after the First World War.