American Philosophical Society
Member History

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406. Linguistics[X]
1Name:  Dr. Hans Aarsleff
 Institution:  Princeton University
 Year Elected:  1994
 Class:  4. Humanities
 Subdivision:  406. Linguistics
 Residency:  Resident
 Living? :   Living
 Birth Date:  1925
Hans Aarsleff was born near Copenhagen, Denmark in 1925. He attended local schools and graduated cum laude from nearby state Gymnasium in 1943 with concentrations in math and natural science. He matriculated from the University of Copenhagen in fall 1943, having studed English and French literatures and languages with emphasis on philosophy and linguistics. He studied Old Norse, Old and Middle English, Latin, Gothic, French and Sanskrit. During 1944-45, he was trained in underground resistance to the German Occupation, on duty four weeks after May 4, 1945. In fall 1948 Aarsleff was admitted on one-year scholarship to graduate study in English at the University of Minnesota, where the most memorable courses were Robert Penn Warren's on the theory of the novel and the theory of poetry. Aarsleff studied with John W. Clark and Harold B. Allen, taught courses in linguistics and history of the language as assistant to Allen; and studied Hittite with Donald Swanson. During the summers of 1949, 1950, and 1951 he sold ice cream and hot dogs with traveling amusement parks in some states in the Midwest and the West, a very rich and instructive experience. He was an instructor in freshman English at Minnesota from 1942-56 while also working as a busboy in the University Hospitals. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1960. His dissertation on "The Study of Language in England, 1780-1860", published revised under the same title in January of 1967 (with a re-issue in 1983), features innovative introduction on contextual method in the history of scholarship and linguistics, a form of history this book, by virtue of its method, was among the first to initiate. For important information related to the method, see his essay on Koerner's historiography of linguistics in Anthropological Linguistics, March 1973. Dr. Aarsleff joined the faculty at Princeton University in 1956 as an instructor in the Department of English. He became a professor in 1972 and emeritus in 1998. At Princeton, he has taught courses in Early English literature, Chaucer, Old English, Old Norse, history of the language, and the history of linguistic thought, in addition to the entire spectrum of English and largely also American literature as preceptor in many courses. He has published on issues in intellectual history from the 16th century to the 20th, including eight entries in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography and essays on, among others, Locke, Leibniz, Descartes, Herder, Condillac, Humboldt, Taine, Saussure and Joseph Bedier. Some of these essays were later included in a book in 1982. In 1988 came his interpretive introduction to a new translation of Wilhelm von Humboldt's final and chief work on language; in 2001, the Cambridge University Press published his translation with introduction of Condillac's Essay on the Origin of Human Knowledge. He has also contributed on the philosophy of language to the forthcoming Cambridge History of Philosophy in the Eighteenth Century. In 1984, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, and in 1994 he was elected to the APS and to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. His chief motive has always been to try to open up fresh ways of looking at things, to question and often to undermine received opinion, and to establish his positions on the grounds of wide and solid knowledge, on well-argued interpretation, and not least, on close attention to context - thus spurning questions - begging claims about climate and opinion as a mode of understanding. For these reasons, his work has often proved controversial, even heretical. But this is a mark of our times. In his years, scholarship has become steadily more compliant, more of the donkey-follow-donkey variety, without circumspection. It is common to see stuff that in notes refers to a slew of "see also" titles that are given without page references, the "see also" category thus easily comprising 2,000 pages or more. Very often, some or all of those titles contain material which, had the author read it, would have forced radical change in the author's argument and in its foundations. He finds good if not cheerful sense in what Max Planck called a "remarkable" fact he once learned in his work, namely that "a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."
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