Max Müller, editor of the Vedas, was the most important Sanskritist of the nineteenth century and arguably its major figure in the study of religion as well. Despite the naivety of his ideas about religion and his failure to formulate a clear thesis of language origin, Müller was the first to conceive an originary anthropology that gives language and religion equal weight. Both his achievement and his limitations are encapsulated in the sentence (from the 1861 Lectures on the Science of Language) for which he is best remembered today: “Mythology is a disease of language.”

Although Durkheim decisively refuted Müller’s “naturistic” theory of the origin of religion in his Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), his own theory of the sacred as a projection of the social never comes to grips with the problem of origin. This helps explain why even today something like Müller’s theory remains the typical common-sense explanation for religious belief. How did humans come to believe in god(s)? Through their awe at the wonders of nature. At the first sound of a thunderclap, they bowed down in fear and prayed to the thunder god to spare them, etc., etc. This scenario deviates only slightly from Müller’s in its focus on a concrete event. Sacrificing the specificity of the isolated event for the sake of universal visibility, Müller prefers to conceive the original object of worship as the sun in its daily phases, particularly its emergence at dawn:

One of the earliest objects that would strike and stir the mind of man and for which a sign or a name would soon be wanted is surely the Sun. It is very hard for us to realize the feelings with which the first dwellers on the earth looked upon the sun . . . But think of man at the very dawn of time: forget for a moment, if you can, after having read the fascinating pages of Mr. Darwin, forget what man is supposed to have been before he was man; forget it, because it does not concern us here whether his bodily form and frame were developed once for all in the mind of a Creator, or gradually in the creation itself . . . think of him only as man (and man means the thinker), with his mind yet lying fallow . . . think of the Sun awakening the eyes of man from sleep, and his mind from slumber! . . .

Few nations only have preserved in their ancient poetry some remnants of the natural awe with which the earliest dwellers on the earth saw that brilliant being slowly rising from out the darkness of the night, raising itself by its own might higher and higher, till it stood triumphant on the arch of heaven . . .

For so prominent an object in the primeval picture-gallery of the human mind, a sign or a name must have been wanted at a very early period. But how was this to be achieved? As a mere sign, a circle would have been sufficient . . . if such a sign was fixed upon, we have a beginning of language in the widest sense of the word . . . With such definite signs, mythology has little chance . . .
        Introduction to the Science of Religion (London, 1871): 366-70

Müller then proceeds to note that a “real,” that is, spoken, name is required and that such a name could be derived only from a primitive verbal root signifying one of the sun’s effects:

If the sun itself was to be named, it might be called the brilliant, the awakener, the runner, the ruler, the father, the giver of warmth . . . but there was no possibility of naming it, except by laying hold of one of its characteristic features, and expressing that feature by means of one of the conceptual or predicative roots. (ibid. 373)

The reference to Darwin is most significant. We see in Müller’s exposition the last remnants of a pre-evolutionary mindset that cannot quite fathom the transformation wrought by Darwin’s theory on the science of human origins. It was easy for Durkheim to show that even the earliest men would look at the sun as a pure banality, for if indeed humans evolved from prehuman ancestors, there was no inaugural moment at which “man” and the sun came in contact for the first time. Contra Müller, it does indeed “concern us here whether his bodily form and frame were developed once for all in the mind of a Creator, or gradually in the creation itself,” since in the latter case, the phrase “man at the very dawn of time” becomes meaningless.

Yet Müller’s hymn to the sun proposes, however implausibly, an event of language origin founded on the concentration of human desire on a central object. That this “object” is central to desire but not to the topography of the scene is not without relation to the fact that “man” is presented here, still in Enlightenment fashion, as indifferently singular and plural. If we consider “man” more concretely as the originary protohuman community, then it becomes clearer that what is essential in Müller’s scene is not the celestial primacy of the sun but the unanimous nature of the desire directed at it. A specific group of not-yet-men would be more likely to come to blows over a desirable beast of prey than over the sun, but “man” can only unanimously desire something all humans can see. Yet whatever the failings of Müller’s conception, his intuition that the sacred and language both spring from the human community’s inaugural contact with an external and unanimously shared object of desire supplies an element lacking in Durkheim’s otherwise far more mature anthropology.

As a scholar of the oldest extant corpus of religious literature written in Sanskrit, the language that the pioneering Indo-Europeanists of his day considered the closest thing to an Ursprache, Müller saw language and religion as fundamentally interrelated and coeval with the human. This would no longer be the case in the following generation. Tylor, Frazer, Durkheim et al. would focus their attention on religious “representations” (Durkheim’s term) but not on language as such, which they took for granted as a human a priori; conversely, linguists like Meillet and Saussure would no longer concern themselves with the names and tales of gods.


In the passage quoted above, Müller suggests an originary “sign” for the sun that is not spoken or even gestural, but graphic. Derrida would be happy to know that the quintessential nineteenth-century philologist not only put written before spoken language but did so for fear that the pure inscription would be corrupted by sonorous speech. In a language limited to this simple sign, “mythology would have little chance”: the “infantile disease” would not yet threaten because the mere circle would lack anthropomorphic possibilities–although Müller suggests that if the circle “reminded the people of an eye,” “the germs of mythology would spring up” (370).

Circle or word, the idea that the first sign is also the name of the first sacred object is a powerful one indeed, a clear advance beyond Herder’s sheep. But Müller does not stop to develop this intuition because, although he sees religion as the sign’s first cause, he cannot conceive of words originating as ostensives. Hence, passing over the “mere sign,” Müller has recourse to the “primitive roots” of language among which the sun’s first names are presumed to be found. But because these roots express basic human actions and qualities, their attribution as names to the sun makes inevitable our fall into the disease of anthropomorphic mythology. Once the sun is no mere circle, it fatally becomes the awakener, the father, the giver of warmth…

Whence come these roots that pre-exist man’s awe of the sunrise? Here is Müller’s explanation:

The 400 or 500 roots which remain as the constituent elements in different families of language are not interjections, nor are they imitations. They are phonetic types produced by a power inherent in human nature. . . . Man, in his primitive and perfect state, was not only endowed, like the brute, with the power of expressing his sensations by interjections, and his perceptions by onomatopoieia. He possessed likewise the faculty of giving more articulate expression to the rational conceptions of his mind. That faculty was not of his own making. It was an instinct . . . Man loses his instincts as he ceases to want them. . . . Thus the creative faculty which gave to each conception, as it thrilled for the first time through the brain, a phonetic expression, became extinct when its object was fulfilled. The number of these phonetic types must have been almost infinite in the beginning, and it was only through the same process of natural elimination which we observed in the early history of words, that clusters of roots, more or less synonymous, were gradually reduced to one definite type.
        Lectures on the Science of Language (New York: Scribner’s, 1862): 385

In this quasi-evolutionary depiction (composed less than five years after the appearance of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1856), articulate speech is a human instinct irreducible either to Condillac’s “interjections” or to Herder’s “onomatopoieia.” In failing to provide an explanation of the origin of this “instinct,” Müller seems to have abandoned Herder for the latter’s bête noireSüssmilch’s explanation of language as a product of divine will. But Müller reintroduces an evolutionary element in the struggle for life that reduces the “almost infinite” roots of earliest humanity to a few hundred. In the beginning, the language instinct was young and word-creation unbridled; with the decline of its creative powers, the roots had to fight for survival and were drastically reduced in number. In none of this discussion of the earliest phases of human language is there any question of awe before nature, religion, or even mythology, which Müller would nonetheless describe as the “childhood disease” of language.

Müller’s roots are verbs and adjectives designating simple actions or qualities rather than nouns. The nominal is, in Müller’s eyes, a late development, one closely associated with the mythological; in its pure state, the lexicon is not so contaminated. But this picture of “healthy” language as composed of a small number of basic roots is the result, we learn from the above, of the hecatomb of countless other words of less general and therefore less useful scope. Should we not assume that these redundant forms were essentially nominal, even ostensive? Müller’s theory of lexical proliferation appears to echo a notion that goes back (at least) to Locke and that was often expressed in the eighteenth century, notably by Rousseau and Maupertuis: that early in the development of language, each thing would receive an individual name, and that general names would arise only gradually through our learning from experience that tree A has a great deal in common with tree B. Müller’s new wrinkle, based on his philological studies but hardly demonstrated by them, is that the end product of the evolutionary struggle was not words like “tree” but like “grow” or “green.” But to account for the original proliferation, we must assume that for Müller as for Maupertuis, words were first attached to individual objects and only subsequently became generalized and de-nominalized into verbs and adjectives. What “instinct” could justify this proliferation of names in the communal context in which their struggle for survival would later take place?

If we put together Müller’s theory of language origin and his theory of religious origin, we observe that he describes the origin of nouns in two moments: a God-given “instinctive” moment and a God-creating mythological moment. The only thing lacking for these two moments to dissolve into one is a plausible motivation common to both religious worship and language. Müller comes close to suggesting this for the sun. If naming the sun were the model for the first exercise of our language “instinct,” there would be no proliferation of words beyond the limited plurality of divinities–each with its own “root”–and the struggle for life between words for tree A and tree B would take place only in the context of conflict between gods.

Müller chooses the sun as his model divinity precisely because it is the most undoubtedly unique of referents. But despite his lyricism, Müller presents our attribution of root-names to the sun as a gratuitous act of mythological enfantillage rather than a practical act of language use. What is missing in Müller is what Durkheim would supply, a social purpose for religion. But what is lost in the latter’s conception of religion as the representation of the social ideal is the relationship, whether as disease or as motivation, of religious representations to the signs of language and their origin.