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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Friedrich Max Müller   13 October [1875]1

Parks End, | Oxford.

13 Oct.

My dear Sir,

Allow me to present you my defence against Prof. Whitney’s attacks.2 I think you will see from what I have stated, that Professor Whitney is not an ally whom either you or your son would approve of. I should never have noticed him, had not your son brought him so prominently before the English public.3 However even controversy helps sometimes, though not often, to clear away error & bring out truth, and so I hope I have not simply wasted my time in answering Prof. Whitney’s charges.

The point at issue between you & me is a very simple one: is that which can pass a certain line in nature the same as that which cannot? It may be, no doubt, & in that case the highest animal would simply be a stunted man. But this seems to me a narrow view of nature, particularly if we consider that everything organic is after all much more truly that which it can be than that which it is. In the higher animals the potential traces of language are smaller than in some of the lower, but even where the phonetic organs are most perfect, there has never been the slightest attempt at language in the true sense of the word. Why should natural science be unwilling to admit this— why should it not at all events leave the question an open question until some truly scientific evidence has been brought forward showing at least the potentiality of language in any known animal. “More facts & fewer theories” is what we want, at least in the Science of Language, and it is a misfortune if the collectors of facts are discouraged by being told that facts are useless against theories. I have no prejudice whatever against the faculty of language in animals: it would help to solve many difficulties. All I say is, let us wait, let us look for facts, & let us keep la carrière ouverte.4

Believe me, | Yours sincerely | F. Max Müller


The year is established by the reference to the fourth volume of Max Müller 1867–75 (see n. 2, below).
Max Müller enclosed a copy of his essay ‘In self-defence: present state of scientific studies’, recently published in the fourth volume of his Chips from a German workshop (Max Müller 1867–75, 4: 473–549; see Publishers’ circular, 2 November 1875, p. 857). CD’s copy is in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
William Dwight Whitney had written a critical essay review of Max Müller’s lectures on Darwinism and language (Max Müller 1873) in the North American Review (Whitney 1874). In November 1874, George Howard Darwin published a review of Whitney 1874 titled ‘Professor Whitney on the origin of language’ in the Contemporary Review (G. H. Darwin 1874). In his review, he defended CD in his debate with Max Müller. Max Müller responded to G. H. Darwin and Whitney in ‘My reply to Mr. Darwin’ in the January 1875 issue of the Contemporary Review (Max Müller 1875). Whitney replied in April 1875 in the same journal (Whitney 1875). Max Müller’s latest essay in Max Müller 1867–75 continued the debate (for more on the dispute, see Alter 2005, pp. 174–206, and Radick 2008, pp. 47–9).
Max Müller alludes to a phrase of Napoleon I, ‘carrière ouverte aux talents’ (the career open to talents; or in the translation by Thomas Carlyle, ‘the tools to him that can handle them’; Carlyle 1837, p. 387).


Alter, Stephen G. 2005. William Dwight Whitney and the science of language. Baltimore, Md., and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Carlyle, Thomas. 1837. Memoirs of Mirabeau. London and Westminster Review (January 1837): 382–439.

Max Müller, Friedrich. 1867–75. Chips from a German workshop. 4 vols. London: Longmans, Green.

Max Müller, Friedrich. 1875. My reply to Mr. Darwin. Contemporary Review 25 (1874–5): 305–26.

Müller, Hermann. 1873. Die Befruchtung der Blumen durch Insekten und die gegenseitigen Anpassungen beider. Ein Beitrag zur Erkenntniss des ursächlichen Zusammenhanges in der organischen Natur. Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann.

Radick, Gregory. 2008. The simian tongue: the long debate about animal language. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Whitney, William Dwight. 1874. Darwinism and language. [Essay review of works by August Schleicher and Friedrich Max Müller.] North American Review 119: 61–88.

Whitney, William Dwight. 1875. Are languages institutions? Contemporary Review 25 (1874–5): 713–32.


Sends CD his answers to W. D. Whitney’s articles. Sees man as separated from other animals by the possession of language. There is no scientific evidence for even the slightest attempt at language in the higher animals, which cannot, therefore, be reasonably regarded as "stunted man". [See "In self-defence", Chips from a German workshop 4 (1875): 473–549.]

Letter details

Letter no.
Friedrich Max Müller
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 171: 286
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 10194,” accessed on 27 September 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 23