Forthcoming in Stephanie Buchenau and Roberto Lo Presti (eds.), Human and Animal Perception in the 17th and 18th Centuries (University of Pittsburgh Press).
Abstract. The philosophy of language and the history of music theory would not seem to have much in common. Theories of music concern, principally, harmony, and the way in which it mysteriously straddles the realms of aesthetics and mathematics at once. Theories of language concern, principally, meaning: how it is that things and states of affairs in the world can be captured, or denoted, in sounds generated by the vocal chords and articulated by the tongue, palate, lips, and teeth. Music is generally held to be non-denoting by definition, and thus, often, to be associated with the irrational or mysterious. Language is thought in parallel fashion to bear its meanings no matter what the pitch or tone, or other quasi-musical ornamentations, in which it is delivered. Yet the two fields of inquiry come together in one unlikely place in the history of natural philosophy: theories of avian vocalization, better known as 'birdsong'. Are the birds talking? Are they singing? Are they doing both at once? And what can we learn about the relationship between language and music by listening to the birds? These are the questions that drove the ornithological inquiries of many natural philosophers beginning in antiquity, most notably Aristotle and Pliny, and, as I will show, such inquiries reached a peak of intensity in the early modern period in Europe, as new philosophical stakes came to shape all debates that might have implications for the question of the uniqueness of human language and human rationality.