"Samizdat: a publishing system by which forbidden literature is reproduced and circulated privately. Illegal and clandestine copying and sharing of literature."

Eco: The “Library” of Leibniz and the Encyclopédie


Jean le Rond d’Alembert and Denis Diderot, Figurative System of Human Knowledge, or the Tree of Diderot and d’Alembert, from the Encyclopédie, circa 1752. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“During the Enlightenment there began to develop a critical attitude towards any attempt to construct a system of a priori ideas. It was a critique founded, in large part, upon the considerations advanced by Leibniz.

Thus it was in terms that closely recalled Leibniz’s own description of an ideal library that, in his introduction to the Encyclopédie, d’Alembert was to sound the death knell for projects for philosophical a priori languages.

Presented with the practical problem of organizing an encyclopedia and justifying the way that it divided its material, the system of scientific knowledge began to take on the appearance of a labyrinth, a network of forking and twisting paths that put paid to any notion that knowledge might be represented in a tree diagram of any sort.

Knowledge might still be divided into branches, “some of which converge at a common center; and, since, starting from the center, it is impossible to follow all the branches at once, the choice [of pathway] is determined by the nature of the different intellects.”

The philosopher was whoever discovered the hidden passageways within that labyrinth, the provisional interconnections, the web of mutually dependent associations which constituted such a network as a geographical representation.

For this reason the authors of the Encyclopédie decided that each single article would appear as only one particular map, which, in its small way, might reflect the entire global map:

“objects approach each other more or less closely, presenting different aspects according to the perspective chosen by the particular geographer [ . . . ].

Thus it is possible to imagine that there are as many systems of human knowledge as there are representations of the world constructed according to differing projections [ . . . ].

Often, an object placed in one particular class on account of one or another of its properties may reappear in another class because of other properties.”

Following the suggestion of Locke, the Enlightenment was less concerned with the search for perfect languages than with the provision of therapies for already existing ones.

After denouncing the limits of natural languages, Locke (Essay, III, X) had passed to an analysis of the abuse which must occur whenever words are used that do not correspond to clear and distinct ideas, whenever they are used inconsistently, whenever they are employed with the affectation of obscurity, whenever words are taken for things, whenever they are used for things which possess no meaning, and whenever we imagine that others must necessarily associate with the words we use the same ideas as we do.

Locke fixed a set of norms to combat these abuses, and, since Locke was not concerned with lexical or syntactical reform, but simply with subjecting usage to a measure of vigilance and philosophical common sense, these norms had no bearing on the theme of philosophical languages.

Instead of a systematic reform of language, Locke modestly suggested that we be more conscientious in the way we use words to communicate with one another.

This was to be the line adopted by the encyclopedists of the Enlightenment and those whom they inspired.

The encyclopedists launched their attack on philosophical a priori languages principally in their entry under the heading “Caractère,” which was the result of the collaboration of several authors.

Du Marsais made an initial distinction between numerical characters, characters representing abbreviations, and literal characters; these last were further subdivided into emblematic characters (still the accepted interpretation of hieroglyphics) and nominal characters, primarily the characters of the alphabet.

D’Alembert accepted the criticisms that had traditionally been made of the characters used in natural languages, and then discussed the various projects for the construction of real characters, showing an extensive knowledge of the projects in the previous century.

It was a discussion which often confused characters that were ontologically real, that directly expressed, that is, the essence of the things they represented, with characters that were only logically real, capable, that is, of expressing by convention a single idea unequivocally. Still, d’Alembert advanced a number of criticisms that applied equally to both types.

In contrast to those of the seventeenth century, philosophers in the Enlightenment had radically changed the focus of their reflection on language. It now seemed clear that thought and language influenced each other, each proceeding with the other step by step, and that, consequently, language, as it evolved, would constantly modify thought.

Thus it no longer made sense to accept the rationalist hypothesis of a single grammar of thought, universal and stable, which all languages in one way or another reflected. No system of ideas postulated on the basis of abstract reasoning could thus ever form an adequate parameter of and criterion for the formation of a perfect language.

Language did not reflect a preconstituted mental universe, but collaborated in its growth.

The Idéologues demonstrated the impossibility of postulating a universal way of thinking, independent of the human semiotic apparatus. Destutt de Tracy (Eléments d’idéologie, I, 546, n.) argued that it was not possible to confer on all languages the attributes of algebra. In the case of natural languages:

“we are often reduced to conjectures, inductions, and approximations [ . . . ]. Almost never can we have a perfect certainty that an idea which we have constructed for ourselves under a certain sign and by various means is really utterly and entirely the same as the idea that those who taught us the sign as well as anyone else who might subsequently use the sign might attribute to it.

Hence words may often, insensibly, take on differences in meaning without anyone noting these changes; for this reason we might say that while every sign is perfectly transparent for whomever invents it, it is somewhat vague and uncertain for those who receive it [ . . . ].

I might even carry this further: I said that every sign is perfect for whomever invents it, but this is only really true at the precise instant when he invents the sign, for when he uses this same sign in another moment in his life, or when his mind is in another disposition, he can no longer be entirely sure that he has gathered up under this sign the same collection of ideas as he had the first time he used it.” (pp. 583-5).

Tracy understood that the prerequisite of all philosophical languages was the absolute and univocal correspondence between signs and the ideas they represented. An examination, however, of the seventeenth century English systems led him to the conclusion that “it is impossible that the same sign possess the same meaning for all who use it [ . . . ]. We thus must give up the idea of perfection.” (Eléments d’idéologie, II, 578-9).

This was a theme that was common to empiricist philosophy, to which all the Idéologues referred. Locke had already noted that although the names glory and gratitude were

“the same in every Man’s mouth, through a whole country, yet the complex, collective Idea, which everyone thinks on, or intends by that name, is apparently very different in Men using the same language. [ . . . ]

For though in the Substance Gold, one satisfies himself with Color and Weight, yet another thinks solubility in Aqua Regia, as necessary to be join’d with that Color in his Idea of Gold, as any one does its Fusibility; Solubility in Aqua Regia, being a Quality as constantly join’d with its Color and and Weight, as Fusibility, or any other; others put its Ductility or Fixedness, etc. as they had been taught by Tradition and Experience.

Who, of all these, has establish’d the right termination of the word Gold?” (Essay, III, IX, 8, 13).

Returning to the Idéologues, Joseph-Marie Degérando, whose criticisms of Wilkins we have already encountered, observed (Des signes et l’art de penser considérés dans leur rapports mutuels, 1800) that the ensemble of associated ideas represented by the word man would be more extensive in the mind of a philosopher than in that of a common laborer, and that the word liberty could not have meant in Sparta what it did in Athens (I, 222-3).

The impossibility of elaborating a philosophic language is finally due to the fact that since languages develop through a set of stages, a development that the Idéologues delineated with great precision, there was no way of deciding the linguistic stage of development that a perfect language should represent.

Choosing to reflect one stage rather than another, a philosophical language will then continue to reflect all the limitations of that linguistic stage, while just to overcome these limitations humanity had passed to further and more articulate stages.

Once it had been perceived that the process of linguistic change is continuous, that language is subject to change not only at its prehistoric point of origin, but also in the present day, it became obvious that any thought of reviving the idea of a philosophic language was destined to fail.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 288-92.

Eco: Side-effects


Ernst Hähnel, statue of Leibniz, 1883, Leipzig, Germany. Photo © Ad Melkens / Wikimedia Commons.  

“Thus all of the ingenuity expended upon the invention of philosophic a priori languages allowed Leibniz to invent a language of a radically different type, which–though remaining a priori–was no longer a practical, social instrument but rather a tool for logical calculation.

In this sense, Leibniz’s language, and the contemporary language of symbolic logic that descended from it, are scientific languages; yet, like all scientific languages, they are incapable of expressing the entire universe, expressing rather a set of truths of reason.

Such languages do not qualify as a universal language because they fail to express those truths that all natural languages express–truths of fact. Scientific languages do not express empirical events.

In order to express these we would need “to construct a concept which possesses an incalculable number of determinations,” while the completely determined concept of any individual thing or person implies “spatial-temporal determinations which, in their turn, imply other spatial-temporal successions and historical events whose mastery is beyond the human eye, and whose control is beyond the capacity of any man.” (Mugnai 1976: 91).

None the less, by anticipating what was to become the language of computers, Leibniz’s project also contributed to the development of programs well adapted for the cataloguing of the determinations of individual entities, which can tell us that there exists an entity called Mr. X such that this entity has booked a flight from A to B.

We may well fear that by controlling our determinations so well the computer eye has begun to infringe on our privacy, checking on the hour in which we reserved a room in a certain hotel in a certain city. This, then, is one of the side-effects of a project that commenced with the idea of expressing a merely theoretical universe populated with universal ideas such as goodness, angels, entity, substance, accidents, and “all the elephants.”

Dalgarno could never have imagined it. Passing through the mathematical filter of Leibniz, renouncing all semantics, reducing itself to pure syntax, his philosophical a priori language has finally managed to designate even an individual elephant.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 287-8.

Eco: The I Ching and the Binary Calculus


The French Jesuit Joachim Bouvet (1656-1730) sent this unattributed diagram of hexagrams to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1730) circa 1701. The arabic numerals written on the diagram were added by Leibniz. This artifact is held in the Leibniz Archive, Niedersächsische Landesbibliothek, and was published in Franklin Perkins, Leibniz and China: A Commerce of Light, Cambridge,2004, p. 117. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

Leibniz’s tendency to transform his characteristica into a truly blind calculus, anticipating the logic of Boole, is no less shown by his reaction to the discovery of the Chinese book of changes–the I Ching.

Leibniz’s continuing interest in the language and culture of China is amply documented, especially during the final decades of his life. In 1697 he had published Novissima sinica (Dutens 1768: IV, 1), which was a collection of letters and studies by the Jesuit missionaries in China.

It was a work seen by a certain Father Joachim Bouvet, a missionary just returned from China, who responded by sending Leibniz a treatise on the ancient Chinese philosophy which he saw as represented by the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching.

The Book of Changes had for centuries been regarded as a work of millennial antiquity. More recent studies, however, have dated it to the third century BCE. Nevertheless, scholars of the time of Leibniz still attributed the work to a mythical author named Fu Hsi.

As its function was clearly magical and oracular, Bouvet not unnaturally read the hexagrams as laying down the fundamental principles for Chinese traditional culture.

When Leibniz described to Bouvet his own research in binary arithmetic, that is, his calculus by 1 and 0 (of which he also praised the metaphysical ability to represent even the relation between God and nothingness), Bouvet perceived that this arithmetic might admirably explain the structure of the Chinese hexagrams as well.

He sent Leibniz in 1701 (though Leibniz only received the communication in 1703) a letter to which he added a wood-cut showing the disposition of the hexagrams.

In fact, the disposition of the hexagrams in the wood-cut differs from that of the I Ching, nevertheless, this error allowed Leibniz to perceive a signifying sequence which he later illustrated in his Explication de l’arithmétique binaire (1703).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, figure 14.1, p. 285

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, figure 14.1, p. 285. 

Figure 14.1 shows the central structure of the diagrams seen by Leibniz. The sequence commences, in the upper left hand corner, with six broken lines, then proceeds by gradually substituting unbroken for broken lines.

Leibniz read this sequence as a perfect representation of the progression of binary numbers (000, 001, 010, 110, 101, 011, 111 . . . ). See figure 14.2.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, figure 14.2, p. 286

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, figure 14.2, p. 286. 

Once again, the inclination of Leibniz was to void the Chinese symbols of whatever meaning was assigned to them by previous interpretations, in order to consider their form and their combinatorial possibilities.

Thus once more we find Leibniz on the track of a system of blind thought in which it was syntactic form alone that yielded truths. Those binary digits 1 and 0 are totally blind symbols which (through a syntactical manipulation) permit discoveries even before the strings into which they are formed are assigned meanings.

In this way, Leibniz’s thought not only anticipates by a century and a half Boole’s mathematical logic, but also anticipates the true and native tongue spoken by a computer–not, that is, the language we speak to it when, working within its various programs, we type expressions out on the keyboard and read responses on the screen, but the machine language programmed into it.

This is the language in which the computer can truly “think” without “knowing” what its own thoughts mean, receiving instructions and re-elaborating them in purely binary terms.

Certainly Leibniz mistook the nature of the I Ching, since “the Chinese interpreted the kua in every manner except mathematically” (Lozano 1971). Nevertheless, the formal structures that he (rightly enough) isolated in these diagrams appeared to him so esoterically marvelous that, in a letter to Father Bouvet, he did not hesitate in identifying the true author of the I Ching as Hermes Trismegistus–and not without reasons, because Fu Hsi was considered in China as the representative of the era of hunting, fishing and cooking, and thus can be considered, as can Hermes, the father of all inventions.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 284-7.

Eco: Blind Thought, 2

Wittgenstein, Ludwig

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1899-1951), portrait by Moritz Nähr (1859-1945), 1930, held by the Austrian National Library under Accession Number Pf 42.805: C (1). This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less. 

“As Leibniz observed in the Accessio ad arithmeticum infinitorum of 1672 (Sämtliche Schriften und Briefen, iii/1, 17), when a person says a million, he does not represent mentally to himself all the units in that number. Nevertheless, calculations performed on the basis of this figure can and must be exact.

Blind thought manipulates signs without being obliged to recognize the corresponding ideas. For this reason, increasing the power of our minds in the manner that the telescope increases the power of our eyes, it does not entail an excessive effort.

“Once this has been done, if ever further controversies should arise, there should be no more reason for disputes between two philosophers than between two calculators. All that will be necessary is that, pen in hand, they sit down together at a table and say to each other (having called, if they so please, a friend) “let us calculate.” (In Gerhardt 1875: VII, 198ff).

Leibniz’s intention was thus to create a logical language, like algebra, which might lead to the discovery of unknown truths simply by applying syntactical rules to symbols. When using this language, it would no more be necessary, moreover, to know at every step what the symbols were referring to than it was necessary to know the quantity represented by algebraic symbols to solve an equation.

Thus for Leibniz, the symbols in the language of logic no longer stood for concrete ideas; instead, they stood in place of them. The characters “not only assist reasoning, they substitute for it.” (Couturat 1901: 101).

Dascal has objected (1978: 213) that Leibniz did not really conceive of his characteristica as a purely formal instrument apparatus, because symbols in his calculus are always assigned an interpretation. In an algebraic calculation, he notes, the letters of the alphabet are used freely; they are not bound to particular arithmetical values.

For Leibniz, however, we have seen that the numerical values of the characteristic numbers were, so to speak, “tailored” to concepts that were already filled with a content–“man,” “animal,” etc.

It is evident that, in order to demonstrate that “man” does not contain “monkey,” the numerical values must be chosen according to a previous semantic decision. It would follow that what Leibniz proposed was really a system both formalized and interpreted.

Now it is true that Leibniz’s posterity elaborated such systems. For instance, Luigi Richer (Algebrae philosophicae in usum artis inveniendi specimen primum, “Melanges de philosophie et de mathématique de la Societé Royale de Turin,” 1761: II/3), in fifteen short and extremely dry pages, outlined a project for the application of algebraic method to philosophy, by drawing up a tabula characteristica containing a series of general concepts (such as aliquid, nihil, contingens, mutabile) and assigning to each a conventional sign.

The system of notation, semicircles orientated in various ways, makes the characters hard to distinguish from one another; still, it was a system of notation that allowed for the representation of philosophical combinations such as “This Possible cannot be Contradictory.”

This language is, however, limited to abstract reasoning, and, like Lull, Richer did not make full use of the possibilities of combination in his system as he wished to reject all combinations lacking scientific utility (p. 55).

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, in a manuscript dating 1793-4, we also find Condorcet toying with the idea of a universal language. His text is an outline of mathematical logic, a langue des calculs, which identifies and distinguishes intellectual processes, expresses real objects, and enunciates the relations between the expressed objects and the intellectual operations which discover the enunciated relations.

The manuscript, moreover, breaks off at precisely the point where it had become necessary to proceed to the identification of the primitive ideas; this testifies that, by now, the search for perfect languages was definitively turning in the direction of a logico-mathematical calculus, in which no one would bother to draw up a list of ideal contents but only to prescribe syntactic rules (Pellerey 1992a: 193ff).

We could say that Leibniz’s characteristica, from which Leibniz had also hoped to derive metaphysical truths, is oscillating between a metaphysical and ontological point of view, and the idea of designing a simple instrument for the construction of deductive systems (cf. Barone 1964: 24).

Moreover, his attempts oscillate between a formal logic (operating upon unbound variables) and what will later be the project of many contemporary semantic theories (and of artificial intelligence as well), where syntactic rules of a mathematical kind are applied to semantic (and therefore interpreted) entities.

But Leibniz ought to be considered the forerunner of the first, rather than of the second, line of thought.

The fundamental intuition that lies behind Leibniz’s proposal was that, even if the numbers were chose arbitrarily, even if it could not be guaranteed that the primitives posited for the same of argument were really primitive at all, what still guaranteed the truth of the calculus was the fact that the form of the proposition mirrored an objective truth.

Leibniz saw an analogy between the order of the world, that is, of truth, and the grammatical order of the symbols in language. Many have seen in this a version of the picture theory of language expounded by Wittgenstein in the Tractatus, according to which “a picture has logico-pictorial form in common with what it depicts” (2.2).

Leibniz was thus the first to recognize that the value of his philosophical language was a function of its formal structure rather than of its terms; syntax, which he called habitudo or propositional structure, was more important than semantics (Land 1974: 139).

“It is thus to be observed that, although the characters are assumed arbitrarily, as long as we observe a certain order and certain rule in their use, they give us results which always agree with each other. (Dialogus in Gerhardt 1875: VII, 190-3).

Something can be called an “expression” of something else whenever the structure [habitudines] subsisting in the expression corresponds to the structure of that which it wishes to express [ . . . ].

From the sole structure of the expression, we can reach the knowledge of the properties of the thing expressed [ . . . ] as long as there is maintained a certain analogy between the two respective structures.” (Quid sit idea in Gerhardt 1875: VII, 263-4).

What other conclusion could the philosopher of preestablished harmony finally have reached?”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 281-4.

Eco: Blind Thought


Johann Heinrich Lambert (1728-1777), Neues Organon, Leipzig, Johann Wendler, 1764. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“We have seen that Leibniz came to doubt the possibility of constructing an alphabet that was both exact and definitive, holding that the true force of the calculus of characteristic numbers lay instead in its rules of combination.

Leibniz became more interested in the form of the propositions generated by his calculus than in the meaning of the characters. On various occasions he compared his calculus with algebra, even considering algebra as merely one of the possible forms that calculus might take, and thought more and more of a rigorously quantitative calculus able to deal with qualitative problems.

One of the ideas that circulated in his thought was that, like algebra, the characteristic numbers represented a form of blind thought, or cogitatio caeca (cf. for example, De cognitione, veritate et idea in Gerhardt 1875: IV, 422-6). By blind thought Leibniz meant that exact results might be achieved by calculations carried out upon symbols whose meanings remained unknown, or of which it was at least impossible to form clear and distinct notions.

In a page in which he defined his calculus as the only true example of the Adamic language, Leibniz provides an illuminating set of examples:

“All human argument is carried out by means of certain signs or characters. Not only things themselves but also the ideas which those things produce neither can nor should always be amenable to distinct observation: therefore, in place of them, for reasons of economy we use signs.

If, for example, every time that a geometer wished to name a hyperbole or a spiral or a quadratrix in the course of a proof, he needed to hold present in his mind their exact definitions or manner in which they were generated, and then, once again, the exact definitions of each of the terms used in his proof, he would be likely to be very tardy in arriving at his conclusions. [ . . . ]

For this reason, it is evident that names are assigned to the contracts, to the figures and to various other types of things, and signs to the numbers in arithmetic and to magnitudes in algebra [ . . . ]

In the list of signs, therefore, I include words, letters, the figures in chemistry and astronomy, Chinese characters, hieroglyphics, musical notes, steganographic signs, and the signs in arithmetic, algebra, and in every other place where they serve us in place of things in our arguments.

Where they are written, designed, out sculpted, signs are called characters [ . . . ]. Natural languages are useful to reason, but are subject to innumerable equivocations, nor can be used for calculus, since they cannot be used in a manner which allows us to discover the errors in an argument by retracing our steps to the beginning and to the construction of our words–as if errors were simply due to solecisms or barbarisms.

The admirable advantages [of the calculus] are only possible when we use arithmetical or algebraic signs and arguments are entirely set out in characters: for here every mental error is exactly equivalent to a mistake in calculation.

Profoundly meditating on this state of affairs, it immediately appeared as clear to me that all human thoughts might be entirely resolvable into a small number of thoughts considered as primitive.

If then we assign to each primitive a character, it is possible to form other characters for the deriving notions, and we would be able to extract infallibly from them their prerequisites and the primitive notions composing them; to put it in a word, we could always infer their definitions and their values, and thereby the modifications to be derived from their definitions.

Once this had been done, whoever uses such characters in their reasoning and in their writing, would either never make an error, or, at least, would have the possibility of immediately recognizing his own (or other people’s) mistakes, by using the simplest of tests.” (De scientia universalis seu calculo philosophico in Gerhardt 1875: VII, 198-203).

This vision of blind thought was later transformed into the fundamental principle of the general semiotics of Johann Heinrich Lambert in his Neues Organon (1762) in the section entitled Semiotica (cf. Tagliagambe 1980).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 279-81.

Eco: The Encyclopedia and the Alphabet of Thought


Charles-Nicolas Cochin (1715-1790), Frontispiece of L’Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des artes, et des métiers, abbreviated as L’Encyclopédie, or Encyclopedia. One source claims that this illustration was entitled Lycurgus blessé dans une sédition, while another states that it depicts la Raison et la Philosophie arrachant son voile à la Vérité rayonnante de lumière. Drawn by Cochin in 1764, it was engraved by Benoît-Louis Prévost (1735-1804) in 1765. 

“The idea of a universal encyclopedia was something that Leibniz was never to give up. Leibniz was, for a long period, a librarian; as such, and as a historian and érudit, he could not have failed to follow the pansophic aspirations and encyclopedic ferment that filled the closing years of the seventeenth century–tremors that would yield their fruits in the century to come.

For Leibniz, the interest in the idea of a universal encyclopedia grew less and less as the basis of an alphabet of primitive terms, and more and more as a practical and flexible instrument which might provide for everyone an access to and control over the immense edifice of human learning.

In 1703, he wrote the Nouveaux essais sur l’entendement humain (which did not appear until 1765, after Leibniz’s death). This book was a confutation of the doctrines of Locke, and ends with a monumental fresco of the encyclopedia of the future.

The point of departure was a rejection of Locke’s tripartite division of knowledge into physical, ethical and logical (or semiotic). Even such a simple classification was untenable, Leibniz argued, because every item of knowledge might reasonably be considered from more than one of the three divisions.

We might treat the doctrine of spirits either as a philosophical or as a moral problem, placing it in the province either of logic or of ethics. We might even consider that a knowledge of the spirit world might prove efficacious for certain practical ends; in which case we might want to place it in the physical province.

A truly memorable story might deserve a place in the annals of universal history; yet it might equally well deserve a place in the history of a particular country, or even of a particular individual. A librarian is often undecided over the section in which a particular book needs to be catalogued (cf. Serres 1968: 22-3).

Leibniz saw in an encyclopedia the solution to these problems. An encyclopedia would be a work that was, as we might now say, polydimensional and mixed, organized–as Gensini observes (Gensini 1990: 19)–more according to “pathways” than by a classification by subject matters; it would be a model of a practico-theoretical knowledge that invited the user to move transversally, sometimes following deductive lines, as mathematicians do, and sometimes moving according to the practical purposes of the human users.

It would be necessary also to include a final index that would allow the user to find different subjects or the same subject treated in different places from different points of view (IV, 21, De la division des sciences).

It is almost as if Leibniz intended here to celebrate as a felix culpa that monument of non-dichotomical incongruity that was the encyclopedia of Wilkins; as if he were writing a rough draft for the very project that d’Alembert was to set forth at the beginning of the Encyclopédie. Dimly shining from beneath the project of Wilkins, Leibniz has recognized the first idea of a hypertext.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 278-9.

Eco: The Problem of the Primitives

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, Dissertatio de Arte Combinatoria, frontispiece

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716), Dissertatio de Arte Combinatoria, frontispiece, Dissertation on the Art of Combinations or On the Combinatorial Art, Leipzig, 1666. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“What did Leibniz’s ars combinatoria have in common with the projects for universal languages? The answer is that Leibniz had long wondered what would be the best way of providing a list of primitives and, consequently, of an alphabet of thoughts or of an encyclopedia.

In his Initia et specimina scientiae generalis (Gerhardt 1875: VII, 57-60) Leibniz described an encyclopedia as an inventory of human knowledge which might provide the material for the art of combination.

In the De organo sive arte magna cogitandi (Couturat 1903: 429-31) he even argued that “the greatest remedy for the mind consists in the possibility of discovering a small set of thoughts from which an infinity of other thoughts might issue in order, in the same way as from a small set of numbers [the integers from 1 to 10] all the other numbers may be derived.”

It was in this same work that Leibniz first made hints about the combinational possibilities of a binary calculus.

In the Consilium de Encyclopedia nova conscribenda methodo inventoria (Gensini 1990: 110-20) he outlined a system of knowledge to be subjected to a mathematical treatment through rigorously conceived propositions. He proceeded to draw up a plan of how the sciences and other bodies of knowledge would then be ordered: from grammar, logic, mnemonics topics (sic) and so on to morals and to the science of incorporeal things.

In a later text on the Termini simpliciores from 1680-4 (Grua 1948: 2, 542), however, we find him falling back to a list of elementary terms, such as “entity,” “substance” and “attribute,” reminiscent of Aristotle’s categories, plus relations such as “anterior” and “posterior.”

In the Historia et commendatio linguae characteristicae we find Leibniz recalling a time when he had aspired after “an alphabet of human thoughts” such that “from the combination of the letters of this alphabet, and from the analysis of the vocables formed by these letters, things might be discovered and judged.”

It had been his hope, he added, that in this way humanity might acquire a tool which would augment the power of the mind more than telescopes and microscopes had enlarged the power of sight.

Waxing lyrical over the possibilities of such a tool, he ended with an invocation for the conversion of the entire human race, convinced, as Lull had been, that if missionaries were able to induce the idolators to reason on the basis of the calculus they would soon see that the truths of our faith concord with the truths of reason.

Immediately after this almost mystical dream, however, Leibniz acknowledged that such an alphabet had yet to be formulated. Yet he also alluded to an “elegant artifice:”

“I pretend that these marvelous characteristic numbers are already given, and, having observed certain of their general properties, I imagine any other set of numbers having similar properties, and, by using these numbers, I am able to prove all the rules of logic with an admirable order, and to show in what way certain arguments can be recognized as valid by regarding their form alone.” (Historia et commendatio, Gerhardt 1875: VII, 184ff).

In other words, Leibniz is arguing that the primitives need only be postulated as such for ease of calculation; it was not necessary that they truly be final, atomic and unanalyzable.

In fact, Leibniz was to advance a number of important philosophical considerations that led him to conclude that an alphabet of primitive thought could never be formulated. It seemed self-evident that there could be no way to guarantee that a putatively primitive term, obtained through the process of decomposition, could not be subjected to further decomposition.

This was a thought that could hardly have seemed strange to the inventor of the infinitesimal calculus:

There is not an atom, indeed there is no such thing as a body so small that it cannot be subdivided [ . . . ] It follows that there is contained in every particle of the universe a world of infinite creatures [ . . . ] There can be no determined number of things, because no such number could satisfy the need for an infinity of impressions.” (Verità prime, untitled essay in Couturat 1903: 518-23).

If no one conception of things could ever count as final, Leibniz concluded that we must use the conceptions which are most general for us, and which we can consider as prime terms only within the framework of a specific calculus.

With this, Leibniz’s characteristica breaks its link with the research into a definitive alphabet of thought. Commenting on the letter to Mersenne in which Descartes described the alphabet of thoughts as a utopia, Leibniz noted:

“Even though such a language depends upon a true philosophy, it does not depend upon its perfection. This is to say: the language can still be constructed despite the fact that the philosophy itself is still imperfect.

As the science of mankind will improve, so its language will improve as well. In the meantime, it will continue to perform an admirable service by helping us retain what we know, showing what we lack, and inventing means to fill that lack.

Most of all, it will serve to avoid those disputes in the sciences that are based on argumentation. For the language will make argument and calculation the same thing.” (Couturat 1903: 27-8).

This was not only a matter of convention. The identification of primitives cannot precede the formulation of the lingua characteristica because such a language would not be a docile instrument for the expression of thought; it is rather the calculating apparatus through which those thoughts must be found.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 275-7.

Eco: Characteristica and Calculus

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, Dissertatio de Arte Combinatoria

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716), Dissertatio de Arte Combinatoria, an excerpt from his first doctoral dissertation, Dissertation on the Art of Combinations, Leipzig, 1666. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“The theme of invention and discovery should remind us of Lull; and, in fact, Lull’s ars combinatoria was one of Leibniz’s first sources. In 1666, at the age of twenty, Leibniz composed his own Dissertatio de arte combinatoria (Gerhardt 1875: IV, 27-102). But the dream of the combinatoria was to obsess him for the rest of his life.

In his short Horizon de la doctrine humaine (in Fichant 1991), Leibniz dealt with a problem that had already troubled Father Mersenne: how many utterances, true, false or even nonsensical, was it possible to formulate using an alphabet of 24 letters?

The point was to determine the number of truths capable of expression and the number of expressions capable of being put into writing. Given that Leibniz had found words of 31 letters in Latin and Greek, an alphabet of 24 letters would produce 2432 words of 31 letters.

But what is the maximum length of an expression? Why should an expression not be as long as an entire book? Thus the sum of the expressions, true or false, that a man might read in the course of his life, imagining that he reads 100 pages a day and that each page contains 1,000 letters, is 3,650,000,000.

Even imagining that this man can live one thousand years, like the legendary alchemist Artephius, it would still be the case that “the greatest expressible period, or the largest possible book that a man can read, would have 3,650,000,000,000 [letters], and the number of truths, falsehoods, or sentences expressible–that is, readable, regardless of pronounceability or meaningfulness–will be 24365,000,000,001 – 24/23 [letters].”

We can imagine even larger numbers. Imagine our alphabet contained 100 letters; to write the number of letters expressible in this alphabet we would need to write a 1 followed by 7,300,0000,000,000 (sic) zeros. Even to write such a number it would take 1,000 scribes working for approximately 37 years.

Leibniz’s argument at this point is that whatever we take the number of propositions theoretically capable of expression to be–and we can plausibly stipulate more astronomical sums than these–it will be a number that vastly outstrips the number of true or false expressions that humanity is capable of producing or understanding.

From such a consideration Leibniz concluded paradoxically that the number of expressions capable of formulation must always be finite, and, what is more, that there must come a moment at which humanity would start to enunciate them anew.

With this thought, Leibniz approaches the theme of the apochatastasis or of universal reintegration–what we might call the theme of the eternal return.

This was a line of speculation more mystical than logical, and we cannot stop to trace the influences that led Leibniz to such fantastic conclusions.

It is plain, however, that Leibniz has been inspired by Lull and the kabbala, even if Lull’s own interest was limited to the generation of just those propositions that expressed true and certain knowledge and he thus would never have dared to enlarge his ars combinatoria to include so large a number of propositions.

For Leibniz, on the contrary, it was a fascination with the vertiginous possibilities of discovery, that is of the infinite number of expressions of which a simple mathematical calculation permitted him to conceive, that served as inspiration.

At the time he was writing his Dissertatio, Leibniz was acquainted with Kircher’s Polygraphia, as well as with the work of the anonymous Spaniard, of Becher, and of Schott (while saying that he was waiting for the long-promised Ars magna sciendi of the “immortal Kircher“).

He had yet to read Dalgarno, and Wilkins had still not published his Essay. Besides, there exists a letter from Kircher to Leibniz, written in 1670, in which the Jesuit confessed that he had not yet read Leibniz’s Dissertatio.

Leibniz also elaborated in the Dissertatio his so-called method of “complexions,” through which he might calculate, given n elements, how many groups of them, taken t at a time, irrespective of their ordering, can be ordered.

He applied this method to syllogisms before he passed to his discussion of Lull (para. 56). Before criticizing Lull for limiting the number of his elements, Leibniz made the obvious observation that Lull failed to exploit all the possibilities inherent in his combinatorial art, and wondered what could happen with variations of order, which could produce a greater number.

We already know the answer: Lull not only limited the number of elements, but he rejected those combinations that might produce propositions which, for theological and rhetorical reasons, he considered false.

Leibniz, however, was interested in a logica inventiva (para. 62) in which the play of combinations was free to produce expressions that were heretofore unknown.

In paragraph 64 Leibniz began to outline the theoretical core of his characteristica universalis. Above all, any given term needed to be resolved into its formal parts, the parts, that is, that were explicitly entailed by its definition.

These parts then had to be resolved into their own components, and so on until the process reached terms which could not, themselves, be defined–that is, the primitives. Leibniz included among them not only things, but also modes and relations.

Other terms were to be classified according to the number of prime terms they contained: if they were composed from 2 prime terms, they were to be called com2nations; if from 3 prime terms, com3nations, and so forth. Thereby a hierarchy of classes of increasing complexity could be created.

Leibniz returned to this argument a dozen years later, in the Elementa characteristicae universalis. Here he was more generous with his examples. If we accept the traditional definition of man as “rational animal,” we might consider man as a concept composed of “rational” and “animal.”

We may assign numbers to these prime terms: animal = 2, and rational = 3. The composite concept of man can be represented as the expression 2 * 3, or 6.

For a proposition to be true, if we express fractionally the subject-predicate (S/P) relationship, the number which corresponds to the subject must be exactly divisible by the number which corresponds to the predicate.

Given the preposition “all men are animals,” the number for the subject (men), is 6; the number for animals is 2; the resulting fraction is 6/2 = 3. Three being an integer, consequently, the preposition is true.

If the number for monkey were 10, we could demonstrate the falsity of either the proposition “all men are monkeys” or “all monkeys are men:” “the idea of monkey does not contain the idea of man, nor, vice versa, does the idea of the latter contain the former, because neither can 6 be exactly divided by 10, nor 10 by 6” (Elementa, in Couturat 1903: 42-92). These were principles that had all been prefigured in the Dissertatio.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 271-5.

Eco: From Leibniz to the Encyclopédie


Johann Friedrich Wentzel (1670-1729), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), circa 1700. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“In 1678 Leibniz composed a lingua generalis (in Couturat 1903). After decomposing all of human knowledge into simple ideas, and assigning a number to each, Leibniz proposed a system of transcription for these numbers in which consonants stood for integers and vowels for units, tens and powers of ten:

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 270

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 270. 

In this system, the figure 81,374, for example, would be transcribed as mubodilefa. In fact, since the relevant power of ten is shown by the following vowel rather than by the decimal place, the order of the letters in the name is irrelevant: 81,374 might just as easily be transcribed as bodifalemu.

This system might lead us to suspect that Leibniz too was thinking of a language in which the users might one day discourse on bodifalemu or gifeha (= 546) just as Dalgarno or Wilkins proposed to speak in terms of nekpot or deta.

Against this supposition, however, lies the fact that Leibniz applied himself to another, particular form of language, destined to be spoken–a language that resembled the latino sine flexione invented at the dawn of our own century by Peano.

This was a language whose grammar was drastically simplified and regularized: one declension for nouns, one conjunction for verbs, no genders, no plurals, adjectives and adverbs made identical, verbs reduced to the formula of copula + adjective.

Certainly, if my purpose were to try to delineate the entire extent of the linguistic projects undertaken by Leibniz throughout the course of his life, I would have to describe an immense philosophical and linguistically monument displaying four major aspects:

(1) the identification of a system of primitives, organized in an alphabet of thought or in a general encyclopedia;

(2) the elaboration of an ideal grammar, inspired probably by the simplifications proposed by Dalgarno, of which the simplified Latin is one example;

(3) the formulation of a series of rules governing the possible pronunciation of the characters;

(4) the elaboration of a lexicon of real characters upon which the speaker might perform calculations that would automatically lead to the formulation of true propositions.

The truth is, however, that by the end of his career, Leibniz had abandoned all research in the initial three parts of the project. His real contribution to linguistics lies in his attempts at realizing the fourth aspect.

Leibniz had little interest in the kinds of universal language proposed by Dalgarno and Wilkins, though he was certainly impressed by their efforts. In a letter to Oldenburg (Gerhardt 1875: VII, 11-5), he insisted that his notion of a real character was profoundly different from that of those who aspired to a universal writing modeled on Chinese, or tried to construct a philosophic language free from all ambiguity.

Leibniz had always been fascinated by the richness and plurality of natural languages, devoting his time to the study of their lineages and the connections between them. He had concluded that it was not possible to identify (much less to revive) an alleged Adamic language, and came to celebrate the very confusio linguarum that others were striving to eliminate (see Gensini 1990, 1991).

It was also a fundamental tenet of his monadology that each individual had a unique perspective on the world, as if a city would be represented from as many different viewpoints as the different positions of its inhabitants.

It would have been incongruous for the philosopher who held this doctrine to oblige everyone to share the same immutable grillwork of genera and species, without taking into account particularities, diversities and the particular “genius” of each natural language.

There was but one facet of Leibniz’s personality that might have induced him to seek after a universal form of communication; that was his passion for universal peace, which he shared with Lull, Cusanus and Postel.

In an epoch in which his english predecessors and correspondents were waxing enthusiastic over the prospect of universal languages destined to ease the way for future travel and trade, beyond an interest in the exchange of scientific information, Leibniz displayed a sensitivity towards religious issues totally absent even in high churchmen like Wilkins.

By profession a diplomat and court councillor, Leibniz was a political, rather than an academic, figure, who worked for the reunification of the church. This was an ecumenicism that reflected his political preoccupations; he envisioned an anti-French bloc of Spain, the papacy, the Holy Roman Emperor and the German princes.

Still, his desire for unity sprang from purely religious motives as well; church unity was the necessary foundation upon which a peaceful Europe could be built.

Leibniz, however, never thought that the main prerequisite for unity and peace was a universal tongue. Instead, he thought that the cause of peace might be better served by science, and by the creation of a scientific language which might serve as a common instrument in the discovery of truth.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 269-1.

Eco: Francis Lodwick, 2

John Wilkins, An Essay Towards a Real Character, p. 311

John Wilkins (1614-1672), An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, London, John Martin, 1668, p. 311. Reproduced as Figure 13.2 in Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, “Francis Lodwick,” 1995, p. 264. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“This idea of a non-hierarchical organization seems, at one point, to have occurred to Wilkins as well. Figure 13.2 reproduces a table found on p. 311 of his Essay. The table describes the workings of prepositions of motion by relating the possible positions (and possible actions) of a human body in a three-dimensional space.

It is a table in which there is no principle of hierarchy whatsoever. Yet this is an isolated example, and Wilkins seems to have lacked the courage to extend this principle to his entire system of content.

Unfortunately, even Lodwick’s primitives for actions were not really primitive at all. It would undoubtedly be possible to identify a series of positions assumed by the human body in space–such as getting up or lying down–and argue that these were intuitively and universally comprehensible; yet the sixteen radicals proposed by Lodwick can be criticized in the same way as Degérando would later do for Wilkins: even such a simple notion as to walk must be defined in terms of movement, the notion of movement requires as its components those of place, of existence in a given place, of a moving substance which in different instants passes from one place to another.

All this presupposes the notions of departure, passage and arrival, as well as that of a principle of action which imparts motion to a substance, and of members which support and convey a body in motion in a specific way (“car glisser, ramper, etc., ne sont pas la même chose que marcher;” “since sliding, climbing, etc., are not the same as walking;” Des signes, IV, 395).

Moreover, it is also necessary to conceive of a terrestrial surface upon which movement was to take place–otherwise one could think of other actions like swimming or flying. However, at this point one should also subject the ideas of surface or members to the same sort of regressive componential analysis.

One solution would be to imagine that such action primitives are selected ad hoc as metalinguistic constructs to serve as parameters for automatic translation. An example of this is the computer language designed by Schank and Abelson (1977), based on action primitives such as PROPEL, MOVER, INGEST, ATRANS OR EXPEL, by which it is possible to analyze more complex actions like to eat (however, when analyzing the sentence “John is eating a frog,” Schank and Abelson–like Lodwick–cannot further analyze frog).

Other contemporary semantic systems do not start by seeking a definition of a buyer in order to arrive eventually at the definition of the action of buying, but start rather by constructing a type-sequence of actions in which a subject A gives money to a subject B and receives an object in exchange.

Clearly the same type-sequence can be employed to define not only the buyer, but also the seller, as well as the notions of to buy, to sell, price, merchandise, and so forth. In the language of artificial intelligence, such a sequence of actions is called a “frame.”

A frame allows a computer to draw inferences from preliminary information: if A is a buyer, then he may perform this and that action; if A performs this or that action, then he may be a buyer; if A obtains merchandise from B but does not pay him, then A is not a guyer, etc., etc.

In still other contemporary semantics, the verb to kill, for example, might be represented as “Xs causes (Xd changes to (- live Xd)) + (animate Xd) & (violent Xs):” if a subject (s) acts, with violent means or instruments, in a way that causes another subject (d), an animate being, to change from a state of living to a state of death, then s has killed d. If we wished, instead, to represent the verb to assassinate, we should add the further specification that d is not only an animate being, but also a political person.

It is worth noting that Wilkins‘ dictionary also includes assassin, glossing it by its synonym murther (erroneously designating it as the fourth species of the third difference in the genera of judicial relations: in fact, it is the fifth species), but limiting the semantic range of the term by “especially, under pretence of Religion.”

It is difficult for a philosophic a priori language to follow the twists and turns of meaning of a natural language.

Properly worked out, Lodwick’s project might represent to assassinate by including a character for to kill and adding to it a note specifying purpose and circumstances.

Lodwick’s language is reminiscent of the one described by Borges in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (in Ficciones), which works by agglutinations of radicals representing not substances but rather temporary fluxes. It is a language in which there would be no word for the noun moon but only the verb to moon or to moondle.

Although it is certain that Borges knew, if only at second hand, the work of Wilkins, he probably had never heard of Lodwick. What is certain, however, is that Borges had in mind the Cratylus, 396b–and it is by no means impossible that Lodwick knew this passage as well.

Here Plato, arguing that names are not arbitrary but motivated, gives examples of the way in which, rather than directly representing the things that they designate, words may represent the origin or the result of an action.

For instance, the strange difference (in Greek) between the nominative Zeus and the genitive Dios arose because the original name of Jupiter was a syntagm that expressed the habitual activity associated with the king of the gods: di’hoòn zen, “He through whom life is given.”

Other contemporary authors have tried to avoid the contortions that result from dictionary definitions by specifying the meaning of a term by a set of instructions, that is, a procedure which can decide whether or not a certain word can be applied.

This idea had already appeared in Charles Sanders Pierce (Collected Papers, 2.330): here is provided a long and complex explanation of the term lithium, in which this chemical element was defined not only in relation to its place in the periodic table of elements and by its atomic weight, but also by the operations necessary to produce a specimen of it.

Lodwick never went as far as this; still, his own intuition led him to run counter to an idea that, even in the centuries to follow, proved difficult to overcome. This was the idea that nouns came first; that is, in the process in which language had emerged, terms for things had preceded terms for actions.

Besides, the whole of Aristotelian and Scholastic discussion privileged substances (expressed by common nouns) as the subjects of a statement, in which the terms for actions played the role of predicates.

We saw in chapter 5 that, before the advent of modern linguistics, theorists tended to base their research on nomenclature. Even in the eighteenth century, Vico could still assume that nouns arose before verbs (Scienza nuova seconda, II, 2.4). He found this to be demonstrated not only by the structure of a proposition, but by the fact that children expressed themselves first in names and interjections, and only later in verbs.

Condillac (Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines, 82) also affirmed that “for a long time language remained with no words other than nouns.” Stankiewicz (1974) has traced the emergence of a different trend starting with the Hermes of Harris (1751: III), followed by Monboddo (Of the Origins and Progress of Language, 1773-92) and Herder, who, in his Vom Geist der hebräischen Poesie (1787), noted that a noun referred to things as if they were dead while a verb conferred movement upon them, thus stimulating sensation.

Without following Stankiewicz’s reconstruction step by step, it is worth noting that the reevaluation of the role of the verb was assumed in the comparative grammars by the theorists of the Indo-European hypothesis, and that in doing so they followed the old tradition of Sanskrit grammarians, who derived any word from a verbal root (1974: 176).

We can close with the protest of De Sanctis, who, discussing the pretensions of philosophic grammars, criticized the tradition of reducing verbs to nouns and adjectives, observing that: “I love is simply not the same as I am a lover [ . . . ] The authors of philosophical grammars, reducing grammar to logic, have failed to perceive the volitional aspect of thought” (F. De Sanctis, Teoria e storia della litteratura, ed. B. Croce, Bari: Laterza, 1926: 39-40).

In this way, in Lodwick’s dream for a perfect language there appears the first, timid and, at the time, unheeded hint of the problems that were to become the center of successive linguistics.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 264-8.

Eco: Francis Lodwick


Francis Lodwick (1619-1694), eight verses from the first chapter of the Gospel of St. John in Francis Lodwick’s common writing, next to the numerical key composed for it. A Common Writing, London, 1647. Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.  

Lodwick wrote before either Dalgarno or Wilkins, both of whom had thus the opportunity to know his work. Salmon (1972: 3) defines him as the author of the first attempt to construct a language in universal character. His first work, A Common Writing, appeared in 1647; The Groundwork or Foundation Laid (or So Intended) for the Framing of a New Perfect Language and a Universal Common Writing dates from 1652.

Lodwick was not a learned man–no more than a merchant, as he humbly confessed. Though, in his Ars signorum, Dalgarno praised Lodwick for his endeavors, he was unable to hold back the supercilious observation that he did not possess the force adequate so such an undertaking, being a man of the arts, born outside of the Schools (p. 79).

In his writings, Lodwick advanced a number of proposals, some more fruitful than others, on how to delineate a language that would both facilitate commercial exchange and permit the easy acquisition of English.

His ideas, moreover, changed over time, and he never managed to design a complete system. None the less, certain of what appears in the most original of his works (A Common Writing, hardly thirty pages long) reveals him as striking off in a direction very different from other authors of his time, making him a precursor of certain trends of contemporary lexical semantics.

In theory, Lodwick’s project envisioned the creation of a series of three numbered indexes; the purpose of these was to refer English words to the character and these to its words. What distinguished Lodwick’s conception from those of the polygraphers, however, was the nature of its lexicon.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 13.1, p. 261

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 13.1, p. 261.

Lodwick’s idea was to reduce the number of terms contained in the indexes by deriving as many of them as possible from a finite number of primitives which express actions. Figure 13.1 shows how Lodwick chooses a conventional character (a sort of Greek delta) to express the action of drinking; then, by adding to this radix different grammatical marks, makes the different composite characters express ideas such as the actor (he who drinks), the act, the object (that which is drunk), the inclination (the drunkard), the abstraction, and the place (the drinking house, or tavern).

From the time of Aristotle up until Lodwick’s own day, names of substances had invariably been the basis upon which a structure of classification had been erected. Lodwick’s original contribution, however, was to commence not with substantives but with verbs, or schemes of actions, and to populate these schemes with roles–what we would now call actants–such as agent, object, place and so on.

Lodwick designed his characters to be easily recognized and remembered: as we have seen, to drink was specified by a sort of Greek delta, while to love was a sort of L. The punctuation and added notes are vaguely reminiscent of Hebrew. Finally, as Salmon suggests, Lodwick probably took from contemporary algebra the idea of substituting letters for numbers.

In order to set up his finite packet of radicals Lodwick devised a philosophical grammar in which even grammatical categories expressed semantic relations. Derivatives and morphemes could thus become, at the same time, criteria of efficiency to reduce each grammatical category further to a component of action.

By such means the number of characters became far small than the words of a natural language found in a dictionary, and Lodwick endeavored to reduce this list further by deriving his adjectives and adverbs from the verbs.

From the character to love, for example, he derived not only the object of the action (the beloved) but also its mode (lovingly); by adding a declarative sign to the character to cleanse, he asserted that the action of cleansing has been performed upon the object–thereby deriving the adjective clean.

Lodwick realized, however, that many adverbs, prepositions, interjections and conjunctions were simply not amenable to this sort of derivation; he proposed representing these as notes appended to the radicals. He decided to write proper names in natural languages.

He was embarrassed by the problem of “natural kinds” (let us say, names of substances like cat, dog, tree), and resigned himself to the fact that, here, he would have to resort to a separate list. But since this decision put the original idea of a severely limited lexicon in jeopardy, he tried to reduce the list of natural kinds as much as possible, deciding that terms like hand, foot or land could be derived from actions like to handle, to foot or to land.

In other cases, he resorted to etymology, deriving, for instance, king from the archaic radical to kan, claiming that it meant both to know and to have power to act. He pointed out that Latin rex was related to the verb regere, and suggested that both the English king and the German emperor might be designated by a simple K followed by the name of the country.

Where he was not able to find appropriate verbal roots, he tried at least to reduce as many different sounds as possible to a single root. He thus reduced the names for the young of animals–child, calfe, puppy, chikin–to a single root.

Moreover, Lodwick thought that the reduction of many lexical items to a unique radical could also be performed by using analogies (seeing as analogous to knowing), synonymy (to lament as a synonym of to bemoane), opposition (to curse as the opposite of to bless), or similarities in substance (to moisten, to wet, to wash and even to baptize are all reduced to moisture).

All these derivations were to be signaled by special signs. Wilkins had had a similar idea when proposing the method of transcendental particles, but it seems that Lodwick’s procedure was less ambiguous.

Lodwick barely sketched out his project; his system of notation was cumbersome; nevertheless (with a bare list of sixteen radicals–to be, to make, to speake, to drinke, to love, to cleanse, to come, to begin, to create, to light, to shine, to live, to darken, to comprehend, to send and to name), he managed to transcribe the opening of the gospel of St. John (“In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God . . .”).

Beginning was derived of course from to begin, God from to be, Word from to speake, and so on (the idea of all things is derived from to create).

Just as the polygraphers had taken Latin grammar as a universal model, so Lodwick did the same for English–though his English grammatical categories still reflected the Latin model. Nevertheless he succeeded in avoiding certain limits of the Aristotelian classification of substances, because no previous tradition obliged him to order an array of actions according to the rigid hierarchical schema requested by a representation of genera and species.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 260-3.

Eco: The Hypertext of Wilkins


Joseph-Marie Degérando (1772-1842), author of Des signes et de l’Art de penser considėrés dans leurs rapports mutuels, 1799-1800. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“What if we regarded the defect in Wilkins‘ system as its prophetic virtue? What if we treated Wilkins as if he were obscurely groping towards a notion for which we have only recently invented a name–hypertext?

A hypertext is a program for computers in which every node of element of the repertory is tied, through a series of internal references, to numerous other nodes. It is possible to conceive of a hypertext on animals where, starting from the unit dog, one can get information (1) on the place of dogs on a tree of biological taxa which comprises also cats, horses or wolves; (2) on the properties and habits of dogs; (3) on dogs in history (the dog in the Neolithic, dog in medieval castles, etc.); (4) on the image of the dog in great works of art; and so on.

In the end, this was perhaps what Wilkins really wanted to do when he considered defence from the perspective both of the duties of a citizen and of military strategy.

If this were the case, many of the system’s contradictions would disappear, and Wilkins could be considered as a pioneer in the idea of a flexible and multiple organization of complex data, which will be developed in the following century and in those after.

Yet, if such was his project, then we can no longer speak of him in the context of the search for a perfect language; his was instead the search for ways to articulate all that natural languages permit us to say.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 258-9.

Eco:The Limits of Classification, 2

John Wilkins, An Essay, the Lords Prayer, Ch.II, p. 8

John Wilkins (1614-1672), An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, London, John Martin, 1668. Chapter II, p. 8, a discussion of the changes in the Lord’s Prayer. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Let us try to understand a little better what is happening here. Suppose we wanted to use the real character to understand the difference between a dog and a wolf. We discover only that the dog, Zitα, is the first member of the first specific pair of the fifth difference of the genus Beasts, and that the wolf Zitαs, is the opposing member of this pair (s being the character for specific opposition).

But in this way the character says what is the position of a dog in a universal classification of beasts (which, like Fish and Bird are animate sensitive sanguineous substances), without providing information either on the physical characteristics of dogs or on the difference between a dog and a wolf.

To learn more about dogs and wolves we must read further in the tables. Here we can learn (1) that clawed viviparous animals have toes at the end of their feet; (2) that rapacious viviparous animals have generally “six short pointed incisors, or cutting teeth, and two long fangs to hold their prey;” (3) that the head of dog-kind beasts is oblong, while the head of cat-kind animals is roundish; (4) that the larger of the dog-kind fall into two further groups–“either that which is noted for tameness and docility; or for wildness and enmity to sheep.”

With this, we finally know the difference between a dog and a wolf.

Thus genera, differences and species only serve to “taxonomize” entities rather than to define the properties by which we recognize them. To make these properties evident it is necessary to attach a running commentary to the classification.

Within Aristotelian classification, defining man as a rational animal was perfectly adequate. But this is not adequate for Wilkins, for he lived in an age that wished to discover the physical and biological nature of things.

He thus needed to know what were the morphological and behavioral characteristics of dogs as well. Yet his tables only allowed him to express this information in the form of additional properties and circumstances, and this additional information had to be expressed in natural language because the characteristic language lacked the formulae to render it evident.

This consecrates the failure of Wilkins‘ project, considering that, according to his project, “we should, by learning the Character and the Names of things, be instructed likewise in their Natures” (p. 21).

One might wish at least to call Wilkins a pioneer of modern, scientific taxonomy (like the taxonomy shown in figure 10.3). Yet, as Slaughter has noted, he has lumped together the pre-scientific taxonomies and folk taxonomy.

To classify, as we usually do, onions and garlic as foodstuffs and lilies as flowers is an instance of folk taxonomy: from a botanical point of view, onions, garlic and lilies are all members of the Liliaceae family.

See how Wilkins, when he classifies dogs, starts out using morphological criteria, then goes on mixing functional and even geographical criteria.

What, then, is that character Zitα that tells us so little about dogs, forcing us to learn more by inspecting the tables? One might compare it with a pointer which permits access to information stored in the computer’s memory–and which is not provided by the form of the character itself.

The speakers who wished to use the characteristic language as their natural idiom should have already memorized all that information in order to understand the character. But that is exactly the same type of competence requested of speakers who, instead of Zitα, say cane, dog, per or Hund.

For this reason, the encyclopedic information that underlies the list of primitives negates the compositional principle of Wilkins‘ language. Wilkins‘ primitives are not primitives at all. His species do not emerge from the composition of genera and differences alone; they are also names used as pegs to hang up encyclopedic descriptions.

Moreover, not even genera and differences are primitive, since they can be defined only through encyclopedic definitions. They neither are innate notions, nor can be immediately grasped by intuition: if one could still say so of the ideas of “God” or “world,” one would hardly do so for, let us say, “naval and ecclesiastical relations.”

Genera and differences are not primitive notions because–if they were–they should be definable by nature, while the tables are conceived just in order to define them by means of a natural language, Wilkins‘ English.

If Wilkins‘ classification were logical consistent, it should be possible to assume that it is analytically true that the genus of Beasts entails Animate Substance, which in its turn entails Creatures Considered Distributively.

Even this, in fact, is not always the case. The opposition vegetative / sensitive, for example, in the table of genera serves to distinguish Stone and Tree (and has an uncertain status); but the same opposition reappears (not once but twice) in the table of the World (see figure 12.6, where repeated terms are in bold).

Thus, on the basis of figure 12.1, one should admit that everything vegetative is necessarily an animate creature, while according to figure 12.6, one should (rather contradictorily) admit that everything vegetative is necessarily an element of both the spiritual and the corporeal world.

It is obvious that these various entities (be they genera, species or whatever) are considered under a different point of view every time they appear in the tables. Yet, in this case, we are no longer confronting a classification whose purpose is to construct a tree of organized terms in which every entity is unequivocally defined by the place it holds within the classification; we are, instead, confronting a great encyclopedia in which it is only expected that the same topics will be treated from more than one point of view in different articles.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.6, p. 257

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.6, p. 257.

Consulting the table for Economic Relations, we find, among its species, the pair Defending versus Deserting. If we turn to the table for Military Relations we still find Defense; though this time it is opposed to Offense.

It is true that when defense is considered as an economic relation and the opposite of desertion, it is written Coco, while considered as a type of military action, the opposite of offense, it is written Sibα.

Thus two different characters denote two different notions. Yet are they really different notions rather than one notion considered from two viewpoints? As a matter of fact, the ideas of economic defence and military defence seem to have something in common.

In both cases we are facing an act of war, which is seen the first time as a patriotic duty and the second time as a response to the enemy. The fact that the two notions are conceptually related, however, implies that within the structure of pseudo-dichotomies there also exist transversal connections, linking the nodal points in different sections of the tree.

Yet is such connections exist, then the tree is no more a hierarchical tree; it is rather a network of interrelated ideas.

In his work De signes, written in 1800, Joseph-Marie Degérando accused Wilkins of continually confusing classification with division:

“Division differs from classification in that the latter bases itself upon the intimate properties of the objects it wishes to distribute, while the former follows a rule to a certain end to which these objects are destined.

Classification apportions ideas into genera, species, and families; division allocates them into regions of greater or lesser extent. Classification is the method of botanists; division is the method by which geography is taught.

If one wishes for an even clearer example, when an Army is drawn up in battle formation, each brigade under its general, each battalion under its commander, each company under its captain, this is an image of division; when, however, the state of this army is presented on a role, which principally consists of en enumeration of the officers of each rank, then of the subalterns, and finally of the soldiers, this is an image of classification (IV, 399-400).”

Degérando is doubtlessly thinking here of Leibniz’s notion of the ideal library and of the structure of the Encyclopédie of which we will later speak), that is, of a criterion for subdividing matter according to the importance that it has for us.

Yet a practical classification follows criteria different from those which should rule a system of primitives based on metaphysical assumptions.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 254-8.

Eco: The Limits of Classification

John Wilkins, An Essay, the Lords Prayer, Ch.II, p. 7

John Wilkins (1614-1672), An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, London, John Martin, 1668. Chapter II, p. 7, a discussion of the changes in the Lord’s Prayer. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Using 40 genera and 251 differences, Wilkins‘ tables manage to define 2,030 species. If, however, the division were dichotomic, as happens with the Aristotelian system of classification, in which each genus was assigned two decisive differences which constituted to new species below, and in which each of these new species then played the role of genera at the lower level in the process of dichotomization, there should have been at least 2,048 species (as well as 1,025 intermediary genera plus the category at the apex) and an equal number of differences.

If the figures do not add up in the way that they should, it is clear that, in reconstructing a single general tree from the 41 particular trees represented in the tables, one would not find a constant dichotomic structure.

The structure is not dichotomic because Wilkins mixes substances and accidents together; but since, as Dalgarno had recognized, the number of accidents is infinite, there is no way that they can be hierarchically ordered.

In fact, Wilkins must classify fundamental and Platonic conceptions, like God, world or tree, together with drinks, like beer, political offices, military and ecclesiastical ranks–in short, the whole notional world of a seventeenth century Englishman.

It suffices to look at figure 12.1 to see that the accidents are subdivided into five categories each yielding from three to five genera. There are three subdivisions of the genus Herb as well as of the genus Transcendental things.

With a dichotomic structure it would be easy, once having established the number of embedded levels, to control the total number of entities in the system; once the pattern has been broken, however, and more than two subdivisions allowed to appear at each nodal point, the whole system begins to spin out of control.

The system is open to new discoveries, but, at the same time, surrenders its control over the number of primitives.

When he reaches the last differences, Wilkins arranges them in pairs. Yet, as he is the first to recognize, he has made his arrangement “for the better helming of the memory” (p. 22), not according to a rigorous criterion of opposition.

He informs us that pairs are based sometimes on opposition and sometimes on affinity. He admits to having coupled his differences in an arguable way, but says that he did so “because I knew not to provide for them better” (p. 22).

For instance, in the first genus, General Transcendental, the third difference, Diversity, generates as the second of its species Goodness and its opposite, Evil; but the second difference, Cause, generates as its third species Example and Type.

These two categories are not opposed; in fact it is not clear what their relation to each other is. We can imagine some sort of relation of affinity or similarity; yet, in whatever case, the criterion seems weak and ad hoc.

Among the accidents of Private Relations, under the species Economical Relations, we find both Relations of Consanguinity (like Progenitor / Descendant, Brother / Half-Brother, Coelebs / Virgin–but Coelebs has among its synonyms both Bachelour and Damosel, while Virgin only Maid) and Relations of Superiority (Direct / Seduce, Defending / Deserting).

It is clear that all of these oppositions lack a constant criterion. Among the same Private Relations there are also the Provisions, which includes pairs such as Butter / Cheese, but also actions such as Butchering / Cooking and Box / Basket.

Frank has observed that Wilkins considered as semantically equivalent different kinds of pseudo-opposition as they appear in natural languages, which can work by antonymy (good / evil), by complementarity (husband / wife), by conversely (buy / sell), by relativity (over / under, bigger / smaller), by temporal gradation (Monday / Tuesday / Wednesday), by quantitative gradation (centimeter / meter / kilometer), by antipodality (north / south), by orthogonality (north-east / south-east), or by vectorial conversely (depart / arrive).

It is hardly by chance that Wilkins is repeatedly forced to justify his language on mnemonic grounds. In fact, Wilkins takes some of his procedures from the traditional arts of memory.

His criterion for establishing pairs is based on the most common mnemonic habits. Rossi (1960: 252) notes that Wilkins‘ botanist, John Ray, complained that he was not permitted to follow the commandments of nature, but rather the exigencies of regularity, almost as if he were forced to adapt his classification more to requirements of the traditional theaters of memory than to the canons of modern taxonomies.

Nor is it even clear what, in the tree of genera (figure 12.1), the subdivisions in lower case actually mean. They cannot be differences, because the differences appear later, in successive tables, and determine how, in each of the 40 major genera, the dependent species are to be generated.

Some of these lower-case entities seem to serve as super-genera; yet others appear in an adjectival form. Certain of these latter look like differences in the Aristotelian tradition–like animate / inanimate, for example. We might regard them as pseudo-differences.

However, if the generative path “substances + inanimate = ELEMENTS” seems to follow an Aristotelian criterion, the disjunctions after animate are established in a quite different fashion.

Animate substances are divided into parts and species, the species are divided into vegetative and sensitive, the vegetative species into imperfect and perfect, and it is only at the end of these disjunctions that it is possible to isolate genera like Stone or Metal.

This is not the only instance of this sort of confusion. Moreover, given a pair of opposed categories, such as Creator / creature, the first term of the division is a genus, but the second appears as a pseudo-difference through which, after other disjunctions, it is possible to isolate other genera.

Likewise, in the group Herb, Shrub and Tree, the last two are genera; the first is a sort of super-genus (or pseudo-difference) subdivided into three further genera.

It would be nice, Wilkins confessed (p. 289), if each of his differences had its own transcendental denomination; yet there did not seem to be sufficient terms in the language for this.

He admitted as well that while, in theory, a well-enough individuated difference would immediately reveal the form which gave the essence to each thing, these forms remained largely unknown.

So he had to content himself by defining things through properties and circumstances.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 251-4.

Eco: An Open Classification?

John Wilkins, An Essay towards a Real Character, 1668, p. a from the Epistle

John Wilkins (1614-1672), An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, page a from the Epistle. London, John Martin, 1668. GoogleBooks offers a digital version of the complete text. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“In reality, Wilkins’ classification ought to be regarded as an open one. Following a suggestion of Comenius‘ (in the Via lucis), Wilkins argued that the task of constructing an adequate classification could only be undertaken by a group of scientists working over a considerable period of time, and to this end he solicited the collaboration of the Royal Society.

The Essay was thus considered no more than a first draft, subject to extensive revision. Wilkins never claimed that the system, as he presented it, was finished.

Looking back at figures 12.3 and 12.4, it is evident that there are only nine signs or letters to indicate either differences or species. Does this mean that each genus may have no more than nice species? It seems that the number nine had no ontological significance for Wilkins, and that he chose it simply because he thought nine was the maximum number of entities that might easily be remembered.

He realized that the actual number of species for each genus could not be limited. In fact, certain of the genera in the tables only have six species, but there are ten species for the Umbelliferous and seventeen for the Verticillates Non Fruticose.

To accommodate genera with over nine species Wilkins invented a number of graphic artifices. For simplicity’s sake, let us say that, in the spoken language, to specify a second group of nine species an l is added after the first consonant of the name, and that to specify a third group an r is added.

Therefore if Gαpe is normally Tulip (third species of the fourth difference of the genus Herbs according to their leaves), then Glαpe will be Ramsom, because the addition of the l means that the final e no longer indicates the third species in the genus but the twelfth.

Yet is precisely at this point that we come across a curious error. In the example we just gave, we had to correct Wilkins‘ text (p. 415). The text uses the normal English terms Tulip and Ramsom, but designates them in characters by Gαde and Glαde rather than Gαpe and Glαpe (as it should be).

If one checks carefully on the tables, one discovered that Gαde denotes Barley, not Tulip. Wilkins‘ mistake can be easily explained: regardless of whatever botanical affinities the plants might possess, in common English, the words Tulip and Barley are phonetically dissimilar, and thus unlikely to ever be confused with each other.

In a philosophical language, however, members of the same species are easy to muddle either phonetically or graphically. Without constant double-checking against the tables, it is difficult to avoid misprints and misunderstandings.

The problem is that in a characteristic language, for every unit of an expression one is obliged to find a corresponding content-unit. A characteristic language is thus not founded–as happens with natural languages–on the principle of double articulation, by virtue of which meaningless sounds, or phonemes, are combined to produce meaningful syntagms.

This means that in a language of “real” characters any alteration of a character (or of the corresponding sound) entails a change of sense.

This is a disadvantage that arises from what was intended as the great strength of the system, that is, its criterion of composition by atomic features, in order to ensure a complete isomorphism between expression and content.

Flame is Debα, because here the α designates a species of the element Fire. If we replace the α  with an a we obtain a new composition, Deba, that means Comet. When designing his system, Wilkins‘ choice of α and a was arbitrary; once they are inserted into a syntagm, however, the syntagmatic composition is supposed to mirror the very composition of the denoted thing, so that “we should, by learning the Character and the Names of things, be instructed likewise in their Natures” (p. 21).

This creates the problem of how to find the name for yet unknown things. According to Frank (1979: 80), Wilkins‘ language, dominated by the notion of a definitively pre-established Great Chain of Being, cannot be creative. The language can name unknown things, but only within the framework of the system itself.

Naturally, one can modify the tables by inserting into them a new species, but this presupposes the existence of some sort of linguistic authority with the power to permit us to think of a new thing. In Wilkins’s language neologisms are not impossible, but harder to form than in natural languages (Knowlson 1975: 101).

One might defend Wilkins‘ language by arguing that it really encompasses a rational methodology of scientific research. If, for example, we were to transform the character Detα (rainbow) into Denα we would obtain a character that we could analyze as denoting the first species of the ninth difference of the genus Element.

Yet there is no such species in the tables. We cannot take the character metaphorically, because only characters followed by transcendental particles may be so interpreted. We can only conclude that the character unequivocally designates an as yet to be discovered content, and that even if the content remains undiscovered, the character has at least told us the precise point where it is to be found.

But what and where is that “point?” If the tables were analogous to the periodic table in chemistry, then we really would know what to look for. The periodic table contains boxes which, though momentarily empty, might, one day, be filled.

Yet the language of chemistry is rigorously quantitative; the table gives the atomic number and weight of each missing element. An empty space in Wilkins‘ classification, however, merely tells us that there is a hole at that point; it does not tell us what we need to fill it up, or why the hole appears in one space rather than another.

Since Wilkins‘ language is not based on a rigorous classification, it cannot be used as a procedure of scientific discovery.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 248-51.

Eco: The Dictionary–Synonyms, Periphrases, Metaphors


Mary Beale (1633-1672), Portrait of John Wilkins, c. 1670-2, © The Royal Society. Wikipedia and the Royal Society website state that the original portrait was held by the Royal Society since it was acquired in the 1670’s. 

Wilkins‘ language provides names for 2,030 primitives, that is to say, species. These species include not only natural genera and artifacts, but also relations and actions. From these latter are derived the verbs.

As in Dalgarno, Wilkins used the copula + adjective formula for verbs, so “I love” is, again, “I am lover.” Besides this, the grammatical particles allow for the expression of tenses and modes for the verbs to be and to have as well as for pronouns, articles, exclamations, prepositions, conjunctions; the accidental differences express number, case, gender and comparatives.

But 2,030 primitive terms is still far too few to support discourse on a wide enough variety of topics. To increase the range of his language, Wilkins provided at the end of his Essay a list of 15,000 English terms not directly represented in his language, indicating the way that these might still be expressed.

The first way was by synonyms. For terms not included among the original 2,030, the list seeks to find the semantically closest primitive. To translate Result, the list suggests using primitive terms such as Event, Summe or Illation, without specifying in which context one should use the most appropriate synonym.

The list of possible synonyms can sometimes be very complex; for Corruption Wilkins suggests Evil, Destruction, Spoiling, Infection, Decay or Putrefaction. Some lists are even comic, as in the sequence of synonyms box-chest of drawers-ark-dresser-coffin-table.

The second way is periphrasis. The final dictionary records the term Abbie which has no corresponding primitive. There are primitives, however, for both Colledge and Monk. Thus, through periphrasis, Abbie can be rendered as Colledge of Monks.

The third way is that of the so-called transcendental particles. Faithful to his conception of a componential semantics based on primitive terms, Wilkins argued that there was no need to provide an additional character for Calf, since it is possible to express the same concept through Cow + Young, nor a primitive for Lioness when there was both a primitive for Lion and a marker for the feminine gender.

Thus in his grammar, Wilkins provided a system of transcendental particles (which then become a system of special markers for writing and pronunciation) that amplified or changed the meaning of the characters to which they were linked.

The 48 particles were articulated into eight classes, though there was little system in the classification. In fact, Wilkins drew from the Latin grammar the idea of different terminations such as “inceptives” (lucesco, aquosus, homunculus), “segregates” (gradatim or verbatim), endings indicating place (vestiarium) or agent (arator).

Sometimes these markers were essentially grammatical; as happens with those of gender, but for others Wilkins also took into account rhetorical devices such as metaphor, metonymy and synecdoche.

The particles in the class “metaphorical-like” indicate that the terms to which they are apposited are to be taken in a figurative sense. In this way, the primitive root can be modified so as to mean original, or light to mean evident.

Other particles seem to indicate relations such as cause and effect, container and thing contained, function and activity. Here are a few examples:

like + foot = pedestal

like + dark = mystical

place + metal = mine

officer + navy = admiral

artist + star = astronomer

voice + lion = roaring

Unfortunately, this incorporation of rhetorical solutions adds an element of imprecision to the entire system, and this weakens the project as a whole. Although Wilkins gave a list of examples showing the correct use of the particles, he was forced to acknowledge that they were just examples.

This list remains open, and its further elaboration is left to the inventiveness of the individual speaker (p. 318). Once set the speaker free to invent, and it is hard to avoid the risk of ambiguity.

Still, it is important to observe that–if the presence of a particle can produce ambiguity–its absence proves without any shade of doubt that a given term must be taken literally. This represents an advance of Dalgarno, in whose system there was nothing to indicate when terms should be understood literally or figuratively.

The fact is that Wilkins the author of a philosophical grammar seems to be working against Wilkins the inventor of a philosophic a priori language in real characters. Wilkins‘ attempt to take into account the figurative side of language also is certainly an interesting effort; however, it affects the precision of his language and its original claim to reduce the ambiguities present in ordinary language.

Note that, in order to render his language as univocal as possible, Wilkins had even decided to eliminate from the tables names of mythological (therefore non-existent) beings such as Sirens, Griffins, Harpies and Phoenixes, which could be at most written in natural language as proper names of individuals (for an analogy with Russell’s preoccupations, see Frank 1979: 160).

Wilkins also admitted that his language was unsuited to capturing the minutiae of food and drink, like different types of grape, jam, coffee, tea and chocolate. The problem could naturally be solved, he claimed, through periphrasis; yet it is easy to foresee that to do so the language would have been overloaded with a lot of new, awkward syntagms, as happens today with papal encyclicals, where video-cassettes become sonorarum visualiumque taeniarum cistellulae, and advertising men turn into laudativis nuntiis vulgatores.

Besides, in Latin it would have been possible to avoid such monstrosities by coining new words such as videocapsulae or publicitarii (see Bettini 1992), while Wilkins‘ language seems to have closed the door to neologisms. The only way to escape this difficulty would be to assume that the list of primitives was open.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 245-8.

Eco: The real Characters

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.3, p. 243

John Wilkins (1614-1672), Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, London, John Martin, 1668, p. 387. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. From Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 243. 

“Figure 12.3 gives Wilkins‘ own illustration of the signs characterizing the 40 major genera as well as the signs used to indicate differences and species.

The fundamental sign is a simple dash with a modification at its center to indicate genus. Differences and species are indicated by little hooks and bars attached to the two extremities of the dash: those attached to the left extremity signify differences; those to the right signify species.

A different series of signs, extremely difficult to read, is provided to indicate opposition, grammatical forms, copula, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, etc., as we have already seen for analogous writing systems.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.4, p. 244

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.4, p. 244.

As I have said, the system also specifies the way in which the characters are to be pronounced. In figure 12.4 we see that each of the genera is assigned its own two-letter symbol, while the differences are expressed by the consonants B, D, G, P, T, C, Z, S, N and the species by the addition of seven vowels and two diphthongs. Here is one of Wilkins‘ own examples:

For instance if (De) signifie Element, then (Deb) must signifie the first difference; which (according to the Tables) is Fire: and (Debα) will denote the first Species, which is Flame. (Det) will be the fifth difference under that Genus, which is, Appearing meteor; (Detα) the first Species, viz. Rainbow; (Deta) the second, viz. Halo. (p. 415).

Figure 12.5 gives the first line of the Lord’s Prayer in characters.

The first sign indicates the first person plural of the possessive pronoun; the second is the sign of Economic Relations modified by a hook on the left, which indicates the first difference (relations of consanguinity), and another on the right which indicates the second species, Direct Ascendent.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.5, p. 245

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.5, p. 245. 

The first two signs therefore mean “Our Father” and are pronounced Hai coba. As a matter of fact, the phonetic language is clearer also as a form of writing, and our following examples will mainly rely on it.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 242-5.

Eco: John Wilkins


John Wilkins (1614-1672), An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, London, John Martin, 1668. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Already in Mercury, a book principally devoted to secret writing, published in 1641, Wilkins had begun to design a project for universal language. It was not until 1668, however, that he was ready to unveil his Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language–the most complete project for a universal and artificial philosophical language that the seventeenth century was ever to produce.

Since “the variety of Letters is an appendix to the Curse of Babel” (p. 13), after a dutiful bow in the direction of the Hebrew language and a sketch of the evolution of languages from Babel onwards (including an examination of the Celto-Scythian hypothesis that we considered in ch. 5), and after an acknowledgment of his precursors and his collaborators in the compilation of classifications and of the final dictionary, Wilkins turned to his major task–the construction of a language founded on real characters “legible by any Nation in their own Tongue” (p. 13).

Wilkins observed that most earlier projects derived their list of characters from the dictionary of one particular language rather than drawing directly on the nature of things, and from that stock of notions held in common by all humanity.

Wilkins‘ approach required, as a preliminary step, a vast review of all knowledge to establish what these notions held in common by all rational beings really were.

Wilkins never considered that these fundamental notions might be Platonic ideas like Lull’s dignities. His list was rather based upon empirical criteria and he sought those notions to which all rational beings might either attest or, reasonably, be expected to attest: thus, if everybody agrees on the idea of a God, everybody would likewise agree on the botanical classification supplied to him by his colleague John Ray.

In reality, the image of the universe that Wilkins proposed was the one designed by the Oxonian culture of his time. Wilkins never seriously wondered whether other cultures might have organized the world after a different fashion, even though his universal language was designed for the whole of humanity.

The Tables and the Grammar

In appearance the classification procedure chosen by Wilkins was akin to the method of the Porphyrian Tree of Aristotelian tradition. Wilkins constructed a table of 40 major genera (see figure 12.1) subdivided into 251 characteristic differences.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.1, p. 240

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.1, p. 240. 

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.1-2, p. 241

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.1-2, p. 241.

From these he derived 2,030 species, which appear in pairs. Figure 12.2 provides a simplified example of the procedure: starting from the major genus of Beasts, after having divided them into viviparous and oviparous, and after having subdivided the viviparous ones into whole footed, cloven footed and clawed, Wilkins arrives at the species Dog / Wolf.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.2, p. 242

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.2, p. 242.

I might add parenthetically that Wilkins‘ tables occupy a full 270 pages of his ponderous folio, and hope that the reader will excuse the summary nature of the examples which follow.

After presenting the tables, which supposedly design the whole knowable universe, Wilkins turned his attention to his natural (or philosophical) grammar in order to establish morphemes and the markers for derived terms, which can permit the generation, from the primitives, of declensions, conjugations, suffixes and so on.

Such a simplified grammatical machinery should thus allow the speaker to articulate discourses, as well as to produce the periphrases through which terms from a natural language might be defined entirely through the primitives of the artificial one.

Having reached this stage, Wilkins was able to present his language of real characters. In fact, it splits into two different languages: (1) the first is an ideogrammatic form of writing, vaguely Chinese in aspect, destined to appear in print but never to be pronounced; (2) the second is expressed by alphabetic characters and is intended to be pronounced.

It is possible to speak properly of two separate languages because, even though the pronounceable characters were constructed according to the same compositional principle as the ideograms, and obey the same syntax, they are so different that they need to be learned apart.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 238-42.

Eco: George Delgarno, 2

George Delgarno, Didascalocophus, Theater in Oxford, 1680

George Dalgarno (1626-1687), Didascalocophus, or the Deaf and Dumb mans Tutor, Theater in Oxford, 1680. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Figure 11.1 presents an extremely simplified, partial reconstruction of the tables, which limits itself to following only two of the subdivisions–animals with uncleft hooves and the principle passions.

The 17 fundamental genera are printed in bold capitals, and are marked with 17 capital letters. Intermediate genera and species are represented in lower case. Dalgarno also employs three “servile” letters: R signifies a reversal in meaning (if pon means love, pron means hate); V indicates that the letters that precede it are to be read as numbers; L signifies a medium between two extremes.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 11.1, p. 231

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, figure 11.1, p. 232.

See for instance how from concrete, corporeal, physical entities, signified by an N, animals are deduced. See also how, in order to reach the subdivision animal, Dalgarno introduces an intermediate division (animal/inanimate) which is neither a genus nor a species, and is not marked by any letter.

The animals are subdivided into three classes–aquatic, aerial and terrestrial. Among the terrestrial animals (k) appear those with uncleft hooves [η], or perissodactyls. Thus the character Nηk stands for the class of perissodactyls. At this point, however, Dalgarno adds several sub-species–viz. the horse, elephant, mule and donkey.

As far as the accidents (E) are concerned, see for instance how the principal passions (o) are classified as species of the sensitive (P). After this, we are presented with a list that is not dichotomized: admiration takes pom as its character, because P is the fundamental genus and o is the intermediate genus.  The m, however, is just the “number” that the species admiration is assigned in the list’s order.

It is curious that, for animals, the intermediate genus is given by the third letter in the character and the species by the second vowel, while for the accidents the opposite happens.

Dalgarno acknowledges the existence of such an irregularity, without offering any explanation (p. 52). The motive is doubtless euphony; still, there seems to have been nothing to prevent Dalgarno from assigning to the intermediate genera of concrete beings vowels instead of consonants and to the species consonants instead of vowels. In this way, he could have used the same criterion throughout the table.

The problem, however, is more complex than it seems. The expression Nηk applied to the perissodactyls is motived by the divisions; only an arbitrary decision, on the contrary, motivates the decision to specify elephant with the addition of an a.

But it is not the arbitrariness of the choice itself which creates problems; it is rather that while k means “those terrestrials which are animal because they are animated and therefore physically concrete” (so that the division explains or reflects in some way the nature of the thing itself), the a at the end of Nηka (sic) only means “that thing which is numbered a on the list of perissodactyls and is called elephant.”

The same observation applies to the m in pom. All it really signifies is “position number m on the list of those sensitive accidents which are principal passions, i.e. admiration.” Since the dichotomic division does not reach the lower species, Dalgarno is forced to tack on lists in an alphabetical or almost alphabetical order.

Dalgarno (p. 42) noted, however, that this procedure was simply a mnemonic artifice for those who did not wish to learn the defining name. At the end of the book there is indeed a philosophical lexicon giving the characters for many terms in Latin.

In particular, there exists at the end of this list a special section devoted to concrete physical objects. Thus is seems that a philosophical definition of final species is possible; the only difficulty is that, given the purely exemplary nature of the lexicon, Dalgarno has left the naming of a large number of species up to the speaker, who can infer it from the tables.

Sometimes, however, Dalgarno gives taxonomically accurate examples: for instance the name for garlic, nebghn agbana (but for Dalgarno it is nebgηn agbana) is decoded by Slaughter (1982: 152) as follows: n=concretum physicum, ein radice, b vesca, g = qualitas sensibilis, h = sabor, n = pingue, a = partes annuae, gfoliumbaccidens mathematicuma = affectprimalongum. 

But even in this instance, “the tables only classify and name up to a point; the lexicon provides the rest of the definition but not the classification” (Slaughter 1982: 152).

Dalgarno may not have considered it indispensable to arrive at a classification of complex entities in all their particularities, yet making definitions requires classification. As a result the decision on how to classify complex entities, and, consequently, what name to give them, seems left as it were to the discretion of the user of the language.

Thus, ironically, a system that was intended to provide a single set of objective and univocal definitions ends up by lending itself to the creative fancies of its users. Here are some of Dalgarno’s own suggestions (I have separated the radicals with a slash to make them more decipherable):

horse = Nηk/pot = animal with uncleft hoof/courageous [why could we not say the same of the elephant?]

mule = Nηk/sof/pad = animal with uncleft hoof / deprived / sex

camel = nek/braf/pfar = quadruped with cloven hoof/humped/back

palace = fan/kan = house / king

abstemious = sof / praf / emp = deprived / drink / adjectival

stammering = grug / shaf / tin = illness [the opposite of gug, health] / impediment / speaking

gospel = tib / sηb = teach / way of being

Dalgarno also admitted that the same object regarded from a different perspective might take different names. The elephant can be called Nηksyf (uncleft hoof / superlative) or Nηkbeisap (uncleft hoof / mathematical accident / architectural metaphor for the proboscis).

It is not a system that is at all easy to memorize. The difference between Nηke, donkey, and Nηko, mule, is minimal and easy to muddle. Dalgarno advised the reader to use old mnemonic tricks.

The name for table was fran; the name for plough was flan; Dalgarno suggested associating the first with FRANce and the second with FLANders. In this way the speaker needed to learn both a philosophical language and a mnemonic code.

Dalgarno somewhat compensates the reader for the transcendental difficulties in the lexicon and the rules of composition by providing a grammar and syntax of great simplicity.

All that remains of the categories of classical grammar is the noun along with several pronouns (I = lal, you = lêl, he = lel . . . ). Adverbs, adjectives, comparatives and even verbal forms are derived by adding suffixes to nouns.

Thus from sim (good) one can generate simam (very good) and sinab (better). From pon (love) we can get pone (lover), pono (loved) and ponomp (lovable). To translate verbs, Dalgarno thought all that was necessary was the copula: “we love” becomes “we” + present tense + copula + “lovers” (that is, “we are lovers;” see p. 65).

The notion that verbs could all be reduced to the copula plus an adjective already circulated among the Modists in the thirteenth century; it was taken up by Campanella in the Philosophia rationalis (1638) and accepted by both Wilkins and Leibniz.

Dalgarno’s treatment of syntax was no less radical (see Pellerey 1992c). Although other projects for philosophic languages preserved the Latin model, Dalgarno eliminated the declensions for nouns.

All that counted was word order: the subject preceded the verb and the verb preceded the object. The ablative absolute was rendered by temporal particles which stood for terms like cum, post or dum.

The genitive was rendered either by an adjectival suffix or by a formula of possession (shf = to belong). Shumaker has commented (1982: 155) that forms of the latter type are adopted by pidgin English, in which the phrase “master’s hand” is rendered “hand-belong-master.”

Simplified to this degree, the language seems syntactically crude. Yet Dalgarno, deeply suspicious of rhetorical embellishments, was convinced that only an essential logical structure gave a language an austere elegance.

Besides, grace, elegance and transparent clarity were given full play in the composition of the names, and for this reason, Dalgarno compared his language to the philosophical language par excellence, ancient Greek.

One final aspect of Dalgarno’s system that he shared with both Wilkins and Lodwick has been underlined by Frank (1979: 65ff). By using particles, prefixed and suffixed to names, to transform nouns into other grammatical categories, changing their meanings thereby, and inserting prepositions, such as per, trans, praeter, supra, in and a, among the mathematical accidents–and thus as equivalent to nouns–Dalgarno tended “to postulate an all-comprehending semantics which took over all, or almost all of the functions traditionally assigned to grammar.”

Dalgarno, in other words, abolished the classical distinction between categorematic terms, or terms that have independent meanings, and syncategorematic terms, or terms which acquire a meaning only within a context.

This, in logic, is equivalent to the distinction between logical variables that can be bound to specific meanings and logical connectives. This is a tendency that is contrary to the tenets of modern logic; yet it is consistent with some trends in contemporary semantics.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 231-7.

Eco: George Dalgarno


George Dalgarno (1626-1687), title page of Ars Signorum, printed by J. Hayes, London, 1661. Published 20 years before Didascalocophus, Ars signorum preceded Bishop Wilkin‘s speculations on a “real character and a philosophical language.” This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“It is difficult to make a precise evaluation of George Dalgarno’s Ars signorum, published in 1661. In contrast to Wilkin’s Essay, Dalgarno’s tables are summary and the text, in its expository sections, is written in a language that is extremely cryptic, sometimes contradictory, and almost always strikingly allusive.

The book is filled with printer’s errors, especially where Dalgarno provides examples of real characters–not an inconsiderable problem in reading a language where the misprint of one letter changes the whole sense of the character.

We might note that the difficulty in printing a text free of errors shows how cumbersome the philosophic languages were, even for their own creators.

Dalgarno was a Scottish schoolmaster who passed most of his life at Oxford, where he taught grammar at a private school. He was in touch with all the contemporary scholars at the university, and in the list of acknowledgements at the beginning of his book he mentions men such as Ward, Lodwick, Boyle and even Wilkins.

It is certain that, as he was preparing his Essay (published seven years later), Wilkins contacted Dalgarno and showed him his own tables. Dalgarno regarded them as too detailed, and chose to follow what seemed to him an easier path.

When Wilkins finally made his project public, however, Dalgarno felt himself to be the victim of plagiarism. The suspicion was unjust: Wilkins had accomplished what Dalgarno had only promised to do.

Besides, various other authors had already anticipated many of the elements appearing in the project of Dalgarno. Still, Wilkins resented the insinuation of wrong-doing. In the acknowledgements that prefaced his Essay, Wilkins was prodigal with his thanks to inspirers and collaborators alike, but the name of Dalgarno does not appear–except in an oblique reference to “another person.” (b2r).

In any case, it was the project of Wilkins that Oxford took seriously. In 1668 the Royal Society instituted a commission to study the possible applications of the project; its members included Robert Hook, Robert Boyle, Christopher Wren and John Wallis.

Although we are not informed of the conclusions that they finally reached, subsequent tradition, from Locke to the Encyclopédie, invariably treated Wilkins as the author of the most important project.

Perhaps the only scholar who considered Dalgarno respectfully was Leibniz, who, in a rough draft for his own encyclopedia, reproduced Dalgarno’s list of entities almost literally (see Rossi 1960: 272).

Wilkins, of course, was perfectly at home at the Royal Society. He served as its secretary, and could freely avail himself of the help, advice, patronage and attention of his fellow members. Dalgarno, by contrast, was not even a member of the university.

Dalgarno saw that a universal language needed to comprehend two distinct aspects: first, a content-plane, that is, a classification of all knowledge, and that was a task for a philosopher; second, an expression-level, that is, a grammar that organized the characters so that they can properly denote the content elements–and this was a task for a grammarian.

Dalgarno regarded himself as a grammarian rather than a philosopher; hence he merely outlined the principles of classification upon which his language would be based, hoping that others might carry this task to fruition.

As a grammarian, Dalgarno was sensitive to the problem that his language would need to be spoken and not just written. He was aware of the reserves Descartes had expressed about the difficulty of devising a philosophic language that might be pronounced by speakers of differing tongues; thus he introduced his project with a phonetic analysis which sought to identify those sounds which were most easily compatible with the human organs of speech.

The letters from which he later composed his character were not, as they might seem, chosen arbitrarily; he chose instead those which he considered most easy to utter. Even when he came to elaborate the syntagmatic order of his character, he remained concerned with ease of pronunciation.

To this end, he made sure that consonants were always followed by vowels, inserting in his character a number of diphthongs whose function is purely euphonious. This concern certainly ensured ease of pronunciation; unfortunately, it also rendered his character increasingly difficult to identify.

After phonetics, Dalgarno passed to the problem, of the semantic primitives. He believed that these could all be derived solely in terms of genus, species and difference, arguing that such a system of embedded dichotomies was the easiest to remember (p. 29).

For a series of logico-philosophical reasons (explained pp. 30ff), he excluded negative differences from his system, retaining only those which were positive.

The most ambitious feature of Dalgarno’s project (and Wilkin’s as well) was that his classification was to include not only natural genera and species (comprehending the most precise variations in animals and plants) but also artifacts and accidents–a task never attempted by the Aristotelian tradition (see Shumaker 1982: 149).

In fact, Dalgarno based his system of classification on the rather bold assumption that all individual substances could be reduced to an aggregate of accidents (p. 44). This is an assumption which, as I have tried to show elsewhere (Eco 1984: 2.4.3), arises as an almost mechanical consequence of using Porphyry’s Tree as a basis for classification; it is a consequence, moreover, that the entire Aristotelian tradition has desperately tried to ignore.

Dalgarno confronted the problem, even though recognizing that the number of accidents was probably infinite. He was also aware that the number of species at the lowest order was unmanageably large–he calculated that they would number between 4,000 and 10,000.

This is probably one of the reasons why he rejected the help of Wilkins, who was to persevere until he had classified 2,030 species. Dalgarno feared that such a detailed classification ran the risk of a surgeon who, having dissected his cadavers into minute pieces, could no longer tell which piece belonged to Peter and which to John (p. 33).

In his endeavor to contain the number of primitives, Dalgarno decided to introduce tables in which he took into consideration only fundamental genera (which he numbered at 17), together with the intermediary genera and the species.

Yet, in order to gather up all the species in this tripartite division, Dalgarno was forced to introduce into his tables a number of intermediate disjunctions. These even received names in the language: warm-blooded animals, for example, are called NeiPTeik; quadrupeds are named Neik.

Yet in the names only the letters for genera, intermediary genera, and species are taken into account. (Mathematical entities are considered as concrete bodies on the assumption that entities like points and lines are really forms).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 228-31.

Eco: Primitives and Organization of Content, 2

Ramon Llull, Arbor naturalis et logicalis, Liber de logica nova, Valencia, Alonso de Proaza, 1512

Ramon Llull (1232-1315), Arbor naturalis et logicalis, Liber de logica nova, Valencia, 1512. A Porphyrian Tree of logical relations, original c. 1305, logica nova edition 1512. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Nevertheless, such a dictionary-like structure would not allow us to define the difference between a cat and a tiger, or even between a canine and a feline animal. To do this, it is necessary to insert differences into the classification.

Aristotle, in his studies of definition, said that, in order to define the essence of a thing, we should select such attributes which “although each of them has a wider extension than the subject, all together they have not” (Posterior Analytics II, 96a, 35).

Such a structured representation was known in the Middle Ages as Porphyry’s Tree (because it was derived from the Isagoge of the Neo-Platonic philosopher Porphyry, living in the second-third century AD), and was still taken as a definitional model by the English searchers for a real character.

In a Porphyrian Tree each genus is divided by two differences which constitute a pair of opposites. Each genus, with the addition of one of its divisive differences, produces an underlying species, which is so defined by its genus and its constitutive difference.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 10.2, p. 225

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 10.2, p. 225. 

In figure 10.2, there is an example of how a Porphyrian Tree establishes the difference between human beings and gods (understood as natural forces) and between human beings and beasts.

The terms in upper-case refer to genera and species while those in lower-case refer to differences, that is, to particular accidents which occur only in a given species. We see that the diagram defines a human being as a “rational and mortal animal,” which, in classical terms, is considered a satisfactory definition because there cannot be a rational and mortal animal which is not a human being, and only human beings are so.

Unfortunately this diagram does not tell us anything about the differences between dogs and cats, or horses and wolves, or cats and tigers. In order to obtain new definitions, new differences need to be inserted into the diagram.

Besides this, we can see that, although differences occur in one species, in this tree there are differences, such as “mortal/immortal,” which occur in two different species.

This makes it difficult to know whether or not the same differences will be reproduced at some further point in the tree when it becomes necessary to specify the difference not just between dogs and cats, but also between violets and roses, diamonds and sapphires, and angels and demons.

Even taxonomy as practiced by modern zoology defines through dichotomies. Dogs are distinguished from wolves, and cats from tigers, on the basis of a dichotomy by taxonomic entities known as taxa (figure 10.3).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 10.3, p. 226

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 10.3, p. 226. 

Yet modern zoologists are well aware that a system of classification is not the same as a system of definitions.

Classification does not capture the essence of the thing itself; it simply embeds things in a system of increasingly inclusive classes, where the lower nodes are linked by entailment to the upper ones: if something is a Canis familiaris, it cannot but be, by entailment, a Canis, a canid and a fissiped.

But Canidae and Fissipeda are taken as primitives only in the framework of the classification and are not considered as semantic primitives.

Zoologists know that, within their classification, at the node Canidae they must presuppose a set of properties common to the whole family, and that at the node Carnivora there is a set of properties common to the whole order: in the same vein, “mammal” is not a semantic primitive but a technical name which stands for (more or less) “viviparous animal which nourishes its young by the secretion of milk through its mammary glands.”

The name of a substance can be either designative (thus indicating the genus to which that substance belongs) or diagnostic, that is, transparent and self-definatory.

In Species plantarum by Linnaeus (1753), given the two species, Arundo calamogrostis and Arundo arenaria, their designative names show that they belong to the same genus and establish their difference; however, their properties are then made clearer by a diagnostic description which specifies that the Arundo calamogrostis is “calycibus unifloris, cumulo ramoso,” while the Arundo arenaria is “calycibus unifloris, foliis involutiis, mucronato pungentibus” (see Slaughter 1982: 80).

However, the terms used for this description are no longer pseudo-primitives–like those of the metalanguage of taxas; they are terms of the common natural language used for diagnostic purposes.

By contrast, for the authors of a priori languages, each expression had to express all the properties of the designated thing. We shall see how such a difficulty will affect all the projects discussed in the following chapters.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 225-7.

Eco: Primitives and Organization of Content


William Blake (1757-1827), The Tyger, 1794. Scan of a plate printed by the author collected in Songs of Experience, designed after 1789 and printed in 1794. Copies A and B are both held by the British Museum. This work is in the public domain in its country or origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“In order to design characters that directly denote notions (if not the things themselves that these notions reflect), two conditions must be fulfilled: (1) the identification of primitive notions; (2) the organization of these primitives into a system which represents the model of the organization of content.

It is for this reason that these languages qualify as philosophical and a priori. Their formulation required individuating and organizing a sort of philosophical “grammar of ideas” that was independent from any natural language, and would therefore need to be postulated a priori.

Only when the content-plane had been organized would it be possible to design the characters that would express the semantic primitives. As Dalgarno was later to put it, the work of the philosopher had to precede that of the linguist.

For the polygraphers, invention was simply the job of assigning numbers to a collection of words from a given natural language. The inventors of philosophic a priori languages needed to invent characters that referred to things or notions: this meant that their first step was to draw up a list of notions and things.

This was not an easy task. Since the lexicon of any natural language is always finite in number, while the number of things, including physically existing objects, rational entities, accidents of all types, is potentially infinite, in order to outline a list of real characters it is necessary to design an inventory which is not only universal: it must also be in some way limited.

It is mandatory to establish which notions are the most universally common, and then to go on by analyzing the derivative notions according to a principle of compositionality by primitive features.

In this way, the entire set of possible contents that the language is able to express has to be articulated as a set of “molecular aggregates” that can be reduced to atomic features.

Suppose we had three semantic atoms such as ANIMAL, CANINE and FELINE. Using them, we might analyze the following four expressions:

Umberto Eco The Search for the Perfect Language p. 222.png

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 222. 

Yet the features that analyze the content of the above expressions ought to be entities totally extraneous to the object language.

The semantic feature CANINE, for example, must not be identifiable with the word canine. The semantic features ought to be extra-linguistic and possibly innate entities. At least they should be postulated as such, as when one provides a computer with a dictionary in which every term of a given language can be split into minor features posited by the program.

In any case, the initial problem is how to identify these primitive and atomic features and set a limit on their number.

If one means by “primitive” a simple concept, it is very difficult to decide whether and when one concept is simpler than another. For the normal speaker, the concept of “man” is simpler–that is, easier to understand–than the one of “mammal.”

By contrast, according to every sort of semantic analysis, “mammal” is a component of (therefore simpler than) “man.” It has been remarked that for a common dictionary it is easier to define terms like infarct than terms like to do (Rey-Debone 1971: 194ff).

We might decide that the primitives depend on our world experience; they would correspond to those that Russell (1940) called “object-words,” whose meanings we learn by ostension, in the same way as a child learns the meaning of the word red by finding it associated with different occurrences of the same chromatic experience.

By contrast, according to Russell, there are “dictionary-words” that can be defined through other words, such as pentagram. Yet Russell remarks, for a child who had grown up in a room decorated with motifs in the form of a pentagram, this word would be an object one.

Another alternative would be to regard primitives as innate Platonic ideas. This solution would be philosophically impeccable; yet not even Plato himself was able to establish what and how many these innate ideas were.

Either there is an idea for every natural kind (for horses, platypuses, fleas, elms and so on–which means an atomic feature for every element of the furnishing of the world), or there are a few abstract ideas (the One, the Many, the Good and mathematical concepts), but through them it would be difficult to define compositionally a horse or a platypus.

Suppose instead we decided to order the system of primitives by dichotomic disjunctions so that, by virtue of the systematic relations obtaining between the terms, they must remain finite in number.

With such a structure we would be able to define by a finite number of atomic primitives a great number of molecular entities. A good example of this alternative is the reciprocally embedded system of hyponyms and hyperonyms used by lexicographers.

It is organized hierarchically in the form of a tree of binary disjunctions: to each opposed pair of hyponyms there corresponds a single hyperonym, which, in its turn, is opposed to another hyperonym to form the next level of hyponyms, to which a further hyperonym will correspond, and so on.

In the end, regardless of how many terms are embedded in the system, the whole structure must finish at its apex in a single patriarch-hyperonym.

Thus the example of the table on p. 222 above would take the following format:

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 10.1, p. 224

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 10.1, p. 224.

According to many contemporary authors, this kind of semantic structure would analyze the content in the format of a dictionary (as opposed to an encyclopedia).

In an encyclopedia-like representation one introduces elements of world knowledge (for example that a tiger is a yellow cat with stripes on its fur), and these elements are potentially infinite in number.

In a dictionary-like representation the features are, on the contrary, analytic, in the sense that they are the only and necessary conditions for the definition of a given content: a cat is necessarily a feline and an animal and it would be contradictory to assert that a cat is not an animal, since the feature “animal” is analytically a part of the definition of cat.

In this sense it would be easy to distinguish analytical from synthetical judgments. “A tiger is a feline animal” would be analytical, so uniquely depending on our rigorously organized dictionary competence (which is exclusively linguistic), while “tigers are man-eaters” would depend on our extra-linguistical world knowledge.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 221-5.

Eco: The English Debate on Character and Traits


Anonymous, Gerardus Johannes Vossius (1577-1649), 1636, inscribed (verso): GERH.JOH. VOSSIUS CANONICUS CANTUARIENSIS PROFESSOR HISTORIARII AMSTELO…AET LX Ao 1636. Held at the Universiteitsmuseum Amsterdam. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“In 1654 John Webster wrote his Academiarum examen, an attack on the academic world, which had allegedly given an insufficient amount of attention to the problem of universal language.

Like many of this English contemporaries, Webster was influenced by Comenius‘ propaganda for a universal language. He foresaw the birth of a “Hieroglyphical, Emblematical, Symbolical, and Cryptographical learning.”

Describing the general utility of algebraic and mathematical signs, he went on to note that “the numerical notes, which we call figures and ciphers, the Planetary Characters, the marks for minerals, and many other things in Chymistry, though they be alwaies the same and vary not, yet are understood by all nations in Europe, and when they are read, every one pronounces them in their own Countrey’s language and dialect.” (pp. 24-5).

Webster was not alone; other authors were taking up and elaborating ideas which had first originated with Bacon. Another writer championing universal characters was Gerhard Vossius in De arte grammatica, 1635 (1.41).

Nevertheless, for the men from whose ranks the Royal Society would later be formed, Webster’s demand for research in hieroglyphic and emblematic characters sounded too much like Father Kircher’s Egyptian linguistics.

In effect, Webster was indeed thinking of a language of nature in opposition to the institutionalized language of men (see Formigari 1970: 37).

Responding to Webster, in another pamphlet, also published in 1654 (Vindiciae academiarum, to which Wilkins himself added an introduction), Seth Ward denounced the mystic propensities of his opponent (see Slaughter 1982: 138ff).

Ward made no objection to the idea of the real character as such, provided that it was constructed upon the algebraic model invented by Viète in the sixteenth century and elaborated by Descartes, where letters of the alphabet stand for mathematical quantities.

It is, however, evident that what Ward thought of was not what Webster had in mind.

Ward argued that only the real character of which he spoke could be termed as “a naturall Language and would afford that which the Cabalists and Rosycrucians have vainely sought for in the Hebrew” (p. 22).

In his introduction Wilkins went even further: Webster, he wrote, was nothing but a credulous fanatic. Even in his Essay, which we will soon discuss, Wilkins could not resist shooting, in his introduction, indignant darts in Webster’s direction without naming him directly.

In spite of all this, however, the projects of the religious mystics did have something in common with those of the “scientists.” In that century the play of reciprocal influence was very complex and many have detected relationships between Lullists or Rosicrucians and the inventors of philosophical languages (see Ormsby-Lennon 1988; Knowlson 1975; and, of course, Yates and Rossi).

Nevertheless, in contrast to the long tradition of the search for the lost language of Adam, the position of Ward, with the aid of Wilkins, was entirely secular.

This is worth emphasizing: there was no longer any question of discovering the lost language of humanity; the new language was to be a new and totally artificial language, founded upon philosophic principles, and capable of realizing, by rational means, that which the various purported holy languages (always dreamt of, never really rediscovered) had sought but failed to find.

In every one of the holy and primordial languages we have so far considered, at least in the way they were presented, there was an excess of content, never completely circumscribable, in respect of expression.

By contrast, the search was now for a scientific or philosophical language, in which, by an unprecedented act of impositio nominum, expression and content would be locked in permanent accord.

Men such as Ward and Wilkins thus aimed at being the new Adam; it was this that turned their projects into a direct challenge to the older tradition of mystic speculation. In the letter to the reader that introduced the Essay, Wilkins writes:

“This design would likewise contribute much to the clearing of some of our modern differences in Religion, by unmasking many wild errors, that shelter themselves under the disguise of affected phrases; which being Philosophically unfolded, and rendered according to the genuine and natural importance of Words, will appear to be inconsistencies and contradictions. (B1r).”

This was nothing less than a declaration of war on tradition, a promise of a different species of therapy that would finally massage out the cramps in language; it is the first manifestation of that skeptical-analytic current of thought, exquisitely British, that, in the twentieth century, would use linguistic analysis as an instrument for the confutation of metaphysics.

Despite the persistence of the Lullian influences, there can be no doubt that, in order to realize their project, British philosophers paid close attention to Aristotle’s system of classification.

The project of Ward is an example. It was not enough simply to invent real characters for the new language; it was necessary also to develop a criterion that would govern the primitive features that would compose these characters:

“All Discourses being resolved in sentences, these into words, words signifying either simple notions or being resolvable into simple notions, it is manifest, that if all the sorts of simple notions be found out, and have Symboles assigned to them, those will be extremely few in respect of the other [ . . . ] the reason of their composition easily known, and the most compounded ones at once will be comprehended [ . . . ] so to deliver the nature of things. (Vindiciae, 21).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 218-21.

Eco: Descartes and Mersenne


René Descartes (1596-1650), Principia philosophiae, Amsterdam: Apud Ludovicum Elzevirium, 1644. Held by the Chemical Heritage Foundation as accession number Q155.D473.1644, Othmer Library of Chemical History. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“More or less at the same period, the problem of a real character was discussed in France, with a more skeptical attitude. In 1629, Father Marin Mersenne sent Descartes news of a project for a nouvelle langue invented by a certain des Vallées.

We are told by Tallemant des Réau that this des Vallées was a lawyer who had an immense talent for languages and who claimed to have discovered “a matrix language through which he could understand all others.”

Cardinal Richelieu asked him to publish his project, but des Vallées replied he was only willing to divulge such a great secret against the promise of a state pension.

“This the Cardinal denied him, and so the secret ended up buried with des Vallées” (Les historiettes, 1657: 2, “Le Cardinal de Richelieu“).

On 20 November 1629, Descartes wrote back to Mersenne giving his thoughts about the story. Learning a language, Descartes noted, involved learning both the meaning of words and a grammar.

All that was required to learn new meanings was a good dictionary, but learning a foreign grammar was more difficult. It might be possible, however, to obviate this difficulty by inventing a grammar that was free from the irregularities of natural languages, all of which had been corrupted through usage.

The resulting language would be a simplified one and might seem, in comparison to natural languages, the basic one, of which all the other natural languages would then appear as so many complex dialects.

It was sufficient to establish a set of primitive names for actions (having synonyms in every language, in the sense in which the French aimer has its synonym in the Greek philein), and the corresponding substantive might next be derived from such a name by adding to it an affix.

From here, a universal writing system might be derived in which each primitive name was assigned a number with which the corresponding terms in natural languages might be recovered.

However, Descartes remarked, there would remain the problem of sounds, since there are ones which are easy and pleasant for speakers of one nation and difficult and unpleasant for those of another.

On the one hand, a system of new sounds might also prove difficult to learn; on the other hand, if one named the primitive terms from one’s own language, then the new language would not be understood by foreigners, unless it was written down by numbers.

But even in this case, learning an entire new numerical lexicon seemed to Descartes a tremendous expense of energy: why not, then, continue with an international language like Latin whose usage was already well established?

At this point, Descartes saw that the real problem lay elsewhere. In order not only to learn but to remember the primitive names, it would be necessary for these to correspond to an order of ideas or thoughts having a logic akin to that of the numbers.

We can general an infinite series of numbers, he noted, without needing to commit the whole set to memory. But this problem coincided with that of discovering the true philosophy capable of defining a system of clear and distinct ideas.

If it were possible to enumerate the entire set of simple ideas from which we generate all the complex ones that the human mind can entertain, and if it were possible to assign to each a character–as we do with numbers–we could then articulate them by a sort of mathematics of thought–while the words of natural languages evoke only confused ideas.

“Now I believe that such a language is possible and that it is possible to discover the science upon which it must depend, a science through which peasants might judge the truth better than philosophers do today.

Yet I do not expect ever to see it in use, for that would presuppose great changes in the present order of things; this world would have to become an earthly paradise, and that is something that only happens in the Pays des Romans.”

Descartes thus saw the problem in the same light as Bacon did. Yet this was a project that he never confronted. The observations in his letter to Mersenne were no more than commonsensical.

It is true that, at the moment he wrote this letter, Descartes had not yet started his own research into clear and distinct ideas, as would happen later with his Discours de la methode;  however, even later he never tried to outline a complete system of simple and clear ideas as the grounds on which to build a perfect language.

He provided a short list of primitive notions in the Principia philosophiae (I, XLVIII), yet these notions were conceived as permanent substances (order, number, time, etc.) and there is no indication that from this list a system of ideas could be derived (see Pellerey 1992a: 25-41; Marconi 1992).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 216-8.

Eco: Comenius


Jan Amos Comenius (1592-1670), Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the Heart, the initial version was completed in 1623, while the first edition was published in 1631. The entire work is posted in an electronic edition. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“The British quest was also influenced by the presence of Comenius (Jan Amos Komensky). In fact Comenius was a member of the Bohemian Brotherhood, a mystic branch of Hussite reformers, and he played a role–albeit a polemical one–in the Rosicrucian story (cf. his Labyrinth of the World, 1623, in Czech).

Thus he was inspired by religious ideals which were alien to the scientific purposes of the English milieu. On this complex cultural geography see Yates (1972, 1979): one is really facing a web of different projects, at once similar and antithetical, in which the search for a perfect language was but a single aspect (see Rossi 1960; Bonerba 1992; Pellerey 1992a: 41-9).

Comenius‘ aspirations must be seen in the framework of the tradition of pansophia, yet his pansophic aims were influenced by educational preoccupations. In his Didactica magna of 1657, he proposed a scheme for reforming teaching methods; for, as he observed, a reform in the education of the young formed the basis upon which any subsequent political, social and religious reform must be built.

It was essential that the teacher furnish the learners with a set of images that would stamp themselves indelibly on their imaginations. This meant placing what is visible before the eyes, what is audible before the ears, what is olfactory before the nose, gustatory before the tongue, and tactical before the touch.

In an earlier manual for the teaching of Latin, Janua linguarum, written in 1631, Comenius was first of all concerned that the learner should have an immediate visual apprehension of what was being spoken of.

Equally he was concerned that the images and notions that the learner was studying in the Latin lexicon be arranged in a certain logical order.

Thus lessons progressed from the creation of the world to the elements, to the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms, etc.

By the time of the Didactica magna Comenius had begun to rearrange his notions according to the suggestions of Bacon. In 1658 there appeared the Orbis sensualium pictus quadrilinguis, which represented his attempt to present a figured nomenclature which would include the fundamental things of the world together with human actions.

So important were the images that Comenius delayed publication until he was able to obtain satisfactory engravings that were not mere ornaments, but bore an iconic relation with the things represented, for which the verbal names appeared as nothing but titles, explanations and complements.

This manual was prefaced by an alphabet in which every letter was associated with the image of a particular animal whose voice recalled the sound of the letter–so that the result resembles Harsdörffer’s onomatopoetic fantasies concerning the sounds of German.

Therefore the image of a crow is commented by “Die Krähe krächzet, cornix cornicatur, la cornacchia gracchia, la corneille gazoüille,” or, for a snake, “Die Schlange zischtet, Serpens sibilat, il Serpe fsschia [sic], le Serpent siffle.”

Comenius was a severe critic of the defects of natural languages. In his Pansophiae Christianae liber III (1639-40), he advocated a reform that would eliminate the rhetorical and figurative use of words, which he regarded as a source of ambiguity.

The meaning of words should be fixed, he demanded, with one name for each thing, thus restoring words to their original meanings.

In 1668, in the Via lucis, Comenius offered prescriptions for the creation of an artificial universal language. By now, pansophy was more than an educational method; it was a utopian vision in which a world council was supposed to create the perfect state along with its perfect philosophical language, the Panglossia.

It is interesting to consider that Comenius had in fact written this work before 1641, when, after wandering through the whole of Europe in the course of the Thirty Years War, he had taken refuge in London.

Via lucis certainly circulated, in manuscript form, in the English milieu at that time (see, for example, Cram 1989).

Although Comenius was never to construct his new language in extenso, he had broached the idea of a universal tongue which had to overcome the political and structural limitations of Latin.

The lexicon of the new language would reflect the composition of reality and in it every word should have a definite and univocal meaning, every content should be represented by one and only one expression, and the contents were not supposed to be products of fancy, but should represent only every really existing thing, no more and no less (see Pellerey 1992a: 48).

Thus, on one side we have a utopian thinker, inspired by Rosicrucian ideals, whose goal was to discover a pansophy which aimed at picturing the unmoving and harmonical connection of every element of the creation, so as to lead the human mind to an unceasing quest for God; on the other side, rejecting the possibility of rediscovering the original perfect language, and looking, for educational purposes, for an easy artificial method, Comenius became the forerunner of that search for an a priori philosophical language that would later be implemented by English utopian thinkers whose inspiration was more scientific than theological or mystical.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 214-6.

Eco: Bacon


Paul van Somer (1576-1622), Portrait of Francis Bacon, 1617. Held at the Palace on the Water (Royal Baths Museum) and inscribed “Sr. Francis Bacon Lord Keeper, and afterwards Lord Chancellor of England, 1617.” This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“As the renovator of scientific inquiry, Francis Bacon was only marginally interested in perfect languages. Yet, marginal though they may have been, his remarks on the subject have a notable philosophic interest.

A central theme in Bacon’s works was the destruction of idola, that is, false ideas arising either from human nature, collective or individual, or from philosophical dogmas handed down by tradition, or else–and this is what interests us the most–from the way we use language itself (idola fori).

Such linguistic usages have been determined by the needs of common people, so disturbing our way of reasoning (Novum organum, I, 43), and the idola that common speech imposes are either names for non-existent things, or confused, ill-defined and partial names for existing things (Novum organum, I, 60).

An example of a confused notion is that of the moist: this may signify a great variety of things; it can mean that which spreads rapidly around another body, that which is devoid of cohesion and consistence, that which is easily moved in whatever direction, that which can be divided and dispersed, that which can easily be reunited and gathered up, that which attaches itself easily to another body and moistens it, that which easily passes into a liquid state and dissolves.

To speak scientifically means thus to implement a speech therapy.

The idea of a linguistic therapy was a recurrent theme in Anglo-Saxon philosophy. In the Leviathan (1651: IV), Hobbes noted that there are four main uses of speech,

“…First, to register, what by cogitation, wee find to be the cause of any thing [ . . . ] Secondly, to shew to others that knowledge which we have attained [ . . . ] Thirdly, to make known to others our wills, and purposes [ . . . ] Fourthly, to please and delight our selves, or others, by playing with our words, for pleasure and ornament, innocently.

To these uses, there are also foure correspondent Abuses. First, when men register their thoughts wrong, by the inconstancy of the signification of their words [ . . . ] Secondly, when they use words metaphorically [ . . . ] Thirdly, when by words they declare that to be their will, which is not. Fourthly, when they use them to grieve one another.”

In the third book of the Essay concerning Human Understanding, Locke observed that:

“For since Sounds are voluntary and indifferent signs of any Ideas, a Man may use what Words he pleases, to signify his own Ideas to himself: and there will be no imperfection in them, if he constantly uses the same Word for the same Idea [ . . . ] The chief End of Language in Communication being to be understood, words serve not well for that end [ . . . ] when any Word does not excite in the Hearer, the same Idea which it stands for in the Mind of the Speaker.” (III, IX, 2, 4).

For Bacon, signs might be of two types. Signs ex congruo (we would say iconic, motivated)–like hieroglyphs, gestures or emblems–reproduce in some way the properties of the things they signify; signs ad placitum are arbitrary and conventional.

Yet even a conventional sign can be defined as a “real character” when it refers not to a sound, but directly a corresponding thing or concept.

Bacon thus speaks of “Characteres quidam Reales, non Nominales; qui scilicet nec literas, nec verba, sed res et notiones exprimunt” (De Augmentis Scientiarum, VI, 1). In this sense, the signs used by the Chinese are real characters; they represent concepts without, however, bearing any similarity to the signified objects.

We see here that, unlike Kircher, Bacon was unaware of the vague iconism of Chinese ideograms; this, however, was a misapprehension that Bacon shared with a number of other contemporary authors.

Even Wilkins commented that, beyond the difficulties and perplexities that these characters generated, there seemed to be no analogies between their forms and the forms of the things that they represented (Essay, 451).

Probably Kircher had the advantage of knowing the direct reports on Chinese culture of his fellow Jesuits, and was thus able to form a clearer picture of Chinese ideograms than English scholars forced to rely on indirect accounts.

For Bacon, then, Chinese ideograms were examples of signs which, though arbitrary and conventional, stand directly for a signified notion without the mediation of a verbal language. He remarked that, even though the Chinese and the Japanese spoke different languages and thus called things by different names, both recognized them by the same ideograms, and, therefore, could understand each other by writing.

According to an example by Lodwick, if we propose to denote the sky with a 0, such a real character would be distinct from a vocal character…

“…in that it signifieth not the sound or word “heaven” but what we call heaven, the Latin coelum etc., so that the carracter being accepted will by the English be read heaven without respect to what the Latin would name the same thing [ . . . ] A frequent instance hereof we have in the numerical carracters (sic) 1.2.3., which signify not the severall sounds by which the severall (sic) nations in their severall languages expresse (sic) them but that common notion wherein those severall nations agree as to them (MS Sloane 897 f32r; in Salmon 1972: 223).”

Bacon did not think that a character supplied the image of the thing or revealed its intrinsic nature; his characters were nothing other than a conventional sign which, however, referred to a clear and precise notion.

His problem, then, became that of formulating an alphabet of fundamental notions; his Abecedarium novum naturae, composed in 1622, which was to appear as the appendix of the Historia naturalis et experimentalis, represented an attempt to make an index of knowledge, and was not connected to any project for a perfect language (see Blasi 1992: Pellerey 1992a).

Later attempts were none the less inspired by the fact that Bacon decided to associate Greek letters with every item of his index, so that, for example, α meant “dense and rare,” ε “volatile and fixed,” εεεε “natural and monstruous (sic),” οοοοο “hearing and sound.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 211-3.

Eco: A Priori Philosophical Languages

“The advent of a priori philosophical languages entails a change in paradigm. For the authors we have considered up to now, the search for a perfect language arose from profound tensions of a religious nature; the authors we are about to consider imagined on the contrary a philosophical language which could eliminate the idola responsible for clouding the minds of men and for keeping them afar from the progress of science.

Not by chance, most of the agitation for a new and universal language arose from Britain. There is more to this than a reflection of the English expansion during this period; there was a specifically religious aspect as well.

Although Latin was still the common language of scholars, to the English mind, it was associated with the Catholic church. Besides, it was also too difficult for English speakers. Charles Hooke complained of “the frequent Sarcasmes of the Foreiners, who deride to see such a disability in Englishmen (otherwise Scholars good enough) to speak in Latine” (cf. Salmon 1972: 56).

In the endeavor for a common speech the English had commercial reasons (they thought indeed that a universal language would facilitate the exchange of goods at the Frankfurt fair) as well as educational reasons, since English spelling in the seventeenth century was more irregular than it is today (see Salmon 1972: 51-69).

This was also a period which witnessed the first experiences in teaching language to deaf-mutes, and Dalgarno conducted a number of experiments in this field. Cave Beck (The Universal Character, 1657) wrote that the invention of a universal language would be of advantage to mankind as it would encourage commerce as well as saving the expense of hiring interpreters.

It is true that he added that it would serve to propagate the Gospel as well, but it seems evident that for him evangelization was really just another aspect of European expansion in the new lands of conquest.

He was obsessed, like other linguistic theorists of the epoch, by the accounts of the gestural languages through which the explorers conducted their first exchanges with the inhabitants of those distant shores.

In his account of his exploits in the New World in 1527, Alvaro Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca had complained of the difficulty involved in dealing with native populations which spoke thousands of different dialects, describing how much recourse to the language of gesture had helped the explorers.

Beck’s work contained a frontispiece which showed a European consigning Beck’s project to a Hindu, an African, and to an American Indian who expresses himself with a gesture of his hand.

There was finally the problem of scientific language itself. New discoveries being made in the physical and natural sciences made the problem of finding an adequate nomenclature more urgent, in order to counteract the symbolic and allegorical vagueness of alchemical terms.

Dalgarno confronted this problem in the section entitled “To the reader” of his 1661 Ars signorum: it was necessary to find a language which reduced redundancies, anomalies, equivocations and ambiguities. He specified that such a language could not fail to encourage contact between peoples as well as help to cure philosophy of sophisms and logomachy.

What had long been considered one of the sacred writ’s greatest strengths–its vagueness and symbolic density–was now viewed as a limitation.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 209-10.

Eco: First Attempts at a Content Organization


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Frontispiece of Obeliscus Pamphilius, Obeliscus Pamphilius: Hoc est Interpretatio nova & hucusque intenta obelisci Hieroglyphici, eBook courtesy of GoogleBooks, published by Lud. Grignani 1650, held by Ghent University. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Probably in 1660, three years before the publication of the Polygraphia, Kircher wrote a manuscript bearing the title Novum hoc inventum quo omnia mundi idiomata ad unum reducuntur (Mss. Chigiani I, vi, 225, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana; cf. Marrone 1986).

Schott says that Kircher kept his system a secret at the express wish of the emperor, who had requested that his polygraphy be reserved for his exclusive use alone.

The Novum inventum was still tentative and incomplete; it contained an extremely elementary grammar plus a lexicon of 1,620 words. However, the project looks more interesting that the later one because it provides a list of 54 fundamental categories, each represented by an icon.

These icons are reminiscent of those that one might find today in airports and railway stations: some were schematically representative (like a small chalice for drinking); others were strictly geometrical (rectangles, triangles, circles).

Some were furthermore superficially derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics. They were functionally equivalent to the Roman numbers in the Polygraphia (in both texts, Arabic numbers referred to particular items).

Thus, for example, the square representing the four elements plus the numeral 4 meant water as an element; water as something to drink was instead expressed by a chalice (meaning the class of drinkable things) followed by the numeral 3.

There are two interesting features in this project. The first is that Kircher tried to merge a polygraphy with a sort of hieroglyphical lexicon, so that his language could be used (at least in the author’s intention) without translating it into a natural language.

Seeing a “square + 4,” the readers should immediately understand that the named thing is an element, and seeing “chalice + 3” they should understand that one is referring to something to drink.

The difficulty was due to the fact that, while both Kircher’s Polygraphia and Becher’s Character allow a translating operator (be it a human being or a machine) to work independently of any knowledge of the meaning of the linguistic items, the Novum inventum requires a non-mechanical and quasi-philosophical knowledge: in order to encode the word aqua as “square + 4,” one should previously know that it is the name of an element–information that the term of a natural language does not provide.

Sir Thomas Urquhart, who published two volumes describing a sort of polygraphy (Ekskubalauron, 1652, and Logopandecteision, 1653), noted that, arbitrary as the order of the alphabet might be, it was still easier to look things up in alphabetical order than in a categorical order.

The second interesting feature of Kircher’s initial project is certainly given by the effort to make the fundamental concepts independent of any existing natural language.

Its weakness is due to the fact that the list of the 54 categories was notably incongruous: it included divine entities, angelic and heavenly, elements, human beings, animals, vegetables, minerals, the dignities and other abstract concepts deriving from the Lullian Ars, things to drink, clothes, weights, numbers, hours, cities, food, family, actions such as seeing or giving, adjectives, adverbs, months of the year.

It was perhaps the lack of internal coherency in this system of concepts that induced Kircher to abandon this line of research, and devote himself to the more modest and mechanical method used in the Polygraphia.

Kircher’s incongruous classification had a precedent. Although he regarded Kircher as the pioneer in the art of polygraphy, in his Technica curiosa (as well as in his Jocoseriorum naturae et artiis sive magiae naturalis centuriae tres) Gaspar Schott gave an extended description of a 1653 project that was certainly earlier than Kircher’s (the Novum inventum is dedicated to Pope Alexander VII, who ascended the pontifical throne only in 1655).

The project was due to another Jesuit, a Spaniard (“whose name I have forgotten,” as Schott says on p. 483), who had presented in Rome (on a single folio) an Artificium, or an Arithmeticus nomenclator, mundi omnes nationes ad linguarum et sermonis unitatem invitans (“Artificial Glossary, inviting all the nations of the world to unity of languages and speech”).

Schott says that the anonymous author wrote a pasigraphy because he was a mute. As a matter of fact the subtitle of the Artificium also reads Authore linguae (quod mirere) Hispano quodam, vere, ut dicitur, muto (“The author of this language–a marvelous thing–being a Spaniard, truly, it is said, dumb”).

According to Ceñal (1946) the author was a certain Pedro Bermudo, and the subtitle of the manuscript would represent a word play since, in Castilian, “Bermudo” must be pronounced almost as Ver-mudo.

It is difficult to judge how reliable the accounts of Schott are; when he described Becher’s system, he improved it, adding details that he derived from the works of Kircher. Be that as it may, Schott described the Artificium as having divided the lexicon of the various languages into 44 fundamental classes, each of which contained between 20 and 30 numbered items.

Here too a Roman number referred to the class and an Arabic number referred to the item itself. Schott noted that the system provided for the use of signs other than numbers, but gave his opinion that numbers comprised the most convenient method of reference since anyone from any nation could easily learn their use.

The Artificium envisioned a system of designating endings, (marking number, tense or case) as complex as that of Becher. An Arabic number followed by an acute accent was the sign of the plural; followed by a grave accent, it became the nota possessionis.

Numbers with a dot above signified verbs in the present; numbers followed by a dot signified the genitive. In order to distinguish between vocative and dative, it was necessary to count, in one case, five, and, in the other, six, dots trailing after the number.

Crocodile was written “XVI.2” (class of animals + crocodile), but should one have occasion to address an assembly of crocodiles (“O Crocodiles!”), it would be necessary to write (and then read) “XVI.2′ . . . . . ‘.

It was almost impossible not to muddle the points behind one word with the points in front of another, or with full stops, or with the various other orthographic conventions that the system established.

In short, it was just as impracticable as all of the others. Still, what is interesting about it is the list of 44 classes. It is worth listing them all, giving, in parenthesis, only some examples of the elements each contained.

  1. Elements (fire, wind, smoke, ashes, Hell, Purgatory, centre of the earth).
  2. Celestial entities (stars, lightning, bolts, rainbows . . .).
  3. Intellectual entities (God, jesus, discourse, opinion, suspicion, soul, stratagems, or ghosts).
  4. Secular statuses (emperor, barons, plebs).
  5. Ecclesiastical states.
  6. Artificers (painters, sailors).
  7. Instruments.
  8. Affections (love, justice, lechery).
  9. Religion.
  10. Sacramental confession.
  11. Tribunal.
  12. Army.
  13. Medicine (doctor, hunger, enema).
  14. Brute animals.
  15. Birds.
  16. Fish and reptiles.
  17. Parts of animals.
  18. Furnishings.
  19. Foodstuffs.
  20. Beverages and liquids (wine, beer, water, butter, wax, and resin).
  21. Clothes.
  22. Silken fabrics.
  23. Wool.
  24. Homespun and other spun goods.
  25. Nautical and aromas (ship, cinnamon, anchor, chocolate).
  26. Metal and coin.
  27. Various artifacts.
  28. Stone.
  29. Jewels.
  30. Trees and fruits.
  31. Public places.
  32. Weights and measures.
  33. Numerals.
  34. Time.
  35. Nouns.
  36. Adjectives.
  37. Verbs.
  38. Undesignated grammatical category.
  39. Undesignated grammatical category.
  40. Undesignated grammatical category.
  41. Undesignated grammatical category.
  42. Undesignated grammatical category.
  43. Persons (pronouns and appellations such as Most Eminent Cardinal).
  44. Vehicular (hay, road, footpad).

The young Leibniz would criticize the absurdity of arrangements such as this in his Dissertatio de arte combinatoria, 1666.

This sort of incongruity will affect as a secret flaw even the projects of a philosophically more sophisticated nature–such as the a priori philosophic languages we will look at in the next chapter.

This did not escape Jorge Luis Borges. Reading Wilkins, at second hand as he admits (in Other Inquisitions, “The analytical idiom of John Wilkins“), he was instantly struck by the lack of a logical order in the categorical divisions (he discusses explicitly the subdivisions of stones), and this inspired his invention of the Chinese classification which Foucault posed at the head of his The Order of Things.

In this imaginary Chinese encyclopedia bearing the title Celestial Emporium of Benevolent  Recognition, “animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs. (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.”).

Borge’s conclusion was that there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and conjectural. At the end of our panorama of philosophical languages, we shall see that, in the end, even Leibniz was forced to acknowledge this bitter conclusion.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 203-8.

Eco: Beck and Becher

Cave Beck, The Universal Character, London, 1657

Cave Beck (1623-1702), The Universal Character, London, 1657. An eBook available on GoogleBooks, The Universal Character proposes a universal language based on a numerical system consisting of the ten Arabic numerals up to 10,000 combinations long, which was considered sufficient to include all words in common usage. As each word was assigned a unique number and the number was the same regardless of language, words ended up unmanageably long. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“In 1657 Cave Beck had published The Universal Character, by which All the Nations of the World may Understand One Another’s Conceptions, Reading out of one Common Writing their Own Mother Tongues, presenting a project which was not so different from Kircher’s. Here is an example from his system:

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 201.png

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, 1995, p. 201. 

The numbers specified nouns and verbs, p stood for the personal pronoun, second person, with pf as the feminine form (which permits one to use the same term, 2477 = “parent,” in both cases); leb indicated imperative plural.

Beck tried to turn his pasigraphy into a pasilaly as well, that is a system of universal pronunciation. Thus the above sentence was to be pronounced leb totreónfo pee tofosénsen and pif tofosénsen.

The only difficulty was that, in order to pronounce the sentence, one had to memorize the whole dictionary, remembering the right number for every word.

In 1661, two years before Kircher’s Polygraphia (but some of Kircher’s ideas had circulated in manuscript form since 1660), Joachim Becher published his Character pro notitia linguarum universalis (sometimes known under its frontispiece title of Clavis convenientiae linguarum).

Becher’s project was not unlike Kircher’s; the major difference was that Becher constructed a Latin dictionary that was almost ten times more vast (10,000 items). Yet he did not include synonyms from other languages, expecting the accommodating reader to make them up for him.

As in Kircher, nouns, verbs and adjectives composed the main list, with a supplementary list of proper names of people and places making up an appendix.

For each item in Becher’s dictionary there is an Arabic number: the city of Zürich, for example, is designated by the number 10283. A second Arabic number refers the user to grammatical tables which supply verbal endings, the endings for the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives, or adverbial endings.

A third number refers to case endings. The dedication “Inventum Eminentissimo Principi” is written 4442. 2770:169:3. 6753:3, that is, “(My) Invention (to the) Eminent + superlative + dative singular, Prince + dative singular.”

Unfortunately Becher was afraid that his system might prove difficult for peoples who did not know the Arabic numbers; he therefore thought up a system of his own for the direct visual representation of numbers.

The system is atrociously complicated and almost totally illegible. Some authors have imagined that it is somehow akin to Chinese. This is hardly true. What we have, in fact, is a basic graphical structure where little lines and dots at various points on the figure represent different numbers.

Lines and points affixed to the right and center of the figure refer to grammatical categories. Figure 9.1 provides only an excerpt of a list that keeps going for four tables.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 9.1, p. 202

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, 1995, Figure 9.1, p. 202.

In the chapter “Mirabilia graphica” in his Technica curiosa (1664), Gaspar Schott tried to improve on Becher’s project.

He simplified the system for the representation of numbers and added partial lexicons for other languages. Schott proposed using small grids of eight cases each, where the lower horizontal line represents units, the next one up tens, the next hundreds, and the top thousands.

Units were represented by dots; fives were represented by strokes. Numbers on the left referred to lexical units, while those on the right to grammatical morphemes. Thus figure 9.2 must be read as 23:1, 15:15, 35:4, and can be translated as “The horse eats the fodder.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 9.2, p. 203

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, 1995, Figure 9.2, p. 203. 

Becher’s and Schott’s systems appear totally impracticable for normal human use, but have been seen as tentative models for future practices of computer translation (cf. Heilman 1963; De Mauro 1963).

In fact, it is sufficient to think of Becher’s pseudo-ideograms as instructions for electronic circuits, prescribing to a machine which path to follow through the memory in order to retrieve a given linguistic term, and we have a procedure for a word-for-word translation (with all the obvious inconveniences of such a merely mechanical program).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 201-3.

Eco: Kircher’s Polygraphy

Kircher, the Steganographic Ark, from Polygraphia Nova, p. 130

Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), the steganographic ark, Polygraphia nova et universalis ex combinatoria arte detecta, 1663. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

Kircher wrote his Polygraphia nova et universalis ex combinatoria arte detecta in 1663, several years after his early works on Egypt and hieroglyphics, but he was concerned with the problem of universal writing from the beginning of the decade, and it seems evident that he was at the same time fascinated by the hieroglyphic mysteries and the polygraphic publicity.

It is also significant that in this same volume Kircher designed not only a polygraphy, or international language open to all, but also, in the wake of Trithemius, a steganography, or secret language in which to cipher messages.

What (at the end of the previous chapter) seemed to us a contradiction appeared to Kircher rather as a natural connection. He cited, at the outset, an Arab proverb: if you have a secret, hide it or reveal it (“si secretum tibi sit, tege illud, vel revela“).

Such a decision was not so obvious, after all, since in his works on Egyptology Kircher had chosen a “fifty-fifty solution,” saying something by concealing it, alluding without revealing.

Finally, the second part of the title of Kircher’s work reveals that, in designing his polygraphy, Kircher was also using Lull’s art of combination (contrary to the opinion of Knowlson 1975: 107-8).

In the enthusiastic preface that the author addressed to the emperor Ferdinand III, he celebrated polygraphy as “all languages reduced to one” (“linguarum omnium ad nam reductio“).

Using polygraphy, “anyone, even someone who knows nothing other than his own vernacular, will be able to correspond and exchange letters with anybody else, of whatever their nationality.”

Thus Kircher’s polygraphy was in reality a pasigraphy, that is, a project for a written language, or international alphabet, which was not required to be spoken.

It is easy to confuse Kircher’s project with a double pentaglottic dictionary, in A and B versions (both in Latin, Italian, Spanish, French and German). In Kircher’s time, English was not considered an important international language, and, in his Character, Becher had assumed that French was sufficient, as a vehicular language, for English, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese native speakers.

Ideally, Kircher thought (p. 7) that his dictionary should also include Hebrew, Greek, Bohemian, Polish, Lithuanian, Hungarian, Dutch, English and Irish (“linguae doctrinales omnibus communes“)–as well as Nubian, Ethiopic, Egyptian, Congolese, Angolan, Chaldean, Arabic, Armenian, Persian, Turkish, Tartar, Chinese, Mexican, Peruvian, Brazilian and Canadian.

Kircher did not, it seems, feel himself ready to confront such a gigantic task; perhaps he intuited that the missionary activity, followed eventually by colonialism, would drastically simplify the problem (transforming many exotic languages into mere ethnological remnants): Spanish would substitute for Mexican, French for Canadian, Portuguese for Brazilian, and various pidgins would substitute for all the rest.

Kircher’s A and B dictionaries each contain 1,228 items. The grounds for selection were purely empirical: Kircher chose the words that seemed to him most commonly used.

Dictionary A served to encode messages. It started with a list of common nouns and verbs, in alphabetical order. There followed alphabetic lists of proper nouns (regions, cities, persons), and of adverbs and prepositions.

Added to this there was also a list of the conjugations of both the verbs to be and to have. The whole material was subdivided into 32 tables, marked by Roman numerals, while every item of each table was marked by an Arabic numeral.

The dictionary was set out in five columns, one for each of the five languages, and the words in each language were listed in their proper alphabetical order. Consequently, there is no necessary semantic correspondence between the terms recorded on the same line, and only the terms scored with the same Roman and Arabic numbers were to be considered synonymous.

We can see this best by giving the first two lines of the dicti0nary:

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 198

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 198. 

The Roman numerals refer to tables found in dictionary B; the Arabic numerals refer to the items themselves. Latin acts as the parameter language: for each specific term, the numbers refer to the Latin alphabetic ordering.

For example, the code for the French word abstenir is I.4, which indicates that the position of its Latin synonym, abstinere, is fourth in the Latin column I (obviously, to encode the Latin word abstinere, one also writes I.4).

To decode the message, it was necessary to use dictionary B. This too was arranged in 32 tables, each assigned a Roman numeral. But for each column (or language) the words did not follow their alphabetic order (except the Latin one), while the Arabic numbers marking each term were in an increasing arithmetical order.

Thus all the terms on the same line were synonymous and each synonym was marked by the same Arabic number.

Again, it is easiest to see how this worked by citing the first two lines of the first table:

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 199

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 199. 

Thus, if one wants to send the Latin word abdere (to hide), according to the dictionary A one encodes it as I.2. A German addressee, receiving the message I.2, goes to dictionary B, first table, German column, and looks for the second word, which is exactly verbergen (to hide).

If the same addressee wants to know how to translate this term in Spanish, one finds in the same line that the synonymous term is esconder.

However, Kircher found that a simple lexicon did not suffice; he was forced to invent 44 supplementary signs (notae) which indicated the tense, mood and number of verbs, plus 12 more signs which indicated declensions (nominative, genitive, dative, etc., both singular and plural).

Thus, to understand the following example, the sign N meant nominative, while a sign like a D indicated the third person singular of the past tense. In this way, the ciphered expression “XXVII.36N, XXX.21N, II.5N, XXIII.8D, XXVIII.10, XXX.20” can be decoded as “Petrus noster amicus, venit ad nos” (literally, “Peter our friend came to us”), and on the basis of Latin, can be transformed into an equivalent sentence in any of the other four languages.

Kircher proudly claims that, by dictionary A, we can write in any language even though though we know only our own, as well as that, with dictionary B, we can understand a text written in an unknown language.

The system also works when we receive a non-ciphered text written in a natural foreign language. All we have to do is to look up the reference numbers for each foreign word in dictionary A (where they are listed in alphabetical order), then, with the reference numbers, find the corresponding words in dictionary B, in the column for our own language.

Not only was this process laborious, but the entire project was based on the assumption that all other languages could be directly reduced to the Latin grammar. One can imagine the results of such a method if one thinks of translating literally, word by word, a German sentence into an English one.

Kircher never confronted the problem of why an item-by-item translation should be syntactically correct, or even comprehensible, in the new language. He seemed to rely on the good will and good sense of whoever used his system.

Yet even the most willing users might slip up. In August 1663, after reading the Polygraphia, Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz wrote to Kircher to congratulate him on his wonderful invention (Mss Chigiani f. 59 v., Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana; cf. Casciato et al. 1986: table 5).

Appropriately, Caramuel chose to congratulate Kircher in his own polygraphy. Yet his first problem was that Kircher’s own first name, Athanasius, did not appear in the list of proper names. Adopting the principle that where a term is missing, an analogous one must be sought, Caramuel addressed his letter to “Anastasia.”

Moreover, there are passages that can be decoded fairly easily, while for others one suspects that the labor of consulting the dictionary to obtain reference numbers for every word proved so tedious that even Caramuel began to nod.

Thus we find ourselves in front of a passage which, in Latin, would need to be translated as follows: “Dominus + sign of vocative, Amicus + sign of vocative, multum sal + sign of vocative, Anastasia, a me + sign of accusative, ars + sign of accusative, ex illius + sign of ablative, discere posse + sign of second person plural, future active, non est loqui vel scribere sub lingua + ablative, communis + ablative.”

After many heroic efforts, one can try to render it (in a sort of “Me Tarzan-You Jane” language) as “O Lord and Friend, O witty Athanasius, to me (?) you could learn from him an art (which) is not speaking and writing under a common language.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 196-200.

Eco: Polygraphies


John Dee (1527-1609), an excerpt from Steganographiae, aka Peniarth MS 423D, astrological texts in Latin, 1591. Steganographiae was originally composed by Johannes Trithemius in the 1490’s. Infamous as a work of cryptography, this excerpt was copied by hand by Dr. Dee. Peniarth MS 423D is held by the National Library of Wales. This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. All rights are waived worldwide under copyright laws. This file can be copied, modified, and distributed with no permissions required.  

“Steganographies were used to cipher messages in order to guarantee secrecy and security.  However, even though disregarding many terminological details (or differences) used today by the cryptographers, one must distinguish between the activity of coding and decoding messages when one knows the key, or code, and cryptoanalysis (sic); that is, the art of discovering an unknown key in order to decipher an otherwise incomprehensible message.

Both activities were strictly linked from the very beginning of cryptography: if a good steganography could decode a ciphered message, it ought to allow its user to understand an unknown language as well.

When Trithemius wrote his Polygraphiae, which was published in 1518, before his Steganographia, and did not earn the sinister fame of the latter work, he was well aware that, by his system, a person ignorant of Latin might, in a short time, learn to write in that “secret” language (1518: biiii) (sic).

Speaking of TrithemiusPolygraphia, Mersenne said (Quaestiones celeberrimae in Genesim, 1623: 471) that its “third book contains an art by which even an uneducated man who knows nothing more than his mother tongue can learn to read and write Latin in two hours.”

Steganography thus appeared both as an instrument to encipher messages conceived in a known language and as the key to deciphering unknown languages.

In order to cipher a message one must substitute the letters of a plain message (written in a language known by both the sender and the addressee) with other letters prescribed by a key or code (equally known by sender and addressee).

To decipher a message encoded according to an unknown key, it is frequently sufficient to detect which letter of the encoded message recurs most frequently, and it is easy to infer that this represents the letter occurs most frequently in a given known language.

Usually the decoder tries various hypotheses, checking upon different languages, and at a certain point finds the right solution.

The decipherment is made, however, more difficult if the encoder uses a new key for every new word of the message. A typical procedure of this kind was the following. Both the encoder and the decoder refer to a table like this:

Umberto Eco, Table, The Search for the Perfect Language, Polygraphies, Trithemius, p. 195

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 195.

Now, let us suppose that the key is the Latin word CEDO. The first word of the message is encoded according to the third line of the table (beginning with C), so that A becomes C, B becomes D and so on.

The second words is encoded according to the fifth line (beginning with E), so that A becomes E and so on. The third word is encoded according to the fourth line, the fourth according to the fifteenth one . . . At the fifth word one starts the process all over again.

Naturally the decoder (who knows the key) proceeds in the opposite way.

In order to decipher without knowing the key, if the table is that simple and obvious, there is no problem. But even in cases of more complicated tables the decipherer can try with all possible tables (for instance, with alphabets in reverse order, with alternate letters, such as ACEG), and it is usually only a matter of time before even the most complex of codes are broken.

Observing this, Heinrich Hiller, in his Mysterium artiis steganographicae novissimum (1682), proposed to teach a method of learning to decipher messages not only in code, but also in Latin, German, Italian and French, simply by observing the incidence of each letter and diphthong in each language.

In 1685, John Falconer wrote a Cryptomenysis patefacta: or the Art of Secret Information Disclosed Without a Key, where he noted that, once someone has understood the rules of decipherment in a given language, it is possible to do the same with all the others (A7v).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 194-6.

Eco: Perfection and Secrecy

Kircher Athanasius, 1667 Magneticum naturae regnum, Frontispiece

Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), frontispiece, Magneticum naturae regnum, Rome, Ignati de Lazaris, 1667, held by the Linda Hall Library, LHL Digital Collections, call number Q155.K58 1667. This engraving is often referred to with the expression, “the world is bound in secret knots.” This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“We might think it is a pity that the search for a language that was as perfect as it was universal should lead to such a conception of a tongue reserved for the “happy few.” But it is perhaps nothing more than our “democratic” illusion to imagine that perfection must imply universality.

In order to understand the cultural framework of both Kircher’s Egyptology and Rosicrucian holy languages, it must be remembered that for the Hermetic tradition truth was not usually regarded as accessible to the many. Indeed, there existed a marked tendency to believe that what is true is unknown and hardly knowable, if not to a restricted elite (cf. Eco 1990).

There is a radical difference between the gnostic and Neo-Platonist ideas of late antiquity (as well as their Renaissance versions–which survived in the Counter-Reformation Catholicism of Kircher) and the Christian message, as it was proclaimed throughout most of the Middle Ages.

For medieval Christianity, salvation was promised to the meek and humble in spirit, and did not require any special knowledge: everyone can understand what is required in order to deserve the kingdom of heaven.

Medieval teaching reduced the aura of mystery that accompanied the revelation–which was explained by formulae, parables and images that even the uneducated might grasp: truth was considered effable, therefore public.

For Hermetic thought, instead, the cosmic drama could only be understood by an aristocracy of wisdom, able to decipher the hieroglyphs of the universe; the main characteristic of truth was its ineffability: it could not be expressed in simple words, was ambiguous by nature, was to be found through the coincidence of opposites, and could be expressed only by initiatic revelations.

Within this tradition, public accessibility was simply not a criterion by which a perfect language was judged. If one does not understand this point, one cannot understand why the cryptographers of this period dedicated their ciphers to grand-dukes deep in military campaigns and political machinations, presenting them as arcane suggestions.

Perhaps this is all merely another manifestation of the natural hypocrisy of a century fascinated by dissimulation, a feature that constitutes the continuing charm of baroque civilization.

It remains uncertain if that celebrated book Breviarium politicorum secundum rubricas Mazarinicas (1684) really collects Mazarin’s political thoughts or is a libel invented to defame him: in whatever case, it certainly reflects the image of a man of politics in the 1600’s.

It is notable that in the chapter entitled “Reading and writing” it recommends that, if one needs to write in a public place, it is convenient to place upon a lectern several already written pages as if one intended to copy them out, letting them be visible and concealing under them the paper upon which one is really writing, guarded in such a way that no one who approaches you will be able to read it.

Resorting to ciphers is suggested, but in such a way that at first glance the message looks understandable and provides irrelevant information (the canonical reference is to Trithemius).

Not only must the message be translated in a secret writing, but this writing must also conceal its own secrecy, because a cipher that blatantly appears as such can arouse suspicion and encourage decipherment.

Thus on the one hand the mystic who writes about perfect and holy languages winks his eye at the politician who will use this language as his secret code; on the other hand the cryptographer sells to the politician a cipher (that is, an instrument of power and dominion) that for him, the Hermetic initiate, is also a key to supernatural truths.

Such a man was Johann Valentin Andreae, whom many have considered (and many still do consider) to be, if not the author, at least the inspirer of the Rosicrucian manifestos. Andreae was a Lutheran mystic and writer of utopian works, like the Christianopolis of 1619, similar in spirit to those of Bacon and Campanella.

Edighoffer (1982: 175ff) has noted that many of his authentic works, like the Chemical Weddings, abound with ciphered expressions, according to the expressed principle that “Arcana publicata vilescunt” and that one ought not to cast pearls before swine.

In the same vein Andreae used ciphered messages in his correspondence with Augustus, Duke of Brunswick. Edighoffer remarks that there is nothing surprising in this: it was a correspondence filled with political observations, one, moreover, that took place during the Thirty Years War, when the difference between political and religious comments was minimal and the risks in both were the same.

In the light of these, as it were, “private” practices of the Rosicrucians, their public appeals concerning the need to use a secret language to inaugurate a universal reform must seem even more ambiguous.

They are so to such an extent as to make credible what not only modern historians but even the supposed authors of the manifestos themselves had always claimed: the manifestos were nothing but a joke, a sophomoric game, an exercise in literary pastiche made up of all the buzz-topics of the day: the search for the language of Adam, the dream of a sensual language, glossolalic illusions, cryptography, kabbala . . . And since everything went into this pot au feu, anything could be fished out again.

Thus, as will always happen when the specter of mystery is raised, there were those who read the Rosicrucian manifestos “paranoiacally,” discovering in them what they wanted to believe anyway, and needed to rediscover continually.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 190-3.

Eco: Dee’s Magic Language


Florence Estienne Méric Casaubon (1599-1671), A True and Faithful Relation of what Passed for Many Yeers between Dr. John Dee [ . . . ] and Some Spirits, London, 1659. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“In his Apologia compendiaria (1615) Fludd noted that the Rosicrucian brothers practiced that type of kabbalistic magic that enabled them to summon angels. This is reminiscent of the steganography of Trithemius. Yet it is no less reminiscent of the necromancy of John Dee, a man whom many authors considered the true inspirer of Rosicrucian spirituality.

In the course of one of the angelic colloquies recorded in A True and Faithful Relation of what Passed for Many Yeers between Dr. John Dee [ . . . ] and Some Spirits (1659: 92), Dee found himself in the presence of the Archangel Gabriel, who wished to reveal to him something about the nature of holy language.

When questioned, however, Gabriel simply repeated the information that the Hebrew of Adam, the language in which “every word signifieth the quiddity of the substance,” was also the primal language–a notion which, in the Renaissance, was hardly a revelation.

After this, in fact, the text continues, for page after page, to expatiate on the relations between the names of angels, numbers and secrets of the universe–to provide, in short, another example of the pseudo-Hebraic formulae which were the stock in trade of the Renaissance magus.

Yet it is perhaps significant that the 1659 Relation was published by Meric Casaubon, who was later accused of partially retrieving and editing Dee’s documents with the intention of discrediting him.

There is nothing, of course, surprising in the notion that a Renaissance magus invoked spirits; yet, in the case of John Dee, when he gave us an instance of cipher, or mystic language, he used other means.

In 1564, John Dee wrote the work upon which his contemporary fame rested–Monas hieroglyphica, where he speaks of a geometrical alphabet with no connection to Hebrew. It should be remembered that Dee, in his extraordinary library, had many of Lull’s manuscripts, and that many of his kabbalistic experiments with Hebrew characters in fact recall Lull’s use of letters in his art of combination (French 1972: 49ff).

Dee’s Monas is commonly considered a work of alchemy. Despite this, the network of alchemical references with which the book is filled seems rather intended to fulfill a larger purpose–that of explicating the cosmic implications deriving from Dee’s fundamental symbol, the Monad, based upon circles and straight lines, all generated from a single point.


John Dee (1527-1609), Monas hieroglyphica, 1564, held in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The Monad is the symbol at the heart of the illustration labeled Figure 8.1 in Eco’s  The Search for the Perfect Language, Oxford, 1995, p. 186.

In this symbol (see figure 8.1), the main circle represented the sun that revolves around its central point, the earth, and in its upper part was intersected by a semi-circle representing the moon.

Both sun and moon were supported on an inverted cross which represented both the ternary principle–two straight lines which intersect plus their point of intersection–and the quaternary principle–the four right angles formed at the intersections of the two lines.

The sum of the ternary and quaternary principles constituted a further seven-fold principle, and Dee goes even on to squeeze an eight-fold principle from the diagram.

By adding the first four integers together, he also derives a ten-fold principle. By such a manipulatory vertigo Dee then derives the four composite elements (heat and cold, wet and dry) as well as other astrological revelations.

From here, through 24 theorems, Dee makes his image undergo a variety of rotations, decompositions, inversions and permutations, as if it were drawing anagrams from a series of Hebrew letters.

Sometimes he considers only the initial aspects of his figure, sometimes the final one, sometimes making numerological analyses, submitting his symbol to the kabbalistic techniques of notariqon, gematria, and temurah.

As a consequence, the Monas should permit–as happens with every numerological speculation–the revelation of the whole of the cosmic mysteries.

However, the Monad also generates alphabetic letters. Dee was emphatic about this in the letter of dedication with which he introduced his book. Here he asked all “grammarians” to recognize that his work “would explain the form of the letters, their position and place in the alphabetical order, and the relations between them, along with their numerological values, and many other things concerning the primary Alphabet of the three languages.”

This final reference to “the three languages” reminds us of Postel (whom Dee met personally) and of the Collège des Trois Langues at which Postel was professor. In fact, Postel, to prove that Hebrew was the primal language in his 1553 De originibus, had observed that every “demonstration of the world” comes from point, line and triangle, and that sounds themselves could be reduced to geometry.

In his De Foenicum literis, he further argued that the invention of the alphabet was almost contemporary with the spread of language (on this point see many later kabbalistic speculations over the origins of language, such as Thomas Bang, Caelum orientis, 1657: 10).

What Dee seems to have done is to take the geometrical argument to its logical conclusion. He announced in his dedicatory letter that “this alphabetic literature contains great mysteries,” continuing that “the first Mystic letters of Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans were formed by God and transmitted to mortals [ . . . ] so that all the signs used to represent them were produced by points, straight lines, and circumferences of circles arranged by an art most marvelous and wise.”

When he writes a eulogy of the geometrical properties of the Hebrew Yod, one is tempted to think of the Dantesque I; when he attempts to discover a generative matrix from which language could be derived, one thinks of the Lullian Ars.

Dee celebrates his procedure for generating letters as a “true Kabbalah [ . . . ] more divine than grammar itself.”

These points have been recently developed by Clulee (1988: 77-116), who argues that the Monas should be seen as presenting a system of writing, governed by strict rules, in which each character is associated with a thing.

In this sense, the language of Monas is superior to the kabbala, for the kabbala aims at the interpretation of things only as they are said (or written) in language, whereas the Monas aims directly at the interpretation of things as they are in themselves. Thanks to its universality, moreover, Dee can claim that his language invents or restores the language of Adam.

According to Clulee, Dee’s graphic analysis of the alphabet was suggested by the practice of Renaissance artists of designing alphabetical letters using the compass and set-square.

Thus Dee could have thought of a unique and simple device for generating both concepts and all the alphabets of the world.

Neither traditional grammarians nor kabbalists were able to explain the form of letters and their position within the alphabet; they were unable to discover the origins of signs and characters, and for this reason they were uncapable (sic) to retrieve that universal grammar that stood at the bases of Hebrew, Greek and Latin.

According to Clulee, what Dee seems to have discovered was an idea of language “as a vast, symbolic system through which meanings might be generated by the manipulation of symbols” (1988: 95).

Such an interpretation seems to be confirmed by an author absent from all the bibliographies (appearing, to the best of my knowledge, only in Leibniz’s Epistolica de historia etymologica dissertatio of 1717, which discusses him in some depth).

This author is Johannes Petrus Ericus, who, 1697, published his Anthropoglottogonia sive linguae humanae genesis, in which he tried to demonstrate that all languages, Hebrew included, were derived from Greek.

In 1686, however, he had also published a Principium philologicum in quo vocum, signorum et punctorum tum et literarum massime ac numerorum origo. Here he specifically cited Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica to derive from that matrix the letters of all alphabets (still giving precedence to Greek) as well as all number systems.

Through a set of extremely complex procedures, Ericus broke down the first signs of the Zodiac to reconstruct them into Dee’s Monad; he assumed that Adam had named each animal by a name that reproduced the sounds that that each emitted; then he elaborated a rather credible phonological theory identifying classes of letters such as “per sibilatione per dentes,” “per tremulatione labrorum,” “per compressione labrorum,” “per contractione palati,” “per respiratione per nares.”

Ericus concluded that Adam used vowels for the names of the beasts of the fields, and mutes for the fish. This rather elementary phonetics also enabled Ericus to deduce the seven notes of the musical scale as well as the seven letters which designate them–these letters being the basic elements of the Monas.

Finally, he demonstrated how by rotating this figure, forming, as it were, visual anagrams, the letters of all other alphabets could be derived.

Thus the magic language of the Rosicrucians (if they existed, and if they were influenced by Dee) could have been a matrix able to generate–at least alphabetically–all languages, and, therefore, all the wisdom of the world.

Such a language would have been more than a universal grammar: it would have been a grammar without syntactic structures, or, as Demonet (1992: 404) suggests, a “grammar without words,” a silent communication, close to the language of angels, or similar to Kircher’s conception of hieroglyphs.

Thus, once again, this perfect language would be based upon a sort of communicative short-circuit, capable of revealing everything, but only if it remained initiatically secret.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 185-90.

Eco: Hypotheses


Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), Representation through a drawing of his Cosmogony, in Vierzig Fragen von der Seele, or Forty Questions of the Soul, 1620. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“By the term “Rosicrucian linguistics” Ormsby-Lennon (1988) indicates a current of thought prevalent in Germany and England in the seventeenth century, whose influences could still be traced in the proposals for the invention of scientific languages by Dalgarno and Wilkins.

According to Ormsby-Lennon the Rosicrucians derived their notion of magic language from Jacob Böhme‘s theory of signatures.

Böhme, a mystic whose ideas had a great influence on later European culture, was well known in Rosicrucian circles in Germany.

From here, through a series of translations that continued into the eighteenth century, his influence passed into English theosophist culture. Webster, in his Academiarum examen of 1654, observed that the ideas of Böhme were recognized and adopted by the most enlightened confraternity of the Rosy Cross (pp. 26-7).

Böhme drew, in his turn, on Paracelsus‘ conviction that every natural element bore a sign that revealed its special occult powers, which in its turn recalls the tradition of physiognomics: powers were “signed” or marked in the forms and figures of all material things in the same way as the qualities of a man were revealed by the form of his face.

Nature had created nothing that failed to manifest its internal qualities through external signs, because the external forms of objects were, so to speak, nothing more than the result of the working of these same internal qualities.

Knowing this, humanity was on the way to discovering the essence of essences, that is to say, “the Language of Nature, in which each thing speaks of its particular properties,” (Signatura rerum, 1662, I).

In the writings of Böhme, however, the idea of signatures did not follow the previous magical tradition, but rather evolved as a mystical metaphor expressing the ideal of an unending search for the traces of the divine force which pervades the whole creation.

For Böhme, the mystic way started with a contemplation of simple, material objects which, at a certain point, might, as it were, burst into flames in an epiphany which revealed the true nature of the invisible.

His own vocation had been decided when, being still a young man, gazing at a tin pot struck by the rays of the sun, he was suddenly vouchsafed a vision that became, like Borge’s Alef, a privileged moment in which the light of God present in all things suddenly disclosed itself.

Böhme spoke of the speech of nature, or Natursprache, in his Mysterium Magnum of 1623; he described it as a “sensual speech” (“sensualische Sprache“) which was both “natural” and “essential.” It was the speech of all creation, the speech which Adam had used to name material things:

“During the time when all peoples spoke the same language, everyone naturally understood each other. When they no longer wished to use the sensual speech, however, they lost this proper understanding because they transferred the spirit of sensual speech into a crudely external form. [ . . . ]

Today, while the birds of the air and the beasts of the forests may still, each according to their own qualities, understand each other, not one of us understands the sensual speech any longer.

Let man therefore be aware of that from which he has excluded himself and that with which, moreover, one day, he will once again be born again, though no longer here on earth, but in another, spiritual world.

Spirits speak only to each other in sensual speech, and have no need for any other form of speech, because this is the Speech of Nature.” (Sämmtliche werke, Leipzig, 1922: V, 261-2).

In this passage, it is evident that, for Böhme, such Natursprache was no longer simply the language of signatures. When the spirits of the other world hold converse with one another, it is obvious that they use something more than natural signs.

It seems that the sensual speech was the same in which Adam named the animals and the same as the language given the apostles at Pentecost, an “open sensual speech” that comprehended all other languages.

Although this gift was lost in the confusion of Babel, it will, one day, return to us when the time is ripe, and we will be ready to converse with God. It seems evident that what Böhme is here describing is the language of glossolalic enthusiasm, or the so-called language of tongues.

Böhme’s notion of sensual speech seems very similar to Reuchlin‘s notion of the language of Adam alluded to in his De verbo mirifico (II, 6); this was a language manifested as a “simplex sermo purus, incorruptus, sanctus, brevis et constans [ . . . ] in quo Deus cum homine, et homines cum angelis locuti perhibentur coram, et non per interpretem, facie ad facie [ . . . ] sicut solet amicus cum amico” (“a simple and pure speech, uncorrupted, holy, brief, and constant, in which God and men, and men and angels could talk in each other’s presence, not through interpretation, but face to face, just as is usual between friends.”)

Or perhaps it was the same as the language of the birds, in which Adam during his sojourn in Eden could converse with (as well as name) every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air. After the Fall, the speech of birds was, once more, revealed to King Solomon, who taught it to the Queen of Sheba. It was a form of speech revealed  as well to Apollonius of Tyana (see Ormsby-Lennon 1988: 322-3).

We find a reference to this language of the birds in the chapter entitled “Histoire des oiseaux” in the Empires du Soleil of Cyrano de Bergerac (on Cyrano and language see Erba 1959: 23-5).

In this chapter, the traveller meets a marvelous bird whose tail is green, whose stomach is of an enamel blue, and whose purple head is surmounted by a golden crown. The bird addresses the traveler in a “singing speech” and he, to his amazement, finds that he is able to understand all that the bird has to say.

Nothing the perplexity on the traveler’s face, the bird explains:

“Among you humans there have been those able to speak and understand our Language. There was Apollonius of Tyana, Anaximander, and Aesop, and many others whose names I will not mention as you would not recognize them. Just so, there are to be found among the birds those who can speak and understand your own language. Thus, just as you will encounter birds that do not say a word, others that merely twitter, and others still that can speak, so you may even encounter one of the most perfect birds of all–those who can use all idioms.”

Was it then the practice of speaking in tongues that the Rosicrucians had in mind in their manifestos to the learned of Europe? Yet, if this is so, how are we to understand the allusions to a “secret writing . . . . expressed symbolically by numbers and designs?”

Why did they use the terms “characters and letters” when, in this period, these were notions associated with the search for the alphabetic characters capable of expressing the nature of things?

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 182-5.

Eco: Magic Language

speculum 01

Teophilus Schweighardt Constantiens, aka Daniel Mögling (1596-1635), Speculum Sophicum Rhodostauroticum (The Mirror of the Wisdom of the Rosy Cross), 1618. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“In a climate of extraordinary spiritual tension, the seventeenth century awaited change–a general reform of knowledge and morals, a reawakening of religions sensibility.

The period was dominated by a belief that a new, golden century was dawning; Postel had already used the term “golden century” in the title of one of his works. This was, moreover, an expectation shared by Catholics and Protestants alike, though each in different forms.

Authors from Campanella to Andreae had drawn up projects for an ideal republic. Not only Postel but other thinkers in different countries had designed schemes for a universal monarchy.

The Thirty Years War acted as a catalyst: conflict had flared in one region after another, creating, on the one hand, confessional hatreds and nationalist rivalries, engendering the modern notion of the raison d’état, on the other producing a pleiad of mystic spirits dreaming of universal peace (cf. De Mas 1982).

It was in this climate, then, that in 1614, there appeared an anonymous tract written in German: Allgemeine und general Reformation der gantzen weiten Welt. Though this was only discovered later, the first part was largely a re-elaboration of a satire written by Traiano Boccalini and published in 1612-3, called Ragguagli di Parnaso.

The second part, however, took the form of a manifesto, entitled Fama fraternitatis R.C. In this, the mysterious confraternity of the Rosicrucians openly declared its existence, supplying details concerning its own history as well as that of its mythical founder, Christian Rosencreutz.

In the following year, 1615, the German manifesto was republished together with a second manifesto, written this time in Latin, with the title Confessio fraternitatis Roseae crucis. Ad eruditos Europae (we shall use the first English translation, The Fame and the Confession of the Fraternity of R.C., London, 1652).

The first manifesto proclaimed its wish that there should be “a Society in Europe [ . . . ] with which such as be Governors might be brought up, for to learn all that which God hath suffered Man to know” (p. 9).

Both the manifestos emphasized the secret character of the confraternity and the fact that their members were not permitted to reveal its true aims and nature. It was a call, addressed to the learned of Europe, beseeching them to make contact with the writers of the manifesto; this made the final appeal of the Fama even more ambiguous:

“And although at this time we make no mention either of our names, or meetings, yet nevertheless every ones opinion shal assuredly come to our hands, in what language so ever it be, nor any body shal fail. who so gives but his name to speak with some of us, either by word of mouth, or else if there be some lett in writing [ . . . ] Also our building (although one hundred thousand people had very near seen and beheld the same) shal for ever remain untouched, undestroyed, and hidden to the wicked world.” (pp. 31-2).

Immediately, from almost every corner of Europe, responses to the Rosicrucian appeal were written. No one claimed to be a Rosicrucian. Almost no one claimed even to know who the Rosicrucians were. Yet almost everyone tried to claim that his own programme was synonymous with that of the Rosicrucian brotherhood.

Some authors professed an extreme humility. In his Themis aurea (1618), for example, Michael Maier insisted that though the brotherhood really existed, he was too humble an individual to be admitted as a member.

Yet, as Yates observed, this was typical of the behavior of Rosicrucian authors: not only did they deny being Rosicrucians, they claimed never to have encountered a single member of the confraternity.

Thus when, in 1623, a set of –naturally anonymous–manifestos appeared in Paris, announcing the arrival of the Rosicrucians, a furious polemic ensued in which the common opinion emerged that the Rosicrucians were worshippers of Satan.

It was said of Descartes that, in the course of a trip to Germany, he had tried (unsuccessfully of course) to make contact with the brotherhood. On his return to Paris, he even fell under suspicion of being a member.

He readily found a logical argument to exculpate himself, however; since it was well known that the Rosicrucians were invisible, Descartes showed up (making himself visible) in public places and on public occasions (see A. Baillet, Vie de Monsieur Descartes, 1693).

In 1623, a certain Neuhaus published, first in German and then in French, an Advertissiment pieux et utile des frères de la Rosee-Croix, in which he asked whether or not they existed, and if so, who they were and what was the origin of their name.

Neuhaus proved their existence by means of a rather startling argument: “By the very fact that they change and alter their name and that they mask their age, and that, by their own confession, they come and go without making themselves known, there is no Logician that could deny the necessity that they exist” (p. 5).

It would be tedious to recount here the entire story of books and tracts contradicting each other in an endeavor to reveal the truth about the Rosicrucians (it has sometimes been claimed, for instance, that the same author, using two different pseudonyms, was responsible for two or more tracts pro- and anti-Rosicrucians: see Arnold 1955; Edighoffer 1982).

It means that, when conditions are ripe, it takes but one spark–be it an obscure and ambiguous appeal for the spiritual reform of all humanity–to set off unexpected reactions. It almost seemed that everyone had been waiting for the Rosicrucian manifesto to appear as the missing piece in a polemic in which all sides–Catholic and Protestant–were waiting to join.

Thus, although the Jesuits were soon in the forefront of the battle against the Rosicrucians, there were not lacking those who insinuated that behind the Rosicrucians was the Society of Jesus itself, seeking to smuggle Catholic dogma into the Protestant world (see Rosa jesuitica, 1620).

The most intriguing aspect of the whole story was that the people immediately suspected of being the authors of the manifestos–Johann Valentin Andreae and his circle of friends in Tubingen–spent the rest of their lives either denying their involvement, or minimizing it as nothing more than a literary exercise.

As one might expect, given the spirit of the time, it was impossible to offer to the people of all lands a new philosophy without also offering them a perfect language in which to express it.

The manifestos, of course, spoke of this language; yet its perfection was mirrored by its secrecy (Fama, 287). According to the Confessio, the four founders of the brotherhood had “created the magic language and writing:”

“…and thenceforth our Trumpet shall publiquely sound with a loud sound, and great noise, when namely the fame (which at this present is shewed by few, and is secretly, as thing to come, declared in Figures and Pictures) shall be free, and publiquely proclaimed, and the whole World be filled withall [ . . . ]

So, the secret hid Writings and Characters are most necessary for all such things which are found out by Men: Although that great Book of Nature stand open to all Men, yet there are but few that can read and understand the same [ . . . ]

The Characters and Letters, as God hath here and there incorporated them in the Holy Scripture the Bible, so hath he imprinted them most apparently into the wonderful Creation of Heaven and Earth, yea in all Beasts [ . . . ]

From the which Characters and Letters we have borrowed our Magick writing, and have found out, and made a new Language for our selves, in the which withall is expressed and declared the Nature of all Things; so that it is no wonder that we are not so eloquent in other Languages, the which we know that they are altogether disagreeing to the Language of our forefathers, Adam and Enoch, and were through the Babylonical Confusion wholly hidden.” (pp. 43, 47, 48).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 178-82.

Eco: Images for Aliens


Georgia Guidestone, closeup of the detail stone, with physical dimensions and weight of the guidestones. The Georgia Guidestones are a granite monument erected by anonymous philanthropists in 1980 in Elbert County, Georgia, USA. The Guidestones include 10 guidelines inscribed in eight modern languages and four ancient tongues, including Babylonian, Classical Greek, Sanskrit and Egyptian hieroglyphs. Photo taken by KiltedEditor71 in August 2011 and published under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.  

“Perhaps the most discomforting document for the future of the language of images is the report drawn up in 1984 by Thomas A. Sebeok (Sebeok 1984). He had been commissioned by the Office of Nuclear Waste Isolation and by a group of other institutions to elaborate answers to a question posed by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The American government had chosen several desert areas in the US for the burial (at the depth of hundreds of meters) of nuclear waste. The problem was not so much that of protecting the area from imprudent intrusions today, but rather that the waste would remain radioactive for another ten thousand years.

That is more than enough time for great empires and flourishing civilizations to perish. We have seen how, a few centuries after the last pharaoh had disappeared, knowledge of how to read hieroglyphs had disappeared as well.

It is easily conceivable that, ten thousand years hence, something similar will have happened to us. We may have reverted to barbarism. We may even be visited by inhabitants of other planets: how will we warn these alien visitors that they are in a danger zone?

Almost immediately, Sebeok discarded the possibility of any type of verbal communication, of electric signals as needing a constant power supply, of olfactory messages as being of brief duration, and of any sort of ideogram based on convention.

Even a pictographic language seemed problematic. Sebeok analyzed an image from an ancient primitive culture where one can certainly recognize human figures but it is hard to say what they are doing (dancing, fighting, hunting?).

Another solution would be to establish temporal segments of three generations each (calculating that, in any civilization, language will not alter beyond recognition between grandparents and grandchildren), giving instructions that, at the end of each segment, the message would be reformulated, adapting it to the semiotic conventions prevailing at the moment.

But even this solution presupposes precisely the sort of social continuity that the original question had put into doubt. Another solution was to fill up the entire zone with messages in all known languages and semiotic systems, reasoning that it was statistically probable that at least one of these messages would be comprehensible to the future visitors.

Even if only part of one of the messages was decipherable, it would still act as a sort of Rosetta stone, allowing the visitors to translate all the rest. Yet even this solution presupposed a form of cultural continuity (however weak it would be).

The only remaining solution was to institute a sort of “priesthood” of nuclear scientists, anthropologists, linguists and psychologists supposed to perpetuate itself by coopting new members. This caste would keep alive the knowledge of the danger, creating myths and legends about it.

Even though, in the passage of time, these “priests” would probably lose a precise notion of the peril that they were committed to protect humanity from, there would still survive, even in a future state of barbarism, obscure but efficacious taboos.

It is curious to see that, having been presented with a choice of various types of universal language, the choice finally fell on a “narrative” solution, thus reproposing what really did happen millennia ago.

Egyptian has disappeared, as well as as any other perfect and holy primordial language, and what remains of all this is only myths, tales without a code, or whose code has long been lost.

Yet they are still capable of keeping us in a state of vigil in our desperate effort at decipherment.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 17-7.

Eco: The Egyptian vs. The Chinese Way, 3


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Origins of the Chinese Characters, China Illustrata, 1667, courtesy of Stanford University. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“As the debate carried over into the eighteenth century, an increased social awareness and pedagogical attention began to be shown. We catch the traces of this in a tract written for quite different purposes, Diderot’s Lettre sur l’éducation des sourds et muets in 1751.

In 1776, the Abbé de l’Epée (Institutions des sourds et muets par la voie des signes méthodiques) entered into a polemic against the common, dactylological form of deaf-mute speak, which, then as now, was the common method of signing with fingers the letters of the alphabet.

De l’Epée was little interested that this language helped deaf-mutes communicate in a dactylological  version of the French language; instead he was besotted by the vision of a perfect language.

He taught his deaf-mutes to write in French; but he wished, above all, to teach them to communicate in a visual language of his own devising; it was a language not of letters but of concepts–therefore an ideography that, he thought, might one day become universal.

We can take for an example his method of teaching the meaning of “I believe,” thinking that his method might also work between speakers of different languages:

“I begin by making the sign of the first person singular, pointing  the index finger of my right hand towards my chest. I then put my finger on my forehead, on the concave part in which is supposed to reside my spirit, that is to say, my capacity for thought, and I make the sign for yes.

I then make the same sign on that part of the body which, usually, is considered as the seat of what is called the heart in its spiritual sense. [ . . . ]

I the make the same sign yes on my mouth while moving my lips. [ . . . ]

Finally, I place my hand on my eyes, and, making the sign for no show that I do not see.

At this point, all I need to do is to make the sign of the present [the Abbé had devised a series of sign gestures in which pointing once or twice in front of or behind the shoulders specified the proper tense] and to write I believe.” (pp. 80-1).

In the light of what we have been saying, it should appear evident that the visual performances of the good Abbé might be susceptible to a variety of interpretations were he not to take the precaution of employing a supplementary means (like writing out the word) to provide an anchor to prevent the fatal polysemy of his images.

It has sometimes been observed that the true limitation of iconograms is that, as well as they signify form or function, they cannot so easily signify actions, verb tenses, adverbs or prepositions.

In an article with the title “Pictures can’t say “ain’t,” Sol Worth (1975) argued that an image cannot assert the non-existence of what it represents. It is obviously possible to think of a code containing graphic operators signifying “existence/non-existence” or “past/future” and “conditional.”

But these signs would still depend (parasitically) on the semantic universe of the verbal language–as would happen (see ch. 10) with the so-called universal characters.

The ability of a visual language to express more than one meaning at once is also, therefore, its limitation. Goodman has noted (1968: 23) that there is a difference between a man-picture and a picture of a man.

The picture of a human being can be devised to represent (1) any member of the human race, (2) an individual person so-and-so, (3) a given person on the verge of doing something, dressed in a certain way, and so on.

Naturally the title can help to disambiguate the intention of the artist, but once again images are fatally “anchored” to words.

There have been any number of proposals for visual alphabets, some quite recent. We might cite Bliss’s Semantography, Eckhardt’s Safo, Janson’s Picto and Ota’s LoCos. Yet, as Nöth has observed (1990: 277), these are all cases of pasigraphy (which we shall discuss in a later chapter) rather than true languages.

Besides, they are based on natural languages. Many, moreover, are mere lexical codes without any grammatical component. The Nobel by Milan Randic consists of 20,000 visual lemmas, which can be combined together: a crown with an arrow pointing at a square with the uppermost side missing means “abdication” (where the square stands for a basket); two legs signify “to go,” and when this sign is united with the sign for “with” it means “to accompany.”

We seem to have returned to a sort of simplified hieroglyph which, in any case, will require us to learn a double set of conventions: the first to assign univocal meanings to single signs, the second to assign univocal meanings to sign clusters.

Each of these purely visual systems thus represents (1) a segment of artificial language, (2) endowed with a quasi-international extension, (3) capable of being used in only limited sectors, (4) debarred from creative use lest the images lose their capacity for univocal denotation, (5) without a grammar capable of generating an infinite or unlimited number of “sentences,” (6) unable to express new ideas because every element of expression always corresponds to a predetermined element of content, know in advance.

One could say that there is only a single system, which can claim the widest range of diffusion and comprehensibility: the images of cinema and television. One is tempted to say that this is certainly a “language” understood around the earth.

Nevertheless, even such a language displays certain disadvantages: it has difficulties in presenting mathematical abstractions and philosophical arguments; its alleged universal comprehensibility is problematic, at least as far as its editing syntax is concerned; finally, if there is no difficulty involved in receiving cinematic or televised images, it is extremely difficult to produce them.

Ease of execution is a notable argument in favor of verbal languages. Anyone who wished to communicate in a strictly visual language would probably have to go about with a camcorder, a portable television set, and a sackful of tapes, resembling Swift’s wise men who, having decided that it was necessary to show any object they wanted to designate, were forced to drag enormous sacks behind them.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 173-6.

Eco: The Egyptian vs. The Chinese Way, 2


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), origins of the Chinese characters, China Illustrata, 1667, p. 229, courtesy of Stanford University. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“On the subject of signatures, Della Porta said that spotted plants which imitated the spots of animals also shared their virtues (Phytognomonica, 1583, III, 6): the bark of a birch tree, for example, imitated the plumage of a starling and is therefore good against impetigo, while plants that have snake-like scales protect against reptiles (III, 7).

Thus in one case, morphological similarity is a sign for alliance between a plant and an animal, while in the next it is a sign for hostility.

Taddeus Hageck (Metoscopicorum libellus unus, 1584: 20) praises among the plants that cure lung diseases two types of lichen: however, one bears the form of a healthy lung, while the other bears the stained and shaggy shape of an ulcerated one.

The fact that another plant is covered with little holes is enough to suggest that this plant is capable of opening the pores. We are thus witnessing three very distinct principles of relation by similarity: resemblance to a healthy organ, resemblance to a diseased organ, and an analogy between the form of a plant and the therapeutic result that it supposedly produced.

This indifference as to the nature of the connection between signatures and signatum holds in the arts of memory as well. In his Thesaurus atificiosae memoriae (1579), Cosma Roselli endeavored to explain how, once of a system of loci and images had been established, it might actually  function to recall the res memoranda.

He thought it necessary to explain “quomodo multis modis, aliqua res alteri sit similis” (Thesaurus, 107), how, that is, one thing could be similar to another. In the ninth chapter of the second part he tried to construct systematically a set of criteria whereby images might correspond to things:

“according to similarity, which, in its turn, can be divided into similarity of substance (such as man as the microcosmic image of the macrocosm), similarity in quantity (the ten fingers for the Ten Commandments), according to metonymy or antonomasia (Atlas for astronomers or for astronomy, a bear for a wrathful man, a lion for pride, Cicero for rhetoric):

by homonyms: a real dog for the dog constellation;

by irony and opposition: the fatuous for the wise;

by trace: the footprint for the wolf, the mirror in which Titus admired himself for Titus;

by the name differently pronounced: sanum for sane;

by similarity of name: Arista [awn] for Aristotle;

by genus and species: leopard for animal;

by pagan symbol: the eagle for Jove;

by peoples: Parthians for arrows, Scythians for horses, Phoenicians for the alphabet;

by signs of the zodiac: the sign for the constellation;

by the relation between organ and function;

by common accident: the crow for Ethiopia;

by hieroglyph: the ant for providence.”

The Idea del teatro by Giulio Camillo (1550) has been interpreted as a project for a perfect mechanism for the generation of rhetorical sentences.

Yet Camillo speaks casually of similarity by morphological traits (a centaur for a horse), by action (two serpents in combat for the art of war), by mythological contiguity (Vulcan for the art of fire), by causation (silk worms for couture), by effects (Marsyas with his skin flayed off for butchery), by relation of ruler to ruled (Neptune for navigation), by relation between agent and action (Paris for civil courts), by antonomasia (Prometheus for man the maker), by iconism (Hercules drawing his bow towards the heavens for the sciences regarding celestial matters), by inference (Mercury with a cock for bargaining).

It is plain to see that these are all rhetorical connections, and there is nothing more conventional that a rhetorical figure. Neither the arts of memory nor the doctrine of signatures is dealing, in any degree whatsoever, with a “natural” language of images.

Yet a mere appearance of naturalness has always fascinated those who searched for a perfect language of images.

The study of gesture as the vehicle of interaction with exotic people, united with a belief in a universal language of images, could hardly fail to influence the large number of studies which begin to appear in the seventeenth century on the education of deaf-mutes (cf. Salmon 1972: 68-71).

In 1620, Juan Pablo Bonet wrote a Reducción de las letras y arte para enseñar a hablar los mudos. Fifteen years later, Mersenne (Harmonie, 2) connected this question to that of a universal language. John Bulwer suggested (Chirologia, 1644) that only by a gestural language can one escape from the confusion of Babel, because it was the first language of humanity.

Dalgarno (see ch. 11) assured his reader that his project would provide an easy means of educating deaf-mutes, and he again took up this argument in his Didascalocophus (1680). In 1662, the Royal Society devoted several debates to Wallis’s proposals on the same topic.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 171-3.

Eco: The Egyptian vs. The Chinese Way


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), frontispiece depicting Adam Schall and Matteo Ricci holding a map of China, China Illustrata, 1667, courtesy of Stanford University. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“Although today many are still of the opinion that images provide a means of communication that can overcome language barriers, the explanation of the way in which images can accomplish this by now takes one of two forms: the Egyptian and the Chinese way.

The Egyptian way today belongs only to art history. We believe that visual media such as paintings, sequences in films, etc. are “texts” which convey emotions and feelings that could not be expressed verbally: we cannot represent by mere words Mona Lisa to a blind person.

The meanings that such texts can express are multiple, because there is no universal code: the rules of representation (and of recognizability) for an Egyptian mural, an Arab miniature, a painting by Turner or a comic strip are simply not the same in each case.

It is true that some ideograms have been used as characters of a universal code, for instances many road signals; in the same vein we are using more or less universal pictograms (think of the schematic crossed knives and forks which signal a restaurant in an airport, or of the stylized “ladies” and “gentlemen” on public lavatory doors).

Sometimes visual signs are merely substituting alphabetical letters, as happens with semaphores or flag signals; sometimes a yellow flag meaning “contagious disease on board” simply stands for a verbal sentence (cf. Prieto 1966).

Likewise, the gestural languages of Trappist monks, Indian merchants, gypsies or thieves, as well as the drummed and whistled languages of certain tribes (cf. Le Barre 1964), are equally dependent on the model of natural languages.

As useful, convenient and ingenious as some of these systems of communication may be, they make no claims to being “perfect” languages in which philosophers might one day wish to compose a treatise.

Any language of images is based on the alleged fact that images exhibit some properties of the represented things. Yet in any representable thing there will always be a multitude of properties, and there are infinite points of view under which an image can be judged similar to something else. Moreover, “that a picture looks like nature often means only that it looks the way nature is usually painted” (Goodman 1968: 39).

We can see this by looking at the various versions of a semiotic apparatus (if not a true language) which remained alive for centuries and which flowered in the same period when the western culture was looking for perfect visual languages: the arts of memory (cf. Rossi 1960; Yates 1966).

An art of memory establishes at its expression-plane a system of loci (that is, of places in the literal sense of the word) which may be imagined as the rooms of a building or palace, or as an urban street or square.

This system of loci is destined to house a set of images, drawn from the same iconographical field, which will play the role of lexical units. The content-plane is given by a system of res memoranda, in other words, of things to be remembered, usually belonging to the same conceptual framework. In this way, an art of memory is a semiotic system.

For instance, in mnemonic systems like those presented by the Congestorius artificiosae memoriae by Romberch (1520), the Dialogo del modo di accrescerce e conservare la memoria by Dolce (1575), or the Artificiosae memoriae fundamenta by Paepp (1619), the system of grammatical cases is expressed (and thus recalled) by the different parts of the human body.

Not only is this a case of one system expressing another system; it is also a case where the two planes are (in Hjelmslev‘s sense) conformal. It is not arbitrary that the head stands for nominative, the chest, which can receive blows, stands for accusative, and the hands, which possess and offer, stand for genitive and dative, and so on.

This shows that a mnemonic image, in order to express its content easily, should evoke it by similarity. But no mnemonic system was ever able to find a univocal criterion of resemblance.

The criteria are the same as those that linked the signature to its signatum. If we look back and see (ch. 6) what Paracelsus had to say about the language of Adam, the Protoplastus, we see that he represented him as naming one animal on the basis of a morphological similarity (from which a virtue derived), while, in another case, the name derived directly from a virtue not manifested by the form of the object.

In other cases, the name that Adam gave reflected neither morphology nor causal relations, but was inferred symptomatically: for instance, the horn of the stag permitted us to infer the age of the animal from the complexity of its branching.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 168-71.

Eco: Later Critics


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Aztec scripture depicting the founding of Mexico City, Oedipus Aegyptiacus, tom. 3, p. 32. A selection of images from works by and related to Athanasius Kircher held in the Special Collections and University Archives of Stanford University Libraries, curated by Michael John Gorman, 2001. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“About a century later, Vico took it for granted that the first language of humanity was in the form of hieroglyphics–that is, of metaphors and animated figures. He saw the pantomime, or acted-out rebus, with which the king of the Scythians replied to Darius the Great as an example of hieroglyphic speech.

He had intimated war with “just five real words;” a frog, a mouse, a bird, a ploughshare, and a bow.

The frog signified that he was born in Scythia, as frogs were born from the earth each summer; the mouse signified that he “like a mouse had made his home where he was born, that is, he had established his nation there;” the bird signified “there the auspices were; that is that he was subject to none but God;” the plough signified that he had made the land his own through cultivation; and finally the bow meant that “as supreme commander in Scythia he had the duty and the might to defend his country.” (Scienza nuova, II, ii, 4, 435).

Despite its antiquity and its primacy as the language of the gods, Vico attributed no quality of perfection to this hieroglyphic language. Neither did he regard it as inherently either ambiguous or secret: “we must here uproot the false opinion held by some of the Egyptians that the hieroglyphs were invented by philosophers to conceal in them their mysteries of lofty esoteric wisdom.

For it was by a common natural necessity that all the first nations spoke in hieroglyphs.” (ibid.).

This “speaking in things” was thus human and natural; its purpose was that of mutual comprehension. It was also a poetic form of speaking that could not, by its very nature, ever be disjoined from either the symbolic language of heroes or the epistolary language of commerce.

This last form of speech “must be understood as having sprung up by their [the plebeians’] free consent, by this eternal property, that vulgar speech and writing are a right of the people” (p. 439).

Thus the language of hieroglyphs, “almost entirely mute, only very slightly inarticulate” (p. 446), once reduced to a mere vestibule of heroic language (made up of images, metaphors, similes and comparisons, that “supplied all the resources of poetic expression,” p. 438) lost its sacred halo of esoteric mystery.

Hieroglyphs would become for Vico the model of perfection for the artistic use of language, without making any claim, however, to replace the ordinary languages of humanity.

Other eighteenth-century critics were moving in the same direction. Nicola Frèret (Reflexions sur les principles généraux de l’art d’écrire, 1718) wrote of hieroglyphic writing as an archaic artifice; Warburton considered it hardly more advanced than the writing systems of the Mexicans (The Divine Legation of Moses, 1737-41).

We have seen what the eighteenth century had to say on the subject of monogeneticism. In this same period, critics were developing a notion of writing as evolving in stages from a pictographic one (representing things), through hieroglyphs (representing qualities and passions as well) to ideograms, capable of giving an abstract and arbitrary representation of ideas.

This, in fact, had been Kircher’s distinction, but now the sequence followed a different order and hieroglyphs were no longer considered as the ordinary language.

In his Essai sur l’origine des langues (1781) Rousseau wrote that “the cruder the writing system, the more ancient the language,” letting it be understood that the opposite held as well: the more ancient the language, the cruder the writing.

Before words and propositions could be represented in conventional characters, it was necessary that the language itself be completely formed, and that the people be governed by common laws.

Alphabetic writing could be invented only by a commercial nation, whose merchants had sailed to distant lands, learning to speak foreign tongues. The invention of the alphabet represented a higher stage because the alphabet did more than represent words, it analyzed them as well.

It is at this point that there begins to emerge the analogy between money and the alphabet: both serve as a universal medium in the process of exchange–of goods in the first instance, of ideas in the second (cf. Derrida 1967: 242; Bora 1989: 40).

This nexus of ideas is repeatedly alluded to by Chevalier de Jaucourt in the entries that he wrote for the Encyclopédie: “Writing,” “Symbol,” “Hieroglyph,” “Egyptian writing,” and “Chinese writing.”

Jaucourt was conscious that if hieroglyphics were entirely in the form of icons, then the knowledge of their meanings would be limited to a small class of priest. The enigmatic character of such a system (in which Kircher took such pride) would eventually force the invention of more accessible forms such as demotic and hieratic.

Jaucourt went further in the attempt to distinguish between different types of hieroglyph. He based his distinctions on rhetoric. Several decades earlier, in fact, in 1730, Du Marsais had published his Traités des trophes, which had tried to delimit and codify all the possible values that a term might take in a process of rhetorical elaboration that included analogies.

Following this suggestion Jaucourt abandoned any further attempt at providing Hermetic explanations, basing himself on rhetorical criteria instead: in a “curiological” hieroglyph, the part stood for the whole; in the “tropical” hieroglyph one thing could be substituted for another on the grounds of similarity.

This limited the scope for interpretive license; once the mechanics of hieroglyphs could be anchored in rhetoric, the possibility for an infinite proliferation of meanings could be reined in.

In the Encyclopédie the hieroglyphs are presented as a mystification perpetrated at the hands of the Egyptian priesthood.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 166-8.

Eco: The Kircherian Ideology


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Egyptian pyramids by Gioseffo Petrucci, Prodromo apologetico alli studi chiercheriani, Amsterdam, 1677, reprinted from Sphinx Mystagoga, a selection of images related to Athanasius Kircher in the Stanford University Archives, curated by Michael John Gorman, 2001. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“It would be idle to hold Kircher responsible for his inability to understand the nature of hieroglyphic writing, for which in his time nobody had the key. Yet his ideology magnified his errors.

“Nothing can explain the duplicity of the research of Kircher better than the engraving which opens the Obeliscus Pamphilius: in this cohabit both the illuminated image of Philomatià to whom Hermes explains every mystery and the disquieting gesture of Harpocrates who turns away the profane, hidden by the shadow of the cartouche.” (Rivosecchi 1982: 57).

The hieroglyphic configurations had become a sort of machine for the inducing of hallucinations which then could be interpreted in any possible way.

Rivosecchi (1982: 52) suggests that Kircher exploited this very possibility in order to discuss freely a large number of potentially dangerous themes–from astrology to alchemy and magic–disguising his own opinions as those of an immemorial tradition, one in which, moreover, Kircher treated prefigurations of Christianity.

In the midst of this hermeneutic bulimia, however, there glimmers the exquisitely baroque temperament of Kircher at play, delighting in his taste for the great theater of mirrors and lights, for the surprising museographic collection (and one has only to think of that extraordinary Wunderkammer which was the museum of the Jesuit Collegio Romano).

Only his sensitivity to the incredible and the monstrous can explain the dedication to the Emperor Ferdinand III that opens the third volume of Oedipus:

“I unfold before your eyes, O Most Sacred Caesar, the polymorphous reign of Morpheus Hieroglyphicus. I tell of a theater in which an immense variety of monsters are disposed, and not the nude monsters of nature, but adorned by the enigmatic Chimeras of the most ancient of wisdoms so that here I trust sagacious wits will draw out immeasurable treasures for the sciences as well as no small advantage for letters.

Here there is the Dog of Bubasti, the Lion Saiticus, the Goat Mendesius, here there is the Crocodile, horrible in the yawning of its jaws, yet from whose uncovered gullet there emerges the occult meanings of divinity, of nature, and of the spirit of Ancient Wisdom espied through the vaporous play of images.

Here there are the Dipsodes thirsting for blood, the virulent Asp, the astute Icneumon, the cruel Hippopotami, the monstrous Dragons, the toad of swollen belly, the snail of twisted shell, the hairy caterpillar and the innumerable other specters which all show the admirably ordered chain which extends itself into the depths of nature’s sanctuaries.

Here is presented a thousand species of exotic things in many and varied images, transformed by metamorphosis, converted into human figures, and restored once more to themselves again in a dance of the human and the savage intertwined, and all in accordance with the artifices of the divine; and finally, there appears the divinity itself which, to say with Porphyry, scours the entire universe, ordering it with all things in a monstrous connubium; where now, sublime in its variegated face, it raises its canine cervix to reveal itself as Cenocephalus, now as the wicked Ibis, now as the Sparrow-hawk wrapped in a beaky mask.

[ . . . ] now, delighting in its virgin aspect, under the shell of the Scarab it lies concealed as the sting of the Scorpion [these descriptions carry on for four more pages] in this pantomorphic theater of nature  unfolded before our gaze, under the allegorical veil of occult meanings.”

This is the same spirit which informed the medieval taste for encyclopedias and for libri monstruorum, a genre which reappears from the Renaissance onwards under the “scientific” guise of the medical studies of Ambroise Paré, the naturalist works of Ulisse Aldrovandi, the collection of monsters of Fortunio Liceti, the Physica curiosa of Gaspar Schott.

Here it is combined, with a quality of frenzied dissymmetry that is almost Borrominian, recalling the aesthetic ideals presiding over the construction of the hydraulic grottos and mythological rocailles in the gardens of the period.

Beyond this, however, Rivosecchi has put his finger on another facet of the Kircherian ideology. In a universe placed under the sign of an ancient and powerful solar deity, the myth of Osiris had become an allegory of the troubled search for stability in the world still emerging from the aftermath of the Thirty Years War, in which Kircher was directly involved.

In this sense, we might read the dedications to Ferdinand III, which stand out at the beginning of each volume of the Oedipus, in the same light as the appeals of Postel to the French monarchy to restore harmony a century before, or as the analogous appeals of Bruno, or as Campanella’s celebration of a solar monarchy, prelude to the reign of Louis XIV, or as the calls for a golden century which we will discuss in the chapter on the Rosicrucians.

Like all the utopian visionaries of his age, the Jesuit Kircher dreamed of the recomposition of a lacerated Europe under a stable monarchy. As a good German, moreover, he repeated the gesture of Dante and turned to the Germanic, Holy Roman emperor.

Once again, as in the case of Lull, though in ways so different as to void the analogy, it was the search for a perfect language that became the instrument whereby a new harmony, not only in Europe, but across the entire planet, was to be established.

The knowledge of exotic languages, aimed not so much at recovering their original perfection, but rather at showing to the Jesuit missionaries “the method of bearing the doctrine of Christ to those cut off from it by diabolic malice” (preface to China, but also Oedipus, I, I, 396-8).

In the last of Kircher’s works, the Turris Babel, the story of the confusion of tongues is once again evoked, this time in an attempt to compose “a grandiose universal history, embracing all diversities, in a unified project of assimilation to Christian doctrine. [ . . . ]

The peoples of all the world, dispersed after the confusion, are to be called back together from the Tower of the Jesuits for a new linguistic and ideological reunification.” (Scolari 1983: 6).

In fact, hungry for mystery and fascinated by exotic languages though he was, Kircher felt no real need to discover a perfect language to reunite the world in harmony; his own Latin, spoken with the clear accents of the Counter-Reformation, seemed a vehicle perfectly adequate to transport as much gospel truth as was required in order to bring the various peoples together.

Kircher never entertained the thought that any of the languages he considered, not even the sacred languages of hieroglyphics and kabbalistic permutations, should ever again be spoken. He found in the ruins of these antique and venerated languages a garden of private delight; but he never conceived of them as living anew.

At most he toyed with the idea of preserving these languages as sacred emblems, accessible only to the elect, and in order to show their fecund impenetrability he needed elephantine commentaries.

In every one of his books, he showed himself as a baroque scholar in a baroque world; he troubled more over the execution of his tables of illustrations than over the writing (which is often wooden and repetitive).

Kircher was, in fact, incapable of thinking other than in images (cf. Rivosecchi 1982: 114). Perhaps his most lasting achievement, and certainly his most popular book, was the Ars magna lucis et umbrae of 1646.

Here he explored the visible in all its nooks and crannies, drawing from his exploration a series of scientifically valid intuitions which even faintly anticipate the invention of the techniques of photography and the cinema.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 162-5.

Eco: Kircher’s Chinese, 2


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Transcription of the Sino-Syriac Monument from China Illustrata, 1667, p. 12. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“Why did the problem of memory arise only here, and not in regard to Egyptian hieroglyphs? The reason was that hieroglyphs discharged their allegorical and metaphorical force immediately, in virtue of what Kircher held to be their inherent power of revelation, since they “integros conceptos ideales involvebant.”

By using the verb involvere (to wind or wrap up), however, Kircher meant the exact opposite of what we might, today, suppose when we think of the natural and intuitive similarity between a given image and a thing. Hieroglyphs do not make clear but rather conceal something,

This is the reason for which Kircher speaks of the inferiority of Amerindian characters (Oedipus, III, 13-4). They seemed to Kircher inferior because they were immediately pictographic, as they were representing only individuals and events; thus they looked like mere mnemonic notes unable to bear arcane revelations (Oedipus, IV, 28; on the inferiority of Amerindian characters see also Brian Walcott (ed. note: Eco has “Brian Walcott” on p. 160, when the actual name should be Brian Walton), In biblia polyglotta prolegomena, 2.23).

Chinese ideography was undoubtedly superior to Amerindian “pictography because it was capable of expressing abstract concepts. Yet, despite the fact that it also permitted witty combinations (cf. Oedipus, III, 13-4), its decipherment remained too univocal.

The Egyptians, Kircher argued, saw in the sign of the scarab not a mere scarab, but the sun–and not the material sun that warms our world of our senses, but the sun as archetype of the intelligible world. (Ed. Note: Eco has a bracket ” next to pictography but does not close it. I include it, repeating the error, as Eco published it.)

We shall see (ch. 10) that in seventeenth-century England, Chinese writing was considered perfect in so far as with ideograms every element on the expression-plane corresponded to a semantic unit on the content-plane. It was precisely these one-to-one correspondences that, for Kircher, deprived Chinese writing of its potential for mystery.

A Chinese character was monogamously bound to the concept it represented; that was its limitation: an Egyptian hieroglyph showed its superiority by its ability to summon up entire “texts,” and to express complex chunks of infinitely interpretable content.

Kircher repeated this argument in his China. There was nothing hieratic about the Chinese character; there was nothing that veiled it from profane eyes, hiding unfathomable depths of truth; it was a prosaic instrument of everyday communication.

Knowledge of Chinese could, of course, be motivated on ethnological grounds, especially as the Jesuits had acquired so many interests in China. Still, Chinese could not qualify for inclusion in the list of holy languages.

As to the Amerindian signs, not only were they patently denotative, but they revealed the diabolic nature of a people who had lost the last vestige of archaic wisdom.

As a civilization, Egypt no longer existed, and for the Europeans it was not yet a land for future conquest. Ignored in its geopolitical inconsistency, it became a Hermetical phantom. In this role it could be identified as the spiritual ancestor of the Christian West, the progenitor of the occident’s patrimony of mystic wisdom.

China, by contrast, was no phantom but a tangible Other. It was concretely there, still a political force of respectable dimensions, still a culture alternative to that of the West. The Jesuits themselves had revealed the deep roots of Chinese culture.

“The Chinese, moral and virtuous though pagan, when forgetting the truth revealed in the structure of hieroglyphs, converted their ideography into a neutral and abstract instrument of communication, and this led to the belief that their conversion would be easy to achieve.” (Pellerey 1992b: 521).

The Americas, by contrast, were designated as the land of conquest; here there would be no compromise with idolators and their low-grade species of writing: the idolators were to be converted, and every trace of their original culture, irredeemably polluted with diabolic influences, was to be wiped away.

“The demonization of the native American cultures found here a linguistic and theoretical justification.” (ibid.: 521).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 160-2.

Eco: Kircher’s Chinese


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), schema of the Egyptian cosmos, Oedipus Aegyptiacus, tom. 2, vol. 1, p. 418. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“In an earlier chapter, we saw the suggestion made that Chinese might be the language of Adam. Kircher lived in a period of exciting discoveries in the Orient. The Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch, and, later, French conquered the route to the Indies, the Sunda seas, the way to China and to Japan.

But even more than by merchants, these pathways were traversed by Jesuits, following in the footsteps of Matteo Ricci who, a century before, had brought European culture to the Chinese, and returned to give Europe a deeper understanding of China.

With the publication of the Historia de las cosas más notables, ritos y costumbres del gran reino de la China by Juan Gonzales de Mendoza in 1585, there appeared in print in Europe characters in Chinese script.

In 1615 there finally appeared Ricci’s De christiana expeditione apud Sinas ab Societate Ieus suscepta, in which he explained that in Chinese, there existed as many characters as there were words. He insisted as well on the international character of the Chinese script, which, he wrote, was readily understood not only by the Chinese, but also by the Japanese, the Koreans, the Cochin-Chinese and by the Formosans.

We shall see that this was a discovery that would initiate the search for a real character from Bacon onwards. Already in 1627, in France, Jean Douet published a Proposition présentée au roy, d’une escriture universelle, admirable pour ses effects, très-utile à tous les hommes de la terre, in which Chinese was offered as a model for an international language.

At the same time, there had begun to appear information about the pictographic writings of Amerindians. Attempts at interpretation had yielded contradictory results; and this was discussed in works such as the Historia natural y moral de las Indias by José de Acosta in 1570, and the Relaciòn de las cosas de Yucatàn by Diego de Landa, written in the sixteenth century, although appearing only in the eighteenth; in 1609 there also appeared the Comentarios reales que tratan del origine de los Yncas by Garcilaso de la Vega.

An observation often repeated by these early observers was that contact with the indigenous natives was at first carried out by means of gestures. This awoke an interest in gesture’s potential as a universal language.

The universality of gestures and the universality of images turned out to be related themes (the first treatise on this subject was Giovanni Bonifacio‘s L’arte de’ cenni of 1616; on this topic in general, see Knox 1990).

The reports of his Jesuit brothers gave Kircher an incomparable source of ethnographic and linguistic information (see Simone 1990 on “Jesuit or Vatican linguistics”).

In his Oedipus, Kircher was especially interested in the diffusion of Chinese. He took up the same arguments, in a more elliptical form, in his China monumentis quà sacris quà profanis, nec non variis naturae et artis spectaculis, aliarum rerum memorabilis argumentis illustrata of 1667.

This latter work was more in the nature of a treatise in ethnography and cultural anthropology which, with its splendid and sometimes documented illustrations, collected all the reports that arrived from the missionaries of the Company, and described every aspect of Chinese life, culture and nature.

Only the sixth and last part of the work was dedicated to the alphabet.

Kircher presumed that the mysteries of hieroglyphic writing had been introduced to the Chinese by Noah’s son Ham. In the Arca Noe of 1675 (pp. 210ff) he identified Ham with Zoroaster, the inventor of magic.

But, unlike Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese characters were not for Kircher a puzzle. Chinese was a writing system still in use, and the key to its understanding had already been revealed. How could such a comprehensible language be sacred and a vehicle for occult mysteries?

Kircher realized that Chinese characters were originally iconic and only later had grown extremely stylized over time, so as to lose their original similarity with things. He reconstructed after  his own fancy what he took to be the designs of fish and birds that had formed the starting points for current ideograms.

Kircher also realized that these ideograms did not express either letters or syllables, but referred to concepts. He noted that in order to translate our dictionary into their idiom we would need as many different characters as we had words (Oedipus, III, 11).

This led him to reflect on the amount of memory that was necessary for a Chinese scholar to know and remember all these characters.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 158-60.

Eco: Kircher’s Egyptology


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), frontispiece to Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae, Rome, Scheus, 1646. Compendium Naturalis says that this allegorical engraving was executed on copper by Petrus Miotte Burgundus. Multiple copies are posted on the internet, including an eBook courtesy of GoogleBooks, one at the Max Planck Institute, one at the Herzog August Bibliothek, and one at Brigham Young University among many others. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“When Kircher set out to decipher hieroglyphics in the seventeenth century, there was no Rosetta stone to guide him. This helps explain his initial, mistaken, assumption that every hieroglyph was an ideogram.

Understandable as it may have been, this was an assumption which doomed his enterprise at the outset. Notwithstanding its eventual failure, however, Kircher is still the father of Egyptology, though in the same way that Ptolemy is the father of astronomy, in spite of the fact that his main hypothesis was wrong.

In a vain attempt to demonstrate his hypothesis, Kircher amassed observational material and transcribed documents, turning the attention of the scientific world to the problem of hieroglyphs. Kircher did not base his work on Horapollo’s fantastic bestiary; instead, he studied and made copies of the royal hieroglyphic inscriptions.

His reconstructions, reproduced in sumptuous tables, have an artistic fascination all of their own. Into these reconstructions Kircher poured elements of his own fantasy, frequently reportraying the stylized hieroglyphs in curvaceous baroque forms.

Lacking the opportunity for direct observation, even Champollion used Kircher’s reconstructions for his study of the obelisk standing in Rome’s Piazza Navona, and although he complained of the lack of precision of many of the reproductions, he was still able to draw from them interesting and exact conclusions.

Already in 1636, in his Prodromus Coptus sive Aegyptiacus (to which was added, in 1643, a Lingua Aegyptiaca restituta), Kircher had come to understand the relation between the Coptic language and, on the one hand, Egyptian, and, on the other, Greek.

It was here that he first broached the possibility that all religions, even those of the Far East, were nothing more than more or less degenerated versions of the original Hermetic mysteries.

There were more than a dozen obelisks scattered about Rome, and restoration work on some of them had taken place from as early as the time of Sixtus V. In 1644, Innocent X was elected pope. His Pamphili family palace was in Piazza Navona, and the pope commissioned Bernini to execute for him the vast fountain of the four rivers, which remains there today.

On top of this fountain was to be placed the obelisk of Domitian, whose restoration Kircher was invited to superintend.

As the crowning achievement of this restoration, Kircher published, in 1650, his Obeliscus Pamphilius, followed, in 1652-4, by the four volumes of his Oedipus Aegyptiacus. This latter was an all-inclusive study of the history, religion, art, politics, grammar, mathematics, mechanics, medicine, alchemy, magic and theology of ancient Egypt, compared with all other eastern cultures, from Chinese ideograms to the Hebrew kabbala to the language of the brahmins of India.

The volumes are a typographical tour de force that demanded the cutting of new characters for the printing of the numerous exotic, oriental alphabets. It opened with, among other things, a series of dedications to the emperor in Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, Hungarian, Czech, Illirian, Turkish, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, Chaldean, Samaritan, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Persian, Indian and Chinese.

Still, the conclusions were the same as those of the earlier book (and would still be the same in the Obelisci Aegyptiaci nuper inter Isaei Romani rudera effosii interpretatio hieroglyphica of 1666 and in the Sphinx mystagoga of 1676).

At times, Kircher seemed to approach the intuition that certain of the hieroglyphs had a phonetic value. He even constructed a rather fanciful alphabet of 21 hieroglyphs, from whose forms he derives, through progressive abstractions, the letters of the Greek alphabet.

Kircher, for example, took the figure of the ibis bending its head until it rests between its two feet as the prototype of the capitalized Greek alpha, A. He arrived at this conclusion by reflecting on the fact that the meaning of the hieroglyphic for the ibis was “Bonus Daemon;” this, in Greek, would have been Agathos Daimon.

But the hieroglyph had passed into Greek through the mediation of Coptic, thanks to which the first sounds of a given word were progressively identified with the form of the original hieroglyph.

At the same time, the legs of the ibis, spread apart and resting on the ground, expressed the sea, or, more precisely, the only form in which the ancient Egyptians were acquainted with the sea–the Nile.

The word delta has remained unaltered in its passage into Greek, and this is why the Greek letter delta (Δ) has retained the form of a triangle.

It was this conviction that, in the end, hieroglyphs all showed something about the natural world that prevented Kircher from ever finding the right track. He thought that only later civilizations established that short-circuit between image and sound, which on the contrary characterized hieroglyphic writing from its early stages.

He was unable, finally, to keep the distinction between a sound and the corresponding alphabetic letter; thus his initial intuitions served to explain the generation of later phonetic alphabets, rather than to understand the phonetical nature of hieroglyphs.

Behind these errors, however, lies the fact that, for Kircher, the decipherment of hieroglyphs was conceived as merely the introduction to the much greater task–an explanation of their mystic significance.

Kircher never doubted that hieroglyphs had originated with Hermes Trismegistus–even though several decades before, Isaac Casaubon had proved that the entire Corpus Hermeticum could not be earlier than the first centuries of the common era.

Kircher, whose learning was truly exceptional, must have known about this. Yet he deliberately ignored the argument, preferring rather to exhibit a blind faith in his Hermetic axioms, or at least to continue to indulge his taste for all that was strange or prodigious.

Out of this passion for the occult came those attempts at decipherment which now amuse Egyptologists. On page 557 of his Obeliscus Pamphylius, figures 20-4 reproduce the images of a cartouche to which Kircher gives the following reading: “the originator of all fecundity and vegetation is Osiris whose generative power bears from heaven to his kingdom the Sacred Mophtha.”

This same image was deciphered by Champollion (Lettre à Dacier, 29), who used Kircher’s own reproductions, as “ΑΟΤΚΡΤΛ (Autocrat or Emperor) sun of the son and sovereign of the crown, ΚΗΣΡΣ ΤΜΗΤΕΝΣ ΣΒΣΤΣ (Caesar Domitian Augustus).”

The difference is, to say the least, notable, especially as regards the mysterious Mophtha, figured as a lion, over which Kircher expended pages and pages of mystic exegesis listing its numerous properties, while for Champollion the lion simply stands for the Greek letter lambda.

In the same way, on page 187 of the third volume of the Oedipus there is a long analysis of a cartouche that appeared on the Lateran obelisk. Kircher reads here a long argument concerning the necessity of attracting the benefits of the divine Osiris and of the Nile by means of sacred ceremonies activating the Chain of Genies, tied to the signs of the zodiac.

Egyptologists today read it as simply the name of the pharaoh Apries.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 154-8.

Eco: The Egyptian Alphabet, 3


Horapollo (c. 5th century CE), Hori Apollinis selecta hieroglyphica, Romae: sumtibus Iulij Francescschini, ex typographia Aloysij Zanetti, 1599, pp. 128-9. Brooklyn Museum Libraries, Wilbur Library of Egyptology, Special Collections, call number PE40 H78 F84. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

Alciati’s commentary refers to the passage describing the stork in the Hieroglyphica. Yet we have just seen that there is no reference either to the feeding of the young or to the transport of the parents. These features are, however, mentioned in a fourth century AD text, the Hexaemeron of Basil (VIII, 5).

In other words, the information contained in the Hieroglyphica was already at the disposal of European culture. A search for traces of the stork from the Renaissance backwards is filled with pleasant surprises.

In the Cambridge Bestiary (twelfth century CE), we read that storks nourish their young with exemplary affection, and that “they incubate the nests so tirelessly that they lose their own feathers. What is more, when they have moulted in this way, they in turn are looked after by the babies, for a time corresponding in length to the time which they themselves have spent in bringing up and cherishing their offspring.” (The Bestiary, T.H. White, ed., New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1960: pp. 117-8).

The accompanying image shows a stork that carries a frog in its beak, obviously a dainty morsel for its young.

The Cambridge Bestiary has taken this idea from Isidore of Seville, who, in the Etymologiarum (XII, vii), says more or less the same. Who then are Isidore’s sources? St. Basil we have already seen; there was St. Ambrose as well (Hexaemeron, V, 16, 53), and possibly also Celsus (cited in Origen, Contra Celsum, IV, 98) and Porphyry (De abstinentia, III, 23, 1). These, in their turn, used Pliny’s Naturalis historia (X, 32) as their source.

Pliny, of course, could have been drawing on an Egyptian tradition, if Aelian, in the second to third century AD, could claim (though without citing Pliny by name) that “Storks are venerated among the Egyptians because they nourish and honor their parents when they grow old” (De animalium natura, X, 16).

But the idea can be traced back even further. The same notion is to be found in Plutarch (De solertia animalium, 4), Cicero (De finibus bonorum et malorum, II, 110), Aristotle (Historia animalium, IX, 7, 612b, 35), Plato (Alcibiades, 135 E), Aristophanes (The Birds, 1355), and finally in Sophocles (Electra, 1058).

There is nothing to prevent us from imagining that Sophocles himself was drawing on ancient Egyptian tradition; but, even if he were, it is evident that the story of the stork has been part of occidental culture for as long as we care to trace it.

It follows that Horapollo did not reveal anything hot. Moreover, the origin of this symbol seems to have been Semitic, given that, in Hebrew, the word for stork means “the one who has filial piety.”

Read by anyone familiar with medieval and classical culture, Horapollo’s booklet seems to differ very little from the bestiaries current in the preceding centuries. It merely adds some information about specifically Egyptian animals, such as the ibis and the scarab and neglects make certain of the standard moralizing comments or biblical references.

This was clear even to the Renaissance. In his Hieroglyphica sive de sacris Aegyptorum aliarumque gentium literis of 1556, Pierio Valeriano never tired of employing his vast stock of knowledge of classical and Christian sources to note the occasions where the assertions of Horapollo might be confirmed.

Yet instead of reading Horapollo in the light of a previous tradition, he revisits this whole tradition in the light of Horapollo.

With a barrage of citations from Latin and Greek authors, Giulio Cesare Capaccio displayed, in his Delle imprese of 1592, his perfect mastery of older traditions. Yet fashion now demanded that he interpreted this tradition in a Egyptian key.

“Without hieroglyphic observation,” and without having recourse to the Monas hieroglyphicaquel Giovanni Dee da Londino,” it was impossible, he said, to endow these images (coming from centuries of western culture) with their proper recondite meanings.

We are speaking of the “rereading” of a text (or of a network of texts) which had not been changed during the centuries. So what has changed? We are here witnessing a semiotic incident which, as paradoxical as some of its effects may have been, was, in terms of its own dynamic, quite easy to explain.

Horapollo’s text (qua text) differs but little from other similar writings, which were previously known. None the less, the humanists read it as a series of unprecedented statements. The reason is simply that the readers of the fifteenth century saw is as coming from a different author.

The text had not changed, but the “voice” supposed to utter it was endowed with a different charisma. This changed the way in which the text was received and the way in which it was consequently interpreted.

Thus, as old and familiar as these images were, the moment they appeared as transmitted not by the familiar Christian and pagan sources, but by the ancient Egyptian divinities themselves, they took on a fresh, and radically different, meaning.

For the missing scriptural commentaries there were substituted allusions to vague religions mysteries. The success of the book was due to its polysemy. Hieroglyphs were regarded as initiatory symbols.

They were symbols, that is, expressions that referred to an occult, unknown and ambivalent content. In contradistinction to conjecture, in which we take a visible symptom and infer from it its cause, Kircher defined a symbol as:

“a nota significativa of mysteries, that is to say, that it is the nature of a symbol to lead our minds, by means of certain similarities, to the understanding of things vastly different from the things that are offered to our external senses, and whose property it is to appear hidden under the veil of an obscure expression. [ . . . ] Symbols cannot be translated by words, but expressed only by marks, characters, and figures. (Obeliscus Pamphilius, II, 5, 114-20).”

These symbols were initiatory, because the allure of Egyptian culture was given by the promise of a knowledge that was wrapped in an impenetrable and indecipherable enigma so as to protect it from the idle curiosity of the vulgar multitudes.

The hieroglyph, Kircher reminds us, was the symbol of a sacred truth (thus, though all hieroglyphs are symbols, it does not follow that all symbols are hieroglyphs) whose force derived from its impenetrability to the eyes of the profane.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 151-4.

(Editorial Note: I must mention Mr. William Thayer, whose LacusCurtius site at the University of Chicago links to a whopping 51 complete texts by ancient authors and more. I stumbled across Mr. Thayer’s page as I linked to classical writers, and I find it to be both indispensable and a staggering contribution to online scholarship.

Thank you for this work, Mr. Thayer. I am one of the crazy ones out here in internet-land who realizes what you have done. With my best regards.)

Eco: The Egyptian Alphabet, 2

Stephan Michelspacher, Cabala, Spiegel der Kunst und Natur in Alchymia, (Cabala, the Mirror of Art and Nature in Alchemy), Augsburg, 1615. Also hosted courtesy of the Bayerische Staats Bibliothek. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Now we can understand what Horapollo sought to reveal. He wished to preserve and transmit a semiotic tradition whose key was, by now, entirely lost. He still managed to grasp certain features at either the phonetic or the ideographic level, yet much of his information was confused or scrambled in the course of transmission.

Often he gives, as the canonical solution, a reading elaborated only by a certain group of scribes during a certain, limited period.

Yoyotte (1955: 87) shows that when Horapollo asserts that Egyptians depicted the father with the ideogram for the scarab beetle, he almost certainly had in mind that, in the Late Period, certain scribes had begun to substitute the scarab for the usual sign for t to represent the sound it (“father”), since, according to a private cryptography developed during the eighteenth dynasty, a scarab stood for t in the name Atum.

Horapollo opened his text by saying that the Egyptians represented eternity with the images of the sun and the moon. Contemporary Egyptologists debate whether, in this explanation, he was thinking of two ideograms used in the Late Period which could be read phonetically as, respectively, r’nb (“all the days”) and r tr.wì (“night and day” that is, “always”); or whether Horapollo was thinking instead of Alexandrine bas reliefs where the two ideograms, appearing together, already signify “eternity” (in which case they would not be an Egyptian symbol, but one derived from Asian, even Hebraic sources).

In other places, Horapollo seems to have misunderstood the voices of tradition. He says, for instance, that the sign to indicate a word is depicted by a tongue and a blood shot eye. There exists a verbal root mdw (“to speak”) in whose ideogram there appears a club, as well as the word dd (“to say”) in whose ideogram appears a snake.

It is possible that either Horapollo or his source has erroneously taken either the club or the snake or both as representing a tongue. He then says that the course of the sun during the winter solstice is represented by two feet stopped together.

In fact, Egyptologists only know a sign representing two legs in motion, which supports the sense “movement” when accompanying signs meaning “to stop,” “to cease activity” or “to interrupt a voyage.” The idea that two stopped feet stand for the course of the sun seems merely to be a whim of Horapollo.

Horapollo says that Egypt is denoted by a burning thurible with a heart over it. Egyptologists have discovered in a royal epithet two signs that indicate a burning heart, but these two signs seem never to have been used to denote Egypt.

It does emerge, however, that (for a Father of the church such as Cyril of Alexandria) a brazier surmounted by a heart expressed anger (cf. Van der Walle and Vergot 1943).

This last detail may be an important clue. The second part of Hieroglyphica is probably the work of the Greek translator, Philippos. It is in this part that a number of clear references appear to the late Hellenistic tradition of the Phisiologus and other bestiaries, herbariums and lapidaries that derive from it.

This is a tradition whose roots lie not only in ancient Egypt, but in the ancient traditions throughout Asia, as well as in the Greek and Latin world.

We can look for this in the case of the stork. When the Hieroglyphica reaches the stork, it recites:

“How [do you represent] he who loves the father.

If they wish to denote he who loves the father, they depict a stork. In fact, this beast, nourished by its parents, never separates itself from them, but remains with them until their old age, repaying them with piety and deference.”

In fact, in the Egyptian alphabet, there is an animal like a stork which, for phonetic reasons, stands for “son.” Yet in I, 85, Horapollo gives this same gloss for the hoopoe. This is, at least, an indication that the text has been assembled syncretistically from a variety of sources.

The hoopoe is also mentioned in the Phisiologus, as well as in a number of classical authors, such as Aristophanes and Aristotle, and patristic authors such as St. Basil. But let us concentrate for a moment on the stork.

The Hieroglyphica was certainly one of the sources for the Emblemata of Andrea Alciati in 1531. Thus, it is not surprising to find here a reference to the stork, who, as the text explains, nourishes its offspring by bringing them pleasing gifts, while bearing on its shoulders the worn-out bodies of its parents, offering them food from its own mouth.

The image that accompanies this description in the 1531 edition is of a bird which flies bearing another on its back. In subsequent editions, such as the one from 1621, for this is substituted the image of a bird that flies with a worm in its beak for its offspring, waiting open-mouthed in the nest.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 149-51.

Eco: The Egyptian Alphabet


The Rosetta Stone, inscribed with a decree by Pharaoh Ptolemy V at Memphis, is dated to 196 BCE. Featuring three scripts, ancient Egyptian, Demotic and ancient Greek, the stele was discovered in 1799 by French soldier Pierre-Françoise Bouchard of the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt. Transferred to British control after the Capitulation of Alexandria in 1801, the stele has been on continual exhibition at the British Museum since 1802. The script was finally transliterated by Jean-Françoise Champollion in 1822, decrypting the mysteries of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. This photo © Hans Hillewaert in 2007, and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.  

“The hieroglyphic script is undoubtedly composed, in part, of iconic signs: some are easily recognizable–vulture, owl, bull, snake, eye, foot, man seated with a cup in hand; others are stylized–the hoisted sail, the almond-like shape for a mouth, the serrated line for water.

Some other signs, at least to the untrained eye, seem to bear only the remotest resemblance to the things that they are supposed to represent–the little square that stands for a seat, the sign of folded cloth, or the semicircle that represents bread.

All these signs are not icons (representing a thing by direct similarity) but rather ideograms, which work by a sort of rhetorical substitution. Thus an inflated sail serves to represent the wind; a man seated with a cup means to drink; a cow’s ear means to understand; the head of a cynocephalus stands for the god Thoth and for all his various attributes, such as writing and counting.

Not everything, however, can be represented ideographically. One way that the ancient Egyptians had found to circumvent this difficult was to turn their ideograms into simple phonograms.

In order to represent a certain sound they put the image of a thing whose name sounded similar. To take an example from Jean-Françoise Champollion‘s first decipherment (Lettre à Dacier, 17 September 1822, 11-12), the mouth, in Egyptian ro, was chosen to represent the Greek consonant P (rho).

It is ironic to think that while, for Renaissance Hermeticists, sounds had to represent the nature of things, for the Egyptians, things (or their corresponding images) were representing sounds (see, for a similar procedure, my remarks in chapter 6 on Bruno’s mnemonics).

By the time interest in Egyptian hieroglyphics had revived in Europe, however, knowledge of the hieroglyphic alphabet had been lost for over a thousand years. The necessary premise for the decipherment of hieroglyphs was a stroke of pure fortune, like the discovery of a bilingual dictionary.

In  fact, as is well known, decipherment was made possible by the discovery not of a dictionary, but of a trilingual text, the famous Rosetta Stone, named after the city of Rashid where it was found by a French soldier in 1799, and, as a result of Napoleon’s defeat at the hands of Nelson, soon transferred to London.

The stone bore an inscription in hieroglyphic, in demotic (a cursive, administrative script elaborated about 1,000 BCE), and in Greek.

Working from reproductions, Champollion, in his Lettre à Dacier, laid the foundation for the decipherment of hieroglyphs. He compared two cartouches which, from their position in the text, he guessed must refer to the names of Ptolemy (ΠΤΟΛΟΜΑΙΟΣ) and Cleopatra (ΚΛΟΠΑΤΡΑ).

He identified the five letters that both names have in common (Π, Τ, Ο, Λ, Α), and found that the two cartouches had five hieroglyphs in common as well. By supposing that each other instance of the same sign represented the same sound, Champollion could easily infer the phonetic value of the remaining text.

Champollion’s decipherment does not, however, explain a series of phenomena which can justify the interpretation of Horapollo. Greek and Roman colonizers had imposed on Egypt their commerce, their technology and their gods.

By the time of the spread of Christianity, Egypt had already abandoned many of its ancient traditions. Knowledge of sacred writing was still preserved and practiced only by priests living within the sacred enclosures of the ancient temples.

These were a dwindling breed: in those last repositories of a lost knowledge, cut off from the rest of the world, they cultivated the monuments of their ancient culture.

Since the sacred writing no longer served any practical use, but only initiatory purposes, these last priests began to introduce complexities into it, playing with the ambiguities inherent in a form of writing that could be differently read either phonetically or ideographically.

To write the name of the god Ptah, for example, the P was expressed phonetically and placed at the top of the name with the ideogram for sky (p[t]), the H was placed in the middle and represented by the image of the god Heh with his arms raised, and the T was expressed by the ideogram for the earth (ta).

It was an image that not only expressed Ptah phonetically, but also carried the visual suggestion that the god Ptah had originally separated the earth from the sky.

The discovery that, by combining different hieroglyphs, evocative visual emblems might be created inspired these last scribes to experiment with increasingly complicated and abstruse combinations.

In short, these scribes began to formulate a sort of kabbalistic play, based, however, on images rather than on letters.

Around the term represented by a sign (which was given an initial phonetic reading) there formed a halo of visual connotations and secondary senses, a sort of chord of associated meanings which served to amplify the original semantic range of the term.

The more the sacred text was enhanced by its exegetes, the more the conviction grew that they expressed buried truths and lost secrets (Sauneron 1957: 123-7).

Thus, to the last priests of a civilization sinking into oblivion, hieroglyphs appeared as a perfect language. Yet their perfection could only be understood by visually reading them; if by chance still pronounced, they would have lost any magic (Sauneron 1982: 55-6).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 146-9.

Eco: Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica

Duerer, Albrecht (1471-1528)

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), The Sun, the Moon and a Basilisk, circa 1512. The Sun, the Moon and the Basilisk (half eagle, half serpent, hatched from a cock’s egg by a serpent), represent Eternity. This drawing from a fragment is on the back of a manuscript translation of the Hieroglyphica by Horapollo translated by Willibald Pirkheimer, an associate of Dürer. Alexander Cory’s 1840 edition is posted on the Sacred Texts site, and the 1595 Mercier and Hoeschel edition in Latin and Greek is hosted on due to the kind courtesy of the Getty Research Institute and the Sloan Foundation. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.  

“In 1419 Cristoforo de’ Buondelmonti acquired from the island of Andros a mysterious manuscript that was soon to excite the curiosity of philosophers such as Ficino: the manuscript was the Greek translation (by a certain Philippos) of the Horapòllonos Neiloùs ieroglyphikà.

The original author, Horapollo–or Horus Apollos, or Horapollus–was thus qualified as “Nilotic.” Although it was taken as genuinely archaic throughout the Renaissance, scholars now believe this text to be a late Hellenistic compilation, dating from as late as the fifth century AD.

As we shall see, although certain passages indicate that the author did possess exact information about Egyptian hieroglyphs, the text was written at a time when hieroglyphic writing had certainly fallen out of use. At best, the Hieroglyphica seems to be based on some texts written a few centuries before.

The original manuscript contained no images. Illustrations appeared only in later editions: for instance, though the first translation into Italian in 1547 is still without illustrations, the 1514 translation into Latin was illustrated by Dürer.

The text is divided into short chapters in which it is explained, for example, that the Egyptians represented age by depicting the sun and the moon, or the month by a palm branch.

There follows in each case a brief description of the symbolic meaning of each figure, and in many cases its polysemic value: for example, the vulture is said to signify mother, sight, the end of a thing, knowledge of the future, year, sky, mercy, Minerva, Juno, or two drachmas.

Sometimes the hieroglyphic sign is a number: pleasure, for example, is denoted by the number 16, because sexual activity begins at the age of sixteen. Since it takes two to have intercourse, however, this is denoted by two 16’s.

Humanist philosophical culture was immediately fascinated by this text: hieroglyphs were regarded as the work of the great Hermes Trismegistus himself, and therefore as a source of inexhaustible wisdom.

To understand the impact of Horopollo’s text on Europe, it is first necessary to understand what, in reality, these mysterious symbols were. Horopollo was describing a writing system, whose last example (as far as Egyptologists can trace) is on the Theodosius temple (AD 394).

Even if these inscriptions were still similar to those elaborated three thousand years before, the Egyptian language of the fifth century had changed radically. Thus, when Horopollo wrote his text, the key to understanding hieroglyphs had long been lost.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 145-6.

Eco: The Perfect Language of Images


Iamblicus (250-325 CE), De Mysteriis Aegyptiorum, Chaldoaerum, AssyriorumOn the Mysteries of the Egyptians, Chaldeans and Assyrians, Lyon: Joannis Tornaesium, 1577. In 2000, Joseph Peterson published a translation from the Greek by Alexander Wilder dated 1911 on the Esoteric Archives. A Latin edition published by Marsilio Ficino in Venice in 1497 is on, with several exemplars on Google Books. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. 

“Already in Plato, as in Pythagoras before him, there appeared a veneration for the ancient wisdom of the Egyptians. Aristotle was more skeptical, and when he came to recount the history of philosophy in the first book of the Metaphysics, he started directly with the Greeks.

Influenced by Aristotle, the Christian authors of the Middle Ages showed relatively little curiosity about ancient Egypt. References to this tradition can be found only in marginal alchemical texts like Picatrix.

Isidore of Seville shortly mentioned the Egyptians as the inventors of geometry and astronomy, and said that the original Hebrew letters became the basis for the Greek alphabet when Isis, queen of the Egyptians, found them and brought them back to her own country (Etymologiarum, I, iii, 5).

By contrast, one could put the Renaissance under the standard of what Baltrušaitis (1967) has called the “search for Isis.” Isis became thus the symbol for an Egypt regarded as the wellspring of original knowledge, and the inventor of a sacred scripture, capable of expressing the unfathomable reality of the divine.

The Neoplatonic revival, in which Ficino played the role of high priest, restored to Egypt its ancient primacy.

In the Enneads (V, 8, 5-6) Plotinus wrote:

“The wise sages of Egypt [ . . . ] in order to designate things with wisdom do not use designs of letters, which develop into discourses and propositions, and which represent sounds and words; instead they use designs of images, each of which stands for a distinct thing; and it is these that they sculpt onto their temples. [ . . . ] Every incised sign is thus, at once, knowledge, wisdom, a real entity captured in one stroke.”

Iamblicus, in his De mysteriis aegyptiorum, said that the Egyptians, when they invented their symbols, imitating the nature of the universe and the creation of the gods, revealed occult intuitions by symbols.

The translation of the Corpus Hermeticum (which Ficino published alongside his translations of Iamblicus and other Neoplatonic texts) was under the sign of Egypt, because, for Ficino, the ancient Egyptian wisdom came from Hermes Trismegistus.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 144-5.

Eco: Infinite Songs & Locutions, 2


Ramon Llull (1232-1315), La Tercera Figura, from Ars brevis, Pisa, 1308. This illustration is hosted on the net by the Centre de Documentacio de Ramon Llull, while the original is held in the Escorial, MS.f-IV-12, folio 6. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

Mersenne and Guldin were anticipating Borge’s Babel Library ad abundantiam. Not only this, Guldin observed that if the numbers are these, who can marvel at the existence of so many different natural languages?

The art was now providing an excuse for the confusio linguarum. It justifies it, however, by showing that it is impossible to limit the omnipotence of God.

Are there more names than things? How many names, asks Mersenne (Harmonie, II, 72), would we need if were to give more than one to each individual? If Adam really did give names to everything, how long would he have had to spend in Eden?

In the end, human languages limit themselves to the naming of general ideas and of species; to name an individual thing, an indication with a finger is usually sufficient (p. 74).

If this were not so, it might easily “happen that for every hair on the body of an animal and for each hair on the head of a man we might require a particular name that would distinguish it from all others. Thus a man with 100,000 hairs on his head and 100,000 more on his body would need to know 200,000 separate words to name them all” (pp. 72-3).

In order to name every individual thing in the world one should thus create an artificial language capable of generating the requisite number of locutions. If God were to augment the number of individual things unto infinity, to name them all it would be enough to devise an alphabet with a greater number of letters, and this would provide us with the means to name them all (p. 73).

From these giddy heights there dawns a consciousness of the possibility of the infinite perfectibility of knowledge. Man, the new Adam, possesses the possibility of naming all those things which his ancestor had lacked the time to baptize.

Yet such an artificial language would place human beings in competition with God, who has the privilege of knowing all things in their particularity. We shall see that Leibniz was later to sanction the impossibility of such a language.

Mersenne had led a battle against the kabbala and occultism only to be seduced in the end. Here he is cranking away at Lullian wheels, seemingly unaware of the difference between the real omnipotence of God and the potential omnipotence of a human combinatory language.

Besides, in his Quaestiones super Genesim (cols 49 and 52) he claimed that the presence of the sense of infinity in human beings was itself a proof of the existence of God.

This capacity to conceive of a quasi-infinite series of combinations depends on the fact that Mersenne, Guldin, Clavius and others (see, for example, Comenius, Linguarum methodus novissima (1648: III, 19), unlike Lull, were no longer calculating upon concepts but rather upon simple alphabetic sequences, pure elements of expression with no inherent meaning, controlled by no orthodoxy other than the limits of mathematics itself.

Without realizing it, these authors are verging towards the idea of a “blind thought,” a notion that we shall see Leibniz proposing with a greater critical awareness.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 141-3.


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