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Eco: The Alphabet and the Four Figures


Raymond Llull (1232-1316), Ars magna, segunda figurageneralis et ultima, 1517, held in the Getty Research Institute and digitized by that institution in collaboration with the Internet Archive, generously posted on 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 ars combinatoria of Lull employs an alphabet of nine letters–B to K, leaving out J–and four figures (see figure 4.1). In a tabula generalis that appears in several of his works, Lull set out a table of six groups of nine entities, one for each of the nine letters.

The first group are the nine absolute principles, or divine dignities, which communicate their natures to each other and spread throughout creation.

After this, there are nine relative principles, nine types of question, nine subjects, nine virtues and nine vices.

Lull specifies (and this is an obvious reference to Aristotle’s list of categories) that the nine dignities are subjects of predication, while the other five series are predicates. We shall see that subject and predicate are sometimes allowed to exchange their roles, while in other cases variations of order are not considered as pertinent.

First figure. This traces all the possible combinations between the dignities, thus allowing predications such as “Goodness [bonitas] is great,” “Greatness [magnitudo] is glorious,” etc.

Since the dignities are treated as nouns when they appear as a predicate, the lines connecting them can be read in both directions. The line connecting magnitudo and bonitas can, for example, be read as both “Greatness is good” and “Goodness is great.” This explains why 36 lines produce 72 combinations.

The first figure is designed to allow regular syllogisms to be inferred. To demonstrate, for example, that goodness can be great, it is necessary to argue that “all that is magnified by greatness is great–but goodness is what is magnified by greatness–therefore goodness is great.”

The first table excludes self-predications, like BB or CC, because, for Lull, there is no possibility of a middle term in an expression of the type “Goodness is good” (in Aristotelian logic, “all As are B–C is an A–therefore C is a B” is a valid syllogism because, following certain rules, the middle term A is so disposed to act as the, as it were, bond between B and C).

Second figure. This serves to connect the relative principles with triples of definitions. They are the relations connecting the divine dignities with the cosmos. Since it is intended merely as a visual mnemonic that helps to fix in the mind the various relations between different types of entity, there is no method of combination associated with the second figure.

For example, difference, concordance and opposition (contrarietas) can each be considered in reference to (1) two sensible entities, such as a plant and a stone, (2) a sensible and an intellectual entity, like body and soul, and (3) two intellectual entities, like the soul and an angel.

Third figure. Here Lull displayed all possible letter pairings. The figure contains 36 pairs inserted in what Lull calls the 36 chambers. The figure makes it seem that he intended to exclude inversions.

Yet, in reality, the figure does contemplate inversions in order, and thus the number of the chambers is virtually 72 since each letter is permitted to function as either subject or predicate (“Goodness is great” also gives “Greatness is good:” Ars magna, VI, 2).

Having established the combinations, Lull proceeds to what he calls the “evacuation of the chambers.” Taking, for example, chamber BC, we read it first according to the first figure, obtaining goodness and greatness (bonitas and magnitudo); then according to the second figure, obtaining difference and concordance, (differentia and concordantia: Ars magna, II, 3).

From these two pairs we derive 12 propositions: “Goodness is great,” “Difference is great,” Goodness is different,” “Goodness is different,” “Difference is good,” “Goodness is concordant,” “Difference is concordant,” “Greatness is good,” “Concordance is good,” “Greatness is different,” “Concordance is different,” “Greatness is concordant,” and “Concordance is great.”

Going back to the tabula generalis in figure 4.1, we find that, under the next heading, Questiones, B and C  are utrum (whether) and quid (what). By combining these 2 questions with the 12 propositions we have just constructed, we obtain 24 questions, like “Whether goodness is great?,” or “What is a great goodness?” (see Ars magna, VI, 1).

In this way, the third figure generates 432 propositions and 864 questions–at least in theory. In reality, there are 10 additional rules to be considered (given in Ars magna, VI, iv).

For the chamber BC, for example, there are the rules B and C. These rules depend on the theological definition of the terms, and on certain argumentative constraints which have nothing to do with the rules of combination.


Quarta figura, fourth figure.

Fourth figure. This is the most famous of the figures, and the one destined to have the greatest influence on subsequent tradition. In this figure, triples generated by the nine elements are considered.

In contrast to the preceding figures, which are simply static diagrams, the fourth figure is mobile. It is a mechanism formed by three concentric circles, of decreasing size, inserted into each other, and held together usually by a knotted cord.

If we recall that in the Sefer Yezirah the combination of the letters was visually represented by a wheel or a spinning disc, it seems probable that Lull, a native of Majorca, has been influenced here by the kabbalistic tradition that flourished in his time in the Iberian peninsula.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 56-60.


Eco: The Elements of the Ars Combinatoria

Ramon_Llull, Ars Magna, Fig_1

Raymond Llull (1232-1316), Figure 1 from Ars magna, 1300. 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. 

“Given a number of different elements n, the number of arrangements that can be made from them, in any order whatever, is expressed by their factorial n!, calculated as 1.*2*3. . . . *n.

This is the method for calculating the possible anagrams of a word of n letters, already encountered as the art of temurah in the kabbala. The Sefer Yezirah informed us that the factorial of 5 was 120.

As n increases, the number of possible arrangements rises exponentially: the possible arrangements for 36 elements, for example, are 371, 993, 326, 789, 901, 217, 467, 999, 448, 150, 835, 200, 000, 000.

If the strings admit repetitions, then those figures grow upwards. For example, the 21 letters of the Italian alphabet can give rise to more than 51 billion billion 21-letter-long sequences (each different from the rest); when, however, it is admitted that some letters are repeated, but the sequences are shorter than the number of elements to be arranged, then the general formula for n elements taken t at a time with repetitions is n1  and the number of strings obtainable for the letters of the Italian alphabet would amount to 5 billion billion billion.

Let us suppose a different problem. There are four people, A. B, C, and D. We want to arrange these four as couples on board an aircraft in which the seats are in rows that are two across; the order is relevant because I want to know who will sit at the the window and who at the aisle.

We are thus facing a problem of permutation, that is, of arranging n elements, taken t at a time, taking the order into account. The formula for finding all the possible permutations is n!/(n-t)In our example the persons can be disposed this way:

AB     AC     AD     BA     CA     DA     BC     BD     CD     CB     DB     DC

 Suppose, however, that the four letters represented four soldiers, and the problem is to calculate how many two-man patrols could be formed from them. In this case the order is irrelevant (AB or BA are always the same patrol). This is a problem of combination, and we solve it with the following formula: n!/t!(n-t)! In this case the possible combinations would be:

AB     AC     AD     BC     BD     CD

Such calculuses are employed in the solution of many technical problems, but they can serve as discovery procedures, that is, procedures for inventing a variety of possible “scenarios.”

In semiotic terms, we are in front of an expression-system (represented both by the symbols and by the syntactic rules establishing how n elements can be arranged t at a time–and where t can coincide with n), so that the arrangement of the expression-items can automatically reveal possible content-systems.

In order to let this logic of combination or permutation work to its fullest extent, however, there should be no restrictions limiting the number of possible content-systems (or worlds) we can conceive of.

As soon as we maintain that certain universes are not possible in respect of what is given in our own past experience, or that they do not correspond to what we hold to be the laws of reason, we are, at this point, invoking external criteria not only to discriminate the results of the ars combinatoria, but also to introduce restrictions within the art itself.

We saw, for example, that, for four people, there were six possible combinations of pairs. If we specify that the pairing is of a matrimonial nature, and if A and B are men while C and D are women, then the possible combinations become four.

If A and C are brother and sister, and we take into the account the prohibition against incest, we have only three possible groupings. Yet matters such as sex, consanguinity, taboos and interdictions have nothing to do with the art itself: they are introduced from outside in order to control and limit the possibilities of the system.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 54-6.

Eco: The Ars Magna of Raymond Lull

Raymond Lull, Tabula Generalis, pg. 57, Eco, Search for a Perfect Language, 1995

Raymond Lull (1232-1316), Tabula Generalis, figure 4.1, Lull’s Alphabet, from Umberto Eco, The Search for a Perfect Language, Blackwell, Oxford, 1995, pg. 57. 

“A near contemporary of Dante, Ramòn Llull (Latinized as Lullus and Anglicized as Lull–and sometimes as Lully) was a Catalan, born in Majorca, who lived probably between 1232 (or 1235) and 1316.

Majorca during this period was a crossroads, an island where Christian, Jewish and Arab cultures all met; each was to play a role in Lull’s development. Most of his 280 known works were written initially in Arabic or Catalan (cf. Ottaviano 1930).

Lull led a carefree early life which ended when he suffered a mystic crisis. As a result, he entered the order of Tertian friars.

It was among the Franciscans that all of the earlier strands converged in his Ars magna, which Lull conceived as a system for a perfect language with which to convert the infidels. The language was to be a universal; it was to be articulated at the level of expression in a universal mathematics of combination; its level of content was to consist of a network of universal ideas, held by all peoples, which Lull himself would devise.

St. Francis had already sought to convert the sultan of Babylonia, and the dream of establishing universal concordance between differing races was becoming a recurrent theme in Franciscan thought. Another of Lull’s contemporaries, the Franciscan Roger Bacon, foresaw that contact with the infidels (not merely Arabs, but also Tartars) would require study of foreign languages.

The problem for him, however, was not that of inventing a new, perfect language, but of learning the languages that the infidels already spoke in order to convert them, or, failing that, at least to enrich Christian culture with a wisdom that the infidels had wrongfully appropriated (“tamquam ab iniustis possessoribus“).

The aims and methods of Lull and Bacon were different; yet both were inspired by ideals of universality and of a new universal crusade based on peaceful dialogue rather than on arms.

In this utopia the question of language played a crucial role (cf. Alessio 1957). According to legend, Lull was to die martyred at the hands of the Saracens, to whom he had appeared, armed with his art, believing it to be an infallible means of persuasion.

Lull was the first European philosopher to write doctrinal works in the vulgar tongue. Some are even in popular verses, so as to reach readers who knew neither Latin nor Arabic: “per tal che hom puscha mostrar / logicar e philosophar / a cels que win saben lati / ni arabichi” (Compendium, 6-9).

His art was universal not merely in that it was designed to serve all peoples, but also in that it used letters and figures in a way (allegedly) comprehensible even to illiterates of any language.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 53-4.

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