Eco: Conventionalism, Epicureanism and Polygenesis, 2

by Esteban


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), from Turris Babel, Sive Archontologia Qua Primo Priscorum post diluvium hominum vita, mores rerumque gestarum magnitudo, Secundo Turris fabrica civitatumque exstructio, confusio linguarum, & inde gentium transmigrationis, cum principalium inde enatorum idiomatum historia, multiplici eruditione describuntur & explicantur. Amsterdam, Jansson-Waesberge, 1679. 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 these same years, thinkers also returned to reflect upon an older suggestion by Epicurus, who, in a letter to Herodotus, gave his opinion that the names of things were not  originally due to convention; human beings themselves had rather created them from their own natures.

Those of differing tribes, “under the impulse of special feelings and special presentations of sense,” uttered “special cries.” The air thus emitted was moulded by their different feelings or sense perceptions (letter to Herodotus, in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, X, 75-6).

Epicurus went on to add that, to eliminate confusion and for reasons of economy, the various peoples subsequently came to an agreement over what name they should give things.

He had no fixed opinion on whether this agreement had been made from instinct or “by rational thought” (cf. Formigari 1970: 17-28; Gensini 1991: 92; Manetti 1987: 176-7).

That was the first part of Epicurus‘ thesis, which emphasized the natural rather than conventional origin of languages; however, this idea was taken up by Lucretius: nature prompted human beings to emit the sounds of language; necessity gave birth to the names of things.

Therefore to suppose that someone then distributed names among things, and from him that men learnt their first words, is folly. For why should he have been able to mark all things with titles and to utter the various sounds of the tongue, and at the same time others not be thought able to have done it? . . .

Therefore if it is the various sensations that they feel which drive animals to emit differing sounds, even though they remain mute, how much more just is it to say that sensations induce mortals to indicate different things with different sounds. (De rerum natura, W.H.D. Rouse, tr., London: Heinemann, 1975: V, 1041-90).

This was a new view, one which we may call the materialist-biological theory of the origin of language. Language arose out of a natural inclination to transform sensations into ideas, which, for the sake of civil convenience, were then translated into sounds.

If it were true, as Epicurus had suggested, that this process of transformation might vary in different races, climates and places, it was hardly too much to imagine that, in diverse times and ways, the different races had originated different families of languages.

This was the intuition behind the theory that evolved in the eighteenth century: each language had its own genius.

Epicurus‘ thesis could not help but seem seductive in the “libertine” milieu of seventeenth-century France, in an atmosphere of skepticism ranging from sarcastic agnosticism to confessed atheism.

In 1655 there appeared the Systema theologicum ex prae-Adamitarum hypothesi, written by a Calvinist named Isaac de La Peyrère. Starting from an extremely original reading of the fifth chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, La Peyrère argued for the polygenesis of races and peoples.

Reports of missionaries and explorers had represented non-European civilizations, such as the Chinese, as so ancient that their histories were incommensurable with biblical chronology, especially in regard to their accounts of the origin of the world.

La Peyrère inferred from this that there existed a pre-Adamite human race, untouched by original sin. He concluded that the stories both of the original sin and of the Flood concerned only Adam and his descendants in the land of the Hebrews (cf. Zoli 1991: 70).

This was a hypothesis that had already appeared in Islamic culture. Drawing on the Koran (2:31), al-Maqdisi, in the tenth century, had alluded to the existence of different races prior to Adam (cf. Borst 1957-63: I, II, 9).

Quite apart from the obvious theological implications of such an assumption (and the works of La Peyrère were condemned to be burnt), it was clear that, by now, Hebrew civilization–along with its holy language–was falling from its throne.

If one accepted that species had developed differentially in differing conditions, and that their linguistic capacity reflected their degree of evolution and of adaptation to the environment, it was easy to accept the polygenetic hypothesis.

A particular brand of polygeneticism–certainly not of libertine inspiration–can be ascribed to Giambattista Vico. Vico was a thinker who naturally proceeded against the grain of his times.

Instead of searching for actual chronological origins, he set out to delineate an ideal and eternal history. Paradoxically, by jumping outside the bounds of history, Vico was to become one of the founders of modern historicism.

What Vico wished to tell was not, or–depending on how one wishes to take the chronological table at the beginning of his Scienza nuova seconda (1744)–not only, a historical course, but rather the ever recurring conditions in which languages are born and develop in every time and in every place.

Vico described an ideal line of descent which traced the development of language from the language of the gods to that of heroes and, finally, to that of human beings. The first language had to be hieroglyphic (“sacred or divine”), the second symbolic (“by heroic signs and devices”), and the third epistolary (“for men at a distance to communicate to each other the current needs of their lives,” para. 432).

According to Vico, language, at its ideal point of origin, was directly motivated by, and metaphorically congruent with, the human experience of nature. Only at a later state did language become organized in a more conventional form.

Vico affirms, however, that “as gods, heroes, and men began at the same time (for they were, after all, men who imagined the gods and who believed their own heroic nature to be a mixture of the divine and human natures), so these three languages began at the same time” (466).

Thus, circumventing the seventeenth-century question of whether or not a natural linguistic stage was succeeded by a conventional one, Vico directly addressed the question of why there existed as many different languages as there were different peoples.

He responded by asserting “this great truth . . . that, as the peoples have certainly by the diversity of climates acquired different natures, from which have sprung as many different customs, so from their different natures and customs as many different languages have arisen” (445).

As to the story of the primacy of Hebrew, Vico disposes of it in a series of observations tending to prove that, if anything, the Hebrews had derived their alphabet from the Greeks and not vice versa.

Nor was Vico susceptible to the Hermetic fantasies of the Renaissance, according to which all wisdom came from the Egyptians.

From his description there emerges instead a complex network of cultural and commercial trafficking, in which the Phoenicians–prompted by mercantile necessity–exported their characters to both the Egyptians and the Greeks, while, at the same time, spreading throughout the Mediterranean basin the set of hieroglyphic characters that they had borrowed from the Chaldeans and had adapted to fit their need for a numerical system to keep track of their stocks of merchandise (441-3).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 88-91.