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Month: June, 2016

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.

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