Eco: George Dalgarno

by Esteban


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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