Eco: The Hypertext of Wilkins

by Esteban

Gerando

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

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

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

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

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

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

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