Eco: Characteristica and Calculus

by Esteban

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, Dissertatio de Arte Combinatoria

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716), Dissertatio de Arte Combinatoria, an excerpt from his first doctoral dissertation, Dissertation on the Art of Combinations, Leipzig, 1666. 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 theme of invention and discovery should remind us of Lull; and, in fact, Lull’s ars combinatoria was one of Leibniz’s first sources. In 1666, at the age of twenty, Leibniz composed his own Dissertatio de arte combinatoria (Gerhardt 1875: IV, 27-102). But the dream of the combinatoria was to obsess him for the rest of his life.

In his short Horizon de la doctrine humaine (in Fichant 1991), Leibniz dealt with a problem that had already troubled Father Mersenne: how many utterances, true, false or even nonsensical, was it possible to formulate using an alphabet of 24 letters?

The point was to determine the number of truths capable of expression and the number of expressions capable of being put into writing. Given that Leibniz had found words of 31 letters in Latin and Greek, an alphabet of 24 letters would produce 2432 words of 31 letters.

But what is the maximum length of an expression? Why should an expression not be as long as an entire book? Thus the sum of the expressions, true or false, that a man might read in the course of his life, imagining that he reads 100 pages a day and that each page contains 1,000 letters, is 3,650,000,000.

Even imagining that this man can live one thousand years, like the legendary alchemist Artephius, it would still be the case that “the greatest expressible period, or the largest possible book that a man can read, would have 3,650,000,000,000 [letters], and the number of truths, falsehoods, or sentences expressible–that is, readable, regardless of pronounceability or meaningfulness–will be 24365,000,000,001 – 24/23 [letters].”

We can imagine even larger numbers. Imagine our alphabet contained 100 letters; to write the number of letters expressible in this alphabet we would need to write a 1 followed by 7,300,0000,000,000 (sic) zeros. Even to write such a number it would take 1,000 scribes working for approximately 37 years.

Leibniz’s argument at this point is that whatever we take the number of propositions theoretically capable of expression to be–and we can plausibly stipulate more astronomical sums than these–it will be a number that vastly outstrips the number of true or false expressions that humanity is capable of producing or understanding.

From such a consideration Leibniz concluded paradoxically that the number of expressions capable of formulation must always be finite, and, what is more, that there must come a moment at which humanity would start to enunciate them anew.

With this thought, Leibniz approaches the theme of the apochatastasis or of universal reintegration–what we might call the theme of the eternal return.

This was a line of speculation more mystical than logical, and we cannot stop to trace the influences that led Leibniz to such fantastic conclusions.

It is plain, however, that Leibniz has been inspired by Lull and the kabbala, even if Lull’s own interest was limited to the generation of just those propositions that expressed true and certain knowledge and he thus would never have dared to enlarge his ars combinatoria to include so large a number of propositions.

For Leibniz, on the contrary, it was a fascination with the vertiginous possibilities of discovery, that is of the infinite number of expressions of which a simple mathematical calculation permitted him to conceive, that served as inspiration.

At the time he was writing his Dissertatio, Leibniz was acquainted with Kircher’s Polygraphia, as well as with the work of the anonymous Spaniard, of Becher, and of Schott (while saying that he was waiting for the long-promised Ars magna sciendi of the “immortal Kircher“).

He had yet to read Dalgarno, and Wilkins had still not published his Essay. Besides, there exists a letter from Kircher to Leibniz, written in 1670, in which the Jesuit confessed that he had not yet read Leibniz’s Dissertatio.

Leibniz also elaborated in the Dissertatio his so-called method of “complexions,” through which he might calculate, given n elements, how many groups of them, taken t at a time, irrespective of their ordering, can be ordered.

He applied this method to syllogisms before he passed to his discussion of Lull (para. 56). Before criticizing Lull for limiting the number of his elements, Leibniz made the obvious observation that Lull failed to exploit all the possibilities inherent in his combinatorial art, and wondered what could happen with variations of order, which could produce a greater number.

We already know the answer: Lull not only limited the number of elements, but he rejected those combinations that might produce propositions which, for theological and rhetorical reasons, he considered false.

Leibniz, however, was interested in a logica inventiva (para. 62) in which the play of combinations was free to produce expressions that were heretofore unknown.

In paragraph 64 Leibniz began to outline the theoretical core of his characteristica universalis. Above all, any given term needed to be resolved into its formal parts, the parts, that is, that were explicitly entailed by its definition.

These parts then had to be resolved into their own components, and so on until the process reached terms which could not, themselves, be defined–that is, the primitives. Leibniz included among them not only things, but also modes and relations.

Other terms were to be classified according to the number of prime terms they contained: if they were composed from 2 prime terms, they were to be called com2nations; if from 3 prime terms, com3nations, and so forth. Thereby a hierarchy of classes of increasing complexity could be created.

Leibniz returned to this argument a dozen years later, in the Elementa characteristicae universalis. Here he was more generous with his examples. If we accept the traditional definition of man as “rational animal,” we might consider man as a concept composed of “rational” and “animal.”

We may assign numbers to these prime terms: animal = 2, and rational = 3. The composite concept of man can be represented as the expression 2 * 3, or 6.

For a proposition to be true, if we express fractionally the subject-predicate (S/P) relationship, the number which corresponds to the subject must be exactly divisible by the number which corresponds to the predicate.

Given the preposition “all men are animals,” the number for the subject (men), is 6; the number for animals is 2; the resulting fraction is 6/2 = 3. Three being an integer, consequently, the preposition is true.

If the number for monkey were 10, we could demonstrate the falsity of either the proposition “all men are monkeys” or “all monkeys are men:” “the idea of monkey does not contain the idea of man, nor, vice versa, does the idea of the latter contain the former, because neither can 6 be exactly divided by 10, nor 10 by 6” (Elementa, in Couturat 1903: 42-92). These were principles that had all been prefigured in the Dissertatio.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 271-5.