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Tag: 1644

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: 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: 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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