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Tag: 1819

Eco: The Last Flowering of Philosophic Languages

Anne-Pierre-Jacques De Vismes, Pasilogie, ou de la musique, consideree comme langue universelle, 1806

Anne-Pierre-Jacques De Vismes (1745-1819), Pasilogie, ou de la musique, considérée comme langue universelle, Paris, 1806. 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. 

“Nor was even this the end of attempts at creating a philosophic language. In 1772 there appeared the project of Georg Kalmar, Praecepta grammatica atque specimina linguae philosophicae sive universalis, ad omne vitae genus adcomodatae, which occasioned the most significant discussion on our topic written in Italian.

In 1774, the Italian-Swiss Father Francesco Soave published his Riflessioni intorno alla costituzione di una lingua universaleSoave, who had done much to spread the sensationalist doctrine to Italy, advanced a criticism of the a priori languages that anticipated those made by the Idéologues (on Soave see Gensini 1984; Nicoletti 1989; Pellerey 1992a).

Displaying a solid understanding of the projects from Descartes to Wilkins and from Kircher to Leibniz, on the one hand Soave advanced the traditional reservation that it was impossible to elaborate a set of characters sufficient to represent all fundamental concepts; on the other hand, he remarked that Kalmar, having reduced these concepts to 400, was obliged to give different meanings to the same character, according to the context.

Either one follows the Chinese model, without succeeding in limiting the characters, or one is unable to avoid equivocations.

Unfortunately, Soave did not resist the temptation of designing a project of his own, though outlining only its basic principles. His system of classification seems to have been based on Wilkins; as usual he sought to rationalize and simplify his grammar; at the same time, he sought to augment its expressive potential by adding marks for new  morphological categories such as dual and the neuter.

Soave took more care over his grammar than over his lexicon, but was mainly interested in the literary use of language: from this derives his radical skepticism about any universal language; what form of literary commerce, he wondered, could we possibly have with the Tartars, the Abyssinians or the Hurons?

In the early years of the next century, Soave’s discussion influenced the thinking of Giacomo Leopardi, who had become an exceptionally astute student of the Idéologues.

In his Zibaldone, Leopardi treated the question of universal languages at some length, as well as discussing the debate between rationalists and sensationalists in recent French philosophy (see Gensini 1984; Pellerey 1992a).

Leopardi was clearly irritated by the algebraic signs that abounded in the a priori languages, all of which he considered as incapable of expressing the subtle connotations of natural languages:

“A strictly universal language, whatever it may be, will certainly, by necessity and by its natural bent, be both the most enslaved, impoverished, timid, monotonous, uniform, arid, and ugly language ever.

It will be incapable of beauty of any type, totally uncongenial to imagination [ . . . ] the most inanimate, bloodless, and dead whatsoever, a mere skeleton, a ghost of a language [ . . . ] it would lack life even if it were written by all and universally understood; indeed it will be deader than the deadest languages which are no longer either spoken or written.” (23 August 1823, in G. Leopardi, Tutte le opere, Sansoni: Florence 1969: II, 814).

Despite these and similar strictures, the ardor of the apostles of philosophic a priori languages was still far from quenched.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Anne-Pierre-Jacques de Vismes (Pasilogie, ou de la musique considérée come langue universelle, 1806) presented a language that was supposed to be a copy of the language of the angels, whose sounds derived from the affections of the soul.

Vismes argued that when the Latin translation of Genesis 11:1-2 states that “erat terra labii unius” (a passage to which we usually give the sense that “all the world was of one language”), it used the word labium (lip) rather than lingua (tongue) because people first communicated with each other by emitting sounds through their lips without articulating them with their tongue.

Music was not a human invention (pp. 1-20), and this is demonstrated by the fact that animals can understand music more easily than verbal speech: horses are naturally roused by the sound of trumpets as dogs are by whistles. What is more, when presented with a musical score, people of different nations all play it the same way.

Vismes presents enharmonic scales of 21 notes, one for each letter of the alphabet. He did this by ignoring the modern convention of equal temperament, and treating the sharp of one note as distinct from the flat of the note above.

Since Vismes was designing a polygraphy rather than a spoken language, it was enough that the distinctions might be exactly represented on a musical stave.

Inspired, perhaps, indirectly by Mersenne, Vismes went on to demonstrate that if one were to combine his 21 sounds into doublets, triplets, quadruplets, etc., one would quickly arrive at more syntagms than are contained in any natural language, and that “if it were necessary to write down all the combinations that can be generated by the seven enharmonic scales, combined with each other, it would take almost all of eternity before one could hope to come to an end.” (p. 78).

As for the concrete possibility of replacing verbal sounds by musical notes, Vismes devotes only the last six pages of his book to such a topic–not a great deal.

It never seems to have crossed Visme’s mind that, in taking a French text and substituting tones for its letters, all he was doing was transcribing a French text, without making it comprehensible to speakers of other languages.

Vismes seems to conceive of a universe that speaks exclusively in French, so much so that he even notes that he will exclude letters like K, Z and X because “they are hardly ever used in languages” (p. 106).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 302-4.

Selz: The Debate Over Mesopotamian Influence on Jewish Pre-History is 2000 Years Old

“The reports further continue with the famous account of the downfall of the Persian empire in the same year, after the battle at Gaugamela, north of Mosul (331 BCE).

“On the 11th of that month, panic occurred in the camp before the king. The Macedonians encamped in front of the king. On the 24th [1 October], in the morning, the king of the world [Alexander] erected his standard and attacked.

Opposite each other they fought and a heavy defeat of the troops of the king [Darius] he [Alexander] incited. The king [Darius], his troops deserted him and to their cities they went. They fled to the east.”

As I have learnt from the Swiss philosopher and historian of science, Gerd Graßhoff, these collections of data were systematically made in order to obtain knowledge about the possible connections of various events, and more specifically in order to get information of how one could interfere and prevent an otherwise probable future event.

The Fall of Babylon, John Martin, 1831 CE.  http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pd/j/john_martin,_the_fall_of_babyl.aspx John Martin (1789-1854 CE) first exhibited his painting The Fall of Babylon at the British Institution in 1819. He later supervised mezzotint reproductions, hence the date 1831 CE for this print.  Held by the British Museum.  This image is included under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

The Fall of Babylon, John Martin, 1831 CE.
http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pd/j/john_martin,_the_fall_of_babyl.aspx
John Martin (1789-1854 CE) first exhibited his painting The Fall of Babylon at the British Institution in 1819. He later supervised mezzotint reproductions, hence the date 1831 CE for this print.
Held by the British Museum.
This image is included under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.

(I refer to Graßhoff, “Diffusion”; see also idem, “Babylonian Metrological Observations and the Empirical Basis of Ancient Science,” in The Empirical Dimension of Ancient Near Eastern Studies—Die empirische Dimension altorientalischer Forschungen (ed. G.J. Selz with the assistance of K. Wagensonner; Wiener Offene Orientalistik 6, Wien: Lit, 2011), pp. 25-40.)

The Astronomical Diaries are certainly a latecomer within the cuneiform tradition; there is, however no reason to postulate a fundamental change in the methodological attitude of Mesopotamian scholars, at least after the Old Babylonian period.

In comparison to our approaches, “there is no methodological difference for Babylonian scholarship compared to causal reasoning to obtain knowledge about causal regularities with causes indicated by signs. This counts for all sorts of domains of knowledge—from medical, over meteorological, economic to astronomical knowledge.”

(Graßhoff, “Diffusion.”)

Numerous articles and books deal with Enoch and “Enochic literature.” From the viewpoint of a cuneiform scholar, Helge Kvanvig’s book Roots of Apocalyptic: The Mesopotamian Background of the Enoch Figure and the Son of Man must be considered a major contribution.

The Babylonian surroundings of the forefathers of apocalyptic literature, Ezekiel and Deutero-Isaiah, led to the hypothesis that other apocalyptic texts may have their roots in the Babylonian exile.

Be that as it may, the great impact the Babylonian mantic and astronomical tradition had on the growing Hebrew apocalyptic texts remains beyond dispute.

(VanderKam, Enoch and the Growth, pp. 6-15; Robinson, “Origins,” pp. 38-51.)

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, The Earthly Paradise (Garden of Eden). Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516 CE) painted The Garden of Earthly Delights with oil on panel between 1480 and 1505 CE. This is the leftmost panel of three. It was acquired by the Museo del Prado, Madrid, in 1939.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jheronimus_Bosch_023.jpg This work is in the public domain in the United States and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, The Earthly Paradise (Garden of Eden).
Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516 CE) painted The Garden of Earthly Delights with oil on panel between 1480 and 1505 CE. This is the leftmost panel of three. It was acquired by the Museo del Prado, Madrid, in 1939.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jheronimus_Bosch_023.jpg
This work is in the public domain in the United States and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

Since the times of Flavius Josephus, the first century Jewish historian who also recorded the Roman destruction of the second temple on 4 August 70 CE, the relationship of the Jewish prehistory to the similar traditions of the neighbouring cultures became a pivotal point for all sorts of discussions.

While not very widely distributed initially, the Babyloniaca of Berossos gained increasing influence on the picture of the earlier Mesopotamian history in antiquity, despite the fact that the primary source for all Hellenistic scholarship remained Ctesias of Cnidos (in Caria) from the fifth century BCE.

The interest in Berossos’ work was mainly provoked by his account of Babylonian astronomy, and, in the Christian era, by his record of the Babylonian flood lore.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1480-1505 CE, the complete triptych. It is in the collection of the Museo del Prado, Madrid.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jheronimus_Bosch_023.jpg This work is in the public domain in the United States and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1480-1505 CE, the complete triptych.
It is in the collection of the Museo del Prado, Madrid.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jheronimus_Bosch_023.jpg
This work is in the public domain in the United States and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.

(A Hellenistic priest from Babylon, living during Alexander’s reign over the capital (330-323 BCE), that is less than 200 years before the alleged earliest Qumran manuscripts!)

His report of the ten antediluvian kings was paralleled apologetically to traditions from the Hebrew Bible. In this way Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea (circa 260-340 BCE), used the Babyloniaca in order to harmonize the biblical and the pagan traditions, whereas Flavius Josephus used it for Jewish apologetics.

Therefore, the controversial debate over the reliability of biblical stories about the patriarchs and their relation to the mytho-historical accounts of Mesopotamian prehistory have persisted for two millennia.”

Gebhard J. Selz, “Of Heroes and Sages–Considerations of the Early Mesopotamian Background of Some Enochic Traditions,” in Armin Lange, et alThe Dead Sea Scrolls in Context, v. 2, Brill, 2011, pp. 787-9.

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