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Tag: An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language

Eco: Francis Lodwick, 2

John Wilkins, An Essay Towards a Real Character, p. 311

John Wilkins (1614-1672), An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, London, John Martin, 1668, p. 311. Reproduced as Figure 13.2 in Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, “Francis Lodwick,” 1995, p. 264. 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. 

“This idea of a non-hierarchical organization seems, at one point, to have occurred to Wilkins as well. Figure 13.2 reproduces a table found on p. 311 of his Essay. The table describes the workings of prepositions of motion by relating the possible positions (and possible actions) of a human body in a three-dimensional space.

It is a table in which there is no principle of hierarchy whatsoever. Yet this is an isolated example, and Wilkins seems to have lacked the courage to extend this principle to his entire system of content.

Unfortunately, even Lodwick’s primitives for actions were not really primitive at all. It would undoubtedly be possible to identify a series of positions assumed by the human body in space–such as getting up or lying down–and argue that these were intuitively and universally comprehensible; yet the sixteen radicals proposed by Lodwick can be criticized in the same way as Degérando would later do for Wilkins: even such a simple notion as to walk must be defined in terms of movement, the notion of movement requires as its components those of place, of existence in a given place, of a moving substance which in different instants passes from one place to another.

All this presupposes the notions of departure, passage and arrival, as well as that of a principle of action which imparts motion to a substance, and of members which support and convey a body in motion in a specific way (“car glisser, ramper, etc., ne sont pas la même chose que marcher;” “since sliding, climbing, etc., are not the same as walking;” Des signes, IV, 395).

Moreover, it is also necessary to conceive of a terrestrial surface upon which movement was to take place–otherwise one could think of other actions like swimming or flying. However, at this point one should also subject the ideas of surface or members to the same sort of regressive componential analysis.

One solution would be to imagine that such action primitives are selected ad hoc as metalinguistic constructs to serve as parameters for automatic translation. An example of this is the computer language designed by Schank and Abelson (1977), based on action primitives such as PROPEL, MOVER, INGEST, ATRANS OR EXPEL, by which it is possible to analyze more complex actions like to eat (however, when analyzing the sentence “John is eating a frog,” Schank and Abelson–like Lodwick–cannot further analyze frog).

Other contemporary semantic systems do not start by seeking a definition of a buyer in order to arrive eventually at the definition of the action of buying, but start rather by constructing a type-sequence of actions in which a subject A gives money to a subject B and receives an object in exchange.

Clearly the same type-sequence can be employed to define not only the buyer, but also the seller, as well as the notions of to buy, to sell, price, merchandise, and so forth. In the language of artificial intelligence, such a sequence of actions is called a “frame.”

A frame allows a computer to draw inferences from preliminary information: if A is a buyer, then he may perform this and that action; if A performs this or that action, then he may be a buyer; if A obtains merchandise from B but does not pay him, then A is not a guyer, etc., etc.

In still other contemporary semantics, the verb to kill, for example, might be represented as “Xs causes (Xd changes to (- live Xd)) + (animate Xd) & (violent Xs):” if a subject (s) acts, with violent means or instruments, in a way that causes another subject (d), an animate being, to change from a state of living to a state of death, then s has killed d. If we wished, instead, to represent the verb to assassinate, we should add the further specification that d is not only an animate being, but also a political person.

It is worth noting that Wilkins‘ dictionary also includes assassin, glossing it by its synonym murther (erroneously designating it as the fourth species of the third difference in the genera of judicial relations: in fact, it is the fifth species), but limiting the semantic range of the term by “especially, under pretence of Religion.”

It is difficult for a philosophic a priori language to follow the twists and turns of meaning of a natural language.

Properly worked out, Lodwick’s project might represent to assassinate by including a character for to kill and adding to it a note specifying purpose and circumstances.

Lodwick’s language is reminiscent of the one described by Borges in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (in Ficciones), which works by agglutinations of radicals representing not substances but rather temporary fluxes. It is a language in which there would be no word for the noun moon but only the verb to moon or to moondle.

Although it is certain that Borges knew, if only at second hand, the work of Wilkins, he probably had never heard of Lodwick. What is certain, however, is that Borges had in mind the Cratylus, 396b–and it is by no means impossible that Lodwick knew this passage as well.

Here Plato, arguing that names are not arbitrary but motivated, gives examples of the way in which, rather than directly representing the things that they designate, words may represent the origin or the result of an action.

For instance, the strange difference (in Greek) between the nominative Zeus and the genitive Dios arose because the original name of Jupiter was a syntagm that expressed the habitual activity associated with the king of the gods: di’hoòn zen, “He through whom life is given.”

Other contemporary authors have tried to avoid the contortions that result from dictionary definitions by specifying the meaning of a term by a set of instructions, that is, a procedure which can decide whether or not a certain word can be applied.

This idea had already appeared in Charles Sanders Pierce (Collected Papers, 2.330): here is provided a long and complex explanation of the term lithium, in which this chemical element was defined not only in relation to its place in the periodic table of elements and by its atomic weight, but also by the operations necessary to produce a specimen of it.

Lodwick never went as far as this; still, his own intuition led him to run counter to an idea that, even in the centuries to follow, proved difficult to overcome. This was the idea that nouns came first; that is, in the process in which language had emerged, terms for things had preceded terms for actions.

Besides, the whole of Aristotelian and Scholastic discussion privileged substances (expressed by common nouns) as the subjects of a statement, in which the terms for actions played the role of predicates.

We saw in chapter 5 that, before the advent of modern linguistics, theorists tended to base their research on nomenclature. Even in the eighteenth century, Vico could still assume that nouns arose before verbs (Scienza nuova seconda, II, 2.4). He found this to be demonstrated not only by the structure of a proposition, but by the fact that children expressed themselves first in names and interjections, and only later in verbs.

Condillac (Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines, 82) also affirmed that “for a long time language remained with no words other than nouns.” Stankiewicz (1974) has traced the emergence of a different trend starting with the Hermes of Harris (1751: III), followed by Monboddo (Of the Origins and Progress of Language, 1773-92) and Herder, who, in his Vom Geist der hebräischen Poesie (1787), noted that a noun referred to things as if they were dead while a verb conferred movement upon them, thus stimulating sensation.

Without following Stankiewicz’s reconstruction step by step, it is worth noting that the reevaluation of the role of the verb was assumed in the comparative grammars by the theorists of the Indo-European hypothesis, and that in doing so they followed the old tradition of Sanskrit grammarians, who derived any word from a verbal root (1974: 176).

We can close with the protest of De Sanctis, who, discussing the pretensions of philosophic grammars, criticized the tradition of reducing verbs to nouns and adjectives, observing that: “I love is simply not the same as I am a lover [ . . . ] The authors of philosophical grammars, reducing grammar to logic, have failed to perceive the volitional aspect of thought” (F. De Sanctis, Teoria e storia della litteratura, ed. B. Croce, Bari: Laterza, 1926: 39-40).

In this way, in Lodwick’s dream for a perfect language there appears the first, timid and, at the time, unheeded hint of the problems that were to become the center of successive linguistics.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 264-8.

Eco:The Limits of Classification, 2

John Wilkins, An Essay, the Lords Prayer, Ch.II, p. 8

John Wilkins (1614-1672), An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, London, John Martin, 1668. Chapter II, p. 8, a discussion of the changes in the Lord’s Prayer. 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. 

“Let us try to understand a little better what is happening here. Suppose we wanted to use the real character to understand the difference between a dog and a wolf. We discover only that the dog, Zitα, is the first member of the first specific pair of the fifth difference of the genus Beasts, and that the wolf Zitαs, is the opposing member of this pair (s being the character for specific opposition).

But in this way the character says what is the position of a dog in a universal classification of beasts (which, like Fish and Bird are animate sensitive sanguineous substances), without providing information either on the physical characteristics of dogs or on the difference between a dog and a wolf.

To learn more about dogs and wolves we must read further in the tables. Here we can learn (1) that clawed viviparous animals have toes at the end of their feet; (2) that rapacious viviparous animals have generally “six short pointed incisors, or cutting teeth, and two long fangs to hold their prey;” (3) that the head of dog-kind beasts is oblong, while the head of cat-kind animals is roundish; (4) that the larger of the dog-kind fall into two further groups–“either that which is noted for tameness and docility; or for wildness and enmity to sheep.”

With this, we finally know the difference between a dog and a wolf.

Thus genera, differences and species only serve to “taxonomize” entities rather than to define the properties by which we recognize them. To make these properties evident it is necessary to attach a running commentary to the classification.

Within Aristotelian classification, defining man as a rational animal was perfectly adequate. But this is not adequate for Wilkins, for he lived in an age that wished to discover the physical and biological nature of things.

He thus needed to know what were the morphological and behavioral characteristics of dogs as well. Yet his tables only allowed him to express this information in the form of additional properties and circumstances, and this additional information had to be expressed in natural language because the characteristic language lacked the formulae to render it evident.

This consecrates the failure of Wilkins‘ project, considering that, according to his project, “we should, by learning the Character and the Names of things, be instructed likewise in their Natures” (p. 21).

One might wish at least to call Wilkins a pioneer of modern, scientific taxonomy (like the taxonomy shown in figure 10.3). Yet, as Slaughter has noted, he has lumped together the pre-scientific taxonomies and folk taxonomy.

To classify, as we usually do, onions and garlic as foodstuffs and lilies as flowers is an instance of folk taxonomy: from a botanical point of view, onions, garlic and lilies are all members of the Liliaceae family.

See how Wilkins, when he classifies dogs, starts out using morphological criteria, then goes on mixing functional and even geographical criteria.

What, then, is that character Zitα that tells us so little about dogs, forcing us to learn more by inspecting the tables? One might compare it with a pointer which permits access to information stored in the computer’s memory–and which is not provided by the form of the character itself.

The speakers who wished to use the characteristic language as their natural idiom should have already memorized all that information in order to understand the character. But that is exactly the same type of competence requested of speakers who, instead of Zitα, say cane, dog, per or Hund.

For this reason, the encyclopedic information that underlies the list of primitives negates the compositional principle of Wilkins‘ language. Wilkins‘ primitives are not primitives at all. His species do not emerge from the composition of genera and differences alone; they are also names used as pegs to hang up encyclopedic descriptions.

Moreover, not even genera and differences are primitive, since they can be defined only through encyclopedic definitions. They neither are innate notions, nor can be immediately grasped by intuition: if one could still say so of the ideas of “God” or “world,” one would hardly do so for, let us say, “naval and ecclesiastical relations.”

Genera and differences are not primitive notions because–if they were–they should be definable by nature, while the tables are conceived just in order to define them by means of a natural language, Wilkins‘ English.

If Wilkins‘ classification were logical consistent, it should be possible to assume that it is analytically true that the genus of Beasts entails Animate Substance, which in its turn entails Creatures Considered Distributively.

Even this, in fact, is not always the case. The opposition vegetative / sensitive, for example, in the table of genera serves to distinguish Stone and Tree (and has an uncertain status); but the same opposition reappears (not once but twice) in the table of the World (see figure 12.6, where repeated terms are in bold).

Thus, on the basis of figure 12.1, one should admit that everything vegetative is necessarily an animate creature, while according to figure 12.6, one should (rather contradictorily) admit that everything vegetative is necessarily an element of both the spiritual and the corporeal world.

It is obvious that these various entities (be they genera, species or whatever) are considered under a different point of view every time they appear in the tables. Yet, in this case, we are no longer confronting a classification whose purpose is to construct a tree of organized terms in which every entity is unequivocally defined by the place it holds within the classification; we are, instead, confronting a great encyclopedia in which it is only expected that the same topics will be treated from more than one point of view in different articles.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.6, p. 257

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 12.6, p. 257.

Consulting the table for Economic Relations, we find, among its species, the pair Defending versus Deserting. If we turn to the table for Military Relations we still find Defense; though this time it is opposed to Offense.

It is true that when defense is considered as an economic relation and the opposite of desertion, it is written Coco, while considered as a type of military action, the opposite of offense, it is written Sibα.

Thus two different characters denote two different notions. Yet are they really different notions rather than one notion considered from two viewpoints? As a matter of fact, the ideas of economic defence and military defence seem to have something in common.

In both cases we are facing an act of war, which is seen the first time as a patriotic duty and the second time as a response to the enemy. The fact that the two notions are conceptually related, however, implies that within the structure of pseudo-dichotomies there also exist transversal connections, linking the nodal points in different sections of the tree.

Yet is such connections exist, then the tree is no more a hierarchical tree; it is rather a network of interrelated ideas.

In his work De signes, written in 1800, Joseph-Marie Degérando accused Wilkins of continually confusing classification with division:

“Division differs from classification in that the latter bases itself upon the intimate properties of the objects it wishes to distribute, while the former follows a rule to a certain end to which these objects are destined.

Classification apportions ideas into genera, species, and families; division allocates them into regions of greater or lesser extent. Classification is the method of botanists; division is the method by which geography is taught.

If one wishes for an even clearer example, when an Army is drawn up in battle formation, each brigade under its general, each battalion under its commander, each company under its captain, this is an image of division; when, however, the state of this army is presented on a role, which principally consists of en enumeration of the officers of each rank, then of the subalterns, and finally of the soldiers, this is an image of classification (IV, 399-400).”

Degérando is doubtlessly thinking here of Leibniz’s notion of the ideal library and of the structure of the Encyclopédie of which we will later speak), that is, of a criterion for subdividing matter according to the importance that it has for us.

Yet a practical classification follows criteria different from those which should rule a system of primitives based on metaphysical assumptions.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 254-8.

Eco: The Limits of Classification

John Wilkins, An Essay, the Lords Prayer, Ch.II, p. 7

John Wilkins (1614-1672), An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, London, John Martin, 1668. Chapter II, p. 7, a discussion of the changes in the Lord’s Prayer. 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. 

“Using 40 genera and 251 differences, Wilkins‘ tables manage to define 2,030 species. If, however, the division were dichotomic, as happens with the Aristotelian system of classification, in which each genus was assigned two decisive differences which constituted to new species below, and in which each of these new species then played the role of genera at the lower level in the process of dichotomization, there should have been at least 2,048 species (as well as 1,025 intermediary genera plus the category at the apex) and an equal number of differences.

If the figures do not add up in the way that they should, it is clear that, in reconstructing a single general tree from the 41 particular trees represented in the tables, one would not find a constant dichotomic structure.

The structure is not dichotomic because Wilkins mixes substances and accidents together; but since, as Dalgarno had recognized, the number of accidents is infinite, there is no way that they can be hierarchically ordered.

In fact, Wilkins must classify fundamental and Platonic conceptions, like God, world or tree, together with drinks, like beer, political offices, military and ecclesiastical ranks–in short, the whole notional world of a seventeenth century Englishman.

It suffices to look at figure 12.1 to see that the accidents are subdivided into five categories each yielding from three to five genera. There are three subdivisions of the genus Herb as well as of the genus Transcendental things.

With a dichotomic structure it would be easy, once having established the number of embedded levels, to control the total number of entities in the system; once the pattern has been broken, however, and more than two subdivisions allowed to appear at each nodal point, the whole system begins to spin out of control.

The system is open to new discoveries, but, at the same time, surrenders its control over the number of primitives.

When he reaches the last differences, Wilkins arranges them in pairs. Yet, as he is the first to recognize, he has made his arrangement “for the better helming of the memory” (p. 22), not according to a rigorous criterion of opposition.

He informs us that pairs are based sometimes on opposition and sometimes on affinity. He admits to having coupled his differences in an arguable way, but says that he did so “because I knew not to provide for them better” (p. 22).

For instance, in the first genus, General Transcendental, the third difference, Diversity, generates as the second of its species Goodness and its opposite, Evil; but the second difference, Cause, generates as its third species Example and Type.

These two categories are not opposed; in fact it is not clear what their relation to each other is. We can imagine some sort of relation of affinity or similarity; yet, in whatever case, the criterion seems weak and ad hoc.

Among the accidents of Private Relations, under the species Economical Relations, we find both Relations of Consanguinity (like Progenitor / Descendant, Brother / Half-Brother, Coelebs / Virgin–but Coelebs has among its synonyms both Bachelour and Damosel, while Virgin only Maid) and Relations of Superiority (Direct / Seduce, Defending / Deserting).

It is clear that all of these oppositions lack a constant criterion. Among the same Private Relations there are also the Provisions, which includes pairs such as Butter / Cheese, but also actions such as Butchering / Cooking and Box / Basket.

Frank has observed that Wilkins considered as semantically equivalent different kinds of pseudo-opposition as they appear in natural languages, which can work by antonymy (good / evil), by complementarity (husband / wife), by conversely (buy / sell), by relativity (over / under, bigger / smaller), by temporal gradation (Monday / Tuesday / Wednesday), by quantitative gradation (centimeter / meter / kilometer), by antipodality (north / south), by orthogonality (north-east / south-east), or by vectorial conversely (depart / arrive).

It is hardly by chance that Wilkins is repeatedly forced to justify his language on mnemonic grounds. In fact, Wilkins takes some of his procedures from the traditional arts of memory.

His criterion for establishing pairs is based on the most common mnemonic habits. Rossi (1960: 252) notes that Wilkins‘ botanist, John Ray, complained that he was not permitted to follow the commandments of nature, but rather the exigencies of regularity, almost as if he were forced to adapt his classification more to requirements of the traditional theaters of memory than to the canons of modern taxonomies.

Nor is it even clear what, in the tree of genera (figure 12.1), the subdivisions in lower case actually mean. They cannot be differences, because the differences appear later, in successive tables, and determine how, in each of the 40 major genera, the dependent species are to be generated.

Some of these lower-case entities seem to serve as super-genera; yet others appear in an adjectival form. Certain of these latter look like differences in the Aristotelian tradition–like animate / inanimate, for example. We might regard them as pseudo-differences.

However, if the generative path “substances + inanimate = ELEMENTS” seems to follow an Aristotelian criterion, the disjunctions after animate are established in a quite different fashion.

Animate substances are divided into parts and species, the species are divided into vegetative and sensitive, the vegetative species into imperfect and perfect, and it is only at the end of these disjunctions that it is possible to isolate genera like Stone or Metal.

This is not the only instance of this sort of confusion. Moreover, given a pair of opposed categories, such as Creator / creature, the first term of the division is a genus, but the second appears as a pseudo-difference through which, after other disjunctions, it is possible to isolate other genera.

Likewise, in the group Herb, Shrub and Tree, the last two are genera; the first is a sort of super-genus (or pseudo-difference) subdivided into three further genera.

It would be nice, Wilkins confessed (p. 289), if each of his differences had its own transcendental denomination; yet there did not seem to be sufficient terms in the language for this.

He admitted as well that while, in theory, a well-enough individuated difference would immediately reveal the form which gave the essence to each thing, these forms remained largely unknown.

So he had to content himself by defining things through properties and circumstances.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 251-4.

Eco: An Open Classification?

John Wilkins, An Essay towards a Real Character, 1668, p. a from the Epistle

John Wilkins (1614-1672), An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, page a from the Epistle. London, John Martin, 1668. GoogleBooks offers a digital version of the complete text. 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. 

“In reality, Wilkins’ classification ought to be regarded as an open one. Following a suggestion of Comenius‘ (in the Via lucis), Wilkins argued that the task of constructing an adequate classification could only be undertaken by a group of scientists working over a considerable period of time, and to this end he solicited the collaboration of the Royal Society.

The Essay was thus considered no more than a first draft, subject to extensive revision. Wilkins never claimed that the system, as he presented it, was finished.

Looking back at figures 12.3 and 12.4, it is evident that there are only nine signs or letters to indicate either differences or species. Does this mean that each genus may have no more than nice species? It seems that the number nine had no ontological significance for Wilkins, and that he chose it simply because he thought nine was the maximum number of entities that might easily be remembered.

He realized that the actual number of species for each genus could not be limited. In fact, certain of the genera in the tables only have six species, but there are ten species for the Umbelliferous and seventeen for the Verticillates Non Fruticose.

To accommodate genera with over nine species Wilkins invented a number of graphic artifices. For simplicity’s sake, let us say that, in the spoken language, to specify a second group of nine species an l is added after the first consonant of the name, and that to specify a third group an r is added.

Therefore if Gαpe is normally Tulip (third species of the fourth difference of the genus Herbs according to their leaves), then Glαpe will be Ramsom, because the addition of the l means that the final e no longer indicates the third species in the genus but the twelfth.

Yet is precisely at this point that we come across a curious error. In the example we just gave, we had to correct Wilkins‘ text (p. 415). The text uses the normal English terms Tulip and Ramsom, but designates them in characters by Gαde and Glαde rather than Gαpe and Glαpe (as it should be).

If one checks carefully on the tables, one discovered that Gαde denotes Barley, not Tulip. Wilkins‘ mistake can be easily explained: regardless of whatever botanical affinities the plants might possess, in common English, the words Tulip and Barley are phonetically dissimilar, and thus unlikely to ever be confused with each other.

In a philosophical language, however, members of the same species are easy to muddle either phonetically or graphically. Without constant double-checking against the tables, it is difficult to avoid misprints and misunderstandings.

The problem is that in a characteristic language, for every unit of an expression one is obliged to find a corresponding content-unit. A characteristic language is thus not founded–as happens with natural languages–on the principle of double articulation, by virtue of which meaningless sounds, or phonemes, are combined to produce meaningful syntagms.

This means that in a language of “real” characters any alteration of a character (or of the corresponding sound) entails a change of sense.

This is a disadvantage that arises from what was intended as the great strength of the system, that is, its criterion of composition by atomic features, in order to ensure a complete isomorphism between expression and content.

Flame is Debα, because here the α designates a species of the element Fire. If we replace the α  with an a we obtain a new composition, Deba, that means Comet. When designing his system, Wilkins‘ choice of α and a was arbitrary; once they are inserted into a syntagm, however, the syntagmatic composition is supposed to mirror the very composition of the denoted thing, so that “we should, by learning the Character and the Names of things, be instructed likewise in their Natures” (p. 21).

This creates the problem of how to find the name for yet unknown things. According to Frank (1979: 80), Wilkins‘ language, dominated by the notion of a definitively pre-established Great Chain of Being, cannot be creative. The language can name unknown things, but only within the framework of the system itself.

Naturally, one can modify the tables by inserting into them a new species, but this presupposes the existence of some sort of linguistic authority with the power to permit us to think of a new thing. In Wilkins’s language neologisms are not impossible, but harder to form than in natural languages (Knowlson 1975: 101).

One might defend Wilkins‘ language by arguing that it really encompasses a rational methodology of scientific research. If, for example, we were to transform the character Detα (rainbow) into Denα we would obtain a character that we could analyze as denoting the first species of the ninth difference of the genus Element.

Yet there is no such species in the tables. We cannot take the character metaphorically, because only characters followed by transcendental particles may be so interpreted. We can only conclude that the character unequivocally designates an as yet to be discovered content, and that even if the content remains undiscovered, the character has at least told us the precise point where it is to be found.

But what and where is that “point?” If the tables were analogous to the periodic table in chemistry, then we really would know what to look for. The periodic table contains boxes which, though momentarily empty, might, one day, be filled.

Yet the language of chemistry is rigorously quantitative; the table gives the atomic number and weight of each missing element. An empty space in Wilkins‘ classification, however, merely tells us that there is a hole at that point; it does not tell us what we need to fill it up, or why the hole appears in one space rather than another.

Since Wilkins‘ language is not based on a rigorous classification, it cannot be used as a procedure of scientific discovery.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 248-51.

Eco: The English Debate on Character and Traits


Anonymous, Gerardus Johannes Vossius (1577-1649), 1636, inscribed (verso): GERH.JOH. VOSSIUS CANONICUS CANTUARIENSIS PROFESSOR HISTORIARII AMSTELO…AET LX Ao 1636. Held at the Universiteitsmuseum Amsterdam. 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.

“In 1654 John Webster wrote his Academiarum examen, an attack on the academic world, which had allegedly given an insufficient amount of attention to the problem of universal language.

Like many of this English contemporaries, Webster was influenced by Comenius‘ propaganda for a universal language. He foresaw the birth of a “Hieroglyphical, Emblematical, Symbolical, and Cryptographical learning.”

Describing the general utility of algebraic and mathematical signs, he went on to note that “the numerical notes, which we call figures and ciphers, the Planetary Characters, the marks for minerals, and many other things in Chymistry, though they be alwaies the same and vary not, yet are understood by all nations in Europe, and when they are read, every one pronounces them in their own Countrey’s language and dialect.” (pp. 24-5).

Webster was not alone; other authors were taking up and elaborating ideas which had first originated with Bacon. Another writer championing universal characters was Gerhard Vossius in De arte grammatica, 1635 (1.41).

Nevertheless, for the men from whose ranks the Royal Society would later be formed, Webster’s demand for research in hieroglyphic and emblematic characters sounded too much like Father Kircher’s Egyptian linguistics.

In effect, Webster was indeed thinking of a language of nature in opposition to the institutionalized language of men (see Formigari 1970: 37).

Responding to Webster, in another pamphlet, also published in 1654 (Vindiciae academiarum, to which Wilkins himself added an introduction), Seth Ward denounced the mystic propensities of his opponent (see Slaughter 1982: 138ff).

Ward made no objection to the idea of the real character as such, provided that it was constructed upon the algebraic model invented by Viète in the sixteenth century and elaborated by Descartes, where letters of the alphabet stand for mathematical quantities.

It is, however, evident that what Ward thought of was not what Webster had in mind.

Ward argued that only the real character of which he spoke could be termed as “a naturall Language and would afford that which the Cabalists and Rosycrucians have vainely sought for in the Hebrew” (p. 22).

In his introduction Wilkins went even further: Webster, he wrote, was nothing but a credulous fanatic. Even in his Essay, which we will soon discuss, Wilkins could not resist shooting, in his introduction, indignant darts in Webster’s direction without naming him directly.

In spite of all this, however, the projects of the religious mystics did have something in common with those of the “scientists.” In that century the play of reciprocal influence was very complex and many have detected relationships between Lullists or Rosicrucians and the inventors of philosophical languages (see Ormsby-Lennon 1988; Knowlson 1975; and, of course, Yates and Rossi).

Nevertheless, in contrast to the long tradition of the search for the lost language of Adam, the position of Ward, with the aid of Wilkins, was entirely secular.

This is worth emphasizing: there was no longer any question of discovering the lost language of humanity; the new language was to be a new and totally artificial language, founded upon philosophic principles, and capable of realizing, by rational means, that which the various purported holy languages (always dreamt of, never really rediscovered) had sought but failed to find.

In every one of the holy and primordial languages we have so far considered, at least in the way they were presented, there was an excess of content, never completely circumscribable, in respect of expression.

By contrast, the search was now for a scientific or philosophical language, in which, by an unprecedented act of impositio nominum, expression and content would be locked in permanent accord.

Men such as Ward and Wilkins thus aimed at being the new Adam; it was this that turned their projects into a direct challenge to the older tradition of mystic speculation. In the letter to the reader that introduced the Essay, Wilkins writes:

“This design would likewise contribute much to the clearing of some of our modern differences in Religion, by unmasking many wild errors, that shelter themselves under the disguise of affected phrases; which being Philosophically unfolded, and rendered according to the genuine and natural importance of Words, will appear to be inconsistencies and contradictions. (B1r).”

This was nothing less than a declaration of war on tradition, a promise of a different species of therapy that would finally massage out the cramps in language; it is the first manifestation of that skeptical-analytic current of thought, exquisitely British, that, in the twentieth century, would use linguistic analysis as an instrument for the confutation of metaphysics.

Despite the persistence of the Lullian influences, there can be no doubt that, in order to realize their project, British philosophers paid close attention to Aristotle’s system of classification.

The project of Ward is an example. It was not enough simply to invent real characters for the new language; it was necessary also to develop a criterion that would govern the primitive features that would compose these characters:

“All Discourses being resolved in sentences, these into words, words signifying either simple notions or being resolvable into simple notions, it is manifest, that if all the sorts of simple notions be found out, and have Symboles assigned to them, those will be extremely few in respect of the other [ . . . ] the reason of their composition easily known, and the most compounded ones at once will be comprehended [ . . . ] so to deliver the nature of things. (Vindiciae, 21).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 218-21.

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