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Eco: The Egyptian vs. The Chinese Way, 3


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Origins of the Chinese Characters, China Illustrata, 1667, 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.

“As the debate carried over into the eighteenth century, an increased social awareness and pedagogical attention began to be shown. We catch the traces of this in a tract written for quite different purposes, Diderot’s Lettre sur l’éducation des sourds et muets in 1751.

In 1776, the Abbé de l’Epée (Institutions des sourds et muets par la voie des signes méthodiques) entered into a polemic against the common, dactylological form of deaf-mute speak, which, then as now, was the common method of signing with fingers the letters of the alphabet.

De l’Epée was little interested that this language helped deaf-mutes communicate in a dactylological  version of the French language; instead he was besotted by the vision of a perfect language.

He taught his deaf-mutes to write in French; but he wished, above all, to teach them to communicate in a visual language of his own devising; it was a language not of letters but of concepts–therefore an ideography that, he thought, might one day become universal.

We can take for an example his method of teaching the meaning of “I believe,” thinking that his method might also work between speakers of different languages:

“I begin by making the sign of the first person singular, pointing  the index finger of my right hand towards my chest. I then put my finger on my forehead, on the concave part in which is supposed to reside my spirit, that is to say, my capacity for thought, and I make the sign for yes.

I then make the same sign on that part of the body which, usually, is considered as the seat of what is called the heart in its spiritual sense. [ . . . ]

I the make the same sign yes on my mouth while moving my lips. [ . . . ]

Finally, I place my hand on my eyes, and, making the sign for no show that I do not see.

At this point, all I need to do is to make the sign of the present [the Abbé had devised a series of sign gestures in which pointing once or twice in front of or behind the shoulders specified the proper tense] and to write I believe.” (pp. 80-1).

In the light of what we have been saying, it should appear evident that the visual performances of the good Abbé might be susceptible to a variety of interpretations were he not to take the precaution of employing a supplementary means (like writing out the word) to provide an anchor to prevent the fatal polysemy of his images.

It has sometimes been observed that the true limitation of iconograms is that, as well as they signify form or function, they cannot so easily signify actions, verb tenses, adverbs or prepositions.

In an article with the title “Pictures can’t say “ain’t,” Sol Worth (1975) argued that an image cannot assert the non-existence of what it represents. It is obviously possible to think of a code containing graphic operators signifying “existence/non-existence” or “past/future” and “conditional.”

But these signs would still depend (parasitically) on the semantic universe of the verbal language–as would happen (see ch. 10) with the so-called universal characters.

The ability of a visual language to express more than one meaning at once is also, therefore, its limitation. Goodman has noted (1968: 23) that there is a difference between a man-picture and a picture of a man.

The picture of a human being can be devised to represent (1) any member of the human race, (2) an individual person so-and-so, (3) a given person on the verge of doing something, dressed in a certain way, and so on.

Naturally the title can help to disambiguate the intention of the artist, but once again images are fatally “anchored” to words.

There have been any number of proposals for visual alphabets, some quite recent. We might cite Bliss’s Semantography, Eckhardt’s Safo, Janson’s Picto and Ota’s LoCos. Yet, as Nöth has observed (1990: 277), these are all cases of pasigraphy (which we shall discuss in a later chapter) rather than true languages.

Besides, they are based on natural languages. Many, moreover, are mere lexical codes without any grammatical component. The Nobel by Milan Randic consists of 20,000 visual lemmas, which can be combined together: a crown with an arrow pointing at a square with the uppermost side missing means “abdication” (where the square stands for a basket); two legs signify “to go,” and when this sign is united with the sign for “with” it means “to accompany.”

We seem to have returned to a sort of simplified hieroglyph which, in any case, will require us to learn a double set of conventions: the first to assign univocal meanings to single signs, the second to assign univocal meanings to sign clusters.

Each of these purely visual systems thus represents (1) a segment of artificial language, (2) endowed with a quasi-international extension, (3) capable of being used in only limited sectors, (4) debarred from creative use lest the images lose their capacity for univocal denotation, (5) without a grammar capable of generating an infinite or unlimited number of “sentences,” (6) unable to express new ideas because every element of expression always corresponds to a predetermined element of content, know in advance.

One could say that there is only a single system, which can claim the widest range of diffusion and comprehensibility: the images of cinema and television. One is tempted to say that this is certainly a “language” understood around the earth.

Nevertheless, even such a language displays certain disadvantages: it has difficulties in presenting mathematical abstractions and philosophical arguments; its alleged universal comprehensibility is problematic, at least as far as its editing syntax is concerned; finally, if there is no difficulty involved in receiving cinematic or televised images, it is extremely difficult to produce them.

Ease of execution is a notable argument in favor of verbal languages. Anyone who wished to communicate in a strictly visual language would probably have to go about with a camcorder, a portable television set, and a sackful of tapes, resembling Swift’s wise men who, having decided that it was necessary to show any object they wanted to designate, were forced to drag enormous sacks behind them.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 173-6.

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: The Egyptian vs. The Chinese Way


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), frontispiece depicting Adam Schall and Matteo Ricci holding a map of China, China Illustrata, 1667, 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.

“Although today many are still of the opinion that images provide a means of communication that can overcome language barriers, the explanation of the way in which images can accomplish this by now takes one of two forms: the Egyptian and the Chinese way.

The Egyptian way today belongs only to art history. We believe that visual media such as paintings, sequences in films, etc. are “texts” which convey emotions and feelings that could not be expressed verbally: we cannot represent by mere words Mona Lisa to a blind person.

The meanings that such texts can express are multiple, because there is no universal code: the rules of representation (and of recognizability) for an Egyptian mural, an Arab miniature, a painting by Turner or a comic strip are simply not the same in each case.

It is true that some ideograms have been used as characters of a universal code, for instances many road signals; in the same vein we are using more or less universal pictograms (think of the schematic crossed knives and forks which signal a restaurant in an airport, or of the stylized “ladies” and “gentlemen” on public lavatory doors).

Sometimes visual signs are merely substituting alphabetical letters, as happens with semaphores or flag signals; sometimes a yellow flag meaning “contagious disease on board” simply stands for a verbal sentence (cf. Prieto 1966).

Likewise, the gestural languages of Trappist monks, Indian merchants, gypsies or thieves, as well as the drummed and whistled languages of certain tribes (cf. Le Barre 1964), are equally dependent on the model of natural languages.

As useful, convenient and ingenious as some of these systems of communication may be, they make no claims to being “perfect” languages in which philosophers might one day wish to compose a treatise.

Any language of images is based on the alleged fact that images exhibit some properties of the represented things. Yet in any representable thing there will always be a multitude of properties, and there are infinite points of view under which an image can be judged similar to something else. Moreover, “that a picture looks like nature often means only that it looks the way nature is usually painted” (Goodman 1968: 39).

We can see this by looking at the various versions of a semiotic apparatus (if not a true language) which remained alive for centuries and which flowered in the same period when the western culture was looking for perfect visual languages: the arts of memory (cf. Rossi 1960; Yates 1966).

An art of memory establishes at its expression-plane a system of loci (that is, of places in the literal sense of the word) which may be imagined as the rooms of a building or palace, or as an urban street or square.

This system of loci is destined to house a set of images, drawn from the same iconographical field, which will play the role of lexical units. The content-plane is given by a system of res memoranda, in other words, of things to be remembered, usually belonging to the same conceptual framework. In this way, an art of memory is a semiotic system.

For instance, in mnemonic systems like those presented by the Congestorius artificiosae memoriae by Romberch (1520), the Dialogo del modo di accrescerce e conservare la memoria by Dolce (1575), or the Artificiosae memoriae fundamenta by Paepp (1619), the system of grammatical cases is expressed (and thus recalled) by the different parts of the human body.

Not only is this a case of one system expressing another system; it is also a case where the two planes are (in Hjelmslev‘s sense) conformal. It is not arbitrary that the head stands for nominative, the chest, which can receive blows, stands for accusative, and the hands, which possess and offer, stand for genitive and dative, and so on.

This shows that a mnemonic image, in order to express its content easily, should evoke it by similarity. But no mnemonic system was ever able to find a univocal criterion of resemblance.

The criteria are the same as those that linked the signature to its signatum. If we look back and see (ch. 6) what Paracelsus had to say about the language of Adam, the Protoplastus, we see that he represented him as naming one animal on the basis of a morphological similarity (from which a virtue derived), while, in another case, the name derived directly from a virtue not manifested by the form of the object.

In other cases, the name that Adam gave reflected neither morphology nor causal relations, but was inferred symptomatically: for instance, the horn of the stag permitted us to infer the age of the animal from the complexity of its branching.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 168-71.

Eco: Kircher’s Chinese, 2


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Transcription of the Sino-Syriac Monument from China Illustrata, 1667, p. 12. 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.

“Why did the problem of memory arise only here, and not in regard to Egyptian hieroglyphs? The reason was that hieroglyphs discharged their allegorical and metaphorical force immediately, in virtue of what Kircher held to be their inherent power of revelation, since they “integros conceptos ideales involvebant.”

By using the verb involvere (to wind or wrap up), however, Kircher meant the exact opposite of what we might, today, suppose when we think of the natural and intuitive similarity between a given image and a thing. Hieroglyphs do not make clear but rather conceal something,

This is the reason for which Kircher speaks of the inferiority of Amerindian characters (Oedipus, III, 13-4). They seemed to Kircher inferior because they were immediately pictographic, as they were representing only individuals and events; thus they looked like mere mnemonic notes unable to bear arcane revelations (Oedipus, IV, 28; on the inferiority of Amerindian characters see also Brian Walcott (ed. note: Eco has “Brian Walcott” on p. 160, when the actual name should be Brian Walton), In biblia polyglotta prolegomena, 2.23).

Chinese ideography was undoubtedly superior to Amerindian “pictography because it was capable of expressing abstract concepts. Yet, despite the fact that it also permitted witty combinations (cf. Oedipus, III, 13-4), its decipherment remained too univocal.

The Egyptians, Kircher argued, saw in the sign of the scarab not a mere scarab, but the sun–and not the material sun that warms our world of our senses, but the sun as archetype of the intelligible world. (Ed. Note: Eco has a bracket ” next to pictography but does not close it. I include it, repeating the error, as Eco published it.)

We shall see (ch. 10) that in seventeenth-century England, Chinese writing was considered perfect in so far as with ideograms every element on the expression-plane corresponded to a semantic unit on the content-plane. It was precisely these one-to-one correspondences that, for Kircher, deprived Chinese writing of its potential for mystery.

A Chinese character was monogamously bound to the concept it represented; that was its limitation: an Egyptian hieroglyph showed its superiority by its ability to summon up entire “texts,” and to express complex chunks of infinitely interpretable content.

Kircher repeated this argument in his China. There was nothing hieratic about the Chinese character; there was nothing that veiled it from profane eyes, hiding unfathomable depths of truth; it was a prosaic instrument of everyday communication.

Knowledge of Chinese could, of course, be motivated on ethnological grounds, especially as the Jesuits had acquired so many interests in China. Still, Chinese could not qualify for inclusion in the list of holy languages.

As to the Amerindian signs, not only were they patently denotative, but they revealed the diabolic nature of a people who had lost the last vestige of archaic wisdom.

As a civilization, Egypt no longer existed, and for the Europeans it was not yet a land for future conquest. Ignored in its geopolitical inconsistency, it became a Hermetical phantom. In this role it could be identified as the spiritual ancestor of the Christian West, the progenitor of the occident’s patrimony of mystic wisdom.

China, by contrast, was no phantom but a tangible Other. It was concretely there, still a political force of respectable dimensions, still a culture alternative to that of the West. The Jesuits themselves had revealed the deep roots of Chinese culture.

“The Chinese, moral and virtuous though pagan, when forgetting the truth revealed in the structure of hieroglyphs, converted their ideography into a neutral and abstract instrument of communication, and this led to the belief that their conversion would be easy to achieve.” (Pellerey 1992b: 521).

The Americas, by contrast, were designated as the land of conquest; here there would be no compromise with idolators and their low-grade species of writing: the idolators were to be converted, and every trace of their original culture, irredeemably polluted with diabolic influences, was to be wiped away.

“The demonization of the native American cultures found here a linguistic and theoretical justification.” (ibid.: 521).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 160-2.

Eco: The Pre-Hebraic Language


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Origins of the Chinese Characters, China Illustrata, or China monumentis, qua sacris qua profanis, nec non variis naturae & artis spectaculis, aliarumque rerum memorabilium argumentis 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. 

“Alongside these philosophical discussions, other inspired glottogonists (for whom the defeat of the Hebraic hypothesis was a consummated fact) were breaking new theoretical ground.

The explorers and missionaries of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had discovered civilizations, older than the Hebrews, which had their own cultural and linguistic traditions.

In 1699, John Webb (An Historical Essay endeavoring the Probability that the Language of the Empire of China is the Primitive Language) advanced the idea that, after the Flood, Noah had landed his Ark and gone to live in China.

Consequently, it was the Chinese language which held primacy. Furthermore, since the Chinese had not participated in the construction of the Tower of Babel, their language had remained immune from the effects of the confusio; Chinese had survived intact for centuries, protected from foreign invasion. Chinese thus conserved the original linguistic patrimony.

Ours is a story that proceeds through many strange anachronisms. Near the end of the eighteenth century, just at the moment when, quite unconnected with any form of the monogenetic hypothesis, a comparative methodology was about to emerge, there appeared the most gigantic attempt to date to rediscover the primitive language.

In 1765, Charles de Brosses wrote a Traité de la formation méchanique des langues. The treatise propounded a theory of language that was both naturalistic (the articulation of terms reflects the nature of things–sweet sounds designate sweet objects) and materialistic (language is reduced to physical operations, supernatural entities are seen as the result of linguistic play: cf. Droixhe 1978).

As part of this theory, however, de Brosses could not resist indulging in a series of speculations about the nature of the primitive language, “organic, physical, and necessary, that not one of the world’s peoples either knows or practices in its simplicity, but which, none the less, was spoken by all men, and constitutes the basis of language in every land” (“Discours préliminaire,” xiv-xv).

“The linguist must analyze the mechanisms of different languages, discovering which of those features arise through natural necessity. From this he may, moving through a chain of natural inferences, work his way back from each of the known languages to the original, unknown matrix.

It is only a matter of locating a small set of primitive roots that might yield a universal nomenclature for all languages, European and oriental.

Radically Cratylian and mimologist as it was (cf. Ginette 1976: 85-118), the comparative approach of de Brosses took the vowels to constitute the raw material in a continuum of sound upon which the consonants acted to sculpt out the intonations and the caesurae.

Their effect, often more visible to the eye than to the ear (remember the persistent failure to distinguish between sounds and letters), is to render consonantal identity the key criterion of comparative analysis.

Like Vico, de Brosses considered that the invention of articulated sounds had proceeded in step with the invention of writing. Fano (1962: 231; English tr., p. 147) sums up his theory very well:

“De Brosses imagines this process as follows: like the good school teacher who takes chalk in hand to make his lesson clearer from a didactic viewpoint, the cave man intermingled his discourses with little explicative figures.

If, for example, he wanted to say “a raven flew away and rested on the top of a tree,” he would first imitate the croaking of the bird, then he would express the flight with a “frrr! frrr!” and eventually take a piece of coal and draw a tree with a raven on top.”

Another Herculean effort in the cause of mimological hypothesis was that of Antoine Court de Gébelin, who, between 1773 and 1782, published nine quarto volumes, totaling over five thousand pages, giving to this opus–multiple, creaking, though not utterly devoid of interest–the title Le monde primitif analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne (cf. Genette 1976: 119-48).

Court de Gébelin knew the results of previous comparativist research. He also knew that the human linguistic faculty was exercised through a specific phonatory apparatus; and he was acquainted with its anatomy and physiology.

He followed, moreover, the doctrines of the Physiocrats, and when he sought to explain the origin of language, he did so through a re-reading of ancient myths, interpreting them as allegories describing the relation of man the farmer to the land (vol. I).

Writing, too, was susceptible to this sort of explanation. Although it was born before the separation of peoples, writing could be interpreted as having evolved in the time of the agrarian states, which needed to develop an instrument that would keep track of landed property and foster commerce and law (vol. III, p. xi) . . .

Yet there still shines Court de Gébelin‘s dream of uncovering the original language of the primitive world, the language which served as the origin and basis of a universal grammar through which all existing languages might be explained.

In the preliminary discourse to volume III, dedicated to the natural history of speech or the origins of language, Court de Gébelin affirmed that words were not born by chance: “each word has its own rationale deriving from Nature” (p. ix). He developed a strongly mimological theory of language accompanied by an ideographic theory of writing, according to which the alphabet itself is nothing but the primitive hieroglyphic script reduced to a small set of radical characters or “keys” (III, xii).

As a faculty based upon a determined anatomical structure, language might certainly be considered as God’s gift, but the elaboration of a primitive tongue was a human endeavor. It followed that when God spoke first to human beings, he had to use a language that they could understand, because it was a product of their own (III, 69).

To uncover this primitive language, Court de Gébelin undertook an impressive etymological analysis of Greek, Latin and French. Nor did he neglect coats of arms, coins, games, the voyages of the Phoenicians around the world, American Indian languages, medallions, and civil and religious history as manifested in calendars and almanacs.

As a basis for this original language he set out to reconstruct a universal grammar, founded on necessary principles, valid in all times and in all places, so that the moment that one of these principles was discovered lying immanent in any one language it could be projected into all the others.

Court de Gébelin seems, in the end, to have wanted too much. He wanted a universal grammar; he wanted the mother tongue; he wanted the biological and social origins of language.

He ended up, as Yaguello observes (1984: 19), by muddling them all together in a confused mass. To top it all off, he fell victim in the end to the siren call of the Celto-nationalist hypothesis which I shall be describing in the next section.

Celtic (being similar to oriental languages from which it originated) was the tongue of Europe’s first inhabitants. From Celtic had derived Greek, Latin, Etruscan, Thracian, German, the Cantabrian of the ancient Spaniards, and the Runic of the Norsemen (vol. V).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 91-5.

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