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Tag: Descartes

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.

Eco: The Problem of the Primitives

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, Dissertatio de Arte Combinatoria, frontispiece

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716), Dissertatio de Arte Combinatoria, frontispiece, Dissertation on the Art of Combinations or On the Combinatorial Art, Leipzig, 1666. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“What did Leibniz’s ars combinatoria have in common with the projects for universal languages? The answer is that Leibniz had long wondered what would be the best way of providing a list of primitives and, consequently, of an alphabet of thoughts or of an encyclopedia.

In his Initia et specimina scientiae generalis (Gerhardt 1875: VII, 57-60) Leibniz described an encyclopedia as an inventory of human knowledge which might provide the material for the art of combination.

In the De organo sive arte magna cogitandi (Couturat 1903: 429-31) he even argued that “the greatest remedy for the mind consists in the possibility of discovering a small set of thoughts from which an infinity of other thoughts might issue in order, in the same way as from a small set of numbers [the integers from 1 to 10] all the other numbers may be derived.”

It was in this same work that Leibniz first made hints about the combinational possibilities of a binary calculus.

In the Consilium de Encyclopedia nova conscribenda methodo inventoria (Gensini 1990: 110-20) he outlined a system of knowledge to be subjected to a mathematical treatment through rigorously conceived propositions. He proceeded to draw up a plan of how the sciences and other bodies of knowledge would then be ordered: from grammar, logic, mnemonics topics (sic) and so on to morals and to the science of incorporeal things.

In a later text on the Termini simpliciores from 1680-4 (Grua 1948: 2, 542), however, we find him falling back to a list of elementary terms, such as “entity,” “substance” and “attribute,” reminiscent of Aristotle’s categories, plus relations such as “anterior” and “posterior.”

In the Historia et commendatio linguae characteristicae we find Leibniz recalling a time when he had aspired after “an alphabet of human thoughts” such that “from the combination of the letters of this alphabet, and from the analysis of the vocables formed by these letters, things might be discovered and judged.”

It had been his hope, he added, that in this way humanity might acquire a tool which would augment the power of the mind more than telescopes and microscopes had enlarged the power of sight.

Waxing lyrical over the possibilities of such a tool, he ended with an invocation for the conversion of the entire human race, convinced, as Lull had been, that if missionaries were able to induce the idolators to reason on the basis of the calculus they would soon see that the truths of our faith concord with the truths of reason.

Immediately after this almost mystical dream, however, Leibniz acknowledged that such an alphabet had yet to be formulated. Yet he also alluded to an “elegant artifice:”

“I pretend that these marvelous characteristic numbers are already given, and, having observed certain of their general properties, I imagine any other set of numbers having similar properties, and, by using these numbers, I am able to prove all the rules of logic with an admirable order, and to show in what way certain arguments can be recognized as valid by regarding their form alone.” (Historia et commendatio, Gerhardt 1875: VII, 184ff).

In other words, Leibniz is arguing that the primitives need only be postulated as such for ease of calculation; it was not necessary that they truly be final, atomic and unanalyzable.

In fact, Leibniz was to advance a number of important philosophical considerations that led him to conclude that an alphabet of primitive thought could never be formulated. It seemed self-evident that there could be no way to guarantee that a putatively primitive term, obtained through the process of decomposition, could not be subjected to further decomposition.

This was a thought that could hardly have seemed strange to the inventor of the infinitesimal calculus:

There is not an atom, indeed there is no such thing as a body so small that it cannot be subdivided [ . . . ] It follows that there is contained in every particle of the universe a world of infinite creatures [ . . . ] There can be no determined number of things, because no such number could satisfy the need for an infinity of impressions.” (Verità prime, untitled essay in Couturat 1903: 518-23).

If no one conception of things could ever count as final, Leibniz concluded that we must use the conceptions which are most general for us, and which we can consider as prime terms only within the framework of a specific calculus.

With this, Leibniz’s characteristica breaks its link with the research into a definitive alphabet of thought. Commenting on the letter to Mersenne in which Descartes described the alphabet of thoughts as a utopia, Leibniz noted:

“Even though such a language depends upon a true philosophy, it does not depend upon its perfection. This is to say: the language can still be constructed despite the fact that the philosophy itself is still imperfect.

As the science of mankind will improve, so its language will improve as well. In the meantime, it will continue to perform an admirable service by helping us retain what we know, showing what we lack, and inventing means to fill that lack.

Most of all, it will serve to avoid those disputes in the sciences that are based on argumentation. For the language will make argument and calculation the same thing.” (Couturat 1903: 27-8).

This was not only a matter of convention. The identification of primitives cannot precede the formulation of the lingua characteristica because such a language would not be a docile instrument for the expression of thought; it is rather the calculating apparatus through which those thoughts must be found.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 275-7.

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.

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: Magic Language

speculum 01

Teophilus Schweighardt Constantiens, aka Daniel Mögling (1596-1635), Speculum Sophicum Rhodostauroticum (The Mirror of the Wisdom of the Rosy Cross), 1618. 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 a climate of extraordinary spiritual tension, the seventeenth century awaited change–a general reform of knowledge and morals, a reawakening of religions sensibility.

The period was dominated by a belief that a new, golden century was dawning; Postel had already used the term “golden century” in the title of one of his works. This was, moreover, an expectation shared by Catholics and Protestants alike, though each in different forms.

Authors from Campanella to Andreae had drawn up projects for an ideal republic. Not only Postel but other thinkers in different countries had designed schemes for a universal monarchy.

The Thirty Years War acted as a catalyst: conflict had flared in one region after another, creating, on the one hand, confessional hatreds and nationalist rivalries, engendering the modern notion of the raison d’état, on the other producing a pleiad of mystic spirits dreaming of universal peace (cf. De Mas 1982).

It was in this climate, then, that in 1614, there appeared an anonymous tract written in German: Allgemeine und general Reformation der gantzen weiten Welt. Though this was only discovered later, the first part was largely a re-elaboration of a satire written by Traiano Boccalini and published in 1612-3, called Ragguagli di Parnaso.

The second part, however, took the form of a manifesto, entitled Fama fraternitatis R.C. In this, the mysterious confraternity of the Rosicrucians openly declared its existence, supplying details concerning its own history as well as that of its mythical founder, Christian Rosencreutz.

In the following year, 1615, the German manifesto was republished together with a second manifesto, written this time in Latin, with the title Confessio fraternitatis Roseae crucis. Ad eruditos Europae (we shall use the first English translation, The Fame and the Confession of the Fraternity of R.C., London, 1652).

The first manifesto proclaimed its wish that there should be “a Society in Europe [ . . . ] with which such as be Governors might be brought up, for to learn all that which God hath suffered Man to know” (p. 9).

Both the manifestos emphasized the secret character of the confraternity and the fact that their members were not permitted to reveal its true aims and nature. It was a call, addressed to the learned of Europe, beseeching them to make contact with the writers of the manifesto; this made the final appeal of the Fama even more ambiguous:

“And although at this time we make no mention either of our names, or meetings, yet nevertheless every ones opinion shal assuredly come to our hands, in what language so ever it be, nor any body shal fail. who so gives but his name to speak with some of us, either by word of mouth, or else if there be some lett in writing [ . . . ] Also our building (although one hundred thousand people had very near seen and beheld the same) shal for ever remain untouched, undestroyed, and hidden to the wicked world.” (pp. 31-2).

Immediately, from almost every corner of Europe, responses to the Rosicrucian appeal were written. No one claimed to be a Rosicrucian. Almost no one claimed even to know who the Rosicrucians were. Yet almost everyone tried to claim that his own programme was synonymous with that of the Rosicrucian brotherhood.

Some authors professed an extreme humility. In his Themis aurea (1618), for example, Michael Maier insisted that though the brotherhood really existed, he was too humble an individual to be admitted as a member.

Yet, as Yates observed, this was typical of the behavior of Rosicrucian authors: not only did they deny being Rosicrucians, they claimed never to have encountered a single member of the confraternity.

Thus when, in 1623, a set of –naturally anonymous–manifestos appeared in Paris, announcing the arrival of the Rosicrucians, a furious polemic ensued in which the common opinion emerged that the Rosicrucians were worshippers of Satan.

It was said of Descartes that, in the course of a trip to Germany, he had tried (unsuccessfully of course) to make contact with the brotherhood. On his return to Paris, he even fell under suspicion of being a member.

He readily found a logical argument to exculpate himself, however; since it was well known that the Rosicrucians were invisible, Descartes showed up (making himself visible) in public places and on public occasions (see A. Baillet, Vie de Monsieur Descartes, 1693).

In 1623, a certain Neuhaus published, first in German and then in French, an Advertissiment pieux et utile des frères de la Rosee-Croix, in which he asked whether or not they existed, and if so, who they were and what was the origin of their name.

Neuhaus proved their existence by means of a rather startling argument: “By the very fact that they change and alter their name and that they mask their age, and that, by their own confession, they come and go without making themselves known, there is no Logician that could deny the necessity that they exist” (p. 5).

It would be tedious to recount here the entire story of books and tracts contradicting each other in an endeavor to reveal the truth about the Rosicrucians (it has sometimes been claimed, for instance, that the same author, using two different pseudonyms, was responsible for two or more tracts pro- and anti-Rosicrucians: see Arnold 1955; Edighoffer 1982).

It means that, when conditions are ripe, it takes but one spark–be it an obscure and ambiguous appeal for the spiritual reform of all humanity–to set off unexpected reactions. It almost seemed that everyone had been waiting for the Rosicrucian manifesto to appear as the missing piece in a polemic in which all sides–Catholic and Protestant–were waiting to join.

Thus, although the Jesuits were soon in the forefront of the battle against the Rosicrucians, there were not lacking those who insinuated that behind the Rosicrucians was the Society of Jesus itself, seeking to smuggle Catholic dogma into the Protestant world (see Rosa jesuitica, 1620).

The most intriguing aspect of the whole story was that the people immediately suspected of being the authors of the manifestos–Johann Valentin Andreae and his circle of friends in Tubingen–spent the rest of their lives either denying their involvement, or minimizing it as nothing more than a literary exercise.

As one might expect, given the spirit of the time, it was impossible to offer to the people of all lands a new philosophy without also offering them a perfect language in which to express it.

The manifestos, of course, spoke of this language; yet its perfection was mirrored by its secrecy (Fama, 287). According to the Confessio, the four founders of the brotherhood had “created the magic language and writing:”

“…and thenceforth our Trumpet shall publiquely sound with a loud sound, and great noise, when namely the fame (which at this present is shewed by few, and is secretly, as thing to come, declared in Figures and Pictures) shall be free, and publiquely proclaimed, and the whole World be filled withall [ . . . ]

So, the secret hid Writings and Characters are most necessary for all such things which are found out by Men: Although that great Book of Nature stand open to all Men, yet there are but few that can read and understand the same [ . . . ]

The Characters and Letters, as God hath here and there incorporated them in the Holy Scripture the Bible, so hath he imprinted them most apparently into the wonderful Creation of Heaven and Earth, yea in all Beasts [ . . . ]

From the which Characters and Letters we have borrowed our Magick writing, and have found out, and made a new Language for our selves, in the which withall is expressed and declared the Nature of all Things; so that it is no wonder that we are not so eloquent in other Languages, the which we know that they are altogether disagreeing to the Language of our forefathers, Adam and Enoch, and were through the Babylonical Confusion wholly hidden.” (pp. 43, 47, 48).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 178-82.

Eco: Philosophers Against Monogeneticism


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), frontispiece from Oedipus Aegyptiacus, tom. 1, Oedipus solving the riddle of the Sphinx. John Mark Ockerbloom posted this curated entry for the entire work, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania libraries. The Warburg posted a .pdf of the entire 2d volume for free download. 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 in the eighteenth century a de Brosses or a Court de Gébelin might still persist in his glottogonic strivings, by the time of the Enlightenment, philosophers had already laid the basis for the definitive liquidation of the myth of the mother tongue and of the notion of a linguistic paradise existing before Babel.

Rousseau, in his Essai sur l’origine des langues (published posthumously in 1781, but certainly written several decades earlier), used arguments already present in Vico to turn the tables on the older myths.

The very negative characteristics that philosophers had once attributed to the languages after Babel, Rousseau now discovered in the primitive language itself.

Primitive language spoke by metaphors. That meant that, in a primitive language, words did not, and could not, express the essence of the objects that they named. Reacting in front of an unknown object only instinctively, primitive people were slaves to their passions.

Primitive human beings would, metaphorically and erroneously, call beings slightly bigger or stronger than them giants (ch. 3). Such a primitive language was less articulated, closer to song, than a properly verbal language.

It was replete with synonyms to express a single entity in its differing aspects and relations. Furnished with few abstract terms, its grammar was irregular and full of anomalies. It was a language that represented without reasoning (ch. 4).

Furthermore, the very dispersion of peoples after the Flood made research into this original language a vain undertaking (ch. 9). Du Bos, in his Reflexions critiques ur la poésie et sur la peinture (edn: 1764: I, 35) preferred to speak of the language of the age of huts, rather than of the language of origins.

But even this language was not only lost forever: it was radically imperfect. History has begun to assert its rights. A return was impossible, and, in any event, would not have meant a return to a knowledge that was still full and whole.

Concerning the question of the genesis of language, the eighteenth century was divided into two camps; one maintaining a rationalist hypothesis, the other an empirico-sensationalist one.

Many Enlightenment thinkers remained under the influence of Descartes, whose philosophical principles were expressed in semiotic terms by the Grammair (1660) and the Logique (1662) of Port Royal.

Authors such as Beauzée and Du Marsais (both collaborators in the Encyclopédie) postulated a thoroughgoing isomorphism between language, thought and reality. Much of the discussion about the rationalization of grammar moved in this direction as well.

Under the heading “Grammar,” for example, Beauzée wrote that “the word is nothing but a sort of painting [tableau] of which the thought is the original.” Language’s proper function was to provide a faithful copy of the original thought.

Thus, it seemed to follow that “there must be a set of fundamental principles, common to all languages, whose indestructible truth is prior to all those arbitrary and haphazard conditions which have given birth to the various idioms which divide the human race.”

During this same period, however, there flowered another current, which Rosiello (1967) has termed “Enlightenment linguistics.” This was based on Lockean empiricism as it has been developed into the sensationalism of Condillac.

In contradistinction to the Cartesian doctrine of innate ideas, Locke has described the human mind as a blank slate, devoid of figures, which drew its ideas directly from the senses. It is through our senses that we have access to the outside world, and through reflection that we know the workings of our minds.

From these two activities derive all simple ideas, which intelligence later takes up, manipulating them and compounding them into the infinite variety of complex ideas.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 106-8.

Eco: Dante and Universal Grammar


Cornelisz Anthonisz, The Fall of the Tower of Babel, 1547. The text at top right reads “Bablon / Genesis 11.” The text in the top left banner reads, “When it was at its highest / it should not do fall.” The stone at the bottom left reads “1547.” 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.  

“One solution to the problem has been proposed by Maria Corti (1981: 46ff). It is, by now, generally accepted that we cannot regard Dante as simply an orthodox follower of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas.

According to circumstances, Dante used a variety of philosophical and theological sources; it is furthermore well established that he was influenced by various strands of the so-called radical Aristotelianism whose major representative was Siger of Brabant.

Another important figure in radical Aristotelianism was Boethius of Dacia, who, like Siger, suffered the condemnation of the Bishop of Paris in 1277. Boethius was a member of a group of grammarians called Modistae, and the author of a treatise, De modis significandi, which–according to Corti–influenced Dante, because Bologna was the focal point from which, either through a stay in the city, or through Florentine or Bolognese friends, such influences reached Dante.

The Modist grammarians asserted the existence of linguistic universals–that is, of rules underlying the formation of any natural language. This may help clarify precisely what Dante meant by forma locutionis. In his De modis, Boethius of Dacia observed that it was possible to extract from all existing languages the rules of a universal grammar, distinct from either Greek or Latin grammar (Quaestio 6).

The “speculative grammar” of the Modistae asserted a relation of specular correspondence between language, thought and the nature of things. For them, it was a given that the modi intelligendi and, consequently, the modi significandi reflected the modi essendi of things themselves.

What God gave Adam, therefore, was neither just the faculty of language nor yet a natural language; what he gave was, in fact, a set of principles for a universal grammar. These principles acted as the formal cause of language: “the general structuring principle of language, as regards either the lexicon, or the morphological and syntactical components of the language that Adam would gradually forge by living and giving names.” (Corti 1981: 47).

Maria Corti’s thesis has been vehemently contested (cf., in particular, Pagani 1982; Maierù 1983). It has been objected that there is no clear proof that Dante even knew the work of Boethius of Dacia, that many of the analogies that Maria Corti tries to establish between Dante’s text and Boethius cannot be sustained, and that, finally, many of the linguistic notions that one finds in Dante were already circulating in the works of philosophers even before the thirteenth century.

Now, even if the first two objections are conceded, there still remains the third. That there were widespread discussions of the subject of universal grammar in medieval culture is something that no one, and certainly not Corti’s critics, wishes to place in doubt.

As Maierù puts it, it was not necessary to read Boethius to know that grammar has one and the same substance in all languages, even if there are variations on the surface, for this assertion is already found in Roger Bacon.

Yet this, if anything, constitutes proof that it was possible that Dante could have been thinking about universal grammar when he wrote DVE. If this is so, he could have conceived of the forma locutionis given by God as a sort of innate mechanism, in the same terms as Chomsky’s generative grammar, which, interestingly enough, was inspired by the rationalist ideas of Descartes and sixteenth-century grammarians who, in their turn, had rediscovered the ideas of the medieval Modistae.

Yet if this is all there is to it, what is the point of the story of Babel? It seems most likely that Dante believed that, at Babel, there had disappeared the perfect forma locutionis whose principles permitted the creation of languages capable of reflecting the true essence of things; languages, in other words, in which the modi essendi of things were identical with the modi significandi.

The Hebrew of Eden was the perfect and unrepeatable example of such a language. What was left after Babel? All that remained were shattered, imperfect formae locutionis, imperfect as the various vulgar Italian dialects whose defects and whose incapacity to express grand and profound thoughts Dante pitilessly analyzed.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 43-5.