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Tag: Diderot

Eco: The “Library” of Leibniz and the Encyclopédie


Jean le Rond d’Alembert and Denis Diderot, Figurative System of Human Knowledge, or the Tree of Diderot and d’Alembert, from the Encyclopédie, circa 1752. 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. 

“During the Enlightenment there began to develop a critical attitude towards any attempt to construct a system of a priori ideas. It was a critique founded, in large part, upon the considerations advanced by Leibniz.

Thus it was in terms that closely recalled Leibniz’s own description of an ideal library that, in his introduction to the Encyclopédie, d’Alembert was to sound the death knell for projects for philosophical a priori languages.

Presented with the practical problem of organizing an encyclopedia and justifying the way that it divided its material, the system of scientific knowledge began to take on the appearance of a labyrinth, a network of forking and twisting paths that put paid to any notion that knowledge might be represented in a tree diagram of any sort.

Knowledge might still be divided into branches, “some of which converge at a common center; and, since, starting from the center, it is impossible to follow all the branches at once, the choice [of pathway] is determined by the nature of the different intellects.”

The philosopher was whoever discovered the hidden passageways within that labyrinth, the provisional interconnections, the web of mutually dependent associations which constituted such a network as a geographical representation.

For this reason the authors of the Encyclopédie decided that each single article would appear as only one particular map, which, in its small way, might reflect the entire global map:

“objects approach each other more or less closely, presenting different aspects according to the perspective chosen by the particular geographer [ . . . ].

Thus it is possible to imagine that there are as many systems of human knowledge as there are representations of the world constructed according to differing projections [ . . . ].

Often, an object placed in one particular class on account of one or another of its properties may reappear in another class because of other properties.”

Following the suggestion of Locke, the Enlightenment was less concerned with the search for perfect languages than with the provision of therapies for already existing ones.

After denouncing the limits of natural languages, Locke (Essay, III, X) had passed to an analysis of the abuse which must occur whenever words are used that do not correspond to clear and distinct ideas, whenever they are used inconsistently, whenever they are employed with the affectation of obscurity, whenever words are taken for things, whenever they are used for things which possess no meaning, and whenever we imagine that others must necessarily associate with the words we use the same ideas as we do.

Locke fixed a set of norms to combat these abuses, and, since Locke was not concerned with lexical or syntactical reform, but simply with subjecting usage to a measure of vigilance and philosophical common sense, these norms had no bearing on the theme of philosophical languages.

Instead of a systematic reform of language, Locke modestly suggested that we be more conscientious in the way we use words to communicate with one another.

This was to be the line adopted by the encyclopedists of the Enlightenment and those whom they inspired.

The encyclopedists launched their attack on philosophical a priori languages principally in their entry under the heading “Caractère,” which was the result of the collaboration of several authors.

Du Marsais made an initial distinction between numerical characters, characters representing abbreviations, and literal characters; these last were further subdivided into emblematic characters (still the accepted interpretation of hieroglyphics) and nominal characters, primarily the characters of the alphabet.

D’Alembert accepted the criticisms that had traditionally been made of the characters used in natural languages, and then discussed the various projects for the construction of real characters, showing an extensive knowledge of the projects in the previous century.

It was a discussion which often confused characters that were ontologically real, that directly expressed, that is, the essence of the things they represented, with characters that were only logically real, capable, that is, of expressing by convention a single idea unequivocally. Still, d’Alembert advanced a number of criticisms that applied equally to both types.

In contrast to those of the seventeenth century, philosophers in the Enlightenment had radically changed the focus of their reflection on language. It now seemed clear that thought and language influenced each other, each proceeding with the other step by step, and that, consequently, language, as it evolved, would constantly modify thought.

Thus it no longer made sense to accept the rationalist hypothesis of a single grammar of thought, universal and stable, which all languages in one way or another reflected. No system of ideas postulated on the basis of abstract reasoning could thus ever form an adequate parameter of and criterion for the formation of a perfect language.

Language did not reflect a preconstituted mental universe, but collaborated in its growth.

The Idéologues demonstrated the impossibility of postulating a universal way of thinking, independent of the human semiotic apparatus. Destutt de Tracy (Eléments d’idéologie, I, 546, n.) argued that it was not possible to confer on all languages the attributes of algebra. In the case of natural languages:

“we are often reduced to conjectures, inductions, and approximations [ . . . ]. Almost never can we have a perfect certainty that an idea which we have constructed for ourselves under a certain sign and by various means is really utterly and entirely the same as the idea that those who taught us the sign as well as anyone else who might subsequently use the sign might attribute to it.

Hence words may often, insensibly, take on differences in meaning without anyone noting these changes; for this reason we might say that while every sign is perfectly transparent for whomever invents it, it is somewhat vague and uncertain for those who receive it [ . . . ].

I might even carry this further: I said that every sign is perfect for whomever invents it, but this is only really true at the precise instant when he invents the sign, for when he uses this same sign in another moment in his life, or when his mind is in another disposition, he can no longer be entirely sure that he has gathered up under this sign the same collection of ideas as he had the first time he used it.” (pp. 583-5).

Tracy understood that the prerequisite of all philosophical languages was the absolute and univocal correspondence between signs and the ideas they represented. An examination, however, of the seventeenth century English systems led him to the conclusion that “it is impossible that the same sign possess the same meaning for all who use it [ . . . ]. We thus must give up the idea of perfection.” (Eléments d’idéologie, II, 578-9).

This was a theme that was common to empiricist philosophy, to which all the Idéologues referred. Locke had already noted that although the names glory and gratitude were

“the same in every Man’s mouth, through a whole country, yet the complex, collective Idea, which everyone thinks on, or intends by that name, is apparently very different in Men using the same language. [ . . . ]

For though in the Substance Gold, one satisfies himself with Color and Weight, yet another thinks solubility in Aqua Regia, as necessary to be join’d with that Color in his Idea of Gold, as any one does its Fusibility; Solubility in Aqua Regia, being a Quality as constantly join’d with its Color and and Weight, as Fusibility, or any other; others put its Ductility or Fixedness, etc. as they had been taught by Tradition and Experience.

Who, of all these, has establish’d the right termination of the word Gold?” (Essay, III, IX, 8, 13).

Returning to the Idéologues, Joseph-Marie Degérando, whose criticisms of Wilkins we have already encountered, observed (Des signes et l’art de penser considérés dans leur rapports mutuels, 1800) that the ensemble of associated ideas represented by the word man would be more extensive in the mind of a philosopher than in that of a common laborer, and that the word liberty could not have meant in Sparta what it did in Athens (I, 222-3).

The impossibility of elaborating a philosophic language is finally due to the fact that since languages develop through a set of stages, a development that the Idéologues delineated with great precision, there was no way of deciding the linguistic stage of development that a perfect language should represent.

Choosing to reflect one stage rather than another, a philosophical language will then continue to reflect all the limitations of that linguistic stage, while just to overcome these limitations humanity had passed to further and more articulate stages.

Once it had been perceived that the process of linguistic change is continuous, that language is subject to change not only at its prehistoric point of origin, but also in the present day, it became obvious that any thought of reviving the idea of a philosophic language was destined to fail.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 288-92.

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.

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