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Tag: Gensini

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 Encyclopedia and the Alphabet of Thought


Charles-Nicolas Cochin (1715-1790), Frontispiece of L’Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des artes, et des métiers, abbreviated as L’Encyclopédie, or Encyclopedia. One source claims that this illustration was entitled Lycurgus blessé dans une sédition, while another states that it depicts la Raison et la Philosophie arrachant son voile à la Vérité rayonnante de lumière. Drawn by Cochin in 1764, it was engraved by Benoît-Louis Prévost (1735-1804) in 1765. 

“The idea of a universal encyclopedia was something that Leibniz was never to give up. Leibniz was, for a long period, a librarian; as such, and as a historian and érudit, he could not have failed to follow the pansophic aspirations and encyclopedic ferment that filled the closing years of the seventeenth century–tremors that would yield their fruits in the century to come.

For Leibniz, the interest in the idea of a universal encyclopedia grew less and less as the basis of an alphabet of primitive terms, and more and more as a practical and flexible instrument which might provide for everyone an access to and control over the immense edifice of human learning.

In 1703, he wrote the Nouveaux essais sur l’entendement humain (which did not appear until 1765, after Leibniz’s death). This book was a confutation of the doctrines of Locke, and ends with a monumental fresco of the encyclopedia of the future.

The point of departure was a rejection of Locke’s tripartite division of knowledge into physical, ethical and logical (or semiotic). Even such a simple classification was untenable, Leibniz argued, because every item of knowledge might reasonably be considered from more than one of the three divisions.

We might treat the doctrine of spirits either as a philosophical or as a moral problem, placing it in the province either of logic or of ethics. We might even consider that a knowledge of the spirit world might prove efficacious for certain practical ends; in which case we might want to place it in the physical province.

A truly memorable story might deserve a place in the annals of universal history; yet it might equally well deserve a place in the history of a particular country, or even of a particular individual. A librarian is often undecided over the section in which a particular book needs to be catalogued (cf. Serres 1968: 22-3).

Leibniz saw in an encyclopedia the solution to these problems. An encyclopedia would be a work that was, as we might now say, polydimensional and mixed, organized–as Gensini observes (Gensini 1990: 19)–more according to “pathways” than by a classification by subject matters; it would be a model of a practico-theoretical knowledge that invited the user to move transversally, sometimes following deductive lines, as mathematicians do, and sometimes moving according to the practical purposes of the human users.

It would be necessary also to include a final index that would allow the user to find different subjects or the same subject treated in different places from different points of view (IV, 21, De la division des sciences).

It is almost as if Leibniz intended here to celebrate as a felix culpa that monument of non-dichotomical incongruity that was the encyclopedia of Wilkins; as if he were writing a rough draft for the very project that d’Alembert was to set forth at the beginning of the Encyclopédie. Dimly shining from beneath the project of Wilkins, Leibniz has recognized the first idea of a hypertext.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 278-9.

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: From Leibniz to the Encyclopédie


Johann Friedrich Wentzel (1670-1729), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), circa 1700. 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 1678 Leibniz composed a lingua generalis (in Couturat 1903). After decomposing all of human knowledge into simple ideas, and assigning a number to each, Leibniz proposed a system of transcription for these numbers in which consonants stood for integers and vowels for units, tens and powers of ten:

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 270

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, p. 270. 

In this system, the figure 81,374, for example, would be transcribed as mubodilefa. In fact, since the relevant power of ten is shown by the following vowel rather than by the decimal place, the order of the letters in the name is irrelevant: 81,374 might just as easily be transcribed as bodifalemu.

This system might lead us to suspect that Leibniz too was thinking of a language in which the users might one day discourse on bodifalemu or gifeha (= 546) just as Dalgarno or Wilkins proposed to speak in terms of nekpot or deta.

Against this supposition, however, lies the fact that Leibniz applied himself to another, particular form of language, destined to be spoken–a language that resembled the latino sine flexione invented at the dawn of our own century by Peano.

This was a language whose grammar was drastically simplified and regularized: one declension for nouns, one conjunction for verbs, no genders, no plurals, adjectives and adverbs made identical, verbs reduced to the formula of copula + adjective.

Certainly, if my purpose were to try to delineate the entire extent of the linguistic projects undertaken by Leibniz throughout the course of his life, I would have to describe an immense philosophical and linguistically monument displaying four major aspects:

(1) the identification of a system of primitives, organized in an alphabet of thought or in a general encyclopedia;

(2) the elaboration of an ideal grammar, inspired probably by the simplifications proposed by Dalgarno, of which the simplified Latin is one example;

(3) the formulation of a series of rules governing the possible pronunciation of the characters;

(4) the elaboration of a lexicon of real characters upon which the speaker might perform calculations that would automatically lead to the formulation of true propositions.

The truth is, however, that by the end of his career, Leibniz had abandoned all research in the initial three parts of the project. His real contribution to linguistics lies in his attempts at realizing the fourth aspect.

Leibniz had little interest in the kinds of universal language proposed by Dalgarno and Wilkins, though he was certainly impressed by their efforts. In a letter to Oldenburg (Gerhardt 1875: VII, 11-5), he insisted that his notion of a real character was profoundly different from that of those who aspired to a universal writing modeled on Chinese, or tried to construct a philosophic language free from all ambiguity.

Leibniz had always been fascinated by the richness and plurality of natural languages, devoting his time to the study of their lineages and the connections between them. He had concluded that it was not possible to identify (much less to revive) an alleged Adamic language, and came to celebrate the very confusio linguarum that others were striving to eliminate (see Gensini 1990, 1991).

It was also a fundamental tenet of his monadology that each individual had a unique perspective on the world, as if a city would be represented from as many different viewpoints as the different positions of its inhabitants.

It would have been incongruous for the philosopher who held this doctrine to oblige everyone to share the same immutable grillwork of genera and species, without taking into account particularities, diversities and the particular “genius” of each natural language.

There was but one facet of Leibniz’s personality that might have induced him to seek after a universal form of communication; that was his passion for universal peace, which he shared with Lull, Cusanus and Postel.

In an epoch in which his english predecessors and correspondents were waxing enthusiastic over the prospect of universal languages destined to ease the way for future travel and trade, beyond an interest in the exchange of scientific information, Leibniz displayed a sensitivity towards religious issues totally absent even in high churchmen like Wilkins.

By profession a diplomat and court councillor, Leibniz was a political, rather than an academic, figure, who worked for the reunification of the church. This was an ecumenicism that reflected his political preoccupations; he envisioned an anti-French bloc of Spain, the papacy, the Holy Roman Emperor and the German princes.

Still, his desire for unity sprang from purely religious motives as well; church unity was the necessary foundation upon which a peaceful Europe could be built.

Leibniz, however, never thought that the main prerequisite for unity and peace was a universal tongue. Instead, he thought that the cause of peace might be better served by science, and by the creation of a scientific language which might serve as a common instrument in the discovery of truth.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 269-1.

Eco: The Nationalistic Hypothesis, 3


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), his interpretation of the legendary sphere of Archimedes, using magnets to simulate the rotation of the planets. From Magnes, sive de Arte Magnetica, 1643, p. 305. 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.  


“Ideas similar to these were expressed by Schottel (Teutsche Sprachkunst, 1641), who celebrated the German language as the one which, in its purity, remained closest to the language of Adam (adding to this the idea that language was the expression of the native genius of a people).

Others even claimed that Hebrew had derived from German. They repeated the claim that their language had descended from Japheth, who, in this rendition, had supposedly settled in Germany.

The name of the exact locality changed, of course, to fit the needs of different authors; yet Japheth’s grandson, Ascenas, was said to have lived in the principality of Anhalt even before the confusio. There he was the progenitor of Arminius and Charlemagne.

In order to understand these claims, one must take into account the fact that, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Protestant Germany rallied to the defense of the language of Luther’s Bible.

It was in this period that claims to the linguistic primacy of German arose, and many of these assumptions “should be seen within the context of Germany’s political fragmentation after the Thirty Years War. Since the German nation was one of the main forces capable of uniting the nation, its value had to be emphasized and the language itself had to be liberated from foreign influences” (Faust 1981: 366).

Leibniz ironized on these and other theories. In a letter of 7 April 1699 (cited in Gensini 1991: 113) he ridiculed those who wished to draw out everything from their own language–Becanus, Rudbeck, a certain Ostroski who considered Hungarian as the mother tongue, an abbé Francois and Pretorius, who did respectively the same for Breton and Polish.

Leibniz concluded that if one day the Turks and Tartars became as learned as the Europeans, they would have no difficulty finding ways to promote their own idioms to the rank of mother tongue for all humanity.

Despite these pleasantries, Leibniz was not entirely immune himself to nationalist temptations. In his Nouveaux essais (III, 2) he made a good-natured jibe at Goropius Becanus, coining the verb goropiser for the making of bad etymologies.

Still, he conceded, Becanus might not always have been entirely wrong, especially when he recognized in the Cimbrian, and, consequently, in Germanic, a language that was more primitive than Hebrew.

Leibniz, in fact, was a supporter of the Celto-Scythian hypothesis, first advanced in the Renaissance (cf. Borst 1957-63: III/1, iv, 2; Droixhe 1978).

In the course of over ten years collecting linguistic materials and subjecting them to minute comparisons, Leibniz had become convinced that at the root of the entire Japhetic stock there lay a Celtic language that was common to both the Gauls and the Germans, and that “we may conjecture that this [common stock] derives from the time of the common origin of all these peoples, said to be among the Scythians, who, coming from the Black Sea, crossed the Danube and the Vistula, and of whom one part may have gone to Greece, while the other filled Germany and Gaul” (Nouveaux essais, III, 2).

Not only this: Leibniz even discovered analogies between the Celto-Scythian languages and those which we would today call the Semitic languages, due, he conjectured, to successive migrations.

He held that “there was nothing that argues either against or for the idea of a single, common origin of all nations, and, in consequence, of one language that is radical and primitive.”

He admitted that Arabic and Hebrew seemed closer than others, their numerous alterations notwithstanding. He concluded, however, that “it seems that Teutonic has best preserved its natural and Adamitic aspect (to speak like Jacques Böhm [sic]).”

Having examined various types of German onomatopoeia, he finally concluded that the Germanic language seemed most primitive.

In presenting this scheme in which a Scythian language group progressively diffused throughout the Mediterranean world, and in distinguishing this group from the other group of southern or Aramaic languages, Leibniz designed a linguistic atlas.

Most of the conjectures in Leibniz’s own particular scheme were, in the end, erroneous; nevertheless, in the light of comparative linguistic work which would come afterwards, he had some brilliant intuitions (cf. Gensini 1990: 41).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 99-102.

Eco: Conventionalism, Epicureanism and Polygenesis, 2


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), from Turris Babel, Sive Archontologia Qua Primo Priscorum post diluvium hominum vita, mores rerumque gestarum magnitudo, Secundo Turris fabrica civitatumque exstructio, confusio linguarum, & inde gentium transmigrationis, cum principalium inde enatorum idiomatum historia, multiplici eruditione describuntur & explicantur. Amsterdam, Jansson-Waesberge, 1679. 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 these same years, thinkers also returned to reflect upon an older suggestion by Epicurus, who, in a letter to Herodotus, gave his opinion that the names of things were not  originally due to convention; human beings themselves had rather created them from their own natures.

Those of differing tribes, “under the impulse of special feelings and special presentations of sense,” uttered “special cries.” The air thus emitted was moulded by their different feelings or sense perceptions (letter to Herodotus, in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, X, 75-6).

Epicurus went on to add that, to eliminate confusion and for reasons of economy, the various peoples subsequently came to an agreement over what name they should give things.

He had no fixed opinion on whether this agreement had been made from instinct or “by rational thought” (cf. Formigari 1970: 17-28; Gensini 1991: 92; Manetti 1987: 176-7).

That was the first part of Epicurus‘ thesis, which emphasized the natural rather than conventional origin of languages; however, this idea was taken up by Lucretius: nature prompted human beings to emit the sounds of language; necessity gave birth to the names of things.

Therefore to suppose that someone then distributed names among things, and from him that men learnt their first words, is folly. For why should he have been able to mark all things with titles and to utter the various sounds of the tongue, and at the same time others not be thought able to have done it? . . .

Therefore if it is the various sensations that they feel which drive animals to emit differing sounds, even though they remain mute, how much more just is it to say that sensations induce mortals to indicate different things with different sounds. (De rerum natura, W.H.D. Rouse, tr., London: Heinemann, 1975: V, 1041-90).

This was a new view, one which we may call the materialist-biological theory of the origin of language. Language arose out of a natural inclination to transform sensations into ideas, which, for the sake of civil convenience, were then translated into sounds.

If it were true, as Epicurus had suggested, that this process of transformation might vary in different races, climates and places, it was hardly too much to imagine that, in diverse times and ways, the different races had originated different families of languages.

This was the intuition behind the theory that evolved in the eighteenth century: each language had its own genius.

Epicurus‘ thesis could not help but seem seductive in the “libertine” milieu of seventeenth-century France, in an atmosphere of skepticism ranging from sarcastic agnosticism to confessed atheism.

In 1655 there appeared the Systema theologicum ex prae-Adamitarum hypothesi, written by a Calvinist named Isaac de La Peyrère. Starting from an extremely original reading of the fifth chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, La Peyrère argued for the polygenesis of races and peoples.

Reports of missionaries and explorers had represented non-European civilizations, such as the Chinese, as so ancient that their histories were incommensurable with biblical chronology, especially in regard to their accounts of the origin of the world.

La Peyrère inferred from this that there existed a pre-Adamite human race, untouched by original sin. He concluded that the stories both of the original sin and of the Flood concerned only Adam and his descendants in the land of the Hebrews (cf. Zoli 1991: 70).

This was a hypothesis that had already appeared in Islamic culture. Drawing on the Koran (2:31), al-Maqdisi, in the tenth century, had alluded to the existence of different races prior to Adam (cf. Borst 1957-63: I, II, 9).

Quite apart from the obvious theological implications of such an assumption (and the works of La Peyrère were condemned to be burnt), it was clear that, by now, Hebrew civilization–along with its holy language–was falling from its throne.

If one accepted that species had developed differentially in differing conditions, and that their linguistic capacity reflected their degree of evolution and of adaptation to the environment, it was easy to accept the polygenetic hypothesis.

A particular brand of polygeneticism–certainly not of libertine inspiration–can be ascribed to Giambattista Vico. Vico was a thinker who naturally proceeded against the grain of his times.

Instead of searching for actual chronological origins, he set out to delineate an ideal and eternal history. Paradoxically, by jumping outside the bounds of history, Vico was to become one of the founders of modern historicism.

What Vico wished to tell was not, or–depending on how one wishes to take the chronological table at the beginning of his Scienza nuova seconda (1744)–not only, a historical course, but rather the ever recurring conditions in which languages are born and develop in every time and in every place.

Vico described an ideal line of descent which traced the development of language from the language of the gods to that of heroes and, finally, to that of human beings. The first language had to be hieroglyphic (“sacred or divine”), the second symbolic (“by heroic signs and devices”), and the third epistolary (“for men at a distance to communicate to each other the current needs of their lives,” para. 432).

According to Vico, language, at its ideal point of origin, was directly motivated by, and metaphorically congruent with, the human experience of nature. Only at a later state did language become organized in a more conventional form.

Vico affirms, however, that “as gods, heroes, and men began at the same time (for they were, after all, men who imagined the gods and who believed their own heroic nature to be a mixture of the divine and human natures), so these three languages began at the same time” (466).

Thus, circumventing the seventeenth-century question of whether or not a natural linguistic stage was succeeded by a conventional one, Vico directly addressed the question of why there existed as many different languages as there were different peoples.

He responded by asserting “this great truth . . . that, as the peoples have certainly by the diversity of climates acquired different natures, from which have sprung as many different customs, so from their different natures and customs as many different languages have arisen” (445).

As to the story of the primacy of Hebrew, Vico disposes of it in a series of observations tending to prove that, if anything, the Hebrews had derived their alphabet from the Greeks and not vice versa.

Nor was Vico susceptible to the Hermetic fantasies of the Renaissance, according to which all wisdom came from the Egyptians.

From his description there emerges instead a complex network of cultural and commercial trafficking, in which the Phoenicians–prompted by mercantile necessity–exported their characters to both the Egyptians and the Greeks, while, at the same time, spreading throughout the Mediterranean basin the set of hieroglyphic characters that they had borrowed from the Chaldeans and had adapted to fit their need for a numerical system to keep track of their stocks of merchandise (441-3).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 88-91.

Eco: Conventionalism, Epicureanism and Polygenesis


Giuseppe Giusto Scaligero, or Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540-1609), this illustration is from the title page of Marcus Manilus, Astronomicon a Ios. Scaligero ex vetusto codice Gemblacensi infinitis mendis repurgatum. Eiusdem Iosephi Scaligeri notae etc. Leiden. Christophorus Raphelengius for Joannes Commelin, 1599-1600, with a handwritten dedication from Scaliger to the mathematician Henri de Monantheuil, courtesy of the Leiden University Library and the Scaliger Institute. This narrative courtesy of the Warburg Institute. 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.

“By now, however, time was running out for the theories of Kircher, Guichard and Duret. Already in the Renaissance, Hebrew’s status as the original and sacred language had begun to be questioned.

By the seventeenth century, a new and complex set of arguments has evolved. We might, emblematically, place these arguments under the sign of Genesis 10. In these, attention moved away from the problem of primordial language to that of matrices linguae, or mother tongues–this was an expression first coined by Giuseppe Giusto Scaligero (Diatribe de europaeorum linguis, 1599).

Scaligero individuated eleven language families, seven major and four minor. Within each family, all languages were related; between the language families, however, kinship was impossible to trace.

The Bible, it was noted, had given no explicit information about the character of the primordial language. There were many who could thus maintain that the division of tongues had originated not at the foot of the shattered tower, but well before.

The notion of confusio could be interpreted as a natural process. Scholars set about trying to understand this process by uncovering the grammatical structures common to all languages: “It was no longer a question of “reduction,” but of a classification aimed at revealing a common system latent within all languages, while still respecting their individual differences” (Demonet 1992: 341, and II, 5, passim).

In his Histoire critique du Vieux Testament (1678), Richard Simon, considered one of the founders of modern biblical criticism, discarded the hypothesis of the divine origin of Hebrew, citing the ironic remarks of Gregory of Nyssa.

Language, he wrote, was a human invention; since human reason differs in different peoples, so languages must differ as well. God willed that different peoples speak different languages in order that “each might explain themselves in their own way.”

Meric Casaubon (De quattor linguis commentatio, 1650) accepted the idea of Grotius that–in so far as it had ever existed–the primordial language had long since disappeared.

Even if the words spoken by Adam had been inspired directly by God, humanity had since developed its languages autonomously. The Hebrew of the Bible was just one of the languages that arose after the Flood.

Leibniz also insisted that the historic language of Adam was irredeemably lost, and that, despite our best efforts, “nobis ignota est.” In so far as it had ever existed, it had either totally disappeared, or else survived only as relics (undated fragment in Gensini 1990: 197).

In this climate, the myth of a language that followed the contours of the world came to be rearticulated in the light of the principle of the arbitrariness of the sign. This was a principle that, in any case, philosophical thought had never entirely abandoned, as it formed part of the Aristotelian legacy.

In precisely this period, Spinoza, from a fundamentally nominalist point of view, asked how a general term such as man could possibly express man’s true nature, when different individuals formed their ideas in different ways:

“for example, those who are accustomed to contemplate with admiration the height of men will, on hearing the name man, think of an animal with an erect posture; those, instead, who are in the habit of contemplating some other feature, will form another of the common images of man–man as a laughing animal, as a biped, as featherless, as rational. Thus every individual will form images of universals according to the dispositions of their own bodies.” (Ethica, 1677: proposition XL, scolion I).

Implicitly challenging the idea that Hebrew was the language whose words corresponded to the nature of things, Locke considered that words used by human beings were signs of their ideas, “not by any natural connexion, that there is between particular articulated Sounds and certain Ideas, for then there would be but one Language amongst all Men; but by voluntary Imposition.” (An Essay concerning Human Understanding, 1690: III, 2, 1).

As soon as ideas lost their quality as innate, Platonic entities, becoming nominal ideas instead, language itself lost its aura of sacrality, turning into a mere instrument for interaction–a human construct.

In Leviathan (1651: I, 4, “Of Speech”), Hobbes admitted that the first author of speech could only have been God himself, and that he had taught Adam what to name the animals. Yet, immediately thereafter, Hobbes abandons the scriptural account to picture Adam as striking out on his own.

Hobbes argued that Adam continued freely to add new names “as the experience and use of the creatures should give him occasion.” In other words, Hobbes left Adam to confront his own experiences and his own needs; and it was from these needs (necessity being, as we know, the mother of all invention) that the languages after Babel were born.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 85-8.