"Samizdat: Publishing forbidden literature."

Tag: John Locke

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 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: George Dalgarno


George Dalgarno (1626-1687), title page of Ars Signorum, printed by J. Hayes, London, 1661. Published 20 years before Didascalocophus, Ars signorum preceded Bishop Wilkin‘s speculations on a “real character and a philosophical language.” 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.

“It is difficult to make a precise evaluation of George Dalgarno’s Ars signorum, published in 1661. In contrast to Wilkin’s Essay, Dalgarno’s tables are summary and the text, in its expository sections, is written in a language that is extremely cryptic, sometimes contradictory, and almost always strikingly allusive.

The book is filled with printer’s errors, especially where Dalgarno provides examples of real characters–not an inconsiderable problem in reading a language where the misprint of one letter changes the whole sense of the character.

We might note that the difficulty in printing a text free of errors shows how cumbersome the philosophic languages were, even for their own creators.

Dalgarno was a Scottish schoolmaster who passed most of his life at Oxford, where he taught grammar at a private school. He was in touch with all the contemporary scholars at the university, and in the list of acknowledgements at the beginning of his book he mentions men such as Ward, Lodwick, Boyle and even Wilkins.

It is certain that, as he was preparing his Essay (published seven years later), Wilkins contacted Dalgarno and showed him his own tables. Dalgarno regarded them as too detailed, and chose to follow what seemed to him an easier path.

When Wilkins finally made his project public, however, Dalgarno felt himself to be the victim of plagiarism. The suspicion was unjust: Wilkins had accomplished what Dalgarno had only promised to do.

Besides, various other authors had already anticipated many of the elements appearing in the project of Dalgarno. Still, Wilkins resented the insinuation of wrong-doing. In the acknowledgements that prefaced his Essay, Wilkins was prodigal with his thanks to inspirers and collaborators alike, but the name of Dalgarno does not appear–except in an oblique reference to “another person.” (b2r).

In any case, it was the project of Wilkins that Oxford took seriously. In 1668 the Royal Society instituted a commission to study the possible applications of the project; its members included Robert Hook, Robert Boyle, Christopher Wren and John Wallis.

Although we are not informed of the conclusions that they finally reached, subsequent tradition, from Locke to the Encyclopédie, invariably treated Wilkins as the author of the most important project.

Perhaps the only scholar who considered Dalgarno respectfully was Leibniz, who, in a rough draft for his own encyclopedia, reproduced Dalgarno’s list of entities almost literally (see Rossi 1960: 272).

Wilkins, of course, was perfectly at home at the Royal Society. He served as its secretary, and could freely avail himself of the help, advice, patronage and attention of his fellow members. Dalgarno, by contrast, was not even a member of the university.

Dalgarno saw that a universal language needed to comprehend two distinct aspects: first, a content-plane, that is, a classification of all knowledge, and that was a task for a philosopher; second, an expression-level, that is, a grammar that organized the characters so that they can properly denote the content elements–and this was a task for a grammarian.

Dalgarno regarded himself as a grammarian rather than a philosopher; hence he merely outlined the principles of classification upon which his language would be based, hoping that others might carry this task to fruition.

As a grammarian, Dalgarno was sensitive to the problem that his language would need to be spoken and not just written. He was aware of the reserves Descartes had expressed about the difficulty of devising a philosophic language that might be pronounced by speakers of differing tongues; thus he introduced his project with a phonetic analysis which sought to identify those sounds which were most easily compatible with the human organs of speech.

The letters from which he later composed his character were not, as they might seem, chosen arbitrarily; he chose instead those which he considered most easy to utter. Even when he came to elaborate the syntagmatic order of his character, he remained concerned with ease of pronunciation.

To this end, he made sure that consonants were always followed by vowels, inserting in his character a number of diphthongs whose function is purely euphonious. This concern certainly ensured ease of pronunciation; unfortunately, it also rendered his character increasingly difficult to identify.

After phonetics, Dalgarno passed to the problem, of the semantic primitives. He believed that these could all be derived solely in terms of genus, species and difference, arguing that such a system of embedded dichotomies was the easiest to remember (p. 29).

For a series of logico-philosophical reasons (explained pp. 30ff), he excluded negative differences from his system, retaining only those which were positive.

The most ambitious feature of Dalgarno’s project (and Wilkin’s as well) was that his classification was to include not only natural genera and species (comprehending the most precise variations in animals and plants) but also artifacts and accidents–a task never attempted by the Aristotelian tradition (see Shumaker 1982: 149).

In fact, Dalgarno based his system of classification on the rather bold assumption that all individual substances could be reduced to an aggregate of accidents (p. 44). This is an assumption which, as I have tried to show elsewhere (Eco 1984: 2.4.3), arises as an almost mechanical consequence of using Porphyry’s Tree as a basis for classification; it is a consequence, moreover, that the entire Aristotelian tradition has desperately tried to ignore.

Dalgarno confronted the problem, even though recognizing that the number of accidents was probably infinite. He was also aware that the number of species at the lowest order was unmanageably large–he calculated that they would number between 4,000 and 10,000.

This is probably one of the reasons why he rejected the help of Wilkins, who was to persevere until he had classified 2,030 species. Dalgarno feared that such a detailed classification ran the risk of a surgeon who, having dissected his cadavers into minute pieces, could no longer tell which piece belonged to Peter and which to John (p. 33).

In his endeavor to contain the number of primitives, Dalgarno decided to introduce tables in which he took into consideration only fundamental genera (which he numbered at 17), together with the intermediary genera and the species.

Yet, in order to gather up all the species in this tripartite division, Dalgarno was forced to introduce into his tables a number of intermediate disjunctions. These even received names in the language: warm-blooded animals, for example, are called NeiPTeik; quadrupeds are named Neik.

Yet in the names only the letters for genera, intermediary genera, and species are taken into account. (Mathematical entities are considered as concrete bodies on the assumption that entities like points and lines are really forms).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 228-31.

Eco: Bacon


Paul van Somer (1576-1622), Portrait of Francis Bacon, 1617. Held at the Palace on the Water (Royal Baths Museum) and inscribed “Sr. Francis Bacon Lord Keeper, and afterwards Lord Chancellor of England, 1617.” 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 renovator of scientific inquiry, Francis Bacon was only marginally interested in perfect languages. Yet, marginal though they may have been, his remarks on the subject have a notable philosophic interest.

A central theme in Bacon’s works was the destruction of idola, that is, false ideas arising either from human nature, collective or individual, or from philosophical dogmas handed down by tradition, or else–and this is what interests us the most–from the way we use language itself (idola fori).

Such linguistic usages have been determined by the needs of common people, so disturbing our way of reasoning (Novum organum, I, 43), and the idola that common speech imposes are either names for non-existent things, or confused, ill-defined and partial names for existing things (Novum organum, I, 60).

An example of a confused notion is that of the moist: this may signify a great variety of things; it can mean that which spreads rapidly around another body, that which is devoid of cohesion and consistence, that which is easily moved in whatever direction, that which can be divided and dispersed, that which can easily be reunited and gathered up, that which attaches itself easily to another body and moistens it, that which easily passes into a liquid state and dissolves.

To speak scientifically means thus to implement a speech therapy.

The idea of a linguistic therapy was a recurrent theme in Anglo-Saxon philosophy. In the Leviathan (1651: IV), Hobbes noted that there are four main uses of speech,

“…First, to register, what by cogitation, wee find to be the cause of any thing [ . . . ] Secondly, to shew to others that knowledge which we have attained [ . . . ] Thirdly, to make known to others our wills, and purposes [ . . . ] Fourthly, to please and delight our selves, or others, by playing with our words, for pleasure and ornament, innocently.

To these uses, there are also foure correspondent Abuses. First, when men register their thoughts wrong, by the inconstancy of the signification of their words [ . . . ] Secondly, when they use words metaphorically [ . . . ] Thirdly, when by words they declare that to be their will, which is not. Fourthly, when they use them to grieve one another.”

In the third book of the Essay concerning Human Understanding, Locke observed that:

“For since Sounds are voluntary and indifferent signs of any Ideas, a Man may use what Words he pleases, to signify his own Ideas to himself: and there will be no imperfection in them, if he constantly uses the same Word for the same Idea [ . . . ] The chief End of Language in Communication being to be understood, words serve not well for that end [ . . . ] when any Word does not excite in the Hearer, the same Idea which it stands for in the Mind of the Speaker.” (III, IX, 2, 4).

For Bacon, signs might be of two types. Signs ex congruo (we would say iconic, motivated)–like hieroglyphs, gestures or emblems–reproduce in some way the properties of the things they signify; signs ad placitum are arbitrary and conventional.

Yet even a conventional sign can be defined as a “real character” when it refers not to a sound, but directly a corresponding thing or concept.

Bacon thus speaks of “Characteres quidam Reales, non Nominales; qui scilicet nec literas, nec verba, sed res et notiones exprimunt” (De Augmentis Scientiarum, VI, 1). In this sense, the signs used by the Chinese are real characters; they represent concepts without, however, bearing any similarity to the signified objects.

We see here that, unlike Kircher, Bacon was unaware of the vague iconism of Chinese ideograms; this, however, was a misapprehension that Bacon shared with a number of other contemporary authors.

Even Wilkins commented that, beyond the difficulties and perplexities that these characters generated, there seemed to be no analogies between their forms and the forms of the things that they represented (Essay, 451).

Probably Kircher had the advantage of knowing the direct reports on Chinese culture of his fellow Jesuits, and was thus able to form a clearer picture of Chinese ideograms than English scholars forced to rely on indirect accounts.

For Bacon, then, Chinese ideograms were examples of signs which, though arbitrary and conventional, stand directly for a signified notion without the mediation of a verbal language. He remarked that, even though the Chinese and the Japanese spoke different languages and thus called things by different names, both recognized them by the same ideograms, and, therefore, could understand each other by writing.

According to an example by Lodwick, if we propose to denote the sky with a 0, such a real character would be distinct from a vocal character…

“…in that it signifieth not the sound or word “heaven” but what we call heaven, the Latin coelum etc., so that the carracter being accepted will by the English be read heaven without respect to what the Latin would name the same thing [ . . . ] A frequent instance hereof we have in the numerical carracters (sic) 1.2.3., which signify not the severall sounds by which the severall (sic) nations in their severall languages expresse (sic) them but that common notion wherein those severall nations agree as to them (MS Sloane 897 f32r; in Salmon 1972: 223).”

Bacon did not think that a character supplied the image of the thing or revealed its intrinsic nature; his characters were nothing other than a conventional sign which, however, referred to a clear and precise notion.

His problem, then, became that of formulating an alphabet of fundamental notions; his Abecedarium novum naturae, composed in 1622, which was to appear as the appendix of the Historia naturalis et experimentalis, represented an attempt to make an index of knowledge, and was not connected to any project for a perfect language (see Blasi 1992: Pellerey 1992a).

Later attempts were none the less inspired by the fact that Bacon decided to associate Greek letters with every item of his index, so that, for example, α meant “dense and rare,” ε “volatile and fixed,” εεεε “natural and monstruous (sic),” οοοοο “hearing and sound.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 211-3.

Eco: A Dream that Refused to Die, 2



Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), the philosophical tree, from Ars Magna Sciendi, 1669, digitized in 2007 and published on the web by the Complutense University of Madrid. This illustration 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. 


“Again apropos of the crusty old myth of Hebrew as the original language, we can follow it in the entertaining compilation given in White (1917: II, 189-208).

Between the first and ninth editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1771 and 1885), a period of over one hundred years, the article dedicated to “Philology” passed from a partial acceptance of the monogenetic hypothesis to manifestations of an increasingly modern outlook in scientific linguistics.

Yet the shift took place only gradually–a series of timid steps. The notion that Hebrew was the sacred original language still needed to be treated with respect; throughout this period, theological fundamentalists continued to level fire at the theories of philologists and comparative linguists.

Still in 1804, the Manchester Philological Society pointedly excluded from membership anyone who denied divine revelations by speaking of Sanskrit or Indo-European.

The monogeneticist counterattacks were many and varied. At the end of the eighteenth century, the mystic and theosophist Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin dedicated much of the second volume of his De l’esprit des choses (1798-9) to primitive languages, mother tongues and hieroglyphics.

His conclusions were taken up by Catholic legitimists such as De Maistre (Soirées de Saint Petersburg, ii), De Bonald (Recherches philosophiques, iii, 2) and Lamennais (Essai sur l’indifférence en matière de religion).

These were authors less interested in asserting the linguistic primacy of Hebrew as such than in contesting the polygenetic and materialist or, worse, the Lockean conventionalist account of the origin of language.

Even today, the aim of “reactionary” thought is not to defend the contention that Adam spoke to God in Hebrew, but rather to defend the status of language itself as the vehicle of revelation.

This can only be maintained as long as it is also admitted that language can directly express, without the mediation of any sort of social contract or adaptations due to material necessity, the relation between human beings and the sacred.

Our own century has witnessed counterattacks from an apparently opposite quarter as well. In 1956, the Georgian linguist Nicolaij Marr elaborated a particular version of polygenesis.

Marr is usually remembered as the inventor of a theory that language depended upon class division, which was later confuted by Stalin in his Marxism and Linguistics (1953). Marr developed his later position out of an attack on comparative linguistics, described as an outgrowth of bourgeois ideology–and against which he supported a radical polygenetic view.

Ironically, however, Marr’s polygeneticism (based upon a rigid notion of class struggle) in the end inspired him–again–with the utopia of a perfect language, born of a hybrid of all tongues when humanity will no more be divided by class or nationality (cf. Yaguello 1984: 7, with a full anthology of extracts).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 113-5.

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.

Umberto Eco: Search for the Perfect Language, 3


Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), Garden of Earthly Delights. The left tablet of the triptych depicts Paradise, with the creation of Eve and the Fountain of Life. The central tablet portrays the pleasures of life, and the rightmost tablet Hell. Held in the collection of the Prado. Accession number P02823, this work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries where the copyright term is the life of the author plus 100 years or less.

“Having established the boundaries of my discourse, I must pay my debts. I am indebted to the studies of Paolo Rossi for first awakening my interest in the subjects of classical mnemonics, pansophia and world theaters; to Alessandro Bausani’s witty and learned overview on invented languages; to Lia Formigari’s book on the linguistic problems of English empiricism; and to many other authors whom, if I do not cite every time that I have drawn on them, I hope, at least, to have cited on crucial points, as well as to have included in the bibliography.

My only regret is that George Steiner had already copyrighted the most appropriate title for this book–After Babel–nearly twenty years ago. Hats off.

I would also like to thank the BBC interviewer who, on 4 October 1983, asked me what semiotics meant. I replied that he ought to know the answer himself, since semiotics was defined by Locke in 1690, in Great Britain, and since in the same country was published in 1668 the Essay towards a Real Character by Bishop Wilkins, the first semiotic approach to an artificial language.

Later, as I left the studio, I noticed an antiquarian bookstore, and, out of curiosity, I walked into it. Lying there I saw a copy of Wilkin’s Essay. It seemed a sign from heaven; so I bought it. That was the beginning of my passion for collecting old books on imaginary, artificial, mad and occult languages, out of which has grown my personal ‘Bibliotheca Semiologica Curiosa, Lunatica, Magica et Pneumatica,’ which has been a mainstay to me in the present endeavor.

In 1987, I was also encouraged to undertake the study of perfect languages by an early work of Robert Pellerey, and I shall often be referring to his recent volume on perfect languages in the eighteenth century. I have also given two courses of lectures on this topic in the University of Bologna and one at the Collège de France.

Many of my students have made contributions about particular themes or authors. Their contributions appeared, as the rules of academic fairness require, before the publication of this book, in the final issue of VS (1992), 61-3, ‘Le lingue perfette.’

A final word of thanks to the antiquarian booksellers on at least two continents who have brought to my attention rare or unknown texts. Unfortunately–considering the size prescribed for this book–as rich as the most exciting of these trouvailles are, they could receive only passing mention, or none at all. I console myself that I have the material for future excursions in erudition.

Besides, the first draft of this research totaled twice the number of pages I am now sending to the printer. I hope that my readers will be grateful for the sacrifice that I have celebrated for their comfort, and that the experts will forgive me the elliptic and panoramic bent of my story.

Umberto Eco

Bologna, Milan, Paris”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 5-6.

%d bloggers like this: