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Tag: Jorge Luis Borges

On the Ineffable

yama_tibet

This 18th century depiction of Yamantaka, a violent expression of the Bodhisattva Manjushri, defeats Yama, god of death, and demolishes the cycle of samsara on the path to enlightenment. This painting, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was purchased in 1969 courtesy of a bequest by Florence Waterbury. Its Accession Number is 69.71. This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional public domain work of art. 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.

This is my review of Nick Stockton’s “Time Might Only Exist in Your Head. And Everyone Else’s.” From Wired, 26 September, 2016. Published at 0600 hrs. I later modified this piece on 17 October, 2016. It keeps bothering me like a splinter in my mind. In its current revision, it comprises 2,537 words.

“Some physicists blame gravity for time. Others blame observers. Time, the arrow of time, the linearity of time flowing from the infinite past through the present into the indefinite future, cannot exist unless an intelligence, something sentient, exists to observe it, they say.

The moment when particle physics and classical mechanics merge is called “decoherence,” and it also happens to be the moment when time’s direction becomes mathematically important.

Mr. Stockton’s article points out that superposition in quantum mechanics means that an electron can exist in either of two places, a property called probability, but it is impossible to say where an electron is until that electron is actually observed.

Some physicists also say that what matters is not whether time exists, but what direction that time flows. (Claus Kiefer, “Can the Arrow of Time Be Understood From Quantum Cosmology?” in L. Mersini-Houghton and R. Vaas, The Arrow of Time, Springer, Berlin, 2010.)

I marvel that anything can move at all, as any distance can incorporate an infinitude simply by holding your fingers a centimeter apart.

Your fingertips are not necessary, of course. You can imagine an infinite digression between any two points. You can even imagine the digression without the points, which is where things get interesting for me.

Not surprisingly, this reminds me of Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), in the academic tradition of droll footnotes, citing “the last magician,” Isaac Newton, saying that “Each particle of space is eternal, each indivisible moment of duration is everywhere.” Principia, III, 42. (Isaac Newton, Newton’s Principia, New York: Daniel Adee, 1846. Borges wrote his 1946 revision of “A New Refutation of Time” in Sur, 1944. Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Non-Fictions, Penguin, 1999.)

How anything can leap across the infinitudes separating all things from everything else mystifies me, and how we can imagine infinity without beginning or without end leaves me without words.

Miraculously, everything in this multiverse can leap infinities, and so we have progression, which is synonymous with time. Even using a term like “infinity” forces a compromise upon us, it is a convention, and these are the paradoxes that compel some physicists to suspect that time emerges from decoherence.

Mr. Stockton’s article explains that the most prominent theory addressing decoherence is the 1960’s-era Wheeler-DeWitt equation, by Dr. Bryce DeWitt and Dr. John Archibald Wheeler. Dr. Wheeler claimed that this equation “erases the seams between quantum and classical mechanics.”

Then Mr. Stockton acknowledges the weirdness underlying decoherence and “so-called quantum gravity.” I love the fact that physicists use a term like “weird” and nobody thinks that it is strange. Because these matters are supremely weird.

The second law of thermodynamics ordains that the amount of disorder, or entropy, in our multiverse will always increase. In 1865 Rudolf Clausius (1822-1888) infamously observed: “The energy of the universe is constant; the entropy of the universe tends to a maximum.” This is the source of the directionality of time: disorder always increases, so time can only move in one direction.

The Wheeler-DeWitt equation notoriously does not include a variable for time. Time, it says, is something that cannot be measured in terms of itself: in physics it is measured as correlations between an object’s location.

In this article, however, the writers (Dr. Robert Lanza and Dr. Yasunori Nomura) insist that gravity is too slow to account for a universal arrow of time.

Worse, because the Wheeler-DeWitt equations do not explain why time moves from the past through the present to the future–in other words, the directionality of time is not explained by the Wheeler-DeWitt equations–all that remains to be examined is us, meaning we, the observers.

One of the writers, Dr. Robert Lanza, founded biocentrism, a theory that space and time are constructs of biological sensory limitations.

Dr. Lanza speculates that time moves as it does because humans, and other sentient beings, for that matter, are biologically, neurologically and philosophically hardwired to experience time in that way.

In fact, Dr. Lanza says, “In his papers on relativity, Einstein showed that time was relative to the observer.”

I do not see how it could be otherwise. While you can claim that mathematics exists independently of human perception, because equations do not depend upon witnesses to observe them, we obviously only know about mathematics because we perceive such equations.

I will go one step further and say that equations, all the equations in an infinitude of mathematics, already exist, and merely await a conjunction of time and sentience to be discovered. But they are already there. We are just not yet smart enough to discern them.

Tibetan Buddhism, in fact, features a category of knowledge of this kind, calling it terma. It refers to objects or ideas which are surfaced to human knowledge when we as a species are ready for them. Some believe that we knew this information in earlier incarnations, and we forgot it, as we submerged into ignorance and amnesia. Now we are gradually, slowly, reawakening.

Dr. Lanza, this article says, goes even further, saying that we the observers create time and its directionality. This is actually a very old idea, and I discuss it in an article that I published on this site almost a year ago, Smoke Signals: Borges, Tzahi Weiss, Kabbalah.

Is it possible to say that there is an independent time, a time that exists without anyone or anything to perceive it? I suppose so. Is there also a time that exists because we perceive it? I think that this is inescapable.

Borges says:

” … Denying temporal succession, denying the self, denying the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret consolations.

Our destiny (as contrasted with the hell of Swedenborg and the hell of Tibetan mythology) is not frightful by being unreal; it is frightful because it is irreversible and ironclad.

Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”

(Jorge Luis BorgesSelected Non-Fictions, 1999, p. 290.)

The time that you experience is not the same time that I experience. Neither of us experiences time as Borges did. Can “the concept of time be defined mathematically without including observers in the system?”

One stance says no, as there is no way to subtract observers from the equations, as equations by default, almost by definition, you could say, are performed by sentient intelligences.

Dr. Yasunori Nomura states that these equations also fail to consider that the entire multiverse as we perceive it exists in a medium that we call spacetime.

By definition, when you talk about spacetime, he says, “you are already talking about a decohered system.”

This article concludes, like most interpretations of spacetime, that everything is relative, everything is subjective.

We are in self-defined prisons of perception, but we imagine paradises where we share the same perceptions, the same spacetime, and we perceive the same physics. The sad thing is, this is maya, or illusion. Some of us know better, and we have been told.

We do not need these physics, not for awakening from the stupor of the mind to anatta, the emptiness of the self, the realization of the non-duality of the absolute and the relative.

Think on this for a moment. The absolute and the relative form a duality that is artificial, this is a construct that we create to help us understand what we perceive. It is, in a sense, a filter. We need no such filters.

Borges, in the quote above, in a denial of denial, refused to renounce temporal succession, rejected the renunciation of the self, repudiated the rejection of the astronomical universe, and dismissed the effort as an “apparent desperation,” slyly condemning it as a “secret consolation.”

It was long a secret, as Tibet was closed to mankind for centuries, but Borges understood what he was rejecting. Borges referred to “the hell of Tibetan mythology” for precisely this reason, and that is why I illustrated this article with a painting depicting Yamantaka, just one aspect of the Bodhisattva Manjushri, vanquishing Yama, the god of death. Borges was telling those of us with eyes to see that he was an idealist, not a nihilist. Borges concluded that we manifest everything.

It is useful, I think, to consider Borges’ reference to fire by juxtapositioning it to this excerpt from the Buddha’s Fire Sermon:

Bikkhus, form is burning, feeling is burning, perception is burning, volitional formations are burning, consciousness is burning. Seeing this, bikkhus, the instructed noble disciple experiences revulsion towards form … feeling … perception …. volitional formations … consciousness …Through dispassion [this mind] is liberated…”

Adittapariyaya Sutta, or the Aditta Sutta, aka The Fire Sermon

In Theravada Buddhism, anatta is considered the no-self or no-soul doctrine. In Mahayana Buddhism, true knowledge is comprehending emptiness.

It is not understood by laymen, much less by our physicists in this article, but Buddhism is inimical to the concept of a soul. Nirvana is the state attained when the practitioner realizes that he has no self, and he has no soul. Self-negation attains its ultimate realization as it vanishes.

In Sanskrit and Pali, nirvana means “blown out,” in the same sense that a candle flame is snuffed. I am certain that Borges knew. Borges knew everything, he read all books, and he made few mistakes.

These ideas contradict the Western philosophical tradition, our mathematics, our physics, our spacetime, even though Hinduism insists that there is an eternal atman, and an ultimate metaphysical reality. Contradictions and confusions abound.

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.1, the atman is expressed as “I am” at an eternal moment when nothing existed at the beginning of the multiverse. Because we built the Hubble telescope, we estimate that this eternal moment transformed into the Big Bang and this multiverse approximately 13.7 billion years ago.

Using Hubble, we can measure the speed and distances of galaxies, and hence how fast our multiverse is expanding. Comparing these measurements to the age of the oldest globular star clusters gives us a figure of 13 billion years, which compares favorably to the 14 billion years of our observable multiverse.

Due to the speed of light, Hubble cannot see further than 14 billion years away. When the James W. Webb telescope comes online, we expect to confirm that our observable multiverse represents a tenth of the theoretical galaxies on the near side of our cosmological horizon.

But when you consider that the Big Bang might have been just the latest in an infinite series of singularities, interspersed by an unknowable number of periods of quantum potential, the possibility that the multiverse is infinite, literally without end, looms.

So is consciousness 14 billion years old? The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is one of the oldest, dated to approximately 700 BCE, but this is a compromise, as scholarly estimates range between 900 BCE to 600 BCE, preceding Buddhism.

Human consciousness is very young, even assuming that the priests of Neith who admonished Solon in the Timaeus were correct, the Timaeus is dated to 360 BCE, and I am mindful that when the Temple of Neith in Sais was excavated no records of ancient conflagrations or deluges were recovered. But how old is cosmic consciousness? It is absurd that we even imagine the question.

When the atman awakes, the Hindu say, it is synonymous with Brahman, the basis of everything, indistinguishable in my mind from God, and this is the path to liberation, or so they say.

It is helpful to cite this Upanishad’s verse 1.4.1 in its entirety, as it redolently presages Genesis.

“In the beginning, this (universe) was but the self (Virāj) of a human form. He reflected and found nothing else but himself. He first uttered, ‘I am he.’ Therefore he was called Aham (I). Hence, to this day, when a person is addressed, he first says, ‘It is I,’ and then says the other name that he may have. Because he was first and before this whole (band of aspirants) burnt all evils, therefore he is called Puruṣa. He who knows thus indeed burns one who wants to be (Virāj) before him.”

(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.1.)

As perplexed as I am by yet another reference to fire, the Buddhist Suttas, or Sutras, as I prefer, insist that everything, especially nirvana, is non-self, total non-attachment. The Suttas in Pali refer exclusively to the scriptures of the early Pali Canon, the canonical works of Theravada Buddhism, which are said to be the oral teachings of the Buddha.

The Buddha himself admonished the Sangha not to deify his person, so I prefer the Sutras, the less exclusive, more encompassing genre of ancient Indian texts, which include the foundational works of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

The Buddha started the Wheel of Karma turning as he preached his first sermon at  the Deer Park in Sarnath near Benares, early in the 5th century BCE. It was in his second sermon that he expounded on the no-soul thesis, anatta-vada, which some Western academics criticize as “an extreme empiricist doctrine.” (Brian Morris, Religion and Anthropology: A Critical Introduction (London: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 51.)

Anatta is one of the three characteristics of existence in Buddhism, with anicca, or impermanence, and dukkha, or suffering. The three comprise the samsara cycle of existence, addressed in canonical Buddhist texts like the Dhammapada.

The Four Noble Truths insist that there is a way out of samsara. I interpret spacetime as samsara, yet another filter created by subjective consciousness, to help us make sense of our multiverse.

In anatta, the mind returns to its original prelinguistic emptiness of non-attachment, non-discrimination, and non-duality, and the awakening, as it is described, entails the absorption of cessation: it is tantamount to the dissolution of the self.

This “pure consciousness event” is wakeful, without content, and completely non-intentional. It goes without saying that our spacetime and our cosmological horizon are irrelevant to it: It is ineffable. (Yaroslav Komarkovski, Tibetan Buddhism and Mystical Experience, (London: Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 28.)

As Borges said, we are indistinguishable from spacetime. We do not need eyes to see, so death, transformation, is dissolution into nothingness, which many religious traditions summarize as the godhead.

Ironically, it was William James who said:

“The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words.”

(William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Penguin, 1982.)”

Estéban Trujillo de Gutiérrez, “On the Ineffable”

Bangkok, 17 October, 2016

Eco: Translation

Diego de Torres Rubio de la Copania de Jesus, 1616

Diego de Torres Rubio (1547-1638), Arte de la lengua aymara, Lima, Francisco del Canto, 1616. Digitized courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library. 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.

“Today more than ever before, at the end of its long search, European culture is in urgent need of a common language that might heal its linguistic fractures.

Yet, at the same time, Europe needs to remain true to its historic vocation as the continent of different languages, each of which, even the most peripheral, remains the medium through which the genius of a particular ethnic group expresses itself, witness and vehicle of a millennial tradition.

Is it possible to reconcile the need for a common language and the need to defend linguistic heritages?

Both of these needs reflect the same theoretical contradictions as well as the same practical possibilities. The limits of any possible international common language are the same as those of the natural languages on which these languages are modeled: all presuppose a principle of translatability.

If a universal common language claims for itself the capacity to re-express a text written in any other language, it necessarily presumes that, despite the individual genius of any single language, and despite the fact that each language constitutes its own rigid and unique way of seeing, organizing and interpreting the world, it is still always possible to translate from one language to another.

However, if this is a prerequisite inherent to any universal language, it is at the same time a prerequisite inherent to any natural language. It is possible to translate from a natural language into a universal and artificial one for the same reasons that justify and guarantee the translation from a natural language into another.

The intuition that the problem of translation itself presupposed a perfect language is already present in Walter Benjamin: since it is impossible to reproduce all the linguistic meanings of the source language into a target language, one is forced to place one’s faith in the convergence of all languages.

In each language “taken as a whole, there is a self-identical thing that is meant, a thing which, nevertheless, is accessible to none of these languages taken individually, but only to that totality of all of their intentions taken as reciprocal and complementary, a totality that we call Pure Language [reine Sprache].” (Benjamin 1923).

This reine Sprache is not a real language. If we think of the mystic and Kabbalistic sources which were the inspiration for Benjamin’s thinking, we begin to sense the impending ghost of sacred languages, of something more akin to the secret genius of Pentecostal languages and of the language of birds than to the ideal of the a priori languages.

“Even the desire for translation is unthinkable without this correspondence with the thought of God (Derrida 1980: 217; cf. also Steiner 1975: 64).

In many of the most notable projects for mechanical translation, there exists a notion of a parameter language, which does share many of the characteristics of the a priori languages.

There must, it is argued, exist a tertium comparationis which might allow us to shift from an expression in language A to an expression in language B by deciding that both are equivalent to an expression of a metalanguage C.

If such a tertium really existed, it would be a perfect language; if it did not exist, it would remain a mere postulate on which every translation ought to depend.

The only alternative is to discover a natural language which is so “perfect” (so flexible and powerful) as to serve as a tertium comparationis. In 1603, the Jesuit Ludovico Bertonio published his Arte de lengua Aymara (which he supplemented in 1612 with a Vocabulario de la lengua Aymara).

Aymara is a language still partially spoken by Indians living between Bolivia and Peru, and Bertonio discovered that it displayed an immense flexibility and capability of accommodating neologisms, particularly adapted to the expression of abstract concepts, so much so as to raise a suspicion that it was an artificial invention.

Two centuries later, Emeterio Villamil de Rada described it as the language of Adam, the expression of “an idea anterior to the formation of language,” founded upon “necessary and immutable ideas” and, therefore, a philosophic language if ever there were one (La Lengua de Adan, 1860). After this, it was only a matter of time before the Semitic roots of the Aymara language were “discovered” as well.

Recent studies have established that unlike western thought, based on a two-valued logic (either true or false), Aymara thought is based on a three-valued logic, and is, therefore, capable of expressing modal subtleties which other languages can only capture through complex circumlocutions.

Thus, to conclude, there have been proposals to use Aymara to resolve all problems of computer translation (see Guzmán de Rosas n.d., which includes a vast bibliography). Unfortunately, “due to its algorithmic nature, the syntax of Aymara would greatly facilitate the translation of any other idiom into its own terms (though not the other way around)” (L. Ramiro Beltran, in Guzmán de Rosas n.d.: III).

Thus, because of its perfection, Aymara can render every thought expressed in other mutually untranslatable languages, but the price of this is that once the perfect language has resolved these thoughts into its own terms, they cannot be translated back into our natural native idioms.

One way out of this dilemma is to assume, as certain authors have recently done, that translation is a matter to be resolved entirely within the destination (or target) language, according to the context.

This means that it is within the framework of the target language that all the semantic and syntactic problems posed by the source text must be resolved.

This is a solution that takes us outside of the problem of perfect languages, or of a tertium comparationis, for it implies that we need to understand expressions formed according to the genius of the source language and to invent a “satisfying” paraphrase according to the genius of the target language.

Yet how are we to establish what the criteria of “satisfaction” could be?

These were theoretical difficulties that Humboldt had already foreseen. If no word in a language exactly corresponds to a word in another one, translation is impossible. At most, translation is an activity, in no way regulated, through which we are able to understand what our own language was unable to say.

Yet if translation implied no more than this it would be subject to a curious contradiction: the possibility of a relation between two languages, A and B, would only occur when A was closed in a full realization of itself, assuming to had understood B, of which nothing could any longer be said, for all that B had to say would by now have been said by A.

Still, what is not excluded is the possibility that, rather than a parameter language, we might elaborate a comparative tool, not itself a language, which might (if only approximately) be expressed in any language, and which might, furthermore, allow us to compare any two linguistic structures that seemed, in themselves, incommensurable.

This instrument or procedure would be able to function in the same way and for the same reason that any natural language is able to translate its own terms into one another by an interpretive principle: according to Peirce, any natural language can serve as a metalanguage to itself, by a process of unlimited semiosis (cf. Eco 1979: 2).

See for instance a table proposed by Nida (1975: 75) that displays the semantic differences in a number of verbs of motion (figure 17.1).

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, Figure 17.1, p. 348.png

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, 1995, Figure 17.1, p. 348.

We can regard this table as an example of an attempt to illustrate, in English–as well as by other semiotic means, such as mathematical signs–what a certain class of English terms mean.

Naturally, the interpretative principle demands that the English speaker also interpret the meaning of limb, and indeed any other terms appearing in the interpretation of the verbal expression.

One is reminded here of Degérando’s observations concerning the infinite regress that may arise from any attempt to analyze fully an apparently primitive term such as to walk.

In reality, however, a language always, as it were, expects to define difficult terms with terms that are easier and less controversial, though by conjectures, guesses and approximations.

Translation proceeds according to the same principle. If one were to wish, for example, to translate Nida’s table from English into Italian, one would probably start by substituting for the English verbs Italian terms that are practically synonymous: correre for run, camminare for walk, danzare for dance, and strisciare for crawl.

As soon as we got to the verb to hop, we would have to pause; there is no direct synonym in Italian for an activity that the Italian-English dictionary might define as “jumping on one leg only.”

Nor is there an adequate Italian synonym for the verb to skip: Italian has various terms, like saltellare, ballonzolare and salterellare; these can approximately render to skip, but they can also translate to frisk, to hop or to trip, and thus do not uniquely specify the sort of alternate hop-shuffle-step movement specified by the English to skip.

Even though Italian lacks a term which adequately conveys the meaning of to skip, the rest of the terms in the table–limb, order of contact, number of limbs–are all definable, if not necessarily by Italian synonyms, at least by means of references to contexts and circumstances.

Even in English, we have to conjecture that, in this table, the term contact must be understood as “contact with the surface the movement takes place upon” rather than as “contact with another limb.”

Either to define or to translate, we thus do not need a full fledged parametric language at our disposition. We assume that all languages have some notion that corresponds to the term limb, because all humans have a similar anatomy.

Furthermore, all cultures probably have ways to distinguish hands from arms, palms from fingers, and, on fingers, the first joint from the second, and the second from the third; and this assumption would be no less true even in a culture, such as Father Mersenne imagined, in which every individual pore, every convolute of a thumb-print had its own individual name.

Thus, by starting from terms whose meanings are known and working to interpret by various means (perhaps including gestures) terms whose meanings are not, proceeding by successive adjustments, an English speaker would be able to convey to an Italian speaker what the phrase John hops is all about.

These are possibilities for more than just the practice of translation; they are the possibilities for coexistence on a continent with a multilingual vocation. Generalized polyglottism is certainly not the solution to Europe’s cultural problems; like Funes “el memorioso” in the story by Borges, a global polyglot would have his or her mind constantly filled by too many images.

The solution for the future is more likely to be in a community of peoples with an increased ability to receive the spirit, to taste or savor the aroma of different dialects.

Polyglot Europe will not be a continent where individuals converse fluently in all the other languages; in the best of cases, it could be a continent where differences of language are no longer barriers to communication, where people can meet each other and speak together, each in his or her own tongue, understanding, as best they can, the speech of others.

In this way, even those who never learn to speak another language fluently could still participate in its particular genius, catching a glimpse of the particular cultural universe that every individual expresses each time he or she speaks the language of his or her ancestors and his or her own tradition.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 344-51.

Eco: First Attempts at a Content Organization

kircher_108

Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), Frontispiece of Obeliscus Pamphilius, Obeliscus Pamphilius: Hoc est Interpretatio nova & hucusque intenta obelisci Hieroglyphici, eBook courtesy of GoogleBooks, published by Lud. Grignani 1650, held by Ghent 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. 

“Probably in 1660, three years before the publication of the Polygraphia, Kircher wrote a manuscript bearing the title Novum hoc inventum quo omnia mundi idiomata ad unum reducuntur (Mss. Chigiani I, vi, 225, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana; cf. Marrone 1986).

Schott says that Kircher kept his system a secret at the express wish of the emperor, who had requested that his polygraphy be reserved for his exclusive use alone.

The Novum inventum was still tentative and incomplete; it contained an extremely elementary grammar plus a lexicon of 1,620 words. However, the project looks more interesting that the later one because it provides a list of 54 fundamental categories, each represented by an icon.

These icons are reminiscent of those that one might find today in airports and railway stations: some were schematically representative (like a small chalice for drinking); others were strictly geometrical (rectangles, triangles, circles).

Some were furthermore superficially derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics. They were functionally equivalent to the Roman numbers in the Polygraphia (in both texts, Arabic numbers referred to particular items).

Thus, for example, the square representing the four elements plus the numeral 4 meant water as an element; water as something to drink was instead expressed by a chalice (meaning the class of drinkable things) followed by the numeral 3.

There are two interesting features in this project. The first is that Kircher tried to merge a polygraphy with a sort of hieroglyphical lexicon, so that his language could be used (at least in the author’s intention) without translating it into a natural language.

Seeing a “square + 4,” the readers should immediately understand that the named thing is an element, and seeing “chalice + 3” they should understand that one is referring to something to drink.

The difficulty was due to the fact that, while both Kircher’s Polygraphia and Becher’s Character allow a translating operator (be it a human being or a machine) to work independently of any knowledge of the meaning of the linguistic items, the Novum inventum requires a non-mechanical and quasi-philosophical knowledge: in order to encode the word aqua as “square + 4,” one should previously know that it is the name of an element–information that the term of a natural language does not provide.

Sir Thomas Urquhart, who published two volumes describing a sort of polygraphy (Ekskubalauron, 1652, and Logopandecteision, 1653), noted that, arbitrary as the order of the alphabet might be, it was still easier to look things up in alphabetical order than in a categorical order.

The second interesting feature of Kircher’s initial project is certainly given by the effort to make the fundamental concepts independent of any existing natural language.

Its weakness is due to the fact that the list of the 54 categories was notably incongruous: it included divine entities, angelic and heavenly, elements, human beings, animals, vegetables, minerals, the dignities and other abstract concepts deriving from the Lullian Ars, things to drink, clothes, weights, numbers, hours, cities, food, family, actions such as seeing or giving, adjectives, adverbs, months of the year.

It was perhaps the lack of internal coherency in this system of concepts that induced Kircher to abandon this line of research, and devote himself to the more modest and mechanical method used in the Polygraphia.

Kircher’s incongruous classification had a precedent. Although he regarded Kircher as the pioneer in the art of polygraphy, in his Technica curiosa (as well as in his Jocoseriorum naturae et artiis sive magiae naturalis centuriae tres) Gaspar Schott gave an extended description of a 1653 project that was certainly earlier than Kircher’s (the Novum inventum is dedicated to Pope Alexander VII, who ascended the pontifical throne only in 1655).

The project was due to another Jesuit, a Spaniard (“whose name I have forgotten,” as Schott says on p. 483), who had presented in Rome (on a single folio) an Artificium, or an Arithmeticus nomenclator, mundi omnes nationes ad linguarum et sermonis unitatem invitans (“Artificial Glossary, inviting all the nations of the world to unity of languages and speech”).

Schott says that the anonymous author wrote a pasigraphy because he was a mute. As a matter of fact the subtitle of the Artificium also reads Authore linguae (quod mirere) Hispano quodam, vere, ut dicitur, muto (“The author of this language–a marvelous thing–being a Spaniard, truly, it is said, dumb”).

According to Ceñal (1946) the author was a certain Pedro Bermudo, and the subtitle of the manuscript would represent a word play since, in Castilian, “Bermudo” must be pronounced almost as Ver-mudo.

It is difficult to judge how reliable the accounts of Schott are; when he described Becher’s system, he improved it, adding details that he derived from the works of Kircher. Be that as it may, Schott described the Artificium as having divided the lexicon of the various languages into 44 fundamental classes, each of which contained between 20 and 30 numbered items.

Here too a Roman number referred to the class and an Arabic number referred to the item itself. Schott noted that the system provided for the use of signs other than numbers, but gave his opinion that numbers comprised the most convenient method of reference since anyone from any nation could easily learn their use.

The Artificium envisioned a system of designating endings, (marking number, tense or case) as complex as that of Becher. An Arabic number followed by an acute accent was the sign of the plural; followed by a grave accent, it became the nota possessionis.

Numbers with a dot above signified verbs in the present; numbers followed by a dot signified the genitive. In order to distinguish between vocative and dative, it was necessary to count, in one case, five, and, in the other, six, dots trailing after the number.

Crocodile was written “XVI.2” (class of animals + crocodile), but should one have occasion to address an assembly of crocodiles (“O Crocodiles!”), it would be necessary to write (and then read) “XVI.2′ . . . . . ‘.

It was almost impossible not to muddle the points behind one word with the points in front of another, or with full stops, or with the various other orthographic conventions that the system established.

In short, it was just as impracticable as all of the others. Still, what is interesting about it is the list of 44 classes. It is worth listing them all, giving, in parenthesis, only some examples of the elements each contained.

  1. Elements (fire, wind, smoke, ashes, Hell, Purgatory, centre of the earth).
  2. Celestial entities (stars, lightning, bolts, rainbows . . .).
  3. Intellectual entities (God, jesus, discourse, opinion, suspicion, soul, stratagems, or ghosts).
  4. Secular statuses (emperor, barons, plebs).
  5. Ecclesiastical states.
  6. Artificers (painters, sailors).
  7. Instruments.
  8. Affections (love, justice, lechery).
  9. Religion.
  10. Sacramental confession.
  11. Tribunal.
  12. Army.
  13. Medicine (doctor, hunger, enema).
  14. Brute animals.
  15. Birds.
  16. Fish and reptiles.
  17. Parts of animals.
  18. Furnishings.
  19. Foodstuffs.
  20. Beverages and liquids (wine, beer, water, butter, wax, and resin).
  21. Clothes.
  22. Silken fabrics.
  23. Wool.
  24. Homespun and other spun goods.
  25. Nautical and aromas (ship, cinnamon, anchor, chocolate).
  26. Metal and coin.
  27. Various artifacts.
  28. Stone.
  29. Jewels.
  30. Trees and fruits.
  31. Public places.
  32. Weights and measures.
  33. Numerals.
  34. Time.
  35. Nouns.
  36. Adjectives.
  37. Verbs.
  38. Undesignated grammatical category.
  39. Undesignated grammatical category.
  40. Undesignated grammatical category.
  41. Undesignated grammatical category.
  42. Undesignated grammatical category.
  43. Persons (pronouns and appellations such as Most Eminent Cardinal).
  44. Vehicular (hay, road, footpad).

The young Leibniz would criticize the absurdity of arrangements such as this in his Dissertatio de arte combinatoria, 1666.

This sort of incongruity will affect as a secret flaw even the projects of a philosophically more sophisticated nature–such as the a priori philosophic languages we will look at in the next chapter.

This did not escape Jorge Luis Borges. Reading Wilkins, at second hand as he admits (in Other Inquisitions, “The analytical idiom of John Wilkins“), he was instantly struck by the lack of a logical order in the categorical divisions (he discusses explicitly the subdivisions of stones), and this inspired his invention of the Chinese classification which Foucault posed at the head of his The Order of Things.

In this imaginary Chinese encyclopedia bearing the title Celestial Emporium of Benevolent  Recognition, “animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs. (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.”).

Borge’s conclusion was that there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and conjectural. At the end of our panorama of philosophical languages, we shall see that, in the end, even Leibniz was forced to acknowledge this bitter conclusion.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 203-8.

The Universe as a Book

The Christians went even further. The thought that the divinity had written a book moved them to imagine that he had written two, and that the other one was the universe.

At the beginning of the Seventeenth century, Francis Bacon declared in his Advancement of Learning that God offered us two books so that we would not fall into error: the first, the volume of the Scriptures, reveals His will; the second, the volume of the creatures, reveals His power and is the key to the former. Bacon intended much more than the making of a metaphor; he believed that the world was reducible to essential forms (temperatures, densities, weights, colors), which formed, in limited number, an abecedarium naturae or series of letters with which the universal text is written.

[…]

Two hundred years passed, and the Scot Carlyle, in various places in his books, particularly in the essay on Cagliostro, went beyond Bacon’s hypothesis; he said that universal history was a Sacred Scripture that we decipher and write uncertainly, and in which we too are written. Later, León Bloy would write:

“There is no human being on earth who is capable of declaring who he is. No one knows what he come to this world to do, to what his acts, feelings, ideas correspond, or what his real name is, his imperishable Name in the registry of Light … History is an immense liturgical text, where the i’s and the periods are not worth less than the versicles or whole chapters, but the importance of both is undeterminable and is profoundly hidden.” (L’Ame de Napoleon, 1912).

The world, according to Mallarmé, exists for a book; according to Bloy, we are the versicles or words or letters of a magic book, and that incessant book is the only thing in the world: more exactly, it is the world.”

Note 3: Galileo’s works abound with the concept of the universe as a book. The second section of Favaro’s anthology (Galileo Galilei: Pensieri, motti e sentenze; Florence, 1949) is entitled “Il libro della Natura.” I quote the following paragraph: Philosophy is written in that very large book that is continually opened before our eyes (I mean the universe), but which is not understood unless first one studies the language and knows the characters in which it is written. The language of that book is mathematical and the characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures.”

–Jorge Luis Borges, “On the Cult of Books.”

http://www.filosofiaesoterica.com/ler.php?id=1459#.U88K61Ydvfo

The Lost Writing of Jesus

“A teacher selects a pupil, but a book does not select its readers, who may be wicked or stupid; this Platonic mistrust persists in the words of Clement of Alexandria, a man of pagan culture: “The most prudent course is not to write but to learn and teach by word of mouth, because what is written remains” (Stromateis), and in the same treatise: “To write all things in a book is to put a sword in the hands of a child,” which derives from the Gospels: “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” That sentence is from Jesus, the greatest of oral teachers, who only once wrote a few words on the ground, and no man read what He had written.”

–Jorge Luis Borges, “On the Cult of Books.”

Mirrors as Labyrinths.

“My other nightmare is that of the mirror. The two are not distinct, as it only takes two facing mirrors to construct a labyrinth. I remember seeing, in the house of Dora de Alvear in the Belgrano district, a circular room whose walls and doors were mirrored, so that whoever entered the room found himself at the center of a truly infinite labyrinth.”

— –Jorge Luis Borges, “Nightmares,” Seven Nights, 1984, pg. 29. 

Borges on the Demonic Origin of Nightmares.

“In all of these words there is an idea of demonic origin, the idea of a demon who causes the nightmare. I believe it does not derive simply from a superstition. I believe that there is–and I speak with complete honesty and sincerity–something true in this idea.”

 –Jorge Luis Borges, “Nightmares,” Seven Nights, 1984, pp. 28-9.

Borges, Dreams, Nightmares, Metaphysics.

“For the savage and for the child, dreams are episodes of the waking life; for poets and mystics, it is not impossible for all of the waking life to be a dream.

This was said, in a dry and laconic fashion, by Calderón: “life is a dream.” It was said, with an image, by Shakespeare: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” And splendidly by the Austrian poet Walter von der Vogelweide, who asked, “Ist mein Leben getraäumt oder ist es wahr?” –have I dreamed my life or is it real?

I am not sure. It takes us certainly to solipsism, to the suspicion that there is only one dreamer and that dreamer is every one of us. That dreamer–let us imagine that I am he–is, at this very moment, dreaming you. He is dreaming this room and this lecture. There is only one dreamer, and that dreamer dreams all of the cosmic process, dreams all of the world’s history, dreams everything, including your childhood and your adolescence.

All of this could not have happened; at this moment it begins to exist. He begins to dream and is each one of us–not us, but each one. At this moment I am dreaming that I am giving a lecture on the Calle Charcas, that I am looking for things to say (and perhaps not finding them); I am dreaming you.

But it is not true. Each one of you is dreaming me and the others.”

–Jorge Luis Borges, “Nightmares,” Seven Nights, 1984. Pp. 26-7.